Insider's Perspective: The London Review of Books
Spanning just over 275 linear feet of correspondence and manuscripts, the records of the London Review of Books document nearly thirty years' worth of opinion-making in literary culture. Learn what the literary magazine's archives reveal about its illustrious contributors, editorial policies, and flair for controversy.
To sift through the voluminous archive of the London Review of Books is to peer behind the scenes of the last 30 years in British (and arguably Anglophone) literary culture. Founded in 1979, the London Review of Books began life as an insert in The New York Review of Books. Within a year, however, the literary paper severed these ties and struck out on its own. Since then, the LRB has been publishing its potent combination of book reviews, essays on art and politics, and short stories and poems at the impressive rate of 24 issues a year. It is no wonder then that its records, housed at the Harry Ransom Center, comprise nearly 600 boxes or 275 linear feet of material.
To understand the appeal that the LRB records hold for scholars, one might begin by naming a few of its illustrious contributors—Anne Carson, Seamus Heaney, Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode, John Lanchester, Edward Said, Charles Simic, and Raymond Williams—or by pointing to the provocative editorial leadership of Karl Miller and Mary-Kay Wilmers; to do so, however, but skims the surface. Part of what makes the collection so fascinating is that it exists as a point of intersection between several fluid groups: writers, scholars, cultural critics, and its readership: the consumers of middle-to-highbrow culture. Indeed, the collection's richly varied character means that it contains something to capture the imagination of almost any researcher.
The collection's correspondence files offer an exciting assemblage of material. At the center are exchanges between contributors and the editorial staff, but there are also letters from readers, submissions from would-be-contributors, and—more often than one might expect—complaints from writers about the LRB's reviews of their books. In a letter to one such displeased author, editor Karl Miller explains, "Once a book goes out for review we feel we should accept what we are presented with except in cases of factual error and of what you call 'viciousness.'" Letters such as this illuminate the magazine's editorial policies and serve as a forceful reminder that a literary career is not for the faint of heart.
Readers paging through the collection will encounter correspondence that is by turns comic and tragic, fascinating and mundane. A review request from Mary-Kay Wilmers elicits from Graham Greene a good-humored protest: "I have given up reviewing—it would need an undiscovered novel of Evelyn Waugh's to stir me into action." Alternately, an impassioned 1983 letter from Laura Riding Jackson to Karl Miller shows the aging poet in despair of her literary legacy. Jackson's desire to refute her critics in print is rendered all the more moving by her letter's erratic typing and unsteady tone.
The LRB's production files yield still further discoveries. Organized by issue, these files contain typescript submissions and page proofs onto which authors' and editors' annotations are scrawled. Such materials reveal the process of composition and highlight the collaborative dimension of publication. By examining Vikram Seth's revisions to his essay, "Forms and Inspirations," for example, or the line edits in Julian Barnes's humorous "Diary" piece on the Booker Prize, scholars are able to trace the modulations in a writer's language and ideas.
Perhaps of equal interest are those essays that fail to make it into print, dismissed instead with a variety of editorial jottings: "Not this week," "Not urgent," or more ominously "Killed." From these abandoned works a researcher might unearth an unpublished review essay on Baudelaire by Anita Brookner or a survey of Marxist titles by scholar (and now Canadian politician) Michael Ignatieff.
The collection also reflects the London Review of Book's penchant for political controversy. There are, for example, two folders of correspondence documenting the epistolary maelstrom set off by the "11 September" roundtable printed in the LRB's October 4, 2001 issue. Though debates regarding terrorism and the position of both the United States and the intellectual on the global stage raged for months on the Letters page of the Review, our understanding of the cultural moment is further enriched when we can also access those letters that did not make the editorial cut. It is precisely this insider's view of literary culture that the records of the London Review of Books bring to life.