A Butcher’s Trade by James Campbell

James Campbell

A Butcher’s Trade

 

When I began working at the Times Literary Supplement in the 1980s, an older colleague would hand me a piece of typewritten copy, pristine just an hour before but now heavily marked in pencil, with the faux-solemn words: ‘Here is the bleeding corpse. Yours is a butcher’s trade.’

The source of the remark was said to be a letter from Henry James to Bruce Richmond, the second editor of the TLS, enclosed with the proofs of his piece on Balzac, which James was returning. In the years before his death in 1916, James wrote several articles for the paper. Richmond had the reputation of being a severe editor. James was not alone in seeing his creation cut, chopped, boned – whichever butcherly term you prefer. Even the best reviewers come to accept it as part of the process. The 22-year-old Virginia Stephen’s first attempt at a review in 1904 was turned down, with an explanation from the editor that his preferred style was more ‘academic’ (she made it in with her second effort, and as Virginia Woolf became a prolific contributor). Paying tribute to Richmond in 1961, T S Eliot recalled that he ‘did not hesitate to object or delete’. Like others at the sharp end of the pencil, Eliot flinched at times, but he concluded on reflection, ‘I had always to admit that he was right.’

As if to emphasise their submission to the greater good of providing intellectual nourishment to the nation, neither Woolf nor Eliot had the pleasure of being published in the paper under their own names (James was sometimes allowed a byline). A butcher’s trade indeed.

Over the years, James’s phrase gained a life of its own among sub-editors. It might even be taken as justification for laying into something by a well-known figure of our own day that had failed to live up to expectation. ‘Ours is a butcher’s trade’ – and down

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