For the first time in its brief but distinguished history the Literary Review has a male editor. Many will see this as a retrograde step, and for my own part I will have no objection if correspondents wish to continue addressing the editorial chair as ‘Dear Madam’ – whether in deference to the shades of the three staunch women who created the magazine in its present form, or because they prefer to address themselves to the Deputy Editor, Kathy O’Shaughnessy, whose continued presence in the Beak Street office affords a measure of reassurance not only to readers and contributors, but to the Editor as he struggles to learn his new trade.
My greatest debt is to the editor immediately before me, Emma Soames, who invigorated the magazine with her own energy and illuminated it with her charm. All that remains for me to do is to find some more readers. This has always been the problem. The history of small literary reviews is strewn with the wreckage of new brooms and manifestoes.
When I deny that I have any intention of acting as a new broom in the Augean stables of the London literary establishment, this is not because I am unaware of all the filth and futility to be found there. Affectation, mediocrity and pretentiousness swarm like dung flies around a cow pat wherever the State milch-cow lifts its tail. But the worst charge against State patronage of literature is surely that it encourages would-be state pensioners to turn their backs on the public who they should be addressing and address only dispensers of patronage. Hence the idleness, self-indulgence and even sheer stupidity of literary intellectualism where it aspires to the highbrow.
My point is that the dunghill may be vast and it may stink to heaven, but the best thing is to ignore it. We on the Literary Review did not make the mess, and it is not our job to clear it away. So far as I have any revolutionary intention in becoming a literary editor, it is to produce a magazine which will be enjoyed by intelligent, educated people who read books, rather than flatter the socially and intellectually insecure by claiming some deeper meaning for whatever is obscure, muddled, incomprehensible or frankly meaningless. The cult of the ‘difficult’ in literature may be assailed from time to time, but without too much reference to its supporting structure of academic idlers, journalistic pseuds and Arts council scroungers.
As anyone who reads books will be aware, the great wealth of English literature is to be found in its back-lists. Although good work is being done in most fields, it is swamped by the rubbish pouring out of every publishing house, week after week. Obviously, we will continue the struggle to identify whatever is worthwhile in this great flood, but I should also like to pay slightly more attention to reprints and new editions of rediscovered old favourites. At present the reviewing establishment tends to ignore them; the classics and old favourites are mentioned, if they are mentioned at all, only in the context of some drivelling new book of criticism, or trivial academic research. Yet these reprints are likely to be of greater interest to book-lovers than, for instance, the latest novel or book of verse from Lisa St Aubin de Teran. Even as I write these words, the Literary Review’s deputy editor – a veteran of Oxford’s English Literature course, from which she emerged with a First – is sitting at the desk next to mine sobbing quietly over a beautiful new illustrated edition of The Secret Garden which Michael Joseph is bringing out on April 14th. This month we also review the classic anthology Week End Wodehouse, reissued by Hutchinson; in future months there will be opportunities to celebrate the glorious revival of E F Benson…
Poetry undoubtedly presents a problem. Traditionally, anyone has been free to send in stuff and we have always guaranteed at least to read it. However the trickle has now turned into a torrent. A problem of ‘free verse’ is that it requires considerable effort and concentration to separate the wheat from the chaff, let alone to identify those very few offerings which might be marked by some incidental felicity of expression, originality of thought or depth of feeling. My own impression is that the Free Verse movement has run its course. Many more people wish to write it than wish to read it. Our poetry editor, Carol Rumens, on whom the task of reading all this drivel falls, takes a more sanguine view, however, and will continue to produce her selections of modern poetry to delight its dwindling band of enthusiasts. But she is hopelessly overstocked with material awaiting publication and requests that no more unsolicited material be submitted until further notice.
To keep the nation’s would-be poets happy, however, I have decided to institute a Verse Competition which will differ from the usual run of such competitions in soliciting straight verse, rather than pastiche or parody. Each month it will occupy a full page of the magazine, with prizes which will be lavish by our standards, starting with a £50 first prize, £20 second prize and further prizes of £l0 each for any entries printed. Subsequent competitions may embrace the haiku and ottava rima, but for the first I would like a simple English sonnet (14 lines, iambic pentameters, ABABCDCDEFEFGG) on the theme of Spring. It need not be funny and should not be a parody or pastiche -just the best original sonnet you can do. My ambition is to have all schoolteachers and librarians in the country writing their milk-orders in heroic couplets.
Like all small magazines unsubsidized by the State, the Literary Review pays its contributors peanuts. They write for us chiefly because they enjoy it. The next task is to find as many readers as possible to share their enjoyment. I have to learn more about the readers, and would welcome letters for publication or otherwise, containing criticism, praise or suggestions. I have various ideas for increasing the circulation, the first of which is to declare a standard subscription rate of £10 per annum. This is cheaper than the cover price of 95p a time, let alone cover price plus postage and packing – and much more convenient. I apologize to those who have recently re-ordered at the old price of £14, and can only congratulate those who took advantage of the special £9.35 offer. These anomalies will not recur. The standard price is now £10 a year, payable as easily with a £l0 note as by cheque or postal order, using the form on page 56.
The Literary Review cannot survive, let alone improve, unless it increases its circulation. Please encourage friends and relations to subscribe, as well as your local libraries, schools, dentist waiting-rooms. Our only purpose is to spread happiness, light, commonsense and joy in the language we share.