Book Reviews? LRB vs the failing New York Review of Books vs ... ?

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed

Not to further derail the NYRB publishing imprint thread and to continue this discussion.

The NYRB seems to be really unravelling under Buruma. I let my subscription lapse a couple of years ago but from the occasional issue I've picked up or read bits of online, it seems to be inconsistent in tone both from issue to issue and within an issue. Which I think is a pity because I like many of its regular contributors and don't know where else you would be able to find several of them published in the same place.

The whole Fall of Men seems almost parody and at best appears to be a shameless and tasteless attempt to have an issue go viral. Maybe there'll be an editorial coup in the office and they'll replace him with one of their female editors/regular contributors and/or return to two editors(Silvers/Epstein) to provide a better counterbalance (Darryl Pinckney? Daniel Mendelsohn?).

I do think the LRB is still pretty good but also not as consistent as it used to be. I only pick up the occasional issue where there is an article or two or three I know I want to read. I do like that they continue to publish more interesting younger writers (at least relative to other places).

Where else do people regularly read reviews? James Wood is sometimes good in the New Yorker, depending on what he's writing about. I haven't read the TLS in a long time - maybe worth revisiting?

Federico Boswarlos, Monday, 17 September 2018 15:15 (one year ago) link

I often enjoy book reviews in the NYer but it probably doesn’t compare in hypothetically comprehensive usefulness to the three outlets mentioned. I don’t know how many books LARB actually reviews but they’ve got to be a bit fresher in editorial outlook.

faculty w1fe (silby), Monday, 17 September 2018 16:34 (one year ago) link

Before this later Fall of Men Donnybrook (on which I will reserve judgement until I read the piece in question) I hadn’t noticed any particular decline at the NYRB. It seemed like mostly the same writers covering mostly the same subjects. It was never a magazine known for consistency of tone.

o. nate, Monday, 17 September 2018 17:14 (one year ago) link

Reluctantly say TLS is best for fiction reviews/coverage although I look mainly online, scavenge whatever I am interested in. All sorts of off piece in The New Republic and The Nation.

The other copycat RBs (there is a Brixton review of books now: are all mildly interesting as an area.

xyzzzz__, Monday, 17 September 2018 17:18 (one year ago) link

o.nate, maybe it's a reflection of my lack of personal interest on areas of its coverage? It dates back to the last couple years of Silvers' reign to be sure but I've just been finding less and less of it very engaging and I've skipped over an increasing % of articles (and I feel like it's been more the case since Buruma took over).

There have also been a few pretty bad/weak one-off reviews over the last few years that I feel wouldn't have meet their editorial standards earlier, as well.

I don't mean to say that regular contributors continuing their beat(s) - so to speak - have all of a sudden declined, but that outside of that I personally find it's been getting less interesting.

Federico Boswarlos, Monday, 17 September 2018 20:00 (one year ago) link

I'll go back and look, but I think there have still been a fair number of interesting articles per issue. If there's been a decline, I'd say it's been fairly slight. It's not like NYRB under Silvers never courted controversy either. Silvers continued publishing Freeman Dyson for instance, even after he fell afoul of climate activists by taking a slightly skeptical stance on how much certainty was possible and suggesting that technological solutions might be worth considering (to be fair Silvers also published Bill McKibben and others).

o. nate, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 00:49 (one year ago) link

Hate to say good things about a Murdoch publication but I do like the TLS, I think it reviews a much wider range of things than the LRB or NYRB. I find myself reading about mediaeval calligraphy or something I'd never normally read about and finding I'm getting something out of it. All too rare an experience with online reading.

Zelda Zonk, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 01:22 (one year ago) link

A glib, but perhaps accurate, statement would be something like:

The NYRB is for people who think Colm Toibin is a good critic.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:30 (one year ago) link

Unfortunately this statement would also somewhat redound on the LRB, to which I am a long-term subscriber.

The NYRB always feels attractive to me, as something comparatively unknown - and bulky, hefty, dense.

But I fear that in truth it is worthy, stuffy, bulky or hefty in a more figurative and unattractive sense.

It's also obsessed with the minutiae of US politics -- understandable maybe, but to a degree that makes it almost like a news review (Spectator, New Statesman or something) rather than a reflective literary / intellectual journal.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:33 (one year ago) link

Another statement that I fear could be a bit accurate is:

The NYRB is the place where even Lorrie Moore writes uninterestingly.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:33 (one year ago) link

I subscribe to the NYRB on-line, primarily to be honest for its archive. Since Charles Rosen died I think the only NYRB writers I actively care about are Garry Will, Joan Didion and very occasional ilxor Luc Sante. Probably I've forgotten someone obvious and important. I feel Buruma was a poor choice as editor: even ignoring his bad opinions, he seems out of his depth.

I subscribe to the New Yorker on-line, also primarily for access to its (enormous) archive. I posted that I'm not a huge Remnick fan on the other thread, and it's true -- I don't like his own writing and I think some of his big-name hirings have been bad. Jia Tolentino's take-down of the Ghomeshi affair was good, though.

I subscribe to the LRB to arrive in the post (and generally read most of it, except the fiction reviews). It probably actually has the widest scope of the three.

mark s, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 11:59 (one year ago) link

I find myself reading about mediaeval calligraphy or something I'd never normally read about and finding I'm getting something out of it. All too rare an experience with online reading.

This kind of thing has totally happened to me w/ the LRB.

Daniel_Rf, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 13:46 (one year ago) link

It would be great if they offered an option to digitally bundle articles from each for a monthly fee but from their POV would probably be a bad move, eating into their subscriber base.

Lol, I like Colm Toibin's essays and think you could say the same about the LRB. I do agree it has the widest scope and a less Anglo bias.

The archives of each are a great resource - was something I dove into when I had my subs to NYRB and LRB (I like how the LRB links off to related articles online - one of my university libraries had all of the old print issues going back to the mid 80s, it was good fun to go back and look through the old personal ads which alas I don't think migrated to the digital archives).

Luc Sante posted here, really? He's also one of my NYRB faves.

Federico Boswarlos, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 13:50 (one year ago) link

I subscribe to the LRB, but it's a bit like gym membership: rarely feel I'm getting the most out of it. No matter how much of each issue I read, all the interesting letters in the next one are about stuff I missed. I *never* read the poems.

fetter, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 13:51 (one year ago) link

The NYRB is for people who think Colm Toibin is a good critic.

er..the people at the LRB think so:

xyzzzz__, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 17:06 (one year ago) link

There is much crossover between contributors at both places. Obviously you'd expect the NYRB to have more on the US and less on the NHS (and vice-versa for the LRB).

Ultimately its been a poor year for the LRB - and that's not to include the mountains of poems by Frederick Seidel! The Grenfell piece, Lanchester's fiction, Perry Anderson's two parter on Powell (whatever his merits we could do with better coverage of fiction, and that really wasn't it).

I don't really see both publications being that sustainable in the long run. Politically it does feel - more than ever - like these projects are at the end of their runs, along with their politics (I never cared much for The New Yorker - like all of these good stuff is published - but the Bannon invite is where you see the writing on the wall for these ppl...just this very basic failure to be decent).

xyzzzz__, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 17:17 (one year ago) link

Another vote for the TLS here. Also The Literary Review,

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 01:49 (one year ago) link

The NYRB is for people who think Colm Toibin is a good critic.

― the pinefox, Tuesday, September 18, 2018 Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

Unfortunately this statement would also somewhat redound on the LRB, to which I am a long-term subscriber.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 08:17 (one year ago) link

No, I wouldn't expect the NYRB to write about the NHS, as the LRB sometimes does. But I said "the minutiae of US politics -- understandable maybe, but to a degree that makes it almost like a news review (Spectator, New Statesman or something)".

Writing about the NHS is somewhat different: long-range analysis of social issues.

The politics minutiae is something that the LRB used to do (but less than the NYRB) in Ross McKibbin's regular reviews. He was clearly retired out of that role - surely he can't have asked to quit it? - and the paper no longer carries many of those contemporary politics articles. The closest thing to the new McKibbin has been Tom Crewe, who I find mostly very creditable.

The obvious reason for the paper stopping rolling politics coverage in print is the sense that such fast moving developments are better covered online, in its blog. So you could plausibly say that the LRB blog is its answer to the NYRB's vast print political coverage.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 08:22 (one year ago) link

The claim that any print publication is unsustainable necessarily looks plausible.

But if a specific claim is made that these publications are unusually unsustainable, I don't see evidence for that in the LRB's case.

re the LRB specifically: I have heard here and there that it now has a bigger print circulation than ever, as well as its online readership. It also has its own healthy though small promotional / esteem-building ecosystem with its author events and films, which are always packed -- the shop in general would appear to be solid infrastructure in the LRB's make-up now.

If the claim is that the LRB's politics are out of date, eg because it is 'centrist', I don't agree because by UK standards it has been quite far to the political Left for many years. Anderson, Eagleton, Hatherley, even Jameson and Zizek (who longer appears for some reason) are regulars, or contributors, who are Marxists. More to the point, perhaps, Crewe is closer to the Corbyn position and movement, as many of us are. And it has embraced the latest wave of feminism in a big way, albeit still provoking claims of imbalanced coverage, which I think have in turn led to more women writing and being written about, in the last year or so.

I can't claim that any of the above applies to the NYRB - a different matter.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 08:29 (one year ago) link

mckibbin is 76 so he may have bowed out decided of his own accord

mark s, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 09:57 (one year ago) link

he started writing sentences like that

mark s, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 10:07 (one year ago) link

I agree.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 10:09 (one year ago) link

I was just thinking about Alan Bennett as an LRB political figurehead (long quoted as saying he likes it cos it's the most radical literary review).

His schtick in effect is: 'the "national treasure" that "Middle England" loves, but who is actually a left-wing critic of our society, radical in a way that would worry many of his admirers'.

As such, it occurred to me that he could literally be called an avant-gardist - as in, say, someone who covertly takes the fight deep into enemy territory.

I wouldn't call him an avant-gardist in other ways.

It might possibly be that AB's status as key LRB totem is well on the wane, and that he is withdrawing much as McKibbin did (as above).

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 10:13 (one year ago) link

The LRB and NYRB are entwined with a kind of pre-cold war politics. It's left, but its Perry and Tariq Ali, no intersectionality. Like nyrb it engaged with the issues but as the stats show it doesn't have enough women reviewing, and I can see the LRB making the exact same mistakes the NYRB made.

Ultimately and once the trust fund cash runs out I can see the whole thing dying off.

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 10:25 (one year ago) link

Sorry cold war, like its left but as the Grenfell piece showed it has different colours.

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 10:28 (one year ago) link

I don't like the Grenfell piece, but I don't think it represents the political stance of the whole LRB (certainly not all of its contributors) -- more the political stance of its author.

It's true, though, that in publishing it across the whole issue, the paper allied itself with the article, which I think was very poor judgment.

The Cold War seems a red herring to me. The LRB has an interest in Russian history (Sheila Fitzpatrick) but otherwise the Cold War isn't really much part of its politics at all, no more than anyone else's. Once again, Crewe's engagement with Momentum, et al, seems more significant than any of that.

If 'no intersectionality' means that not many of the writers (or topics) are non-white or female, then this is broadly true, but not more true than of most equivalent titles (are they all also unsustainable for the same reason?). More to the point, the engagement with a) changing that, at least re gender and b) taking on big political issues of the time, eg Rose on Trans, Mishra on white nationalism, etc, seems genuine and increasingly extensive. That's not to say that the actual writing has always been good.

The LRB doesn't need me to defend it - I have been frustrated by it as much as most people - and it will survive or it won't, regardless of what we say. So I suppose I am merely trying to state facts.

Once more, the financial facts are another matter - you may know more than the rest of us about the balance of the paper's income. I don't know about trust funds, do know that it was long recipient of an Arts Council grant. I agree that such sources of income can be important to keep these presses going, and think it's a good thing that they do.

Once more, the NYRB seems to be a different thing, part of a somewhat different culture. But we would need evidence for the claim that it is financially unsustainable.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 11:53 (one year ago) link

The LRB's underwritten by Mary-Kay Wilmer's family fortune - low estimates are about a million a year. I think… accounts show a £3m loss last year..

(fwiw I think it's an excellent way to use an inheritance)

woof, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 12:07 (one year ago) link

Mary-Kay Wilmers' father was a successful Belgian industrialist which helps fund the LRB and lets it operate at a loss (a good use of the money, I would say). It has a wide circulation for a magazine/journal/paper of its kind (bigger than the NYRB, maybe, if we incl Europe?) but I don't think it's a profitable enterprise (maybe because it's never felt as much pressure to be it hasn't had to make sacrifices or changes to aggressively try).

I remember reading that the NYRB was successful year over year (not sure if this is still the case), but I think it has a wide subscriber and institutional sub base that keep it afloat. Also there are maybe more ads? Or am I just cranky and noticing them more?

I definitely am more sympathetic to the LRBs politics and while, yes, there is a generational thing think it's mostly among their old guard of regular contributors (Perry, Tariq, etc.). I think some of the younger contributors they've been bringing in are better engaged with different currents in the left (Benjamin Kunkel, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Adam Shatz - also in the NYRB but mostly just writes about jazz, Joanna Biggs, Emily Witt). It's not the same, but they do also publish other good younger writers on their blog. The NYRB on the other hand seems pretty firmly fixed in its leftish early 90s post-Cold War liberalism which - with the notable exception of some individual writers - seems fairly out of date.

(I didn't read the Grenfell issue though was discouraged after hearing some of the critiques about its treatment of it).

Even though I read both much less frequently, I hope both remain sustainable in one way or other, whether it be as the recipients of public funding/a benefactor or by subs/ads. I

Federico Boswarlos, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 12:18 (one year ago) link

mary kay wilmers subscribe to my patreon

mark s, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 12:38 (one year ago) link

Largely agree with Federico. FWIW I'm not sure that Adam Shatz is young.

There was a moment, perhaps about 2007, when the LRB tried to bring on board n+1 writers -- Batuman, Kunkel, at least. That was one of those moments of partial generational transition, which was something of a precursor to the present with Witt, Heti, Diane Williams et al in it regularly. We probably discussed it on here, over a decade ago.

Though people often complain about the same old names, it is fair to say that for good or ill, it is a different paper from what it was. Kermode, Rorty, McKibbin, Sturrock, James Wood, various others used to be regulars; several are now dead. It's largely a different generation now, with continuities (Collini) and new staples (Runciman).

The copy-editing has declined (Mark S and I both see this), and possibly parts of the writing are also worse. I don't think either of these will damage it commercially at all.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 12:50 (one year ago) link

The closest thing the LRB has to a regular / old guard US 'cold war [?] liberal' type, who would tie it in with the NYRB, is ...

David Bromwich.

I don't much like him and I'm glad he no longer appears very often.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 12:52 (one year ago) link

twitter is claiming that buruma is out at NYRB

mookieproof, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:27 (one year ago) link

Confirmed: Ian Buruma is out as editor of the New York Review of Books, following much criticized decision to publish piece by Jian Ghomeshi. "I can confirm that Ian Buruma is no long the editor of The New York Review of Books," said a spokesman

— Cara Buckley (@caraNYT) September 19, 2018

mookieproof, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:42 (one year ago) link


illegal economic migration (Tracer Hand), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:45 (one year ago) link

Must be a real trip to reach the apex of your profession and then lose all credibility with your entire organization in one fell swoop.

faculty w1fe (silby), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:48 (one year ago) link

aww I was kinda looking forward to my first angry cancellation letter

Uhura Mazda (lukas), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:55 (one year ago) link

it’s not too late

I don't know the story here, or whether IB should go over this particular incident -- but I'm instinctively inclined to be glad about this, as I remember him writing a regular Guardian column, maybe 15 years ago, that I found unpleasant and reactionary.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:57 (one year ago) link

It seems puzzling to me that someone should publish an essay, presumably after lots of discussion, copy-editing, official agreement, etc -- *then* be told (by bosses?) that it was unacceptable.

Wouldn't or shouldn't they have made this clear at an earlier stage?

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:58 (one year ago) link

lol kicker in the NYT story about it

mookieproof, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 17:59 (one year ago) link

Note: the Brixton Review of Books doesn't seem to have any content online?

the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 18:00 (one year ago) link

i would guess that robert silvers published whatever the hell he wanted, so there may have been no apparatus overseeing buruma editorially. i would also guess that his publisher (and buruma himself, obviously) had no idea what kind of firestorm it would bring. i don't know what the NYRB's last major public fracas was, but i'll bet it happened before twitter was available to magnify things beyond a series of angry letters over the following issues

mookieproof, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 18:07 (one year ago) link

i was a NYRB subscriber from ... 2010 to 2015ish.

i was always a month or three behind reading them. the ability of their US politics writers to make predictions that, in the time it took me to get around to reading the article, turned out to be laughably wrong was notable. i'm sure i'd feel the same way about other politics writing if i read it on a 3 month delay. but the tone was so above the fray that i kind of felt/feel they should do a better job than the news.

their science (and history of science) coverage was (and perhaps is) excellent and afaict unique (serious, accessible, humane, etc.)

daryll pinkney being the fossil they wheeled out (and perhaps the only person on their roster) capable of reviewing ta-nahesi coates earlier this year doesn't bode well. (it was a good review though.)

i've never had an LRB subscription but i read more of their stuff these days via the web. e.g. i have saved 5 LRB pieces this year, and zero NYRB (unless you count the odd blog post, e.g. was fun).

𝔠𝔞𝔢𝔨 (caek), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 20:26 (one year ago) link

*Darryl *Pinckney

𝔠𝔞𝔢𝔨 (caek), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 20:27 (one year ago) link

also: i liked it more when i didn't live in new york. when i lived in mitteleuropa it felt like they might know lots of things i didn't, but it seemed more obviously out of touch when i moved to NYC and had more direct knowledge of the culture/institutions it covers.

𝔠𝔞𝔢𝔨 (caek), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 20:32 (one year ago) link

Well, look at that...

This is certainly an opportunity for them to re-think the mag and have a more considered approach to who takes over the editorship (I think in large part Buruma was named because he was there and regularly contributing for so long).

I think it would be swell if they went back to two editors and perhaps opted to not continue only under the helm of an older white guy. I don't know if I'm optimistic this will be the case, but you never know...I think they are self-aware enough, like the Paris Review was, not to do it but, you never know.

Federico Boswarlos, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 20:52 (one year ago) link

Note: the Brixton Review of Books doesn't seem to have any content online?

― the pinefox, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

I know its very small, only 2/3 issues and I've only seen it sold in our local 2nd hand bookshop lol.

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 20:57 (one year ago) link

I pretty much read the NYROB for Elizabeth Drew.

The Silky Veils of Alfred (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 19 September 2018 21:00 (one year ago) link

i was always a month or three behind reading them. the ability of their US politics writers to make predictions that, in the time it took me to get around to reading the article, turned out to be laughably wrong was notable. i'm sure i'd feel the same way about other politics writing if i read it on a 3 month delay. but the tone was so above the fray that i kind of felt/feel they should do a better job than the news.

Can believe that although iirc Michael Tomasky was dispassionately assessing Trump's chances and wasn't discounting him.

I think these two papers are not much better than the general media in terms of analysis and prediction (trying to think of Adam Shatz (writing for the LRB) on Egypt but I'm too exhausted to check and assess).

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 19 September 2018 21:06 (one year ago) link

Pieces like this = the nyrb is good again

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 22 May 2019 06:58 (six months ago) link

Or this:

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 22 May 2019 06:59 (six months ago) link

one month passes...

James Wood on Eton might at least have had entertainment or literary value. But it doesn't, really.

There is a particular strain of writing about Brexit to which the LRB quite embarrassingly gives a lot of space - a very caricatured, tiresome caricature of a tiresome thing, a ventriloquism of other people's supposed belief in Empire and British greatness.

I can believe that this critical strain has some factual basis, ie: some or many Brexit people really are like that. But as a rhetorical form it is even more exhausted than the thing it tries to caricature.

I think that a more useful approach to writing about Brexit, if one wants one, is to get at angles that are not quite so obvious (but perhaps this is obvious also), eg: the way that Brexit people are really not very pro-British at all but are multinational corporate cynics -- as has repeatedly been shown with Rees-Mogg and is (as far as I recall) probably true of Farage also.

the pinefox, Friday, 5 July 2019 14:01 (five months ago) link

Colin Burrow's piece on Wordsworth this week is terrific. I've never particularly cared about Wordsworth one way or another but he made me care.

Li'l Brexit (Tracer Hand), Friday, 5 July 2019 14:52 (five months ago) link

Not for me! (this essay was discussed at the FAP)

Burrow knows a lot of poetry, which is good in itself, but I increasingly dislike him as a writer.

And the whole argument about 'Wordsworth's Fun', which CB largely endorses, seems utterly perverse - often amounting to 'WW is unwittingly funny because so solemn and bathetic', etc.

the pinefox, Friday, 5 July 2019 15:17 (five months ago) link

I felt he took that as a starting point in order to undermine it though! i.e. he preferred the superficially bathetic "I measured it - it was three feet wide" etc.

I don't know enough about Wordsworth, or the history of scholarship around him, to appreciate whether CB is actually saying anything particularly noteworthy about him. But it made me interested.

Li'l Brexit (Tracer Hand), Friday, 5 July 2019 15:20 (five months ago) link

Same! This is mostly the line I took last night. I think if I knew more about him I might not like the details of what he was saying - which isn't just that WW is 'fun'. For instance, CB maps out WW's politics and its contours for about a 20 years period, which I liked, and then his r/ship with Milton (its useful to read his piece on Milton at the archive below:, his archive -- alot of which I've spent the past month reasing -- is a largely good primer on various middle-to-Reanaissance era poets)

xyzzzz__, Friday, 5 July 2019 15:48 (five months ago) link

The 'Wordsworth's Fun' element is (only) half the review. I was not conflating it with the other half - WW's politics - which seems basically more valid.

the pinefox, Friday, 5 July 2019 16:06 (five months ago) link

So I said I enjoyed Andrw O’Hagan’s piece on Lillian Ross. Well, I did. For three reasons:

A: it’s about the New Yorker, at the peak of its imperial phase (mid/late-40s) and the long languorous tumble down from that. I love stories about the old-days New Yorker, they’re almost as much the reason I’m in the job I’m in as is the NME 1977-1983. So here were more.

B: without saying it out loud — and perhaps without actually realising it — it’s also about the much-contested roots of the ‘New Journalism’, in fact and as ethos (lol “Tom Wolfe — talentless”). This too is something I’m very interested in. (Subscribe to my patreon u fucks, so I can write more stuff like this… )

C: it’s explicitly an exploration, albeit a very brief and cheekily trollish (and rather sly) one, of what makes for good journalism. So that’s three.

The first spread is largely a character sketch from someone who was “there” (exactly where and when not well back up, let alone why and how): entertaining insider stories about people you’ve half heard of, with their most composed public-facing masks removed. Her hates (good list – esp.if you know something abt these various ppl, which I mostly do)(never very sure abt george plimpton tbh), her motivations, her distrusts blah blah blah. A gesture at her actual technique, again from the angle of someone “there”, at least at one stage of the process. Blah blah Shawn’s mistress for 40 years. Important claim (important anyway, but also for O’Hagan’s purpose): “only bad writers strategise about their possible critics before they choose how to write a story.” Blah blah more abt Shawn mistress for 40 years, inc. A defence from Janet Malcolm (“pretentious”). More in-person stuff, inc.a little bit which briefly illuminates the the intellectual/anti-intellectual tension of the old-days New Yorker: the gift that founder-editor Harold Ross (no relation, Lillian — who died two years ago aged 99 — was born Rosovky) and his gathered team brought into to literary journalism a series of editorial techniques aimed at wringing the most out of this very anxious divide. The tale of the New Yorker 1925-55 at least is the tale of the encounter of old-school newspapermen (H.Ross, Thurber etc) with fancy college kids from Cornell (E.B.White) or Bryn Mawr (Katharine White) or Harvard or Yale or etc or etc.

This clash and this mode of resolution were extremely important. (This is my thesis and I’m sticking to it: more elsewhere soon, I hope.) Clash and mode are both also part of the backstory at the modern-day LRB, its strengths and its flaws. It’s entirely unsurprising that O’Hagan only mentions it subtly side-swipey, borrowing lots of the energy from the Refreshing Contrarian TakeTM, without actually stating what’s at issue, especially for him. (A point worth making re strategising about yr possible critics, since AO’H entirely elides it, is that under Ross and then Shawn, e.g. from 1925-87, every single piece published by the New Yorker went through a redoubtable and indeed remarkable battery of fact-checking, editing, restructuring and rewriting: if they’d been accepted into this process a good writer maybe didn’t even actually need to pre-strategise, bcz all these editors were doing it for them. But in fact a Good New Yorker Writer –– one whose prose passed through the process not much altered, let’s say — was almost certainly someone who’d internalised the internal editorial critique right down to nerve-level.)

So, the things AO’H admires in her: her hatreds, her rudeness, her spite, her ruthlessness. And the theory that such flaws may make someone a better reporter – which he states at the close of p1 and expands in the first column and a half of p2: the writer-and-friendship theory. “She thought like a reporter. It wasn’t her job to be loyal and it wasn’t her think to be nice.” Cue LR quote abt the kindliness that she also be present: “Her entire career was spent igoring the force of that passage” (i.e. the one quoted) Someone butthurt calling her a Delilah for what she did to her friend Hemingway: “If you ask me, there aren’t enough Delilahs.” A
And then the review of the new edition of LR’s Picture (first pub.1952) and some guff to close: from here on he really does “bring nothing” (in Chairman Alph’s cheeky phrase).

The theory is in no way original to O’Hagan. Paraphrasing since I can’t be bothered to leaf thru anything for actual quotes but here are some examples:
Journalism is stories someone doesn’t you to tell, or else it’s public relations – ppl think Orwell said this but actually it’s Voltaire William Randolph Hearst (!)
A journalist is always betraying someone (Janet Malcolm)
Reporters and editors don’t have friends ( Harold Ross, from the Thurber book I think?)

There was a little ilx-type spat abt marie le conte a while back, bcz she’d enthused abt the fun of the game of inside-westminster political reporting — and some of her foes were pulling prissy moralistic faces abt how “this is what’s wrong with journalism today”. Not to defend anything else MLC has ever written (not sure I’ve even read much she’s written off-twitter and I don’t follow her on) but my feeling here was: NO, it’s good to state yr pleasures and yr motivations up-front, not least bcz it’s so easy piously to lie abt same, and pious lying doesn’t make for better reporting either. Good writing is unrelated to good character: Good reporting is unrelated to “good” motivation. ilx in unfazed by the first idea but seems leery of the second.

Less the first page (as censored by books dot google), here’s a piece Vagabonds and Outlaws written in 1981 for Harpers, by Alex Cockburn, abt good journalism and its likely motivations, about the meaning of the phrase the “duty of the press” – and against the high-minded self-regard of a great of high-end US journalism. I meant to link it ages ago when ppl were kicking Gawker as it went down. (Gawker’s position being that it is absolutely wrong for information to be cheerfully circling within media’s offices that was then routinely being withheld from the public at large…) One of the heroes in it is (of all fkn ppl lol) Derek Jameson: “I’m not defending what I’m doing, Sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it’s wrong. I don’t hold with high-falutin’ talk. I don’t claim to be pure… I’m a newspaperman. I tell stories.”

tbh I like it when this claim resurfaces: because I think it’s worth bringing back to the surface the tensions that e.g. the Ross process for a time made a creative energy of harnessing — and which the emergence of ‘New Journalism’ so-called began to pull back apart. I think as a collective processing machinery it was in fact losing its salience: the Harvard-Yale faction had bedded itself, as it was always going (for one thing, the newspapermen-bred-and-born never took good physical care of themselves: Thurber was only 66 when he died, Ross only 59).

Anyway, I will expand on some of this elsewhere shortly, but for now — arriving the final twist — the sly element of all this is how AO’H weaves himself into the praise he’s directing at LR. “I was there, she used me thus, one day I would use her likewise, that day is now come: SHE IS GREAT AND SO AM I AND FOR THE EXACT SAME REASONS.”

tl;dr: u tht my grenfell piece sucked but guess what h8rs, the fact it wound YOU up is why it’s good not bad QED and out

This argument does not even slightly fly – but it’s useful to have it out in the world, along with the praetorian guard of the assumptions he uses to convince himself. There is in my mind a VERY GOOD AND URGENT CASE INDEED to re-address the Hearst-Ross-Cockburn-Gawker thesis, for all kinds of reasons (and to wonder, also, if one of the elements that disguises its worst misuses is the ever-vexed issue of “good” writing)

(So in conclusion this piece is GOOD for making me think abt all this stuff even if its motivations are bogus and its in-person insights are placed "in question" by his behaviour on other stories QED and out)

mark s, Friday, 12 July 2019 13:38 (five months ago) link

I do actually think that AO'H's last line is quite good.

the pinefox, Saturday, 13 July 2019 09:54 (five months ago) link

colin burrows on wordsworth: haven't gathered my thoughts yet

malcolm bull on william davies: ditto (i llke davies's tweets)

james wood on eton: intermittently mildly interesting but the second sentence strikes me as highly unlikely ("at school, everyone is 'ambitious', everyone loudly stretching upwards, but perhaps true ambition has a pair of silent claws") -- sorry, "everyone" is bullshit in this sentence. eton is a very big school, and NOT everyone was ambitious: i didn't go to eton but i know this for a fact and it undermines wood that he says it at all. i am historically very much niot a wood fan -- for his bad opinions and his manner of expressing them -- so it's bit too tidily pat that i can now say "lol of course he's bad, he went to eton!" i do actually slightly know one quite nice good person who went to eton but i won't name-and-shame them here, even tho some ilxors will know of their work and possibly admire it.

the macron piece, the shining path piece and the keith thomas piece were all readable enough, and probably useful

mark s, Saturday, 13 July 2019 11:27 (five months ago) link

Colin S. Burrows ?

the pinefox, Saturday, 13 July 2019 11:28 (five months ago) link

Different views:

Bull on Davies surprisingly disappointing - failed to engage with what I suspect is a strong and important argument at book length from WD. This seems a real wasted opportunity for the LRB.

Macron I think useful, yes.

Shining Path, yes well-informed at least.

Keith Thomas review quite bad - another example of a bad LRB mode, where it just starts cataloguing stuff into obvious categories.

Wood ... I like some of what he has done historically, but - as I said above! - this is poor, disappointing, tells you almost nothing that is new and worth knowing.

Surely re the 2nd sentence, while it may be true that not everyone at Eton is ambitious, it is a further, in fact bigger problem that most people do not go to Eton so 'school' for JW does not mean what it mean for the rest of us?

re ilxor going to Eton: this reminds me of Prof Carmody's tendency, 15-20 years ago, to fixate on the public school to which the founder of ILX went. (I wouldn't know what it was called.)

the pinefox, Saturday, 13 July 2019 11:33 (five months ago) link

now i mean colin "no s" burrow and i don't understand yr joke :)

it's pitched as an "insider account" but yes, it
(a) fails to examine the how the structures "inside" might produce effects not produced at other schools (not least bcz he wasn't also an "insider" at lots of other schools!). but
(b) (which is what i was getting at) i don't actually think it's necessarily a very insightful insider account! bcz he doesn't seem to spot that his second sentence is only not nonsense if you qualify it so tightly that it becomes circular ("everyone ambitious was ambitious, including perhaps some ppl you didn't notice were ambitious")

lol robin would know the name of the scottish headmaster briefly mentioned (as oddly enough do i), and would build his CV and possibly something hew's said publicly into his critique (which i wd not attempt)

mark s, Saturday, 13 July 2019 11:41 (five months ago) link

re keith thomas: i think i just enjoyed the sketch-listing of historical ways to be rude? and i will never not enjoy rediscovering what dirty DIRTY birds were the nobility in ages past cf eg also: Let's bitch about our stupid, annoying co-workers

(not really yr kind of thing PF, maybe don't click thru if you hate being disgusted?)

i agree that the reviewer merely handwaves at an idea of a larger history of respectability politics (in part by critiquing KT for not delivering same) while not really doing much more than dabbing at ditto (but as i say, the dabbing is funny stories abt sacked maids curtseying in a scornful manner etc etc so it's not all downside)

mark s, Saturday, 13 July 2019 11:58 (five months ago) link

i tht the m bull article was bad and rong and i also hated it for making me fold the paper down halfway so that no one could read the offensive and indefensible headline over my shoulder

Li'l Brexit (Tracer Hand), Saturday, 13 July 2019 14:02 (five months ago) link

There was a little ilx-type spat abt marie le conte a while back, bcz she’d enthused abt the fun of the game of inside-westminster political reporting — and some of her foes were pulling prissy moralistic faces abt how “this is what’s wrong with journalism today”. Not to defend anything else MLC has ever written (not sure I’ve even read much she’s written off-twitter and I don’t follow her on) but my feeling here was: NO, it’s good to state yr pleasures and yr motivations up-front, not least bcz it’s so easy piously to lie abt same, and pious lying doesn’t make for better reporting either. Good writing is unrelated to good character: Good reporting is unrelated to “good” motivation. ilx in unfazed by the first idea but seems leery of the second.

Someone would need to argue MLC was a good reporter and no one was doing that (Andrew Farrell liked her but it mostly seemed to be a corrective to the male haters piling on poor MLC). I am not sure ilx is that fazed by the second idea. What's the consensus on Seymour Hersh? This recent review in the NYRB shows someone who was clearly good @ reporting, although he used dubious methods and he isn't someone who had the best of intentions.

xyzzzz__, Saturday, 13 July 2019 19:32 (five months ago) link

I liked the Keith Thomas review, and that it had criticisms - purely to see what this would look like - even if it did operate as an afterthought.

xyzzzz__, Saturday, 13 July 2019 19:38 (five months ago) link

This one's from the failing (maybe not so much any more?) NY Review of Books, but the Marilynne Robinson piece on the Puritans was very good.

o. nate, Monday, 15 July 2019 00:55 (four months ago) link

the despard story in the current issue is interesting and good: i knew it already in outline bcz it's in "the making of the english working class" -- but that great (and large) book does overlook almost the entire atlantic-caribbean dimension of the full story, which linebaugh's current book (with its v long title)* seemingly somewhat puts right

(i think i knew kate despard was black? it somehow reminds me of the fact that long john silver's off-page wife is black, and that there was a significant wing of pirate culture that was in certain ways very forward-looking culturally and politically: the linebaugh-rediker line in other words, and the masterless vessel as the root of constitutionalism -- viz the pirates who, when they took slaveships, freed the slaves, allowing those who wished to become pirates) (the bad wing of pirate culture did not do this obv)

(and probably not enough work done on how the linebaugh-rediker line has since distorted in the US towards libertarianism and even sovereign citizenship -- i have a very glib little book that explains how pirates were the original sea-steaders lol)

*Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Culture, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class and of Kate and Ned Despard by Peter Linebaugh

mark s, Saturday, 20 July 2019 11:10 (four months ago) link

Good to see Elisa Gabbert in the new LRB. They are expanding what they review and who reviews. Hopefully they can give Adam Mars-Jones less work.

So, I got to review Andrea Lawlor's very fun and good novel PAUL TAKES THE FORM OF A MORTAL GIRL for the @LRB, and they gave it the best of all possible titles:

— Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) July 24, 2019

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 25 July 2019 09:05 (four months ago) link

Mark S reminds me of a remarkable thing -- I read the Despard essay while at Trinity College Dublin last week (and am surprised to learn that Irish suffragist Charlotte Despard was a distant relation by marriage if anything - no family connexions are advertised between them) --

and came back to London and on Sunday night watched POLDARK

and was amazed to find that Edward Despard is now a major character in POLDARK! He is a 'good' character, heroic; Poldark is heroically trying to help him. (His wife is included.)

the pinefox, Thursday, 25 July 2019 09:14 (four months ago) link

good work poldark!

mark s, Thursday, 25 July 2019 09:27 (four months ago) link

mark s, Wednesday, 7 August 2019 13:29 (four months ago) link

(still no sign of my letter they said they were considering publishing)

mark s, Wednesday, 7 August 2019 13:30 (four months ago) link

xxp I thought that Despard essay was excellent, and he was a fascinating character

Captain ACAB (Neil S), Wednesday, 7 August 2019 13:37 (four months ago) link

In NYC for 2-3 days I tried to find a copy of the NYRB. I walked up and down Manhattan. I looked all over town. No sign! Ridiculous!

I bought the New Yorker instead, at Pennsylvania Station. And I finished it! All of it!

I came to New Haven and at last in an independent bookstore found an NYRB. It's the same one with the Fintan O'Toole essay people have mentioned.

I needed something hefty to read while off-duty etc and it fits that quantity bill OK - while costing $9.50, which is now about 8 quid - but is it very interesting?

One basic problem is that it reviews some of the same books as the LRB, so I'm familiar with them already (I already spent all that time reading about Harper Lee and that trial!), though certainly different positions may emerge.

It has a big essay making the case against war with Iran. This possibly exemplifies an aspect of the NYRB? -- it's written on the basis of existing US interests in the Middle East as legitimate; it takes the status quo as normative; it carefully apportions blame to the US and Iran, while certainly cautioning against Trump's administration and the risks of war.

The idea that for the US to contemplate starting a war with, even invading, a country 7,000 miles away, where it has no business interfering whatsoever, is criminal, disgusting, Orwellian in the bad sense, an insane moral obscenity -- this isn't really contemplated.

I think the LRB would be somewhat more clear-headed on such an issue.

the pinefox, Thursday, 15 August 2019 12:47 (three months ago) link

From the author bios:

He was National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012.

He was National Security Council Director for ­Political-Military Affairs, Middle East and North Africa, from 2011 to 2013.

Muswell Hillbilly Elegy (President Keyes), Thursday, 15 August 2019 15:18 (three months ago) link

I think the NYRB doesn’t have a very consistent political perspective. It varies from author to author. They range from moderate left to left. They used to publish folks like Gore Vidal on US foreign policy.

o. nate, Thursday, 15 August 2019 15:22 (three months ago) link

yeah their politics are completely incoherent

𝔠𝔞𝔢𝔨 (caek), Thursday, 15 August 2019 16:36 (three months ago) link

three weeks pass...

odd glaring solecism in seamus perry’s review of geoffrey hill:

Its sheer miscellaneousness somehow mitigates against the political response it otherwise appears to provoke..

Fizzles, Tuesday, 10 September 2019 07:19 (three months ago) link

I was just finishing that essay and was going to post how much I disliked it. Everything he quotes from Hill, certainly from the new book, is rubbish - flatulent self-indulgent jottings. And he gives it space and respect and acts like it's significant poetry and worthwhile ideas.

One problem here is a very widespread tendency, that it's hard not to join, to quote poetry's statements about itself (so you write about MacNeice being 'incorrigibly plural') - and to make your whole discussion about content, about ideas, but not seriously address the fact that this is poetry, not prose. (Maybe Hill's is prose - so why treat it with the special dignity of poetry?)

Another problem, I feel, is a tacit sexism - an old male like Hill can get away with turning out this crap and it gets analysed as a serious contribution. I don't think that a woman would get the same treatment so readily, except maybe in a very deliberately feminist context. I think it's useful to think about how Hill's dross would be treated if it were produced by someone else, as this helps to show how little patience you'd have for it in another context.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 10 September 2019 08:40 (three months ago) link

I wrote some more on Andrew O'Hagan and Lillian Ross and Tom Wolfe, but you'll have to subscribe to my patreon to read it lol:

(subscribe to my patreon)

mark s, Tuesday, 10 September 2019 15:00 (three months ago) link

So, in addition to their terrible politics in relation to women and people of colour more generally, called out beautifully by @ziahaiderrahman it turns out that the London Review of Books has refused to publish a review of Insurgent Empire despite multiple people pitching it.

— Priyamvada Gopal, Uppity Esquire (@PriyamvadaGopal) September 11, 2019

xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 11 September 2019 17:10 (three months ago) link

I've pitched things to the LRB. They ignored me. I didn't go on social media and say they had violated my inalienable right to be published in their pages.

the pinefox, Thursday, 12 September 2019 07:22 (three months ago) link

If you publish a statement calling a publication 'structurally racist and misogynist', why do you think they will want to have anything to do with you? And if that's what you really think of them, then why do you want anything to do with them?

the pinefox, Thursday, 12 September 2019 07:23 (three months ago) link

Well its this and I can well believe it.

This is a very *deliberate* decision (there's more and worse but I can't really reveal it yet).

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 12 September 2019 08:45 (three months ago) link

lol wrong formatting (that's a quote from the thread).

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 12 September 2019 08:45 (three months ago) link

i'm interested how you square yr point on the hill piece -- which i think is a poorly structured mess with some half-explored ideas abt the politics of poetry studded here and there in it* -- with yr point abt the stance that gopal is taking

if it's the case (as you appear to concede) that the LRB could be called structurally sexist (viz that it will publish seamus perry at length on geoffrey hill's minor jottings when it would never do the same for a woman), how shd women respond? yr saying "well why don't they just walk away? why do they care?"

but gopal answers this: she's arguing something like "we don't WANT to walk away and sulk, we want to engage and encourage the platform to improve -- but there comes a time when you realise it isn't doing so!" they care because they want the respectful attention accorded to others, which they believe is withheld not for malicious or bigoted but for "structural" reasons; which is to say reasons that can be addressed, if and when more widely recognised. she has been arguing for a while now that similar issues (and worse) exist within academia

obviously she's not just talking about sexism in her case -- and perhaps it's tactically nagl to move to the new stance over the response to ignore yr own book, tho it is the kind of thing that crystallises into a final straw! but if you want to change such structures you have to start somewhere…

*i'm interested in hill and some of the points touched on (difficulty and democracy, for example) even when i think the anti-pop-culture stuff is mostly fairly dumb

mark s, Thursday, 12 September 2019 13:47 (three months ago) link

Well just seen this. Some reflection that they must do better:

A statement:

— London Review of Books (@LRB) September 12, 2019

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 12 September 2019 15:25 (three months ago) link

More in regards to the 40th anniversary but intersects with what Gopal and others over the years have talked about.

For an org that reviews and has writers that look at progressive politics* it's incredibly tone deaf from them, and that's being charitable.

* Let's recall Pankaj Mishra's attack on Niall Ferguson's pro-Empire book. If they publish that why can't they publish Gopal?

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 12 September 2019 15:30 (three months ago) link

Gopal has a very good and valid point, not sure whether that's the reason for no review for her own book. Hardly any books actually get reviewed in the LRB, compared to the number published that would theoretically be in their wheelhouse, and of those that do the review sometimes doesn't turn up until a year or two after publication.

Tsar Bombadil (James Morrison), Friday, 13 September 2019 01:05 (three months ago) link

Mark: I was quite struck by your ingenious parallel between the two issues / posts, but I think they are basically different.

Unlike me, Dr Gopal appears to be seeking a veto over LRB editorial policy, on pain of blackmail, ie: if they don't do what she want, she will publish polemical attacks on them whose tone would be libellous if applied to any individual more wholesome than Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.

We discussed this issue very extensively at an ILB FAP (with Tim and xyzz). If we assume that the LRB is effectively a private company, funded by individuals' money and by the re-investment of sales and advertising, then it is not appropriate for an individual who is not an employee or does not have a financial stake in this entity to try to exercise a veto over what it does or does not choose to publish.

The case would be different, in my view, for any public body eg: a local council, NHS trust, police station, or indeed possibly eg: Arts Council, South Bank, BFI, where it can be argued that these are state bodies that must be transparent and accountable to the public in decision-making. I think this would apply to the LRB also if it were nationalised under Prime Minister Pidcock.

In the FAP discussion I noted that if the LRB is still in receipt of Arts Council funding then this could complicate the situation.

More simply, for any author to publish a statement that 'Magazine X has a duty to review my important book' is inherently preposterous and offensive.

the pinefox, Friday, 13 September 2019 08:50 (three months ago) link

IIRC my position in that discussion was to agree that a private individual can't have a veto over the behaviour of a privately-owned operation, but that same private individual has every right to hold, and express, an opinion about the way that privately-owned operation behaves.

Tim, Friday, 13 September 2019 09:31 (three months ago) link

More simply, criticising an editorial policy is not the same as exercising a veto over that editorial policy.

Tim, Friday, 13 September 2019 09:32 (three months ago) link

Yes - I think that's right.

But I think that demanding that a magazine reviews your book, and expressing outrage when they don't, tends to cross from the one thing that we think is OK, to the other thing that we don't.

the pinefox, Friday, 13 September 2019 10:27 (three months ago) link

there's nothing *wrong* with it -- it's just petulant and childish

typical author stuff really

mookieproof, Friday, 13 September 2019 13:12 (three months ago) link

wrt diversity, does the LRB still advertise for staff/interns only in its own pages? it used to. And does it still receive a grants form the Arts Council?

fetter, Friday, 13 September 2019 14:24 (three months ago) link

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.