A year ago, at the start of 2015 – seeking a change – I decided to subscribe to a literary journal.
I chose the London Review of Books because I liked the hand-painted artwork on the cover of each issue. The discerning drawings reminded me of magazines like the New Yorker and The Paris Review and spoke of ideas and inspiration. I liked the prospect of folding it under my arm on the way into work. I liked the long-form essays that flew in the face of short attention spans. I liked the layout and the careful typography and the journal’s A3 dimensions – easy to fold back on itself but just as easy to hold up with both hands and screen off the rest of the world.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I quickly found my dislikes starting to outweigh the likes.
I’ve been receiving the LRB in my letterbox for exactly a year now. Despite several mailings asking me to renew my subscription, as of 2016, I’ve decided to let it quietly lapse. Here are six reasons why…
Fortnightly is too much
I’m a working man and still a relatively new daddy. My downtime for reading has diminished to my daily commute across London, plus a few stolen hours on weekends. So every time the LRB arrives in my letterbox, I feel like the clock is immediately ticking against me. I know I need to start reading the articles as soon as possible – 15 of them, usually, never less than 2,500 words apiece and written by scholars/critics/authors who like to lay it on thick – if I want to finish the latest issue before the next one arrives.
I usually meet the bi-weekly deadline. Just.
The knock-on effect is that I have no time to read anything else. No novels, no plays, no fiction of any kind because the LRB is always lurking somewhere in the background, silently challenging me to keep up with it.
This, of course, is my problem – not the LRB’s. But I find the fortnightly model a case of too much, too often. I’d prefer a monthly publication that gives me some space to breathe.
Diversity often means obscurity
So many genres are covered in the LRB. The book reviews roam freely across any field you care to mention: fiction, non-fiction, ancient history, modern history, biography, travel, art, music, science, religion, politics, philosophy. The topics within these genres are even more diverse: “The Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD”; “Hume: An Intellectual Biography”; “The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg”. It’s eclectic, for sure – and at the same time it’s unsatisfyingly random. Book selections in the LRB are deliberately specialist and knowingly niche. As a literary publication, its canvas tries to stretch as broad as culture itself. For me, this means a lack of focus. Things never feel truly cohesive.
Muddying the water further are the intriguing but *really* abstruse essays. Why does a fortnightly review of books include opinion pieces on politics, science, theology, sociology, [insert your university subject here], you might ask?
To deepen the diversity of the magazine and give it a unique selling point, seemingly. But more often than not I find these essays alienating. They deep-dive into areas of expertise that make my eyes gloss over.
The end result is that the LRB is so diverse it becomes obscure. General readers can lose their way in it because there are just too many paths to take.
Pretensions can run high
A lot of LRB contributors, I think it’s fair to say, are more than a few steps removed from everyday life. We’re talking the likes of David Runciman (professor of politics at Cambridge), Tom Paulin (English lecturer at Oxford), Tariq Ali (military historian, Guardian journalist and alumnus of Exeter College) and a host of highfalutin novelists like Alan Bennett, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Will Self, Salman Rushdie, Colm Tóibín, etc. When these writers and thinkers give us their opinions, it feels like they’re being passed down from an ivory tower high up in the heavens of the Establishment. And this tower always seems to belong to the North London liberal left.
There’s nothing awful about commissioning the best of the best to appear in your pages, I suppose, if you have the right connections in your little black book. But when your contributors are always the Man Booker novelists and always the faces you see on Newsnight or the voices you hear on BBC Radio 4, things start to get elitist. And with elitism comes a free pass for self-indulgence.
No other contributor is more guilty of self-indulgence than Jenny Diski, a writer I’d never heard of before I picked up the LRB. Since subscribing, though, I’ve been treated to regular helpings from Jenny Diski’s memoirs – which seem to exist solely so Diski can bathe in some reflected glory from Doris Lessing. Diski once lived with the famous feminist author, you see… and by god, does she like to remind us of it…to prop up the uninspired story of her troubled childhood, made troubled by a predictable mix of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s self-regarding and tirelessly vain – and it doesn’t make for interesting reading.
Every issue of the LRB contains a poem or two – and it’s usually poetry of the loftiest kind. Written in blank verse and full of eccentric line breaks, if they’re not peppered with oblique references to Ancient Greece and Rome then they’re so self-absorbed that they share little resonance with anyone else’s experience of life. Don’t get me wrong: I like poetry. Poets like Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin regularly astound me. But the older I get, the less time I have for poetic pretension. Take the opening stanza from this poem by Jorie Graham, for instance, published in the LRB in December 2015:
Self-Portrait at Three Degrees
Teasing out the possible linkages I – no you – who noticed – if the world – no –
the world if – take plankton – I feel I cannot love any more – take plankton – that
love is reserved for an other kind of existence – take plankton – that such an
existence is a form of porn now – no – what am I saying – take plankton – it
is the most important plant on earth – think love – composes at least half
the biosphere’s entire primary production – love this – love what – I am saying
you have no choice – that’s more than all the land plants on the whole planet put
together – blooms so large they can be photographed from space – everything
living – take it – here you take it, I can’t hold it anymore – you don’t want it – I
don’t care – you carry it for now – I need to catch my breath – I want to lie here
and listen – within fifty years if we are lucky – I am writing this in 2015 – like
spraying weedkiller over all the world’s vegetation – that’s our raw
material, our inventory, right now, we are going through forms of worship,
we call it news, we will make ourselves customers, we won’t wait, how fast can we be
delivered – will get that information to you – requires further study – look
that’s where the river used to be – one morning I woke up and I was born – I…
The poem continues like that for another 300 words or so.
Overwrought introspection like this perhaps appealed to me when I was a university student. It doesn’t anymore.
Not too long ago, the LRB faced a bit of a backlash when it published a new poem by Craig Raine. It was a bit conceited and a little narcissistic – and soon it was being widely derided on Twitter. I didn’t think it was *that* bad, to be honest; but it was nice to see some poetry readers biting back for once.
Flip to the back of any issue of the LRB and you’ll find yourself in the Classified section. The adverts on display here do their level best to make you feel like you’re living in a Woody Allen film – ads for psychotherapy sessions and chic little apartments you can rent in Paris; ads for secluded writing retreats in Tuscany and the Peloponnese; ads for shrewd editors and slick literary agents; personal ads from musicians, authors and academics who wonder out loud if anyone else among the literati would be interested in a ménage à trois?
At first, I found these ads ripe for parody and I even wondered if some of them might be fake. But one year later, I’ve come to realise that all of these adverts are very real and trying very hard to create a perfect little pseudo-intellectual world.
Trouble is, it feels brittle and artificial and couldn’t be further removed from the real world.
I find the sentiment behind it all a big turn-off.
It’s quintessentially British – right?
The London Review of Books, with its head office and bookstore nestled in the heart of Bloomsbury, feels very British in outlook and style… until you look closer at the promotional slots positioned neatly on every other page, plugging book campaigns and publishing houses from the other side of the Atlantic.
In a single issue of the LRB, I counted 13 adverts from American/Canadian publishers:
- Yale Books
- Columbia University Press
- Princeton University Press
- Princeton Architectural Press
- Harvard University Press
- Rutgers University Press (New Jersey)
- University of Toronto Press
- Duke University Press (North Carolina)
- Brick (Canadian literary journal)
- McGill University (Montreal)
- American Philosophical Society
- Red Cat Tales Publishing (Los Angeles)
- Michigan State University Press
Do US publishers pay more for UK advertising space? Are readers of the LRB especially predisposed to American and Canadian academia? I don’t grasp the rationale behind so much Transatlantic promotion. This long-distance marketing feels out of kilter with the core identity of the LRB… just like all of those badly written ads for self-published books that feel like they belong in another kind of magazine altogether.
But maybe that’s another blog post in itself :-|