In January, Mary-Kay Wilmers announced that she would be stepping down from her position as editor of the London Review of Books. Wilmers became editor in 1988, nine years after she helped found the magazine with Karl Miller and Susannah Clapp. If it’s hard to imagine a LRB without Wilmers at the helm, that’s because such a thing hasn’t ever really existed.
In the magazine’s inaugural 1979 issue, Miller lamented the then-current literary state of affairs: “For reasons that can’t all be separated from the facts of a national decline, criticism, and the literature it serves, have suffered a loss of confidence.” Yet, Miller continued, there was reason to hope: “It is also true that gifted performers have arrived, and survived. New papers are starting, and old ones are resuming. There is no law of history which says that literature cannot break the spell of its dependence on the economy and on the state of the nation.” It’s hard to say whether the state of the nation is better or worse than it was in 1979. Pick your poison: union-busting Thatcher or bloviating Boris; the threat of privatization and closing factories or their accomplished fact. But pick up any issue of the LRB and you’ll find that, thanks in large part to the editorial direction of Wilmers, British criticism is thriving.
There aren’t many magazines worth reading cover to cover; the LRB is one. Just in the past few issues, Perry Anderson published a three-part, 45,000-word essay on the European Union that was—somehow, impossibly—interesting; Patricia Lockwood wrote a genius-level piece on Nabokov’s life and work (“A young aristocrat, 75 per cent composed of foraged mushrooms, asks his pristine parents what an erection is, and they tell him that Tolstoy has died. Who can’t relate?”); and Christian Lorentzen opened a political piece like this: “The state of Delaware has given the world three gifts: chemicals, debt and Joe Biden. Each promises great things but may deliver undesirable side effects.” Some of my favorite essayists—Lockwood, Andrew O’Hagan, Michael Wood—regularly write for the magazine, or the “paper,” as its editors refer to it. Yet my favorite piece from the last year was an essay by Tom Crewe on, of all things, the history of British summer holidays.
Writing in 1926, T. S. Eliot said that a literary review should ideally have a “tendency” rather than a “programme”: “Editor and collaborators may freely express their individual opinions and ideas, so long as there is a residue of common tendency, in the light of which many occasional contributors, otherwise irrelevant or even antagonistic, may take their place and counteract any narrow sectarianism.” The common tendency of the LRB is, in fact, its rejection of narrow sectarianism. The pieces run long, and this space allows for, even demands, that ideas—about art, about political economy, about history—be contested and reconsidered in the writing itself. Lockwood, for instance, began an essay, “I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” Over its almost seven thousand words, Lockwood’s piece shifts between disdain and celebration before ultimately landing on a decidedly un-assassin-like take: “When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong—which is often—you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea.” The essay turns and turns and turns again, in exactly the way an essay should. It’s the kind of piece Wilmers continually gets into the LRB’s pages.