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First Catch Your Fairy Godmother

“Why do people feel compelled to agree with everybody? It would be quite nice if there was slightly less outrage about the same things all the time.”

So Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, in an interview with Elizabeth Day in Sunday’s Observer (March 9th).

But in fact people don’t feel compelled to agree with everybody. They certainly feel compelled to disagree with those on “the other side”, vigilantly, militantly, stupidly, endlessly. As for there being too much outrage (over the same things) about, well it’s impossible to disagree with that(?).

Day’s interview is published under the heading “Is the LRB the best magazine in the world?” (“London newspaper finds London review to be world’s leading intellectual force”.) Well it’s certainly bloody good, and not getting any less so in its old age either. It would be worth buying for Andrew O’Hagan alone. It would be worth having an annual subscription for Andrew O’Hagan alone.

What is its secret? Well two things perhaps, which I may be setting out here in reverse order. Wilmers and her editorial team practise the old-fashioned virtues: she takes her time in commissioning and processing work and looks in particular for intelligence, and, where possible, originality of mind, in contributors.

In a question which teeters on the edge of enacting the very vices of cliche and shallowness it is jeering at, Day asks: “does [Wilmers] think, in a modern, media-driven world where opinions are increasingly reduced to soundbites of 140 characters or fewer, that there is a thirst for longer-form writing?”

Well of course she does: “I think that must, to some extent, be the case because otherwise, why would we be doing so much better than other papers?” Why indeed? Though the LRB’s financial structure (see below) might also afford a clue as to why it is “doing better”.

The review is put together in “a charmingly old-fashioned, semi-shambolic manner. There is, admits Wilmers, ‘an element of whim’ to each issue. Writers are not given much of a deadline – ‘we’re not too fussy about time, then after a few months the piece comes in’ – and the editors take a great deal of care over the copy. Every fact is checked and proofs are sent back to the writer with suggestions and queries and then, says Wilmers: ‘there’s all that awful stuff about spacing and line-breaks, which I’m sure nobody notices, but we do’.”

Payment of contributors is also quite generous, and, says Marina Warner, payments are processed promptly. This is indeed a heartwarming tale: there is a real thirst for excellence out there whose existence some of us didn't suspect, the readers recognise quality when they see it and respond by buying, in huge numbers, this excellent (fortnightly) journal, whose circulation is a healthy 64,000 per issue.

But what’s this I read? In spite of its ancillary businesses of a bookshop and “a popular cake-shop that serves rosebud tea and gluten-free pistachio cakes”, the LRB “struggles to make money”. Indeed it seems it would have ceased to exist a long time ago without the personal support of Wilmers, who is estimated to have shovelled in £27 million from her own family trust (as of 2010) in “loans” to support it.

Money well spent certainly. But what money!
11/03/2014

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