literary magazines

literary magazines
   The literary magazine has a British history that reaches back to the eighteenth century, and these early magazines prescribed a format which many of the magazines of the late twentieth century in Britain have largely held to: polemic critique, reviews of books and other cultural forms (embracing cinema by the 1930s and television by the 1960s), opinion pieces and original writing in different measures. Relative emphases and the qualities of writing have shifted: the London Review of Books’ reportage pieces from, for example, Stephen Sackur on the Gulf War and reporting on the Balkans crises in the 1990s have been amongst the magazine’s best writings in the last decade. The frequency of publication of literary magazines has ranged from weekly, to twenty-four times a year, to monthly, to quarterly, to ‘infrequently’. Some of the weekly magazines confine their literary and cultural writing to the second half of the magazine, as in the New Statesman and the Spectator. In these two cases there has been a more or less clearly signalled allegiance to the moderate left and to the libertarian right, respectively, which does not always survive in the literary ghetto of the back pages; although the 1980s saw a more rigid and uniform politico-literary regimentation, the Spectator/Daily Telegraph ‘young fogey’ nexus being a case in point. The weekly Times Literary Supplement’s position as the house journal of humanities academia was compromised when it became part of Rupert Murdoch’s News International Corporation, and changes in the editorship seemed to signal a wish to conform to the right-wing hegemony of 1980s Britain. Nevertheless, it continues to stand at the centre of high literary cultural life in Britain. Odd as it may seem today, it was not until the late 1960s that the review articles—or any of the pieces published—were signed. What redirections in the editorial policy of the TLS have shown is how the breadth of interests has been extended by the changes in the formations of British cultural life. The literary magazine of the late 1990s is likely to give space in the same issue to reviewing a new biography of the young Wordsworth and to the drum ’n’ bass compact disc by Roni Size.
   Almost all of these journals have had long histories, with the Spectator tracing its origins back to the eighteenth century. Today, these are the venues where, along with the broadsheet daily and Sunday newspapers, ‘the chattering classes’ meet. While some of these publications might aspire to be mass circulation journals, none is read by more than a few thousand and yet each wants to claim for itself a kind of pre-eminence in its own part of the forest of letters. However, there is also much following of fashions which change with the season: the analyses of the cultural impact of the life and death of the Princess of Wales are an example of this. It is in the magazines that publish less frequently that culturally significant stances are more usually taken. These ‘infrequent’ publications have often had a relatively ephemeral life, but amongst significant names have been Encounter, Stand, the Review, the New Review and the London Review of Books. This last is distinguished by being, in form, a broadsheet newspaper that has clearly taken its design from the New York Review of Books. Encounter, half political/cultural critique and half literary review, publishing original prose and poetry, reflected this dichotomy in its joint editorship— for example, that of Irving Kristol and Stephen Spender—with each editor having a cognate background. Its reputation was shaken by the revelation that it was in part financed by the CIA, as part of the US government’s attempt to sustain a political and cultural climate of opinion supportive of Western democracies in the era of the Cold War. The Review and the New Review, produced thanks to a relatively generous cultural largesse courtesy of the Arts Council, celebrated what they perceived as the centrality of Britain in the brightness and sharpness of the optimism of the third quarter of the century. There was a conscious ‘smartness’ about the New Review, edited with a dogmatic certainty and arrogantly aware of its cosmopolitan centrality, exploratory and innovative in its presentation of new forms of writing. However, it might be argued that its lasting achievement, inherited and maintained by Granta, was the rehabilitation of travel writing as a serious literary genre. This sense of centrality lasted little longer than the magazines themselves. The cultural and political landscape of the early 1980s caused them to cease publication. Their replacements, if the plural is accurate, have been marginal, trivially partisan and the culturally correct adornments of rich but capricious patrons.
   Throughout its life, Stand has been a marked departure from these stereotypes in several important ways: it was the product of the determination of one person, the late Jon Silkin, and it was edited from the provinces, originally in Newcastle upon Tyne. It contained short prose fictions, poetry and reviews; it was healthily internationalist in the range of its contributors. Happily, it remains a model for beautifully produced, designed and edited literary magazines, always making a virtue of its eclecticism. The London Review of Books is the most powerful cosmopolitan publication: it is adventurous in mixing reviews, reportage, diaries and poetry. It allows its writers space for long pieces, and attracts a readership that causes anyone becoming part of that group to question the meaning of the term ‘literary’. It seems to espouse the renaissance idea that nothing should be beyond the interest of the person who wants to be a full participant in a world that sees ‘culture’ as wholly inclusive, and believes that good writing can encourage such participation.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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