Areté: a Retrospective edited by Craig Raine: Step into the literary-journalistic penthouse

If there’s a common thread to the best pieces collected in the pleasingly hefty new retrospective... it’s nothing stronger than the element of autobiography.

 A child plays in the 'aMAZEme' labyrinth made from books at Southbank Centre
There is always something to discover in Areté. Photograph: Getty Images

Areté: a Retrospective
Edited by Craig Raine
Areté Books, 504pp, £10

I have been taking refuge in Craig Raine’s “arts tri-quarterly” for almost a decade. A tidy row of copies could reliably be found under the kitchen cabinet of a Notting Hill house with a liberal door policy – the owner had been seated next to Raine at a dinner party and was subscribing by the end of the meal – and I would gravitate towards it instead of playing Snake II on my Nokia 6110. An essay on Saul Bellow or Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf perfectly filled that half-hour spot during which, having grown bored with room-hopping, I couldn’t yet be bothered to walk to the night bus. I already knew from hours of seatless reading in second-hand bookshops that Raine’s prose – as collected in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet – was earcatching, something I could steal and even learn from, and his magazine, about five years old when I discovered it, was simply an extension of his critical personality, a private paradise where the friends, students and family members he had enlisted as contributors wrote about Raine-ish subjects (British theatre, modern poetry, writers’ letters, the novel) and furthered Raine-ite causes.

It would be false to say that I was formed by Raine’s magazine in the way that people say they were formed by Scrutiny or the New Statesman. I wasn’t looking for a world-view and Areté wasn’t offering one. Despite the name (Greek for “virtue”), an emphasis on 20th-century European history, an epigraph from Matthew Arnold (“Culture seeks to do away with classes,” and so on) and a pronounced fondness for the figure whom Raine has described as Arnold’s critical and poetic son, T S Eliot, the magazine is impudent and amorphous. If there’s a common thread to the best pieces collected in the pleasingly hefty new retrospective – Lucy Sisman on being an unloved daughter, Nina Raine on working with Pinter, Christopher Reid’s poems about his late wife – it’s nothing stronger than the element of autobiography.

In his unshy introduction, Raine thanks Ian McEwan for giving Areté a chapter of a novel when it might have earned him £5,000 from the New Yorker but the advantage of this tri-quarterly is precisely not that it publishes writing that richer weeklies would otherwise have published. It’s that it publishes things that might not otherwise have been commissioned, whether by overworked freelancers (Sam Leith on being lonely in post-9/11 New York, Matthew Norman on getting stabbed in South Africa), untapped prose writers (Ralph Fiennes, Harriet Walter) or fledglings with free time (Claire Lowdon, who recalls a visit to Sandhurst). Of the collection’s more than 50 contributors, it’s only name writers – Julian Barnes, William Boyd –who underwhelm.

Even the pieces by Raine’s most gifted pals suffer from being overindulged, underedited. Martin Amis’s account of meeting John Updike, written in response to the writer’s death, might have started at its second paragraph: “My only meeting with John Updike – a two-hour interview – took place in a Massachusetts hospital.” Instead, it opens with a heart-sinking bit of Amis-ese: “America is sick about health: America, where strokes and heart attacks come with a price tag, and where the doctors carry on like slum landlords or war profiteers.” There are traces of fatuousness in the piece – Updike’s erstwhile presence “is now an absence of the same dimensions” – and incoherence – “Updike was 31, and already the veteran of many cigarettes (and then many cigars)” – and tautology – “its modest portent, its token omen, of a death foretold”. Such phrasing might not have been accepted by other publications – or by this publication, from other contributors.

If the retrospective reveals a weakness, it is in the magazine’s literary coverage, which, for all its suavity, shows a constricting institutional allegiance. Areté is an Oxford magazine in which the university’s native qualities (confidence, common sense) are used to fight Cambridge evils and those who represent them (J H Prynne, Robert Macfarlane, James Wood). The magazine has not one but two corners for those with pseud-ish tendencies (“Our Bold” and “A Good Idea in Theory”).

But the fear of being vague or fanciful produces shortcomings of its own. In his wonderful contribution (“At the Movies for Money”), Adam Mars-Jones writes that he used his Independent film column to write an “extrapolating essay”. Too often, the literary essays here fail to extrapolate and even to ruminate. It’s no good being “unafraid of long pieces” – Raine’s claim in the introduction – if the generous word count is simply used to present, at greater length, a case that could be made in 1,000 words.

Mars-Jones’s piece about his time as a film critic would merit inclusion in any arts magazine but it also appeals to the editor’s metropolitanism, his lust for peaking behind closed doors. A newspaper editor proves gentle in rebuke (“Shouldn’t be sarcastic . . . Should be four-square”). The atmosphere in a screening room is thick with dejection (“It was considered beneath us to laugh at a comedy or to flinch during a horror film”).

At one point, Mars-Jones writes that moving from the TLS to the NS was “a standard enough career ladder for a freelance reviewer, giving access not to a penthouse but something more like a tree house, if not the upper accommodation of a split-level hamster cage”. It’s a spry bit of self-deprecation, phrased with this writer’s predictable brilliance, but somewhat undermined by the surroundings in which Mars-Jones now finds himself, a sort of literary-journalistic penthouse, built partly to consecrate its owner’s tastes (“We publish anything we like”) and partly as a vantage point for looking down on others.