John Gross, 1935-2011

Death of a man of letters.

The writer and critic John Gross, a former literary editor of the New Statesman, died yesterday at the age of 75. After a brief career in academia, Gross gravitated in the mid-1960s towards Grub Street, where he rapidly established a reputation as one of the country's subtlest yet most productive literary journalists.

Gross was made editor of the Times Literary Supplement in 1974, a post he held until 1981.The TLS as we recognise it today owes much to Gross's editorship, the principal and most controversial innovation of which was the introduction of signed reviews (until then, reviewers had written anonymously). Gross didn't abandon scholarly work altogether, however, and in 1969 he published his first, and perhaps best known, book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, which A N Wilson described as a paean to the "the ideal of a human life, spent reading, and making a living by what one reads".

NS editor Jason Cowley, reviewing Gross's memoir of his East End Jewish childhood A Double Thread in 2001, saw in him a fine practitioner of the literary essay, a form that, "as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, E B White and Lewis Lapham . . . strives for literary permanence and concerns the search for a personal voice". Gross's book, Cowley concluded, had all these attributes and was a reminder that "the best essayists are those, like Gross, who have the gift of digression, those who surprise the reader and themselves, who are able to luxuriate in language and to elaborate and inflate any chosen subject".

In October 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Gross's masterpiece, the critic D J Taylor wrote in the NS that, with one or two "trend-defying exceptions", the man of letters as Gross imagined him was extinct. Until yesterday, one of those exceptions was Gross himself:

[Gross's] Man of Letters can range from a simple "bookman", snug in his study with 3,000 novels for company, to the kind of highbrow critic whose followers invest his cult with well-nigh religious significance, or the moonlighting MP who sees literature as a kind of default setting for his political schemes. What unites them is a passion for books, a fixation with the culture in which books get produced and evaluated, and an assumption that, as Gross puts it in his final sentence, "the idea of the man of letters has a place in any healthy literary tradition".

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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SRSLY #71: Swing Time / The Edge of Seventeen / Maggie’s Plan

On the pop culture podcast this week: Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, teen movie The Edge of Seventeen and the 2015 film Maggie’s Plan.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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The Links

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The book.

The New Statesman review.

The Edge of Seventeen

The trailer.

The episode where we discuss Paper Towns.

Maggie’s Plan

The trailer.

For next week

Anna is watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

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See you next week!

PS If you missed #70, check it out here.