The New Statesman Essay - Inside the pressure cooker

John Sutherlandon the fury and bitchiness of the London literary world

In September 2000, when Salman Rushdie announced his intention to leave for New York, he complained about the "bitchiness" of the London literary world. A few weeks ago, an expatriated Rushdie (still bruised, one guesses, from the reception of his latest novel, Fury) lashed out again in even harsher terms. Bitchiness, he alleged, had reached homicidal levels. British critics and reviewers did not merely want to do down his books or pry into his personal relationships: they wanted to destroy him. "They begrudge the fact that I have survived the fatwa and now lead a better life," he told Der Spiegel. "Unfortunately, the British press is going through a rather nasty phase. Their conception of journalism consists above all in setting up targets and then knocking them down with all their might."

There may indeed be something wrong with the cultural "tone" of the London literary world. When he retired from his professorship at University College London and his co-editorship of the London Review of Books in 1992, Karl Miller wrote a valedictory piece in the Guardian in which he warned against its pervasive "spite". It is not only Rushdie who has repeatedly criticised London as a place too unpleasant nowadays to prosecute a literary career; Martin Amis, too, has protested against the publication of literary gossip about his private life.

But does the London literary world really exist? Has it always been like this? Or has it deteriorated in the recent past?

London has a literary "world" in the same big-time way that Los Angeles has a film industry ("the industry", as Angelenos like to call it). It began in Paternoster Row - that area around St Paul's where 17th-century printers, authors, hust-lers and booksellers would congregate to peddle, make deals and talk books (the site was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War).

The seedy side of the London literary world - its underworld - crawled out of the primal slime of Grub Street's gutters, immortalised in Pope's Dunciad. Its more high-minded parts were formed and polished amid the salubrious aroma of 18th-century coffee houses, in publishers' congeries and opinion-forming organs such as Addison's Spectator. It has always been the uneasy conjunction of two literary half-worlds: gilded and bohemian.

In the 19th century, dynastic publishing houses - such as Blackwood's, Bentley's and Macmillan - melded into the gentleman's club world, the inns of court (failed barristers were, in Victorian England, the largest cohort of literary writers), circulating libraries, London University, parliament, the great reviews and Fleet Street (still irremediably grubby) to form an organic, multi-institutional nexus. Was someone like William Makepeace Thackeray a great author, an editor, a hack reviewer, a magazine editor, a penny-a-line journalist, a publisher, a newspaper proprietor or a "gentleman"? He was (at different times) all of them.

London enjoys unique advantages for this kind of thrivingly complex literary world. Because London is a Brobdingnagian capital in a Lilliputian country, the "national" and "metropolitan" media are, in effect, one and the same thing. Go to New York, and there is only one quality newspaper for the 12 million people who live there - and very complacent the New York Times is, in its Olympian cultural solitude. In London, there are five quality broadsheets, fighting like cats in a sack, to choose from daily. More importantly, from the literary point of view, there are (counting the Sundays and the magazines) around two dozen review-carrying publications a week. All are headquartered in London, as are, in most cases, the publishers and many of the authors who produce the books for review.

In London, a book of the day may be reviewed up to six times in the same week - reviewed "everywhere", as we say. There is no everywhere in New York. In the Big Apple, once the NYT Sunday book supplement has done it, the show's over. Hence the greater intensity of p2r (publisher to reader) book advertising in that city. The provincial smallness of England and the metropolitan bigness of London mean that there has never been any regional diffusion of the various parts that make up a literary world. And after the elimination of Edinburgh and Dublin as serious rivals in the 19th century, the London literary world has had no threat from other UK capital cities. Publishers, printers, authors, literary agents, literary editors, bookshops and a sizeable mass of the reading public are all crammed into the same urban space, the same cultural milieu, the same yellow pages. The London literary world pressure-cooks all the time.

No other city in the western world has this cacophonous intensity of literary comment - from lead reviews through launch parties to gossip columns (the "Loafer", "Bookworm", etc). No class chatters more than the London literary class.

Because it has no physical form, we tend not to see what makes this literary world turn. I would argue that, in my lifetime, Karl Miller has done most to raise literary taste. Without question, he was the greatest literary editor of the postwar era. Yet many who have intuitively registered his uplifting influence over the decades would not immediately recognise the name. His editorial hand has in the main done its work invisibly.

Miller's career is an exemplary case of the fluidities and institutional interpenetrations that make the London literary world work. Brought up a Scot in Edinburgh, he studied English at Downing College, Cambridge, in the 1950s, when the "discipline" (aptly named) was dominated by the stringencies of F R Leavis and his journal, Scrutiny. For the Scrutineers, London was literary Gomorrah, Vanity Fair and Babylon rolled into one. Miller took on the high-mindedness and Arnoldian seriousness of the Leavisite doctrine; but not the narrow-gutted provincial puritanism.

In the late 1950s, reviewing generally was slack and loosely belletristic (something that provoked Leavis, and his wife Queenie, to rhapsodies of acidic sarcasm). The London literary world needed a dose of seriousness. For a decade from 1958, Miller - as literary editor first of the Spectator and then of the New Statesman - set new standards. E M Forster, William Empson, V S Pritchett, Christopher Ricks and Frank Kermode were among the names featured in his end of the paper (despite, one gathers, occasional editorial complaints about the "difficulty" of some of the critical writing). As Miller saw it, the gulf between academic and metropolitan reviewing did not exist. Good reviews were good reviews, wherever they originated.

Later, Miller became editor of the Listener, where he in effect invented the modern style of TV reviewing, recruiting Raymond Williams, John Carey and Clive James. Then, in 1974, he left weekly journalism for the Lord Northcliffe chair in modern English literature at UCL. English studies had been invented there in 1832, and UCL has a long tradition of combining strenuous scholarship with high journalism (higher, certainly, than that associated with Northcliffe). It has always been deeply embedded in the London literary world; there is no objection to professors having a foot in both camps. And Miller continued to influence literary journalism. He appointed Jeremy Treglown, who later went on to edit the Times Literary Supplement. His PhD students included Blake Morrison, who also went on to be a literary editor. Finally, in 1979, Miller helped found the London Review of Books, which he edited (and then co-edited) until his retirement.

Miller's career would have been impossible anywhere other than in the London literary world. There just aren't that many top literary jobs in New York, Chicago, Paris or Rome. Nor is there the easy mobility between the university and New Grub Street.

The UK's (that is, London's) book trade has been spectacularly successful in the postwar period. It originates and produces more titles, generates more income and exports more products each year (if only our car, electronics and aircraft industries had been as efficient). The contribution of those charged with forming, stimulating and cultivating the popular appetite - editors and reviewers, principally - has been an important one. The bigger and more varied the cultural choice, the more urgent the commercial pressure (or "hype"), the greater the need for trustworthy, impartial and discriminating gatekeepers.

Does London's reviewing establishment still fulfil that role? It is, I think, palpably obvious that reviewing in 2002 is of a generally higher quality than during any period since the ancient glory days of the Edinburgh and Quarterly reviews. And the London literary world deserves credit for the recruitment of women to commanding positions: Jan Dalley (Financial Times), Mary-Kay Wilmers (London Review of Books), Suzi Feay (Independent on Sunday), Claire Armitstead (Guardian), Caroline Gascoigne (Sunday Times) and Miriam Gross (Sunday Telegraph), for example. Equal opportunity is, I would hazard, more evident in higher journalism than in (say) the universities, politics, the civil service or the broadcast media.

But there have been worrying relaxations of self-discipline. Since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement (which fixed the retail prices of books) in the mid-1990s, bookshops routinely ignore publication dates in their haste to cream off early sales (sometimes discounting wildly). Literary editors have been forced into the same beggar-my-neighbour practice. Embargoes (requests not to review a book before a certain date) are universally flouted. Here, perhaps, is the origin of Rushdie's bitterness. His Fury was reviewed early everywhere, and the stampede to judgement was the more damaging because most reviews were stridently hostile. When the book reached the shops, it was dead on arrival, spattered with critical bile. Premature reviewing makes for hasty, injudicious opinions. A malicious reviewer can get the knife in early and, if deft enough at twisting it, kill a book in the womb.

Some commentators also worry about the influence of literary agents, who auction literary property (typically before it's written) to the highest bidder. This, it is argued, breaks up "organic" relationships between publishers and authors, which was one of the foundations of the old London literary world. Why invest your time, treasure and friendship in writers when, once you have made their reputation, the ingrates will take their wares to a higher- paying rival? Why bother to discover new talent when (if you have the deeper pocket) you can poach it from a less canny neighbour?

To my mind, however, the open sale of their wares enables authors to get a fair return for their work. In the 1890s, the founder of the Society of Authors, Walter Besant, reckoned that there were no more than 200 writers of literary books in England who could make their living solely by that line of work. There are more now, because there's more of everything, but still fewer than a couple of thousand. Authorship, like acting, is a profession in which not to be outstandingly successful is to be a failure. The way this country treats its creative authors is scandalous. Read Margaret Drabble's life of Angus Wilson, who was among that elite knighted for services to English literature. For most of his life, Wilson earned about the same as a head teacher and, before his death (after chronic Alzheimer's), he was the object of charity from his friends and the Royal Literary Fund, without which his estate could barely have afforded a decent funeral. The Soviet Union, for all its oppressions of the free spirit, at least gave its superannuated writers handsome pensions.

So, despite the domestic vitality of the London literary world, there is an irresistible money-pull across the Atlantic. This is not confined to those (such as Ken Follett or Jack Higgins) who can turn out blockbusters. Random House announced this month that it had offered Charles Frazier a cool $8m advance for his second novel - the result of a closed auction organised by his newly acquired agent, International Creative Management. In return for this Everest of green, the author offered a one-page synopsis.

Frazier is no Stephen King; he is a "literary author". He produces the kind of fiction that will be respectfully treated on the broadsheet literary pages and will eventually turn up on educational syllabuses. But his first novel - Cold Mountain, a historical romance about a Confederate deserter's journey home in the American civil war - sold 1.5 million copies in hardback. Needless to say, Frazier has left his first publisher, the middle-sized Grove-Atlantic. And if he gets eight large ones, how much will Jonathan Franzen get after the runaway success of The Corrections?

No British "literary" novelist, based in Britain, could expect such sums from a British publisher. The pot simply isn't that big. It is only supranational leviathans, such as HarperCollins and Random House, usually based overseas and particularly in New York, that can offer the big money. And what withers meantime is the middle-sized publishing house, which used to be a central feature of the London literary world. Its absorption into vast, transnational, culturally anonymous companies has largely eradicated distinctive "house style" and many varieties of personal touch. Dictatorial (but high-minded) proprietors, such as Victor Gollancz, Andre Deutsch, Fred Warburg and George Weidenfeld, no longer dominate the book trade. Creative publishing careers such as those of Tom Maschler (at Cape), Tom Rosenthal (at Secker and Warburg) or Carmen Callil (at Chatto) are less possible nowadays than they were in the 1960s and 1970s: less possible because British publishing no longer has its independent, idiosyncratic, medium-sized firms in which publishers like them can exercise real power. The more successful a middle-sized publisher, the more at risk it is from being gobbled up by a big company.

At an early point in his career, Martin Amis firmly asserted (in the New York Times, in April 1981) that: "The London literary world does not exist. The London literary world is chimerical. 'I am a chimera', I always think, when people assume I belong to it. The London literary world is a collective fantasy of eager literary aspirants, and the fantasy contains strong elements of paranoia."

None the less, for surly barbarians such as Irvine Welsh, Amis is the London literary world incarnate - Oxbridge, metropolitan, upper-class, English. As Welsh puts it: "You get all these fucking hypocrites in the London literary establishment saying, 'Oh, we must get more people reading . . .' As soon as someone like myself comes along and actually gets people reading books, they turn all sneery. What they mean is they want a market for the books they think people should read."

Amis now seems to agree that the London literary world exists, after all. But it is, he believes, a stiflingly small place: less a world than a parish, with parochial values. Amis expressed these views eloquently and angrily to the Los Angeles Times in May 1999. He was particularly incensed by what he saw as the provincial incestuousness of the Booker judging process. Amis hit back with The Information (a kind of Dunciad for our times).

I think Rushdie may well be right in his analysis. There is "a rather nasty phase" in London literary life. But he is also right in his implied diagnosis. It's a "phase", not a terminal condition. Let's hope we get over it while Rushdie still has some good books in him - better books than Fury, the nastier among us might say.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature, University College London