The best and worst of times. Founded 100 years ago, the TLS was considered the vanguard of impartial, serious and gentlemanly literary journalism. Karl Miller reflects on its enduring spirit

Critical Times: the history of the TLS

Derwent May <em>HarperCollins, 296pp, £35</em>

ISBN 00071

Closeted in an archive room in News International's Wapping headquarters, this authorised chronicler went chuckling through the marked copies of the Times Literary Supplement, where the names and fees of its anonymous contributors were recorded, from the foundation of the paper in 1902 to the beginning of the age of signatures 1974. Subsequent issues were read in the editorial offices of the TLS. Derwent May's book is long and teeming with detail. But he makes light work and an interesting story of his review of reviews. Wise words, witty sayings and office comedies are passed on in abundance.

What an ocean of opinions to sort out - many of them mutually discrepant - and what changes to take into account. At one time, there were contributors who spoke kindly of Mussolini and Hitler - and of Stalin, in whose achievements E H Carr maintained a sympathetic interest for an unconscionable period of time. But there were plenty of others in its pages who thought differently.

Its dealings with literary reputation were miscellaneous, too. James Joyce's Dubliners was put down, then his Portrait of an Artist was praised by Arthur Clutton-Brock. "He is stating the English preference for tawdry grandeurs," said Joyce of this review. "Even the best Englishmen seem to love a lord in literature." The author of Prufrock was declared "inarticulate": "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the smallest importance to anyone - even to himself." Joyce and T S Eliot went on to gain renown that made as much impact in the TLS as it did elsewhere.

The historian Simon Schama was an admired contributor to the journal in the 1980s, but he then fell from grace in the eyes of its reviewers. One of them wrote that "media hacks, publishers' agents and reviewers unfamiliar with the subject" of Rembrandt's Eyes would be raising a Grub Street fanfare for the book, but that such behaviour could never "truly sweep scholarly values aside". Derwent May comments: "There spoke the enduring spirit of the TLS", which had previously been happy with Schama's work. Disagreements of this sort, needless to say, can happen in any lively journal, and can be valuable.

The changes in style and outlook that took place during the paper's 100-year existence make a rewarding study. The book does well with its signs of the times, and of the Times. At an early point, E M Forster committed a "somewhat unseemly mention" of a Times panjandrum: "But oh my balls and bum - Valentine Chirol!! What must a world be made of that takes such a man seriously and allows him to grow into the shape of Henry VIII?" This was in a letter, and would never have reached the page at the time of utterance. Meanwhile, not long ago, Camille Paglia was quoted in the paper exclaiming: "I'm so tired of making love with women, it takes forever."

It doesn't follow from its profusion of items that the attitudes expressed in the evolving paper can't be characterised. The anonymous journal of the earlier days, of the 35 years of Bruce Richmond's editorship, referred to here as the Lit Supp, is open to description in the class terms that old TLS-ers would have found invidious or ignoble, and which can indeed be overdone. Derwent May dedicates the book to his friend Arthur Crook, who succeeded Alan Pryce-Jones as editor. Alan and Arthur resembled one another, both in their spruce appearance and in being delightful. On learning that the left-wing John Willett was to join the staff, John Carter, Bibliographer Royal, inquired of Crook if he was "one of us".

"What do you mean?" asked Crook.

"Is he a scholar and a gentleman?"

"I wouldn't know because I'm neither."

Some of the scholars and gentlemen of the Lit Supp can sound like Mr Cholmondley-Warner and his colleague in Harry Enfield's television sketch about the Forties, where they issue clipped instructions to a nation at war. At other times, they seem like a select few talking among themselves. One of the most important sayings in this history came from a temporary editor of the Times, W F Casey, who sent Pryce-Jones a memo. "Casey did not like the use of the word 'we' in anonymous reviews, where it meant 'the collection of all us correctly educated friends'." The word is used shortly afterwards by Derwent May, who remarks that "we do not know" whether E H Carr would have liked a novel by Angus Wilson about the dilemma of the liberal humanist.

Derwent May makes use of "alas" and much use of "perhaps" (as in "a show of boldness - or perhaps merely pomposity"). He has a touch of the old-fashioned man of letters, and an affection for the paper as it once was. People are said to be "from relatively modest backgrounds". This means that they did not go to a public school - to Eton, Winchester and on to New College, Oxford, or Old College somewhere else. A L Rowse is referred to as "the historian from a working-class family", even though he spent his adult life in an old college, in the fair courts of privilege.

I was a journalist on rival papers over these years, and am described as "fiercely competitive". The scholars and gentlemen of Printing House Square may once have felt that journalists of modest background are apt to be competitive. They may also have felt, with John Buchan, that you were educationally subnormal if you had not attended an English public school.

In what could be called a classic confrontation, the TLS was exposed to the fatwas of the desert ayatollah F R Leavis, all puritan austerity in his Cambridge cave, for whom the paper became the metropolitan enemy. Derwent May indicates that the paper was often respectful of his work. But, as someone said of the wasp, there was no pleasing him. In 1940, Leavis wrote in to complain that, especially at such a time, it was "not permissible in a serious critical journal" to speak contemptuously of the "greatest living English poet" (Eliot) - who was also a contributor to the paper and a friend of Richmond's.

Among the editors who succeeded Richmond was John Gross, who had written The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, which took to task this opponent of the London literary world. It was a world in which the earlier New Statesman had a good deal in common with the earlier Literary Supplement. This was not lost on Leavis.

Gross abolished anonymity, causing a brief furore. Eliot offered some of the arguments against signatures: the believer in artistic impersonality was in favour of a certain amount of critical anonymity. It calms you, he thought, tones you down. "I learnt that some things are permissible when they appear over one's name, which becomes tasteless eccentricity or unseemly violence when unsigned." This was a time when, for serious people, permission had to be given for things, and unseemliness avoided.

Eliot was right that certain things are difficult to say without a signature: things said, for example, in order to be attributed or to bring credit. And it may also be true that signatures encourage stardom and showing off, spite and revenge. But then, anonymity and many other forms of publication encourage these, too. There is much to be said on both sides. But the main thing is that critics, and detractors in general, should own up. There is a taint of cowardice and complacency about the unsigned piece - the kind of complacency that says "we" or "one" instead of "I", the better to see off inferiors.

Derwent May sees both sides of this question, as he does of others. The paper has been both for and against literary theory, the subject of a memorable polemic in the second edition of John Gross's Rise and Fall, and the discussion of the matter here might seem to rest on an appropriate "perhaps". It provides a summary of two of theory's more stultifying propositions - that a text may mean nothing and that it may mean anything - while suggesting that the paper's engagement with theory was a stimulus to its critical practice.

The book pays little attention to journals other than the TLS, and might have done more to explore what has made it special (while also similar). This gives the sense, when it comes to the success of writers who had been praised in the paper, many of whom had also been snubbed, that "alone, they did it".

Leavis's journal Scrutiny and the earlier TLS had in common a taste for the word "serious" as an aid to the awarding of grades and of blame. The habit has lived on in literary journalism, having survived a succession of lightening-ups and turns for the worse in respect of the standards associated with such writing. There is much to be said against its lavish use.

Bruce Richmond used the word in saying that his paper had "contrived to have two publics: 1. what for brevity I may call the feminine public - books for the drawing room, lending-library books, the book of the moment; 2. the more serious reader - books for the study, books to buy, permanent books." The present editor, Ferdinand Mount, has spoken rather differently about the paper and its "bedrock virtues". These are "the comprehensive coverage, the adventurousness, the readiness to cover any book, no matter how obscure or difficult" - and no matter, he might have been willing to add, how "feminine" or popular. Of this statement, Derwent May writes: "The spirit of Bruce Richmond was still, it seemed, protecting his Literary Supplement."

Ferdinand Mount has also spoken of his wish to make the paper more of a journal of discussion, as well as a review of books. Discussion was there from the start, but this, you could say, was a further step away from the outward impersonality of the past.

This was a step that took into account what other journals were doing at the time, as the book makes clear. In 1979, when Times Newspapers were in suspension as the result of a printer's strike, the London Review was started, full of argument and discussion, including about democracy. Reviews were signed. And voices were raised. A political standpoint was expressed, in a way that was meant to be remote from that of the earlier TLS, where a mainly conservative point of view was clothed in something like the impartiality professed by John Reith's BBC. Reviews could be edged out by stories, satires and other unseemliness.

These ideas belonged to a time now gone. Since then, an excess of personality, and of celebrity, the pursuit of the award-winning, reward-winning "book of the moment", have come more than ever to trouble literary journalism. They have always been part of it, as has the judicial role adopted by the Bruce Richmond version of the Times Literary Supplement.

The journal, whose circulation has swung to and fro between 20,000 and 40,000, seems to have been stronger during its second 50-year spell than during its first. The management has tended to treat its editors in the brutal way that boards of directors have taken to treating the managers of football clubs; but this has not prevented the arrival of very good editors and the sustained presence of very good writers. James Joyce is said (though not here) to have opened his flies in a Paris park and drawn out a copy of the paper, which kept him warm in the winter. Many others have been warmed by it.

Karl Miller is a former literary editor of the New Statesman. He founded the London Review of Books

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back