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9 October 2014

Karl Miller’s grand style: John Sutherland remembers the late, great editor and academic

Karl Miller was less a literary editor and more a conductor. He wielded his baton with the authority of a maestro. 

By John Sutherland

I got a phone call from Karl Miller, ten days before he died. It was two o’clock in the morning, Pacific Coast Time. He’d forgotten I’d told him I would be two weeks in the US. He was expecting me, he said, for tea (I had been visiting in the afternoon over the past few months). We made a new date, the 26th. He died on the afternoon of the 24th, a few hours before I returned.

He was perhaps confused by the palliative drugs he was taking. I was dozy myself at that time in the morning. But I like to flatter myself it was a farewell. Obliquity was very much his style. And he knew time was short. Forgive the vanity.

Leo Robson has written a gracious and informative profile of Miller on the NS website. Separated by half a century, they are both distinguished presences in what Miller called the “second half” (never “back half”) of the Statesman.

Over the past few weeks I observed, as with others whose time is coming, that Miller’s face looked younger and younger – a kind of Benjamin Button effect. I was reminded of when I first met him, as the newly appointed Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London, in 1973. He’d left the Listener after one of the angry bust-ups and principled resignations that punctuated his editorial career. He was head of the UCL English department, over a bumpy period of more than 17 years, and did it well. But his heart was elsewhere.

I dropped in to his office, at one end of day, thinking vaguely “drinks”. He looked distracted. I asked, deferentially (personal intrusion could vex him), what was up. “I miss proofs and deadlines,” he said ruefully, “and going down to the office at night.” I can live very happily without that kind of chore, I thought, while nodding sympathetically.

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Things picked up with the founding of the LRB in 1979. There were plenty of deadlines and late-night crises. Sometimes a UCL staff meeting would be suspended while, on the phone, with the department’s ears pricking, a tricky problem at the “office” was worked through. For 14 years Miller performed a gruelling, two-horse riding act – running an academic department while editing and co-editing, with Mary-Kay Wilmers, London’s answer to the New York Review of Books. It ended, with another bust-up, in 1992. I saw him hours later. He was exhilarated.

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Miller’s seven years at the NS, from 1961 to 1967, were formative. Now in his thirties, he worked out what the role of literary editor was all about. That term understates it. Editorially, he was more a “conductor”, as Dickens called himself. Both men exercised the supreme, and autonomous, authority of the baton-wielding orchestral maestro. Their pages were theirs.

In his time at the NS Miller wrestled with, and answered, two pressing questions. Do literary reviews, of the kind on which the Statesman invests so much of its available space, matter? Matter, that is, for any longer than the week. And if they matter, what worthwhile good do they do, in the long term, and culturally? The answers he came up with were clearly proclaimed at the end of his time at the journal.

The “end” was, true to pattern, a row with the newly appointed editor, Paul Johnson. Johnson objected, by memorandum, to a piece by one of Miller’s favoured reviewers, William Empson. The word “incomprehensible” was thrown out. Miller, in defence of his contributor as much as any amour propre, resigned on the spot. Johnson wrote a cheque for £3,000 which Miller tore up, letting the pieces fall over the desk. I was told this by Frank Kermode, whom I believe (Kermode added, wistfully, “Three thousand was a lot of money in 1967”).

It can be argued that both men were in the right. Empson’s criticism is hard going (can you recall what the third type of ambiguity is?) and better suited, many would say, to the learned journal. He was, moreover, in a peculiarly reckless phase of his career. In January 1961 he wrote a wantonly insulting piece about Arthur Koestler that got the NS in very hot water. Perhaps as offensive to the new editor (an observant, Jesuit-educated Catholic) was that in the 1960s Empson decided that mankind’s main enemy was the Christian God. His growing theophobia found book form in Milton’s God (1961).

Johnson was determined to make the Statesman even more of a political heavyweight than it then was. This meant, as he believed, upping the circulation. Miller hated anything that put circulation figures ahead of conscientious writing. He stated his principled position emphatically seven years after leaving the paper:

It is not necessary to think that what Empson wrote as a journalist during the Sixties is as important as any of his main books . . . But it is necessary to recognise his journalism is continuous in manner and intent with what he has written in his books. His patient (and impatient) conversational style does not change from occasion to occasion.

Miller’s Cambridge teacher F R Leavis was a foundational influence on his critical thinking (and behind Leavis, Matthew Arnold’s doctrines of “high seriousness”). But Miller’s whole career was a contradiction to the Leavisite belief that “facile journalism” – especially the journalism generated by the London Literary World – was worthless and inherently dishonest. Or, more precisely, it need not be those things.

The Empson case is particularly relevant. Two books in the 1960s materially changed how we read Milton. One was Milton’s God; the other Christopher Ricks’s Milton’s Grand Style (1963). Miller frequently used both critics. His “article of faith”, that there is no disjunction between the high-quality review and the important book, is borne out in Empson’s review of Milton’s Grand Style (NS, 23 August 1963). It locates, with extra­ordinary clarity, the different places where the two critics stand. To read it is to understand both books better.

Miller defined his high conception of literary editorship at the New Statesman. It is a noble definition and one which, with the passing of this great literary-critical figure, and fine man, we should be grateful for.