Once upon a time, I could have lived like a king reviewing one book a week

Misery is learning that, in 1930, I could have earned the equivalent of $2,130 for one lousy review. 

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I’m no nearer finding somewhere to live, but I have made a start by drinking lots of wine, and – this is the clever bit – keeping the boxes. This is so I can pack my stuff in them when I have to move.

Living out of a suitcase (more or less) as I do, I shouldn’t need too many; but I do seem to have amassed rather a few books. This is because I read a lot, either because I am paid to or, more likely these days, because books keep me out of mischief during the  long hour before the bolts slide back on the doors of my internal pub.

I don’t get paid to review them that often, though. Having done one a week for a certain newspaper for a quarter of a century leaves one feeling that maybe one can take it a bit easy, especially if the way that one has parted with that newspaper has left one with a nasty taste in the mouth.

But publishers still send me books; only I don’t know, most of the time, where they end up. Some make it through here, but others must go to Scotland, others to the Hovel in London, W1, unless they don’t go through the letterbox, in which case they go back and sit in the post office for a bit before being sent back to their publishers, or whatever is the fate of books that sit around unclaimed in the post office for too long.

Some, though, go to my mother’s house in East Finchley, and I picked one up when I visited a few weeks ago. It was about how Google and Amazon and Facebook are taking over the world. My daughter, who was there with me and has a master’s in this very kind of subject, recognised the author’s name and said he was kosher.

I leafed through it, and came to a part – I have an uncanny knack for leafing to the right part of a book; I have witnesses to this – where the author mentioned that, in 1930, the Nation paid its book reviewers $150 a review. He then added that, and the point he was making was not lost on me, this is still how much it pays. Not adjusted for inflation; the same numerical figure. I went to a website that did adjust monetary sums according to inflation. And $150 in 1930 money is $2,130 in today money.

At which point I put the book down and stared into space for a while. This was before I’d done the online calculation about how much $150 is worth now. I had a rough idea in my head. I have read a lot of books set, or rather, written in the 1930s and you’d be surprised how many of them mention money, and the lack of it. People in Wodehouse are always touching each other for fivers; sawbucks, finnifs, Cs and Gs (many Gs) abound in Damon Runyon. One learns to do the maths in one’s head.

But the equivalent of two  Gs every week for writing a single book review. . . well,  I consider myself lucky to  have been born in an age  when one could hear both the Beatles and the Sex Pistols, in a time of relative affluence and peace, with some good telly and all that, and a more or  less functioning NHS. But one thing I have missed out on, it occurs to me, is being able to live like a king by writing one lousy book review a week.

What happened? Did all the editors, including that of the Nation, sit down together?

“Guys,” says one. (It’s the 1930s; they’re all guys.) “Something’s got to give. I gave some schmuck 150 bucks to say whether the new Faulkner was any good, because I’m too busy to read it myself, and whad’ya know? I see him dining at the Ritz and I hear he is living in a nice house and has a maid, a cook, a gardener, a valet and three footmen. Something’s got to give, I tells ya.”

The other editors nod sagely. One of them suggests halving the amount they pay their reviewers, but one of them comes up with a more cunning plan.

“Hey,” he says, “why don’t we just keep paying them the same amount of money – for 90 years?”

The others salute the evil genius of this scheme. And thus the position and authority of the book reviewer, never quite at the top of the literary pecking order at the best of times, sinks down to the basement, to the point  where, once, I was asked, having been invited to tell  my interlocutor what I do, “Why should your opinion about a book be worth any more than mine?”

I remember the occasion, and the oaf who said this, vividly; and as I was in the middle of a tense backgammon match with him (which I subsequently lost, partly as a result of being rattled by this impertinent and wounding question), I didn’t have the wit to say, “because I’m bloody good at it” and punch him on the nose. But book reviewers are a cowed, emasculated and timid breed these days. Pay them more.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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