How a small office in Bloomsbury keeps the tradition of criticism alive

The LRB’s Alice Spawls talks to Altair Brandon-Salmon about her journey from intern to editor at the world’s most prestigious literary journal

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The London Review of Books’ offices lie just beyond the British Museum, taking up two floors of an unassuming office building in a narrow Bloomsbury street. It’s not a road you would stumble down. Yet its self-effacement is fitting for a paper which, as assistant editor Alice Spawls explains, “we think our job’s done best by not being in the middle of things, so we’d rather keep a certain distance in order to maintain the quality of what we do.” The marvellous sense of aloofness that pervades the LRB, as it’s affectionately shortened to, has seen it buck every trend in publishing: few pictures, matte paper stock, and long – very long – articles. The current issue I have besides me as I write this (Volume 39, Number 16, 2017), has John Lanchester on Facebook for 9,000 words and T.J. Clark on Picasso’s Guernica for 7,000 words. There are few forums in Britain that would give a writer the space to do this, 24 times a year. It’s a freedom which has attracted some of our best writers: Andrew O’Hagan, Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes.

As I sat down with Alice Spawls on an early August evening on the second of the LRB’s floors, I could see the back of the neoclassical spire of Nicolas Hawksmoor’s St George’s church, replete with George I in Roman garb atop a pyramid steeple. It’s the kind of peculiar, off centre view which informs the LRB itself. Around us were hundreds of books, laid out over half a dozen tables, covering every field imaginable, fresh from publishers of all sizes and specialisms, every book suggestive of a dozen different articles.

Spawls pointed to a newly-arrived book, David Kynaston’s Till Time’s Last Sand: A History of the Bank of England 1694-2013, and discusses the various routes which could be taken, “whether we wanted to review it as a social history, or as economic history, or whether we wanted to give it to someone to talk about central banks today. There are a lot of ways of approaching a book.” She describes the process of selecting a book for review as being a collaborative process amongst the editors. “We go through the books, pick out the ones that are of interest, either because they’re so good or so bad, and we sit around the table going through them and thinking about which writers to approach. We have huge scope to address certain issues or address issues in a new way”

Spawls has written for the LRB on subjects from Vanessa Bell to Vogue. She is young and alert, dispelling the idea that the paper is run by radical old Dons, although it’s clear they publish what they like to read and write. She started as an intern at the paper, “Like nearly everyone else here,” and as she puts it, “there’s always an expectation that an intern here would write something for the LRB.” Spawls, moreover, is an artist who has contributed a number of covers to the LRB, which traditionally have little to no connection with the issue’s content, elegantly refraining from including a photograph on the front cover.

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The process for writing for the paper however, is rigorous and long. “Articles go through three or four editors and a lot of rounds of editing,” Spawls explains, setting it out as an alliance between author and editor. “There are different sorts of writers. There are some writers who present us with a lot of words and we have to do a lot of finishing. And there are some writers whose pieces are too finished, too polished, and their pieces need to breathe. Some editors can see the whole structure of ten thousand word pieces and others focus on a particular sentence.” Yet she stresses that one of the pleasures of her work is “how much the writers surprise us. We are always trying to predict what our writers are going to say, but we never do – writers like Jenny Diski always surprise us.”

In press weeks, Spawls describes the office’s atmosphere as being ‘like a submarine, it’s stuck on course, and it’s heading somewhere terrible and we’re frantically trying to change direction. There’s a sense of impending doom as we’re about to go to press.’ She goes through the laborious process involved after the LRB’s editor Mary-Kay Wilmers has settled on the issue’s contents. “She has a magical way of drawing out the similarities between disparate articles. We have to lay them out, edit them again, fact check them, and do all the word splits!” Grammar and syntax are areas of special concern. “We spend a lot of time talking about the nitty gritty, about language and our style guide, which is a constantly evolving beast. There are arguments about whether communist should be capitalised or not, or where a comma should go.”

It is this, I think, which crystallises the LRB’s special quality: no detail is too insignificant, no hyphen too unimportant. The editors care and so do their readers. Its circulation of around 70,000 per issue is over double that of The Times Literary Supplement, putting it around the mark of The Spectator. And while the readership is loyal, they’re also ‘loyal dissenters’, as the frequently rambunctious letters page attests. Spawls laughs when I raise the paper’s politics, “Our readers are complaining all the time about our politics! And we disagree internally lots too. We don’t just publish what we agree with.”

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The LRB has been insulated to a degree from the sea change in publishing, driven by digitalisation, that has occurred over the past 15 years. “You can’t get an online only subscription and there’s little demand for that. But the internet has created a different readership; they might read an article whose link they’ve been sent, and they’re different to the ones who read the paper properly.”

Yet the paper has its blind spots, particularly with fiction. Reviews of non-fiction works overwhelmingly dominate its pages and Spawls acknowledges that “We do approach fiction differently[…] We struggle to do as much as we’d like. A good non-fiction book lends itself to the good, discursive essay we like publishing, which is harder to do with novels. We find it hard to find people who can write about fiction in an interesting way, avoiding academic language or the worst excesses of fiction writing itself.” In an era when contemporary literature is treated so shallowly in the broadsheets, it feels like an area where the LRB should be expanding its coverage.

The LRB though, has stayed remarkably consistent in tone, content, and layout for nearly 40 years now: if you look at its début issue in 1979, published as a British counterpart to The New York Review of Books, little has changed.

Mark Boxer’s wonderful cartoons are gone, colour covers only began in 1993, and Spawls notes that the paperstock changed last year, “we were all upset about that, even though I don’t think our readers noticed.” When I asked if it will be recognisable in a decade’s time, she replies, “I hope it will stay the same.” A horror of change for change’s sake, insures la tradition de qualité.

Near the end of our conversation, Spawls tells me “There’s a certain nervousness about being too popular, if everyone was reading the LRB, we’d be quite worried. We’re not interested in being in the public consciousness for its own sake.” This hints at the LRB’s defining philosophy, a detachment from the quest for popularity, setting about publishing more interesting things no one else is doing.

By being intelligent, careful, and thoughtful, and expecting its readers to hold these values too, the LRB has made itself indispensable, because there’s nothing else like it.

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