A new history of the London Review of Books explains why it has lasted so long

London Review of Books: An Incomplete History, containing selections from the paper's archives, personal collections, letters, notebooks, drawings, and typescripts, many of them never previously published, celebrates the 40th anniversary of the influential LRB - the London Review of Books.

In this large, profusely illustrated hardback, can be found original letters, draft articles, editorial comments and scribbled notes by legendary contributors, such as Alan Bennett, Angela Carter, Andrew O'Hagan, Mary Beard, Oliver Sacks, Frank Kermode, Hilary Mantel, Edward Said, Ted Hughes, Christopher Hitchens, and Jenny Diski.

Their extracts are contextualised with captions and backstories by the authors and editors, as well as introductory essays by O'Hagan and legendary LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers.

Picture: Shutterstock

Picture: Shutterstock

As newspapers and magazines fight to retain circulation, the London Review of Books has flourished within a financial framework of a subscription base totalling nearly 80,000 and financial support, estimated at £30 million plus, from the Wilmers family trust.

The LRB began as a result of the industrial stand-off in 1978 which closed for nearly a year The Times newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement, now incidentally reinvigorated by the editorship of Stig Abell.

Karl Miller and Mary-Kay Wilmers joined forces to produce the first issue of the LRB in October 1979, which was issued as an insert within the New York Review of Books.

The first issue included William Empson on Shakespeare, John Bayley on William Golding, Wynne Godley on withdrawal from Europe and new poems by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

Miller and Wilmers were a formidable editorial duo, with the long-term input of New Zealand born designer Peter Campbell.

The LRB went independent in May 1980 with Wilmers becoming co- editor in 1988 and full-time editor in 1992.

Wilmers, reflecting on the difficulties women face in pursuit of ambitious professional lives has commented, "I didn't do consciousness-raising with my sisters in the late Sixties. I was married (to Stephen Frears) at the time and it seemed to me that if my consciousness were raised another millimetre I would go out of my mind".

Wilmers, who has been in editorial and financial charge since 1992, has ranged widely over the political and cultural spectrum, often creating public debate and controversy by challenging orthodoxy.

John Lanchester, a long-time contributor, has written that under Wilmer's editorship, "you can see the paper becoming more political and historical under her".

Since 1980, the LRB has published more than 16,000 pieces, 10,000 under the somewhat misleading heading of book reviews.

Wilmers has written a review can "be more accomplished and more thoughtful than the book on whose existence it depends".

Wilmers has championed longish articles and in particular review-essays running between 2500 and 4500 words, which Frank Kermode, one of the LRB's most prolific contributors, has said occupies a middle ground between a newspaper book review and a public lecture.

Few magazines would have the ability to publish Andrew O'Hagan's 60,000-word article on the 2017 London Grenfell fire or his 26,000-word piece on Julian Assange.

There were many conflicts, such as the libel action threatened over a Christopher Hitchens' article on Conrad Black, and the furore after Al Alvarez's ex-wife, Ursula Creagh, reviewed his book Life After Marriage: Scenes from a Divorce.

LRB had to apologise to Uri Geller, but now no one can now remember why.

Controversial articles abound. Hilary Mantel's 2013 article on 'Royal Bodies', which, inter alia, called the Duchess of Cambridge "a shop window mannequin", became front-page news and was criticised by David Cameron.

Mary Beard's words, "the United States had it coming" after 9/11 were taken partially out of context. As Wilmers observes, "Beard didn't quite say that, though she didn't wholly not".

Wilmers, herself Jewish, has published anti-Israeli articles, such as by Edward Said, over the Palestinian issue

When Seymour Hersh wrote that Pakistan must have known about the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the the article was so widely read that the LRB website crashed.

Bruce Chatwin's reproduced handwritten 1988 letter protesting against an article about Aids by John Ryle adds personal poignancy to its argument.

Elsewhere over the years, readers could find Jenny Diski imagining her own funeral; Alan Bennett reporting on the lady in the van in his drive, as well as his regular annual diary; Terry Castle recounting her complicated relationship with Susan Sontag; John Lanchester on the global financial crisis; Mary Beard on the public voice of women; and Amia Srinivasan asking, does anyone have the right to sex?

Marina Warner has said that its pages are always "enquiring, funny, political, ambivalent and filled with a sense of risk". All these elements are to the fore in an impressive archival anthology.

  • London Review of Books: An Incomplete History, compiled by Sam Kinchin-Smith. Faber. $69.99.
This story Celebrating a publishing stalwart first appeared on The Canberra Times.