Greatest British literary editor of his generation

Karl Miller: August 2nd, 1931 - September 24th, 2014

Karl Miller  at an event in   Trinity College Dublin with novelists Janice Galloway,  Ron Butlin and  Alan Spence and poet Robin Robertson. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Karl Miller at an event in Trinity College Dublin with novelists Janice Galloway, Ron Butlin and Alan Spence and poet Robin Robertson. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Karl Miller, who has died aged 83, will be remembered as the greatest British literary editor of his time, and one of the greatest ever.

He founded, with Mary-Kay Wilmers and Susannah Clapp, the London Review of Books, and went on to edit “the paper” (as he always called it) for 10 years, and co-edit it for a further three years with Wilmers.

Alan Bennett described the LRB as “the liveliest, the most serious and also the most radical literary magazine we have”. Over its lifetime, it has elicited contributions from the leading British and Irish writers – Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Angela Carter, Martin Amis, Hilary Mantel, John Banville, Colm Tóibín – and, with its long, and often playful, essays on every conceivable subject, become an indispensable part of Britain’s intellectual life.

The LRB was devised to fill the vacuum left by the Times Literary Supplement when, in 1978-79, an 11-month lockout at Times Newspapers left Britain without a serious reviewing organ.

The idea had been around for some time, bruited originally by Stephen Spender and Frank Kermode, but it took Miller et al to get the LRB off the ground – initially as a supplement to the New York Review of Books but soon as an independent publication.

Working simultaneously as professor of English at University College London from 1974 to 1992, Miller toiled indefatigably at the LRB. It was not uncommon to see him marking proofs while listening, with one ear, to a visiting lecturer. Multitasking came as easily to him as overwork.

Karl Fergus Connor Miller was born in Straiton, Midlothian. His world fragmented when his parents, as he ruefully records, decided they were disinclined to stay married to each other “or to me”. He claimed never to have been “conscious of bearing my parents any ill will for not being around”. But a flaring temper suggested lifelong deposits of resentment.

Tender anecdotes

His grandmother stabilised his childhood. She survives in tender anecdotes such as when he asked her (having come across the term in Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian) what a “brothel” was; she tactfully explained that it was a place “where bad people went to dance”.

Miller won a place at the Old Royal high school in Edinburgh, and left it “a hardworking scholarship boy, a dux, a valedictory orator, a poet” and determined “in a Scottish way, to get on”.

In 1951, after national service, he went to Cambridge to read English under the fearsome FR Leavis. Miller was a “Scottish scholarship boy” and unpolished. At one sherry party, asked by a don which public school he had attended, he replied “none”. Later he overheard the comment “remarkable fellow, that Miller, entirely self-educated”.

Spell at ‘Granta’

As joint editor of Granta with Nick Tomalin, he published early work by Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes. On graduating, he spent a couple of years researching Scottish literature. He also married; two sons, Daniel and Sam, were followed by a daughter, Georgia. His wife, Jane Collet, would become one of Britain’s leading educationists.

He found his niche as literary editor of the Spectator (1958-61), but after three years took over the literary editor’s chair at the rival New Statesman (1961-67), where he published criticism by VS Pritchett, Frank Kermode, Christopher Ricks and William Empson and established what would be a career-long relationship with Conor Cruise O’Brien.

He was, however, restless and wholly unbiddable. When the subsequent NS editor, Paul Johnson, objected to Empson’s knottier contributions, Miller promptly resigned. Johnson, as an act of goodwill, handed over a parting cheque for £3,000 – good money in 1967. Miller tore it into confetti at his editor’s desk.

Miller moved from the New Statesman to the editorship of the Listener. Here he virtually invented the new craft of TV reviewing, recruiting John Carey, Raymond Williams, Ian Hamilton and Clive James.

When, after what was now a pattern of rupturing dispute, he resigned in 1973, he was at a loose end. Noel Annan, provost of University College London, eased his way into the Lord Northcliffe chair of English, recently vacated by Frank Kermode, in 1974. The chair, as set up by the Harmsworth family, had been designed to bring together the worlds of academic, creative and journalistic writing. Miller, though he had published nothing and had no higher degree, fitted that bill perfectly.

He would stay at UCL, running the English department, for the longest stint of his professional life – 17 years. He wrote good, scholarly books (Doubles, in 1985, is the best and the most characteristic).

A turn to writing

He resigned his chair at UCL and the co-editorship of the LRB in the same year, 1992. He was always a great mover-on and seemed strangely exhilarated by the willed act of separation. But this time there was no magazine waiting for him.

Only 61, he felt the lack of magazine as the amputee feels the phantom limb. But he turned his energy to writing autobiography and the work on Scottish literature that he had begun a half-century earlier.

In a late poem (he kept most of his verse private) Miller pictured himself as a “sad foreman” – one who glumly oversees the work of others. “I would like,” he said, “to have been more a writer of books than I have succeeded in being.”

He is survived by Jane and his children.