From Grub Street to the Arab Street

Neil Berry, author of Articles of Faith, reflects on reviewing and being reviewed

Twenty years ago this autumn, I was an anxious author awaiting reviews of a book that had been long in gestation. As it happened, the book was much concerned with reviewing. Entitled Articles of Faith, it set out to illuminate the evolution of what Victorians called the ‘periodical press’, the tradition of the politico-cultural journal initiated by the Edinburgh Review in 1802 and perpetuated today by the New York Review of Books and its British sibling, the London Review of Books.

By that stage I had done a fair amount of reviewing myself. If I found the Edinburgh Review an appetising subject, it was because - full dishonourable disclosure - I relished its lofty attitude towards books and authors. Its founding editor, Francis Jeffrey, pioneered the contentious practice of publishing expansive reviews that often made only fleeting reference to the books under review - and on occasion none at all.

Even at the outset of the 19th century the flood tide of new books was meeting with disfavour. The Edinburgh reviewers pledged to confine their attention to books that had attained, or deserved to attain, a ‘certain portion of celebrity’. In the event, Jeffrey not infrequently accorded attention to books he plainly believed ought never to have been published at all. A Scotch barrister aflame with legislative zeal, he considered it his public duty to ‘rid the kingdom of noxious literary creatures’.

Might some latter-day Jeffrey brand me a literary pariah? In the TLS, Articles of Faith was to be reviewed by the late John Gross, and I did not get off lightly. A distinguished former editor of the paper who wrote the classic study, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), Gross granted that I had an ‘interesting story to tell’. What he jibbed at was the perspective from which I had told it. Frowning on the far too charitable view he believed I had taken of the old New Statesman’s Soviet sympathies, he also took exception to my apparent acquiescence in the anti-Israel posture of the London Review of Books.

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The irony in all this was that, while working on the book, I had profited from a conversation with John Gross in which he had counselled me to keep in mind the degree to which, early and later, reviewing had been mixed up with politics. His point was in no danger of escaping me now.

The remoteness of his worldview from mine had been brought home to me by the London Journal that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, John Gross contributed to the US conservative magazine, the New Criterion. For him, Britain under the New Labour government of Tony Blair was a coarsened country mired in tawdriness. In 2003, I was writing a column for an Arab newspaper and discussed the politics of his Journal, noting how - like another literary scourge of the Blair incumbency, VS Naipaul - he skated over the perhaps not entirely benign consequences of the long preceding years of Conservative rule.

In a barbed riposte to my remarks, a New Criterion ally of John Gross cast me as a bilious hack who, stung by a put-down in the TLS, had taken his grievance all the way from Grub Street to the Arab Street. That Gross’s review rankled I won’t deny, but it was his politics that provoked me far more - especially when, despite his caustic view of Tony Blair, he signalled his support for the Iraq war.

Two decades on, I am grudgingly grateful to John Gross for his tart critique. In truth, I was perhaps fortunate even to publish a book that in an era of deepening polarisation between mainstream and academic publishing was an anomalous hybrid. For like the reviews it commemorated, Articles of Faith was aimed at that fabled figure, the inquisitive general reader. This was the approach that informed The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, and it was the unstuffy coffee-house urbanity of John Gross’s book that I had aspired to emulate.

Enshrined in the periodical press was the ambition to forge a common intellectual culture, a public of omnivorous, inquiring minds. It’s an ambition to which descendants of the Edinburgh Review still nod, and it surely remains a laudable one, impossibly quixotic though it has become amid the dizzying cultural diversification of the 21st century. I don’t think politics would have stopped John Gross from agreeing with me about that.