Until Naim Attallah rang me up with the proposal that I take on the editorship of the Literary Review after the departure of Gilly Greenwood, I had never edited anything in my life. Nor could I boast a degree in English literature or indeed any other academic tag. I had worked in journalism since I first pulled a salary at the tender age of twenty, but this was entirely confined to the diary and feature pages of the Evening Standard and two stints on that famous hotbed of literary content, Vogue.
Despite this, it seemed to me like a crazy but fine idea. I had just returned from nearly three years living in the Middle East. My then husband, James MacManus, was Middle East correspondent of the Guardian and we had spent three fascinating years living and working in Cairo and Jerusalem. Well, in my case working was possibly too strong a word for what I did. Looking after my baby and filing the occasional piece as a freelance was as close as I came to the coalface of earning during those years. On our return to London, we were homeless with one job between us, and it fast became clear that two jobs were needed to fund a fancy Clapham lifestyle. So Naim’s timing was good from my point of view. And without further thought – never my strong suit – I clambered aboard.
I don’t know whether, at this later stage in my life, I would have the chutzpah to accept such a challenge, but in retrospect Attallah’s bold and risky casting provided me with a huge opportunity and nearly two years of exhilarating fun and useful experience finding my feet as a commissioning editor.
Both of us had to contend with a backwash of press comment which centred on my lack of qualification for the editorship, combined with Naim’s tendency to hire posh girls. Both of us rose above it. Naim had heard it all before, and my rather weak line of justification was that I had slept with Martin Amis, which, given the media’s obsession, must represent some sort of left-field qualification.
I fast developed a taste for this editing lark. I loved commissioning reviews – sometimes from rather left-field reviewers – that would get some chemistry bubbling up in the encounter of book and reviewer. Kathy O’Shaughnessy and I had a ball thinking up unlikely castings in a pleasant little office in Beak Street. She provided some much-needed literary highminded ballast to my sometimes mischievous and often philistine tendencies. The greatest sin I think I committed in Kathy’s eyes was in my approach to poetry. I have never ‘got’ the medium – it made me distinctly nervous – and I suggested to the deputy editor that we should file the countless submissions by length and only print them when a correctly sized hole appeared on the proofs: poetry by the inch.
I did not, however, take that line over the book reviewing which formed the backbone of the magazine’s content. Here, I adopted the same approach to casting reviewers as I had to writing pieces for newspapers. The first responsibility of any printed piece is to grab the reader’s interest. Their hearts and minds may or may not follow, but engaging their interest in the first place is the prime responsibility of both editor and writer. This strategy appeared to work as we quite quickly doubled the sales of the Literary Review from five figures starting with a one to five figures beginning with a two. Not that I could claim to have found the elixir of profit, for the magazine never became commercially viable. It was then, as it ever was, dependent on the generosity of Naim Attallah, who underwrote the entire operation.
None the less I found my métier in Beak Street, and editing magazines is what I have done with enormous satisfaction ever since. At the Literary Review I learnt first and last that a good editor should be able to produce a magazine on any subject.
Indeed, a bit of distance is very healthy. Early on in my days in Beak Street I formed the impression that the literary world was a closed and cliquey fraternity and many reviewers regarded it as their God-given right both to review certain titles and, in some cases, to treat somewhat unqualified editors with open disdain. It was like an eightsome reel with a small cast and a few titles swirling in some strange parallel universe inhabited by dons and clever young men in tweed suits. Coming from a different – and dare I say it wider– world, I saw no reason why the Literary Review should necessarily be a part of this. It needed its own identity.
I know that my approach did not endear me to many reviewers, but my hide had to be thick enough to withstand a certain amount of bullying. My already rocky friendship with Ali Forbes foundered as he demanded titles to review and I found excuses not to give them to him. And when I succumbed to his terrifying blandishments, and reluctantly thrust Lord Mountbatten’s biography through the bars of his cage, he promptly reviewed it for another paper.
The most extraordinary (and flattering) fact about my editorship of the Literary Review was that I was replaced by Auberon Waugh. If life were some parlour game, and I was offered odds that I would hold a job where I would be succeeded by that giant of Doughty Street, that pillar of Private Eye, I would never have believed it possible. I was rubbing my eyes in disbelief as I crossed Regent Street to rejoin Vogue – doubtless to the relief of the literary world.