A tale of two anthologies: New Statesman delivers the cream; the LRB a coffee table
“The most literary gift of the year,” sets out the editors’ stall.
Published to celebrate the magazine’s 40th anniversary, rather than actually offering any complete articles or reviews from the magazine’s history, this anthology instead provides a series of short explanations written by its current editors and contributors, printed to accompany a scrapbook-style collage of handwritten post-it notes, scribbled-on transcripts, private and public letters and emails, and excerpts from finished pieces. It’s a bit of a headache to read.
It appears to be designed to cater to those interested in (or, perhaps more accurately, “obsessed with”) the magazine as an object. Reading through it, continually frustrated by the incomplete information, as well as the self-congratulatory tone adopted by some of the editors, I was reminded of how it felt to flick through those specialist books that die-hard fans sometimes purchase to accompany and dissect albums or concerts of wildly adored bands or alongside films.
In other words, this is a book that caters specifically to fans of the LRB, and will be an absolute gem for those people, if such exist (according to Andrew O’Hagan’s introductory essay, “To those who care for it the London Review is a national treasure,” so I suppose they must).
The anthology, then, celebrates the magazine itself, its inception and history, speaking of its separation from the New York Review of Books in terms that portray it as a seismic event, referencing the great excitement of the “theory wars” that played out on its pages, and dedicating pages to the mildly funny exclamations of its founding editor. Sadly, it does not offer us any comprehensive or objectively interesting insight into its past content (which, let me make clear, is and always has been, in this reviewer’s opinion, exceptional in its quality and breadth – if only it were included). But then, it is presented with the caveat of being “incomplete”, so perhaps my expectations were too high.
You get the impression, reading through this anthology, that you must have missed the joke, or didn’t get an invite to the party – that you simply had to have been there. This is not a pleasant reading sensation. But perhaps the struggle to make a cohesive and universally interesting anthology is understandable, seeing as the LRB is, first and foremost, a vehicle for reviews, rather than for essays or original, creative work, and it is hard, perhaps, to effectively anthologise old reviews.
Still, from the perspective of someone who subscribes to the magazine itself, and always looks forward to its arrival, and considering the writers they have featured over the years, this anthology proves disappointing – as they said, a gift, rather than something you might actually want read.