Why do I read the TLS? Who is its ideal reader? Is she a professor emerita with a Proust monomania, or an Eastern European immigrant barista who haunts Bloomsbury bookshops?
No, I am my own demographic. (We all are.) As a cranky, working-class, state-university-educated feminist, I have constructed a fantasy world of the TLS. The poorly-paid critics and editors smoke hand-rolled cigarettes as they type on old-fashioned typewriters, wearing twin sets, buns, and ballet shoes, like Anita Brookner’s spinsters, or chatting pretentiously like the poet Dorothy Merlin and her savvy bookseller husband Cosmo in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s satiric novel, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter. They are all, in short, living in the mid-to-late 20th century.
Yes, I love the worlds of Brookner and Johnson, but I understand that the TLS is nothing like that. I subscribe to the TLS for three reasons: (a) the reviews of books on classics, (b) reviews of and features about women’s literature, and (c) the entertaining literary column, “N.B.”, by J.C.
Last week the critic Dwight Garner at the New York Times explored the TLS culture in an entertaining profile of Stig Abell, “A Scrappy Makeover for a Tweedy Literary Fixture.” Abell, 38, is the editor, a Shakespeare enthusiast, and author of a new book, How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation, which has just been published in the UK.
Garner writes, “When Stig Abell was named the editor of the venerable Times Literary Supplement, or TLS, two years ago, the baffled reaction among book people was nearly audible. Stig who?”
A former editor of the Sun, which is apparently a tabloid, Abell does have literary qualifications: he earned a double first in English from Cambridge and had written reviews for the TLS, the Spectator, and other newspapers.
Stig told Garner, “We want to keep our core audience. But there are many others out there — they do all sorts of things professionally — who remember a time, perhaps in college, when they fed their minds and stretched themselves. They want that feeling again. We want those readers, too.”
Abell is hiring more women writers and writers of color. Sales are up.
I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope they continue to use correct grammar (they’ve had some wobbly pronouns) and publish brilliant articles. Details, details!
And good luck!