Critical Times: The History of the ‘Times Literary Supplement’
by Derwent May
HarperCollins, 606 pp., $35.00
The Times Literary Supplement is one hundred years old this year. In 1997 Derwent May was commissioned to write a history of this venerable publication to mark the centenary. He was well qualified for the task, being an experienced literary editor, who himself worked on the TLS as a young man, as well as a novelist and literary critic. In some ways it was an enticing prospect—to have access to the archives of one of the great literary institutions of the twentieth century, and particularly to the identities of those who contributed their reviews anonymously for three quarters of that time. On the other hand the sheer bulk of raw data was intimidating. In 1997 the files of the TLS amounted to more than 250 million words, and probably another twenty million have been added since then, because the journal has grown fatter rather than leaner over the years.
The historian of a weekly magazine that has been going for a century and shows no signs of expiring is inevitably condemned to write a chronicle, the least developed form of historiography: this happened and then that happened and then that happened…. There is no plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. One editor, Arthur Crook, later recalled that the journal was “started as a makeshift and continued through an oversight,” and this is at least half-true. In 1902, after selling off a short-lived magazine called Literature, designed to “protect the reader from being overwhelmed by the continually increasing flood of books” with a generous spread of discriminating reviews, The Times decided to offer the same service to its readers in a free weekly eight-page supplement inserted into the folded newspaper. This was intended as an experiment, to be reviewed at the end of the parliamentary session of 1902, but in the event the senior personnel concerned either forgot or kept quiet about this condition and the supplement was allowed to continue without formal ratification.
It has weathered various storms, some potentially fatal, in its long history. Only a year after its birth it became involved in what was known as the Book War, when it started up a free lending library and used-book purchase scheme that provoked the ire of publishers and caused them to withdraw advertising. After Lord Northcliffe, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, became the controlling shareholder of The Times in 1908, he twice threatened to wind up the Lit Supp (as it was familiarly known in those days) but was on each occasion persuaded out of this course of action by a combination of luck and cunning on the part of the supplement’s editor and the newspaper’s general manager. In November 1978, along with The Times and all its subsidiary publications, the TLS ceased publication because of a dispute between the then owners, the Thompson organization, and the print unions, and returned a year later to find a flourishing rival publication, the London Review of Books, in the field.
But these …