Who reads the TLS? Who bothers with a weekly edited by the Stig Abells of British publishing?*
I do not refer to the small minority of people from the periphery, like me, who are interested in ways in which a lost empire is lamented and defended. I mean the majority of readers, who enjoy reading a middle-brow publication with little respect for original literature, challenging thought, and innovative scholarship.
The TLS certainly cultivates provincial learning and mediocre taste. But I always thought that there must be some desirable cultural capital that its followers earn. I used to look for it in the depressingly insular Letters page, where people debate the merit of middle-brow writers like George Steiner and Isaiah Berlin, until I began to pay some attention to the back page, signed by one J.C. Normally I would not even glance at its preposterous pedantry. But then I wondered why the estimable publication wants this column to be the last message each week to its readers. At that point it dawned on me that the business of the TLS is not evaluation, let alone judgment. The business of the TLS is puzzle solving. Literally cover to cover, its readers derive the satisfaction of solving puzzles in the counter-intellectual domain of memorizing names, dates, origins, places, and quotes – what Fleet Street considers “education” and “learning.”
This realization sent me back more than fifty years, when I began reading regularly the TLS, and was surprised by the anonymity of its reviews. I now realize that the point of reading them was less to be enlightened than to match your wit against the publication by guessing the reviewer (something gratifyingly easy when he was Steiner). Guessing correctly (and having access to verification!) gave readers a sense of much-needed validation: They felt they belonged to a cultural community, even though one of puzzle solvers, not interpreters.
Now that the pretentious practice of anonymous reviewing has been abolished, J.C.’s column satisfies antiquarian narcissism by bolstering the self-esteem of those who do well at implicit or explicit trivia games. It has confirmed to me that each TLS issue is essentially a collection of identify-the-source and catch-the-reference (pre-internet) puzzles which have something for every solver, especially those anxious to place themselves above Arnoldian Philistines and social justice advocates.
It was therefore fitting that the recent announcement about the new TLS Editor was published not prominently in the second page but at the very bottom of the last page of the July 3, 2020, issue: It is nothing more than material for another TLS trivia game.
11 September 2020
* Just a few days after I posted this, the TLS published the last column of J.C., who “came out” as one James Campbell. In it he confessed that “the secret of writing a weekly column is not so much having something to say as having a space to fill and a deadline to meet.” Those of us who, for more than twenty years, endured his weekly delirium of disdain and derision have known all along that he never had anything to say, he was just trying to make a living by policing the English language. Now he will no doubt mobilize his sycophants to lament the decline of the West. Kudos to those who dismissed him. Let us hope they will endeavor to turn their publication from middle-brow trivia to responsible book reviewing, and start by abolishing N.B. altogether.
18 September 2020