A Scrappy Makeover for a Tweedy Literary Fixture
The Times Literary Supplement was founded in 1902. Its editor, Stig Abell, was hired to usher it into a new era.
Stig Abell, 38, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, at the book review journal’s offices in The News Building, the London headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Credit... Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times
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By Dwight Garner
- May 26, 2018
LONDON — 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?
That his previous employer had been The Sun, the right-of-center London tabloid that until 2015 printed a jumbo-size photograph of a topless young woman each day on its “Page 3,” only added to the bemusement.
“It was definitely the talk of the town for a while,” said Mitzi Angel, the publisher of London’s Faber & Faber. (In September, she will become the publisher of the American publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) “The idea that someone would go from a Red Top, as we call them, directly to the TLS seemed sort of nuts.”
A fixture in England and on the Western world’s literary landscape, the TLS is a weekly book review journal with a reputation for being a bit dowdy — less progressive than The London Review of Books, a biweekly, and less agile than the books section of The Guardian, to name two of its competitors.
Yet the TLS, founded in 1902, occupies a stalwart position in the book world. It puts serious reviewers on scholarly books other publications rarely touch. It has published important criticism by everyone from Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot to Mary Beard and Clive James, as well as major poetry from figures like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney.
Martin Amis was a TLS staffer when young. Many other well-known figures have passed through its ranks. Its top editors have tended to be tweedy, clubbable figures who slip between academia and the upper reaches of journalism.
It is hard to imagine Abell, 38, in tweeds. On a recent overcast morning, he greeted a visitor to the TLS offices — they are in The News Building, the gleaming London headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — wearing what is essentially his uniform: a gray T-shirt, jeans, running sneakers and a scruffily unshaven mien.
He had an endearing bit of bed-head (Abell arrives at the office very early, to work on his own writing before his staff arrives), but his brown eyes were bright.
He was brought to the TLS to usher it into a new era. “We want to keep our core audience,” he said. “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.”
To find them, Abell persuaded News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp., to grant him eight extra pages per issue. He has kept his review section intact while adding essays, political commentary and other features.
Some of those features have felt right in the TLS’s wheelhouse — for example, a 1918 Edith Wharton lecture about World War I, delivered in France, that the paper had translated and published in English for the first time.
Other features have been less classically TLS. When the most recent Radiohead album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” came out in 2016, the band did not give interviews. But a TLS contributor, Adam Thorpe, was friends with one of the band members and was present for a recording session. He delivered a detailed inside piece .
And when Martin Scorsese sent the TLS a letter in response to a mixed review of his 2016 film “Silence,” Abell asked him to expand it. It became a cover story about film and literary adaptation.
Abell is a lively presence on Twitter and he uses it, on occasion, to find stories. After the comedian and writer David Baddiel tweeted about a dog whose owner taught it to do a Nazi salute, for example, Abell commissioned Baddiel to write an essay about comedy, ethics and free speech.
Abell, who describes his own politics as centrist, is especially interested in increasing the paper’s political commentary. The TLS was the only English-language paper to review Emmanuel Macron’s book, “Revolution,” which had been published only in French, before the 2017 election.
Abell has made other changes. He’s beefed up the TLS website and hired the paper’s first social media staffer.
More significantly, he has increased the number of women writers in the TLS. On his watch, each cover began to have a 50-50 ratio of male and female bylines. In each of its March issues this year, for the first time in its history, the paper ran as many pieces by women as by men.
The TLS has come a long way. About the female reviewers in its first one thousand issues, from 1902 to 1921, Deborah McVea and Jeremy Treglown wrote in the TLS:
“It is of interest, though it is not a surprise, that of 1,036 contributions in these early years, the number of women (76) was exceeded by the number of clergymen (81) and almost matched by those of men educated at a single Oxford college, Balliol (67).”
About this subject, Abell comments: “I want to get to the point where we don’t have to think of gender at all when putting together an issue, because we always have a stock of pieces that are half by men and half by women.”
A mix of ethnicities matters to him too. “If you want a bigger audience, people have got to see people like themselves writing for it.”
Abell’s tweaks to the TLS are paying off. The paper is the fastest-growing weekly publication in the United Kingdom, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Paid sales from subscriptions and newsstand have been up 30 percent each of the past two years, from some 26,000 in 2016 to nearly 45,000 today.
“It has become more engaged, and its reviewers have become more interesting,” Mitzi Angel said. “There’s a sense that if something happens, the TLS will cover it. When Elena Ferrante’s identity was revealed, for example, Abell immediately picked up the phone and called a friend of mine to write something for the TLS blog.”
Angel has never met Abell. Neither have most of England’s writers, agents and publishers. He doesn’t go to book parties. He doesn’t do lunch. He maintains, he says, no literary friendships.
When he isn’t at home with his wife, Nadine, a hypnotherapist, and their two young children (a third is on the way), he regularly hosts the BBC Radio 4 culture show “Front Row” and reviews newspapers weekly on the air for Sky News.
His first book, “How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation,” was published in England this month. A Guardian review called it “ wry, readable, even whimsical.”
Those who do know Abell are not surprised at his steep trajectory. He was born in Nottingham, 128 miles north of London. His father worked in England for 3M, the American corporation that makes Scotch tape.
After attending a nearby private school, Abell went on to Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College, where he graduated in 2001 with a rare “double first” in English. (The word double refers to the two parts of the degree. Abell was Emmanuel’s top English student in both sections.)
After graduation he reached out to the TLS to ask if he could write a book review. The paper said yes. He reviewed an Ethan Canin novel under the byline Stephen Abell.
Stig is a nickname from his youth, a reference to the shaggy cave man in Clive King’s 1963 children’s novel “Stig of the Dump.” One journalist commented that Abell’s beard and Viking name make him seem like the fifth member of Abba. Over the years he would write for most of England’s literary sections.
In 2001, he joined the Press Complaints Commission, an industry watchdog group, and in 2010 became its director. In 2013, he was hired by The Sun to be its managing editor.
He enjoyed the rush of tabloid journalism and the headline wordplay. “Tabloids find themselves in so many messes,” he said, “because while the world is full of nuance and shading, when you have a big space to fill with six words you have to be all in on something.”
Some readers will not forgive Abell for being a senior editor when The Sun published a column by the former reality TV contestant and provocateur Katie Hopkins that compared immigrants to “cockroaches.” Abell said he regrets the column was not better edited.
He is unafraid of engaging with readers. When he did a Q. and A. session last year on Reddit, the rowdy social news aggregation site, he was asked by an anonymous participant, “Of all the lies you published during your time at The Sun, what was your favorite?”
He responded: “I can honestly say that I never saw anybody at The Sun setting out to lie about anything in my time. The paper got things wrong, of course, and published views with which many would disagree, but that is something different.”
He was asked by News UK management to apply for the TLS job after the paper’s editor of 14 years, Sir Peter Stothard, decided to step down. Abell wrote a memo that impressed people; no other candidates were considered.
He was officially tapped for the job by Rebekah Brooks, the CEO of News UK. (The TLS no longer has any direct connection to The Times of London, though both are under the News UK umbrella.)
Outside of the office, Abell’s cultural tastes lean toward America. Three of his favorite novels, the ones he gives people over and over, are Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich” and James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid.”
He’s only visited Minnesota once, but because 3M is based there, he closely follows the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves. He listens to ESPN and rereads Roger Angell’s baseball books.
He’s a fan of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. “I read the first one and then I realized, ‘Oh my God, there are 20 of these?’” He watches the sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and has admitted to a guilty fondness for Guns N’ Roses.
“Editors are very self-important people, but they’re not very important people,” Abell said, touting the bona fides of his staff of about 20.
When a TLS fiction editor, Rozalind Dineen, returned from maternity leave, Abell welcomed her back by asking if she would become features editor, a job he privately refers to as “the minister of fun.”
He told her: “So your job is this: In every 40-page issue, I want there to be a couple of things that make people say, ‘Oh, did you see the TLS had that?’”
An earlier version of this article misstated Mitzi Angel’s role at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, starting in September. She will be the publisher, reporting to Jonathan Galassi, she will not “succeed Jonathan Galassi as the head” of the company.
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Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner .
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I n July 1921, Alfred Harmsworth – by then ennobled as Viscount Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail , the Times , and numerous other publications – wrote in irritable mood to the managing director of the Times about the ‘Lit Supp’, as the Times Literary Supplement was known. He grumbled that its circulation ‘has decreased a great deal’, concluding that ‘there is no reason why it should not be 80,000 a week’ (it was around 23,000 at the time) and that ‘it should be made a little lighter.’ Seeing no improvement, Northcliffe proposed early in 1922 to fold the Lit Supp back into the Times . He wired the long-suffering managing director in best Scoop manner: ‘Give great prominence to fact Times readers will as result merger receive lit supp free but outpoint Richmond many more popular books must be dealt with also.’ (Bruce Richmond had been the editor of the Lit Supp since shortly after its launch in 1902.) An announcement of the merger was set in type, to appear in the next, and final, issue of the Lit Supp , but the increasingly erratic Northcliffe changed his mind at the last minute (he was in poor mental as well as physical health and died a few months later). Tradition has it that the announcement was removed only twenty minutes before the issue went to press.
That may be as close to death as the TLS has ever come, but it has continued to have its ups and downs. Circulation rose through the 1920s to 30,000, then dropped sharply, down to 23,000 by 1934, and Richmond despaired of arresting the decline: ‘Even among my own relations I know three households that have given it up.’ He did not believe, however, that ‘“new features” (pictures, crosswords, a serial story, special numbers etc) would really have any permanent effect’. His offer of resignation not having been accepted, he made a request that must be rare in the annals of journalism: ‘In view of the condition to which I have brought the Supplement , I hope you will consider the question of a reduction of my salary for the coming year.’ Richmond remained in post, and presumably on full salary, till the end of 1937. His successor, D.L. Murray, predictably tried a spot of new-broomism – changing the layout and coverage to ‘make the paper lighter and more popular’ – and found, just as predictably, that this was not a recipe for success: circulation continued to fall, dipping below 20,000 by the outbreak of war, and falling to 17,000 two years later. But what goes down can come back up. Circulation rose sharply in the reading-hungry postwar years, reaching a peak of 49,000 in 1950 under the editorship of Alan Pryce-Jones, and stayed above 40,000 until the beginning of the 1970s.
Since the sale of the Times to Rupert Murdoch in 1981, the TLS has once again been a minor part of a sprawling media empire, a province granted a partial autonomy that is hedged round with Solomon Binding guarantees. But it was never one of the more prosperous provinces: in the 1980s it lost money every year and by 1990 circulation was down to 26,000 copies. When Ferdinand Mount was appointed editor in 1990 he diplomatically announced that, while contemplating some changes, he did not want to tamper with ‘the bedrock virtues of the paper – the comprehensive coverage, the adventurousness, the readiness to cover any book, no matter how obscure or difficult’. Mount’s judicious blend of conservatism and innovation, together with his reported willingness to give his specialist editors their head, made his 12-year reign one of the more impressive phases of the paper’s history. By the beginning of this century, circulation was back up to over 35,000 again.
The biggest shake-up came in 2016 when the 36-year-old Stig Abell, previously managing editor of the Sun , was to general surprise appointed editor. He proceeded to engage in a more vigorous spate of new-broomism than any of his predecessors had ever attempted. The most immediately obvious changes were to the appearance and format, with less print on the page and many more photos (and a ‘ TLS cartoonist’). But his changes to the contents went deeper and were seen by some observers as threatening the identity of the paper. Critics of the TLS have always complained that it is unexciting, but excitement can come in many forms, and anyway there are some things more important than excitement. A certain staidness had been the obverse of its enduring merits: the TLS carried a lot of considered, well-written reviews of a wide range of books by people who knew what they were talking about. Following Abell’s make-over, it still had some of those, but in the past few years they have been increasingly squeezed by free-standing pieces, frequently confessional or narrative in form, as well as by a variety of ‘features’ addressed to topical issues – in fact changes of the kind Richmond was sceptical about nearly a century ago. By the beginning of this year circulation, having briefly risen in response to a concerted marketing campaign, had fallen back to around 32,000.
Having left his very visible mark, Abell moved on (to a senior role at the new Times Radio) in June this year, and Martin Ivens, former editor of the Sunday Times , was installed in his place. But it would appear that the paper is suffering from long-term health problems. Alan Jenkins, the widely respected deputy editor, left a few months ago, and now other long-serving staff are being made redundant, amid rumours of unsustainable losses. Such developments will inevitably occasion sermons lamenting (according to taste), the decline of ‘the reading public’, the end of book reviewing, the now unbridgeable gulf between academia and lay literary culture, and so on. These sermons have all been preached before, when some storm cloud or other looked particularly ominous. In 1938, for instance, noting how many literary journals had recently closed and fearing for the future of the Lit Supp , John Middleton Murry, a frequent contributor, declared ‘the decline in the amount and quality of reviewing has been catastrophic since 1914,’ adding that ‘book reviewing is a vanished profession.’ That obituary turned out to be premature, as have been its many successors, but, as Mark Twain discovered, having your death announced prematurely is no guarantee of immortality.
At such moments it’s good to be reminded of some of the more illustrious passages in the paper’s long history. In 1905, Richmond invited the 23-year-old Miss A.V. Stephen to review for it. She quickly revealed herself to be the kind of young contributor editors dream of unearthing. She readily took on whatever she was asked to do, writing fifty pieces in the next three years, and her disconcertingly intelligent, quirkily stylish reviews were delivered to length and on time. Since reviews were published anonymously in the Lit Supp at that time (and indeed until 1974), Stephen’s industry did not help to build a wide reputation for her, but when, after her marriage in 1912, she began to publish novels under her married name, it soon became known that Virginia Woolf was one of the paper’s most valued contributors. Under its own imprint, the TLS recently gathered together 14 of her contributions in the volume Genius and Ink . An episode not mentioned there (it is documented in Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf) points to the tensions with which the paper has always struggled in one form or another. Richmond felt obliged to return the third piece Woolf submitted, apologising for having commissioned it and insisting that the subject (a book about Catherine de Medici) required a more scholarly treatment.
Like most of us, perhaps, Woolf preferred reviewing to being reviewed, and although notices of her books in the Lit Supp were generally favourable, there is an undertow of grumpiness in her private responses – ‘As for the Common Reader , the Lit Supp had close on two columns sober & sensible praise – neither one thing nor the other – my fate in the Times .’ Since many of the essays reprinted in that volume had first appeared in the pages of the Lit Supp , professional decorum may have required a little restraint by the reviewer. Woolf continued to contribute essays well into the 1930s, even coming to be paid, so Derwent May’s centenary history of the TLS reveals, at a uniquely preferential rate.
But the issue raised by her review of the book on Catherine de Medici didn’t go away, and in fact became more acute and more agonised over as the century wore on. The paper was in principle committed to reviewing the most important new works of scholarship alongside a selection of that month’s novels, biographies, popular histories and so on. But were these two worlds pulling further and further apart as recondite specialism increasingly dominated the first and relentless pursuit of best-sellerdom more and more shaped the second? The continued existence of the TLS has itself been a standing refusal of this defeatist analysis, though this has meant treading a fine line. The great majority of books from both these worlds, in so far as they really are two worlds, do not get reviewed in its pages; careful selection of both books and reviewers helps maintain the necessary fiction of a shared culture. The guiding principle was wryly expressed by John Sturrock, who worked there for more than thirty years, when he remarked that an ideal contribution should probably ‘strike academic readers as journalistic and journalistic readers as academic’.
Different readers want different things, and some tastes do, eventually, change. But it does not seem likely that the TLS could ever succeed as some mix between a glossy ‘lit’ magazine and an experimental ‘little review’ for new writing. In fact, it is hard to imagine any version of itself succeeding in the future which does not continue the attempt to straddle the worlds of academic scholarship and commercial publishing. Like it or not, many (though very far from all) of its readers are going to be academics, and a lot (perhaps practically all) of its readers, academic or otherwise, will want serious, informed reviewing of a wide range of books. Intellectual quality, literary judgment and cultural curiosity have to be its hallmarks, not ‘liveliness’ or ‘accessibility’ or ‘topicality’ or any of the other buzzwords that make the pulses of advertising managers race. Whether that can be sustained these days without losing money is hard to say, and what kind of ownership structure might best protect it is similarly moot. The Lit Supp survived Northcliffe and his moods, just, and the TLS may yet survive Murdoch and his accountants. Of course, the world will not end if the paper is forced to close or to change its character radically, but something will end, something that many people have grown used to thinking of as rather valuable.
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Robbie Millen is literary editor of The Times.