Private Eye on the death of literary culture

How long before literature in print begins to seem as mysterious as cave paintings – its preoccupations and the culture around it approachable only by conjecture?

Readers who do not drop in here regularly – and some that do – might have read the last two entries on this blog with exasperated harrumphing and disbelief.

Professional book reviewers deserve to be going the way of the dodoGet away with you! Publishing houses have been declining to publish manuscripts lauded by their own editors, that have even excited film consultants with a proven instinct for spotting bestselling and screen-friendly material? Codswallop! (That would be bull dookey, for Texans.)

O sceptics, here is substantiation from a source whose remorseless objectivity about its own world of print publishing and journalism has been praised by no less than Lord Justice Leveson, of the Inquiry – and which is not notably a lover of online publishing, even though it is organised and run in ways we think the best digital publishers will approximate closely in the future .

The extract is from a review of the memoir of a London book editor, Miriam Gross, An Almost English Life, Literary and not so Literary Recollections, in a late September issue of Private Eye (no. 1323) that we have only just seen, owing to one thing and another.

At any time over the past half-century it has been possible to earn a few pounds by writing an article on ‘the death of the novel’.

Just lately, what with the rise of the internet reviewers, E. L. James and celebrity memoirs, more alert commentators have been able to expand this topic to accommodate the death of literary culture per se.


The really surprising thing, in these circumstances, is the torrent of books about literary culture that continues to spring from the nation’s printing presses. Publishers from Tom Maschler down pop up to regale us with memories of their time in the trade.


Ms Gross, it has to be said, is the grande dame of her profession: a Jerusalem-born bluestocking, who arrived in England in 1947, married the late and very much lamented John Gross first time around, […] and was successively arts editor of the Torygraph [Texan trans.: The Daily Telegraph, traditionally the upmarket Tory paper] and books editor of its Sunday sister. […] On the other hand, to call this elfin volume – bulked out to 200 pages by the inclusion of some old Observer interviews – ‘the remarkable story of one of the great observers of our time’, as Alain de Botton does on the cover, is ever so slightly pushing it.


[O]f what, on this admittedly partial evidence, does ‘literary culture’ actually consist? Dare one say that the whole thing eventually betrays itself as a delightful private club, where all the members are simply wonderful and incompetence is habitually excused on the grounds that the defaulter is one of us: sad to contemplate here on its downward spiral … but, really, impossible to mourn.