Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hilary Mantel: not the first LRB controversy

The London Review of Books quietly encourages writers to address front-page issues. And it's no coincidence that female authors have provoked the biggest rows

Wednesday 20 February 2013  

Hilary Mantel
Dynamite potential … Hilary Mantel in 2012. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

For once, we should have seen the latest London Review of Books kerfuffle coming. Hilary Mantel gave her Royal Bodies lecture on 4 February, preceded by publicity indicating she would riskily view the Duchess of Cambridge as another lovely bride in the tradition of Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana, all three of whom suffered violent, untimely deaths. Dynamite potential: quite high.

And for once too, the LRB – in contrast to its flustered response in 2001 to the fuss about a Mary Beard post-9/11 piece that said many people felt America "had it coming" – seemed prepared for the media melee, even perhaps relishing it; it was ready with audio of Mantel's lecture for Radio 4's Today once the "story" broke, and pointed out on Twitter that "what she really wrote is about how the media make the royals suffer".

Yet by then things had followed a familiar, tardy pattern, rather eerily echoing Anne Enright's experience in 2007. Fifteen days after Mantel's lecture, five after its publication, a passage was noticed that could be dressed up as a "venomous attack" – just as the earlier Booker winner's reflections on Gerry and Kate McCann (also readable as really being criticism of the media) were spotted and denounced as a "venomous attack" over a fortnight after appearing.

That these rows seem to explode out of nowhere reflects the fact that the LRB doesn't behave like a magazine intent on causing conniptions in Westminster or invading tabloid territory. Buy if you are expecting classier celebrity-bashing or longer, better-written opinion columns then you are liable to be disappointed; its staple fare consists of history, literature and ideas), with pop culture an occasional treat and politics normally restricted to book reviews or foreign dispatches.

This differentiates it from the New York Review of Books, which it emerged from and was modelled on. The US organ offers more current affairs and is likelier to run free-standing political essays. The contrast in focus and style is nicely symbolised by the current covers: David Petraeus for the NYRB, versus not Kate Middleton, or even Anne Boleyn, but an antique jug for the LRB.

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