Wilmers has often said in print, repeating a variation of it to me, that the L.R.B. was the creation of its co-founder, Karl Miller, a London literary editor, and that she “kept it up” after his departure, in 1992. “Certainly it wasn’t my intention to change it,” she writes in the introduction to “London Review of Books: An Incomplete History,” published this month.
The novelist and journalist John Lanchester, a contributor to the L.R.B. for 32 years who started out, as many of the paper’s editors have, as an editorial assistant, disputed Wilmers’s claim. “It isn’t even slightly true for Mary-Kay to say that about merely perpetuating what Karl brought,” Lanchester wrote in an email. “They had worked together for a long time already, and the editorial character of the L.R.B. was always an amalgam. Karl’s paper had more literary-critical pieces than Mary-Kay’s. You can see the paper becoming more political and historical under her — differences of emphasis and degree rather than kind.”
Without question, the political profile of the L.R.B. has risen during Wilmers’s tenure, with a routine focus on foreign affairs, ideological debate and national crises. “Mary-Kay gets up in the morning,” says Andrew O’Hagan, also a three-decade contributor to the L.R.B., “and wonders if there isn’t someone somewhere who might write a first-rate piece on the relationship between Isis and the Taliban, or the queen’s position in the Brexit debate, or the zeal to abolish guns in New Zealand, or the pathos of Michelle Obama.”
I think one of the reasons that writers, beginner and seasoned, settle for vague endings is because they’re tasteful. And literary fiction is supposed to be tasteful, right? Tastelessness is the purview of genre fiction, of TV and action movies. Literary fiction is meant to appeal to our higher virtues, a rarified place of deep thought and complex emotion that would be sullied by something big and unsubtle.
Except, this is not true. Great short fiction is usually unsubtle, pushing through a potentially decorous finale with all the rude impatience of a business traveler catching the red-eye home. Consider Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Where’s the subtlety? Whither taste? Flannery O’Connor’s acclaimed ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ has perhaps the most indelible, and tasteless, ending of all time. In the story’s final pages, the Misfit has his henchmen drag the grandmother’s family into the woods and shoot them one by one, a scene of literary torture porn that ends with the Misfit shooting the grandmother and drily joking about what a horrible person she was. This ending still retains its power to shock, in part because of how reluctant so much modern fiction is to give us something this concrete and final. Which is to say, relative to most modern fiction endings, it is tasteless – or perhaps better put, it is untasteful. We are accustomed to, comfortable with, stories that tactfully turn away, and this story does not do that.
Newsweek has the name and the professional website it has built in years past, but it’s increasingly repurposing the work of others—whether the Washington Post, the outrage fiends at Fox News, or a dozen people on Twitter—and packaging it as its own. Plenty of news sites aggregate, and in many ways the story of Newsweek is the story of the industry. But whereas other aggregators—Mashable, BuzzFeed, Upworthy; the list goes on—built their sites around this kind of internet-first strategy, Newsweek is selling off its own legacy while hoping that readers won’t notice. Reporters and editors there tell me they’re willing to do good work; the question is whether Newsweek is willing, or even able, to find a business model that allows them to do it.
So if today’s advanced economies have reached (or even exceeded) the point of productivity that Keynes predicted, why are 30- to 40-hour weeks still standard in the workplace? And why doesn’t it feel like much has changed? This is a question about both human nature – our ever-increasing expectations of a good life – as well as how work is structured across societies.
Bread evokes memories of sharing a meal with loved ones during peacetime and of hunger satiated, a distant feeling for a nation attempting to rebuild from the defeat of World War I, the economic severities of the 1920s and 30s, and the political turmoil of the Weimer Republic. During World War II, the Nazi party exploited the comfort that bread provided. In its daily bulletin of 15 October 1941, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency informed its readers that in addition to the recession and the killing of Christ, the Jews were now also being blamed by the Germans for the creation of white bread. “The baking of white bread,” a Nazi broadcaster quoted by the agency had explained, “was promoted by Jews both for speculative reasons and also for the purpose of undermining the health of the German people. Before the Jews settled in Germany, the people generally ate whole wheat bread. For the last century, however, the Jews pushing themselves in between the producer and the consumer, fostered the production of ‘dead flour’ which is deprived of the main nutritive value.” This was a particularly insidious piece of propaganda because of the psychological values that bread connotes. Blaming the Jews for creating white bread—weak stuff cropping up in bakeries and grocery stores across the Germany—set them in diametric opposition to traditional values.
Because of its central role in human nutrition, bread has appeared in countless cultural and religious keystones: the epic of Gilgamesh; the description of Egypt as the land of bread-eaters; Jewish oppression and the feast of Passover (bread of the afflicted); the Roman cry of “bread and circuses”; bread as a symbol in the poetry of Omar Khayyam; bread that signifies the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, made with simple, wholesome ingredients, bread is the staff of life. German bread continues to exemplify this tradition, one that Jews were supposedly destroying with processed white bread.
Winterson’s work is at once artfully structured, unexpectedly funny, and impressively dynamic. It repeatedly asks the unanswerable question that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Frankissstein also hints toward a time in the not-too-distant future when humans will not be the most intelligent beings on earth, but when the same questions will still arise. What is reality? What is time? What are the responsibilities of creation? Where are the boundaries between a story and real life, between consciousness and an idea? “I do not know if I am the teller or the tale,” Winterson’s characters ask again and again. Perhaps the answer for all of us is both.
I hover above garage
flying like a slow owl.
See my child-home
like I did in a dream
many years ago.