Few people escape from publishing. Most people, once they get a foot in the door, stay put. Mary-Kay Wilmers has been working in the industry for more than fifty years. She began at Faber & Faber when the company was still dominated by ‘GLP’ (the ‘Greatest Living Poet’ himself, T.S. Eliot, much mentioned in Toby Faber’s epistolary history of Faber). Wilmers, co-founder of the London Review of Books in 1979 and sole editor since 1992, occasionally writes ‘pieces’ for ‘the paper’ (LRB-speak). Now, two admiring colleagues of hers, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, have collected some of her occasional writings in a volume called Human Relations and Other Difficulties (Profile Books, $27.99 pb).
We meet the warring Connollys: literary critic Cyril Connolly, who ‘famously marked his place in a book he had borrowed with a rasher of bacon’, and his second wife, Barbara Skelton, who bedded many but doesn’t seem to have liked anyone (‘What a terrible waste of time people are,’ she wrote in her diary). Coolly, Wilmers is often deadly: in her essay on Patty Hearst she mentions a pre-kidnap beau called Steven Weed – ‘not a name that would necessarily wish fame upon itself’.
Wilmers is generally suspicious of aphorisms, but ABR liked this one in her article on seduction: ‘One way or another, a plot had to be devised to get Adam and Eve out of paradise.’ This piece, in true LRB fashion, occasioned a lethal exchange of letters. Christopher Ricks, in acidulous form, rebuked Wilmers for misremembering one of his pronouncements: ‘I hope that Ms Wilmers the editor of the LRB is more scrupulous than Ms Wilmers the insufficiently edited contributor to her pages.’ (Wilmers, adverbially deft, was sorry that Ricks had ‘taken the lapse so darkly to heart’.)
Hacks shouldn’t miss Wilmers’s article ‘The Language of Novel Reviewing’ – that toughest of assignments. Wilmers notes some of the pitfalls, the minor misprisions. Here, on her own turf, she is decidedly epigrammatic: ‘Every liberal and illiberal orthodoxy has its champions’; ‘Sometimes it seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state’; and ‘Just as some novels supply their own reviews, so many reviews supply their own novels.’
Wilmers is funny about the triads of adjectives flung at novels: ‘exact, piquant and comical’, ‘rich, mysterious and energetic’, etc. etc.. She might have been thinking of those triadic puffs beloved of trade publishers – usually written, at any one time, by a cohort of six reliable encomiasts.