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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I have, this afternoon (on a day off – I know, I know) been playing around with the LRB archive, looking for fun patterns in the chain of “who reviews whom”. Some preliminary thoughts…

If, in careerist terms, essay writing is a network that is about social mobility, concerned with how authors affiliate themselves with one another, then we can possibly understand a little how the industry works – and how writers’ careers benefit – by examining one type of essay: the discursive book review. In order to do so, I extracted reviews from the last twenty years of the London Review of Books and began to look for connections between authors.

There are three general categories into which LRB reviewers and reviewees can be grouped. The first category is authors who are reviewed, but never review. Zadie Smith, for instance, falls in this category (she has never written for the LRB). The second is a category of occasional reviewers who are only loosely grouped in the network; they are not extensively woven into lengthy chains of reviewers. Tom McCarthy, for instance, falls into this category (the people McCarthy reviews – Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Steven Hall – have themselves never reviewed for the LRB). And then there are reviewer-novelists who are part of elaborate chains of reviews that form the dense interconnected core of the network. Hilary Mantel falls at the lower end of this group (Mantel, for instance, reviewed Eamon Duffy in volume 31 no. 18, who reviewed Keith Thomas in volume 31 no. 14, who reviewed Alexandra Walsham in volume 33 no. 10, who reviewed John Cooper in volume 34 no. 13). At the far end of the spectrum in this category though is the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, an editor of the LRB, who is often involved in chains of up to twenty reviewers. Of course, it is entirely possible for authors to have connections with one another outside of the walls of a singular publication, but as a longstanding, UK-based literary journal, the LRB serves as a useful index for the way that British literary social networks are formed and cultural cachet transferred. It is also true, though, that network centrality does not here correlate well with differences in literary prestige. Nonetheless, there are those who are connected and those who are not. Figure 1 gives a birds-eye view of the network, revealing this ‘inner circle’ formulation for this serial.

A network diagram of the LRB reviews

Figure 1: The network of the London Review of Books. Although deliberately illegible, the dense cluster of names in the centre are those figures who are woven into tight networks of review, while those at the edge are islands of independent but disconnected reviews.

While I have not considered the free-standing, non-review essays in this brief network analysis, it is also interesting to consider the role that academics play in these chains of review. Table 1 shows a sample chain.

Reviewer

Reviewee

Volume

No.

Role

Andrew O’Hagan

Neal Ascherson

24

21

Novelist

Neal Ascherson

Jonathan Rée

42

15

Journalist

Jonathan Rée

Steven Connor

34

6

Academic (retired)

Steven Connor

Marina Warner

34

6

Academic

Marina Warner

Thomas Laquer

39

16

Academic/Novelist

Thomas Laquer

Christopher Clark

35

23

Academic

Christopher Clark

Margaret MacMillan

35

16

Academic

Margaret MacMillan

Adam Tooze

37

3

Academic

Adam Tooze

Paul Blustein

42

15

Academic

Paul Blustein

Journalist

Table 1: A representative dense chain of reviewer connections in the LRB.

The preponderance of academics in this random sample of a long chain could be proof, again, that the academy usually ends up talking to itself. However, it’s also an interesting indication of the role that the academy plays in the ongoing republic of letters within the LRB.

I have also found several instances of circularity; a kind of reviewing practice where reviewers review books at remove (i.e. x reviews y who reviews z who reviews x). An exampled:

  • Ferdinand Mount reviewed Bernard Porter in vol 38 num 7
  • Bernard Porter reviewed Peter Clarke in vol 29 num 15
  • Peter Clarke reviewed Edward Pearce in vol 25 num 2
  • Edward Pearce reviewed Miles Taylor in vol 25 num 21
  • Miles Taylor reviewed Ferdinand Mount in vol 38 num 5

More on this as I get it…