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Long Live the King of Book Reviews

The Times Literary Supplement turns 100 with its lofty reputation still firmly intact.

January 24, 2002|PETER WHITTLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON--Two great British institutions celebrate special anniversaries this year. One is respected the world over, is highly regarded particularly in America and during the course of a turbulent century has successfully kept both its integrity and reputation as the exemplar of the highest standards. The other is the monarchy.

The Times Literary Supplement--known universally as the TLS--is a hundred years old this month. From its first densely printed, eight-page edition of Jan. 17, 1902, to its special bumper 48-page centenary issue currently on newsstands, it has carved out a unique position in the world of papers and journals as the reviewer of all that is best and most important in new books, from novels and poetry to academic studies and biographies.

Even people who don't read books often read book reviews, and sections devoted to them in daily newspapers, magazines and even on the Internet have expanded and proliferated. But when it comes to critical credibility, the cachet of a good review in the TLS remains unsurpassed. Despite a relatively small circulation of just under 40,000--with nearly half of that comprising American readers--it is still considered the most influential English-language critical journal in the world, remaining for a century at the center of intellectual and cultural life.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 26, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Monetary conversion--A story in Thursday's Southern California Living section about the Times Literary Supplement incorrectly gave the value of 100 English pounds as $70 (U.S). One hundred pounds is roughly worth $145.

So, even as Queen Elizabeth marks her 50th year as monarch, the TLS celebrates its own milestone by launching a poetry competition and London's National Portrait Gallery presents an exhibit depicting portraits of famous figures who have reviewed for the paper throughout the years. A major history by Derwent May, "Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement," has been published, and, in honor of the supplement, a Round Table Literary Debate was scheduled this month at New York's famous hotel of men and women of letters, the Algonquin.

That location is fitting, for in some respects, the TLS is now something of an Anglo-American journal. "In the early years," says May, "there was a resentful feeling in the U.S. academic world that British reviewers were a bit haughty about American scholarship." The paper argued that it was applying evenhanded standards; even so, by the '50s there was certainly a fresh attempt to get the paper read in America, in line with the growing interest in American writing. In fact, American academic work became so powerful and important that the TLS found itself including more and more U.S. material. Now, American books, and reviewers, are just as prominent as British ones.

Originally published with the Times of London at a time when the practice of reviewing new books was becoming increasingly popular, the TLS was first sold separately (for the princely sum of a penny) in 1914. Since then it has remained autonomous, with virtually no link to its parent paper other than common ownership, a situation that remains today. Its ultimate proprietor is Rupert Murdoch, and it operates out of the News Corp. complex in the district of Wapping, just east of the famous Tower Bridge in London.

Its modern offices give little immediate clues to its illustrious history, for a list of the writers and critics who have contributed to the TLS reads like a roll call of the greats of 20th century literature. T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Gore Vidal, Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, George Steiner and Martin Amis are among the hundreds who have been featured as reviewers in its pages and contributed to its debates.

In 1919, Eliot wrote to his mother saying that he'd been invited to write for the Lit Sup (as it was then nicknamed) and that "this is the highest honor possible in the critical world of literature." In the past 30 years it has been joined by similar publications, most notably the esteemed New York Review of Books, but the position it occupies between the literary and academic worlds, and the fact that it reviews so many books each week--about 60 each issue--are what make it unique.

"It's the only journal of high culture that I know of," says Richard Sennett, an American and a professor at the London School of Economics, and a frequent contributor of 25 years' standing. "The others, such as the New York Review, are different animals. That makes its survival extraordinary."

That survival is due in no small part to a continuing sense of purpose and identity. "It's kept a very even keel--a steady, thoughtful, conscientious survey of books in all fields," says May. It doesn't pretend to create bestsellers--that is not really its point. "The TLS doesn't have that colossal an impact on the general reading public," says May, "but it has an impact on people who are interested in literature."

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