A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have been reviewing books for The Tablet – Britain’s second oldest weekly paper, and a Catholic literary institution – since 2013. As a newcomer in every sense, I continue to be struck by the paper’s impressive combination of a cohesive theological identity and a refusal to follow a single editorial line. The Tablet is forever arguing, even with itself: an irresistible quality. My editor, Brendan Walsh, kindly agreed to answer a few questions and provide an insight into the interior world of The Tablet, in the books pages and beyond. – Kirsty Jane McCluskey
What does a literary editor do, exactly?
If you’d have asked me five years ago, I would have explained that literary editors were an idle shower of chancers and poseurs, who send books published by their cronies at one of the big publishing conglomorates and written by one of their chums in the metropolitan literary magic circle to another accomplice for review in their books pages.
A stitch up, in other words, explaining why the same books seem to be reviewed every week – with a surprisingly high quota of literary biographies, literary memoirs and, um, literary fiction. New authors, small independent publishers, unfashionable niches such as trains, wrestling and religion, barely get a look in, and self-published books or online-only publications are ignored altogether.
But that was when I was the resentful director of a small, emotionally and financially fragile independent publishing company. Now I have switched sides and I have a more, shall we say, complete picture. The literary editor receives around a hundred books a week for possible review (at least, the literary editor of The Tablet does), some bound proofs of titles six or seven weeks ahead of publication, but mostly books about to be published, and selects six or seven of them for review.
How do I decide which books to review? Although the bigger publishers have more resources to throw at publicizing new books, small independent publishers are often just as creative in production and marketing: and there’s more likely to be a feeling that their new titles are being published out of love as much as for profit, and that makes me more inclined to consider them for review.
I try to create an appetising mixed salad each week: a different angle on a “big” new book that will be reviewed everywhere, one or two books that might appeal to Tablet readers which are unlikely to be picked up elsewhere, a mix of light and heavy, of fiction and non-fiction, of the familiar and less familiar. An element of surprise, without trying too hard to be a clever-clogs.
The editor of The Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, likes our reviews to appear within a week or two of publication, so I have to get a move on, and farm the books out as soon as they come in. Our reviewers are a mix of experienced generalists, who can turn their hand to most subjects, and can be guaranteed to deliver competent copy to size and on deadline, and bespoke reviewers, invited to write for us because they are known experts in the field, who might submit an elegant, magisterial appraisal but who are just as likely to be late, overlong and more interested in delivering an idiosyncratic essay on a subject only loosely related to the book under review. Perhaps the loveliest things about the job is the opportunity it gives me to nurture talented but untried writers.
How did you come to work at The Tablet?
In the summer of 2011, the literary editor of The Tablet, Sue Gaisford, was looking to retire from the job. I’d done reviews for her and for her predecessor, Lucy Lethbridge, over many years so knew the paper and the editor pretty well. But I had no previous experience in journalism (I’d previously worked in publishing (for SPCK and, latterly Darton, Longman and Todd; I’d also been head of communications for Cafod), so I was surprised and delighted when Catherine Pepinster called me to ask if I’d like to have a trial six months at the job in Sue’s place. I was living in Ireland at the time; I’d left my job at DLT a few months earlier to help my mother to nurse my Dad, who was dying at home, contently and even a little impatiently. My father died a few weeks later, and after the funeral I came back to London and started at The Tablet.
I loved the paper and knew some of the writers and journalists. I felt like the cat that had got the cream.
What are the particular joys and challenges of working at a Catholic publication — and this one especially?
Well, at The Tablet we’re interested in everything and everyone, particularly the stuff going on in the corner of the picture, the “peripheries” as that great communicator, Pope Francis, describes them: that’s what it means to be Catholic, I think.
The books pages aim to combine the qualities of all good arts journalism – well-informed, intelligent entertainment, half a dozen new titles reviewed each week with scholarship and verve – with an eye for new books that will appeal to a particular Catholic sensibility. That doesn’t just mean “Catholic books”. We pretty well always review one “religious” book every week – we try to make sure readers, even non-specialists, know what’s going on in the world of theology and religious studies, and are introduced to the best scholarship and ideas. But most of the new books reviewed in The Tablet are general trade books: history, economics, science, biography, travel, fiction; sometimes, they are just interesting, well-written new books.
Some have a moral angle, or a dab of Catholic interest; but it would be tiresome to root out the “Catholic angle” to every book under review. But there is a Catholic angle of vision I think, and perhaps a distinctive Catholic register. It’s hard to pin it down. What’s the opposite of preachy and parsonical? Without getting pompous or too solemn about it, we’re people who look out the office window from time to time and just wonder. I hope our marks are curiosity, generosity and humility (with the occasional good-humoured thumping allowed). We try to take everything seriously – except ourselves.
The Tablet is celebrating a major anniversary this year. How has the publication changed over your lifetime as a reader?
Yes, it’s our birthday! We’re 175 years old this year – the second oldest weekly in continuous publication, after The Spectator. We’ve celebrated with a very slightly self-indulgent avalanche of events: Masses in London and Dublin, concerts, lectures and talks, a literary festival in Birmingham in June – some wonderful speakers and great fun – and (coming up in November) a major theology conference in Durham.
One of the things we’ve done in the paper this year is to publish articles on different aspects of the life of the Catholic Church in the years since The Tablet was founded in 1840; another has been to recall episodes in the paper’s own history. There was a cracking article a few weeks ago, for example, in which Christopher Howse describes one of our past editors – who preferred to write standing at his desk, wearing a hat – lambasting the latest novel by a fashionable young writer and recent convert as a “disgrace to anybody professing the Catholic name”. A terrific row broke out, and although he later reviewed himself for the paper, Evelyn Waugh was never entirely reconciled to The Tablet.
I first started reading the paper in the mid-1970s, when I was studying theology. The books pages were a useful source of crisp, low-calorie, level-headed summaries of the virtues and shortcomings of the most important and significant latest works of church history or philosophy of religion or whatever. I still have the lazy university student or idle seminarian in mind as one of my target readers.
The Tablet has kept a consistent line (sometimes under fire) under the last three editors: Tom Burns, John Wilkins and Catherine Pepinster, who has led the paper for the past eleven years. It has stubbornly occupied what you might call “the extreme centre” of the Catholic Church, a place of hospitality to a faithful, inquisitive, restless conversation about the things of God. Popes come and go, and papal preoccupations and tones of voice flutter and seesaw – after a fat pope comes a thin pope, as the Romans say – but the essence of Catholicism is that there is no fixed register or stable harmonics. The genius of The Tablet is that it combines a distinct, recognisable, settled personality with a sort of contained turbulence.
What’s changed, I think, in the forty years I’ve been a reader of the paper, has been the soft furnishings rather than the foundations or the roofing – subtle shifts of editorial style, more decisive refurbishments in fonts and cover design; I confess to a fondness for the unfussy sobriety of the layouts of the seventies, but I suppose that would never do these days.
It still makes perfect sense to talk of The Tablet as “a weekly paper”. That remains what it is to the majority of our readers, a staple-bound vacuum-wrapped forty-page magazine that arrives once a week through the letter box, or is picked up from the back of church after Mass. But increasingly, of course, The Tablet is a flickering presence on a liquid crystal display panel, its news and features and reviews shredded and hurled around the internet like confetti, and read on smartphones and laptops and – odd, isn’t it? – tablets.
The first editor of The Tablet, Frederick Lucas, was determined that his newspaper would be read not just in London and Dublin and Rome, but in far-flung mission territorities and remote corners of the Empire. Like all his successors, his ambition was to open the world to the Church and the Church to the world. 175 years ago, it took railways and steam boats and diplomatic bags – and several weeks – for copies to reach his readers overseas. Quite suddenly, his successor can transmit an editorial or a feature to a reader in Toronto or Lagos at the touch of a button, at almost zero cost. It is a time of unprecedented challenges and opportunities for us.
Finally, we always ask our guests to recommend five books, with a short word about each. They don’t have to be Tablet-fodder…
The best books give you a bit of a thumping. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart re-drew my map of the world: a Nigerian village moved to the centre.
How about a Great American Novel and a Great Russian Novel? John Updike is the best of the American big hitters, and Memories of the Ford Administration purrs along with majestic and shallow precision. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov is deep and raw and a bit windbaggy. After those two contrasting whoppers, refresh the palate with a sorbet: a Frank O’Connor short story. My Oedipus Complex and other stories is a collection of some of his greatest.
At school I could never be doing with Tolkien and Lewis or Sartre and Camus. I pounced instead on a disreputable piece of pulp erotica, The Ginger Man by J P Donleavy. Lilliput Press produced a 60th anniversary edition this summer. I had a peek inside; it’s not quite as awful as I’d expected.
For more about The Tablet and its programme of anniversary events, visit the website.