Walking through Soho, you’ll find many odd and quirky things. Sex shops. Night clubs. Antique dealers. German tourists. And – nestled between all that and almost impossible to find if you don’t know what you are looking for – the Literary Review.
The location is very fitting, actually. Where else in London would it feel more natural to have a literature magazine famous for both the quality of its content and its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award?
Apart from reviewing the latest books, the Literary Review has been giving away this notorious award to the creators of the worst lines of sexual description in literature each year since 1993, not shying away from nominating and crowning international literary luminaries such as Erri De Luca, a celebrated Italian novelist. His clumsy attempt to compare having sex with dancing ballet in The Day Before Happiness prompted the jury to state that “even in the wake of Brexit, Bad Sex knows no borders” and made him a worthy successor of Morrissey, who took the prize in 2015. De Luca almost faced competition from the US President, though: several Literary Review readers nominated Donald Trump’s ‘locker-room talk’, but as the award only honours fiction, the jury had to disqualify him.
It’s this mix of humour, light-hearted boldness and serious passion for literature that distinguishes the Literary Review from most other literature magazines. Founded by Dr Anne Smith in Edinburgh in 1979 as a more accessible alternative to existing literature magazines, the Literary Review’s aim has always been to provide lovers of literature with a witty, well-written and entertaining overview of the latest works in fiction, history, biography, politics, memoir, poetry, crime and everything in between.
The May 2017 issue, for example, covers topics ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to neurosurgery, the MI5, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, horses, Protestantism, forgeries of Tennyson, and the memoir of a former director of the National Theatre. This variety and the quality of the writing have made the Literary Review one of the most popular literary magazines in the UK, with a monthly readership of close to 45,000. There’s even Literary Review merchandise (tote bags and postcards) available from the website.
When you enter the small office on Lexington Street, the first thing you notice are the books. They are everywhere: shelved on the walls, piled up on desks and all over the floor, even towering on spare chairs – it looks and smells like a little library. There must be hundreds of them, and every day new ones arrive.
For everyone who loves books, these deliveries are almost like Christmas. As there are so many, the postman – just like Santa Claus – delivers the books in a huge bag, which is then cut open and emptied in the middle of the room. Besides numerous hardbacks and paperbacks fresh off the printing press, these bags often contain weird little gifts from the authors and publishing houses: candles and matches accompanying a thriller about a séance, packets of super-soft tissues sent with a supposedly very sad romantic novel, Belgian chocolates, card games and once even a tiny bottle of vodka. Some books come in wooden crates or are wrapped in expensive handmade paper, all to increase the chance of getting a review in the next issue.
Every bit of space that isn’t hidden by books is pasted with some of the iconic cover illustrations – since 1997 by the award-winning illustrator, political cartoonist and current Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell – that have appeared on the Literary Review over the years, some of them already faded from the sunlight entering through two large windows.
With all that, you would be forgiven to overlook that there aren’t only creatures of ink and paper but also some of flesh and bone in this room, sitting bent over a book or editing a review while sipping coffee from a shop around the corner. Editor Nancy Sladek and her team (five to six people, depending on whether there’s an intern joining them) share four desks and computers squeezed in between the books, switching places depending on who needs a computer and who can do without it; this is one reason why a lot of the work – from fact-checking to proofreading – is done with paper and pencil.
Most of the people there have been working at the Literary Review together for years, which might be one of the reasons why the atmosphere is so warm and surprisingly relaxed for an editorial office. There are no raised voices, no nervous break-downs if a contributor has missed the deadline, no bickering or nasty comments behind each other’s back. Instead, they share a deep passion for literature and the desire to make each issue as good as possible – which takes a lot of time, effort and an almost obsessive eye for detail.
The magazine’s reputation attracts some of the biggest names in literature (Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Harris and Nick Hornby being just a few of them) as contributors, but most reviews are written by critics, academics and lesser-known authors with a certain expertise in what they are reviewing. Thus, crime novels are usually reviewed by a crime writer, while the biography of a surrealist artist will very likely end up on the table of an art historian.
The reviews all vary in style and quality, so once they reach the office, the main work begins. Every tiny detail – from names to quotes to book prices – is fact-checked, then each text is proofread several times by at least three different people and edited until everyone is satisfied.
For some, taking all that care might seem like pedantry, or even a waste of time, but it certainly pays off – in the final product, there are literally no mistakes, no design issues, and the quality of the reviews is incredibly consistent. And this, ultimately, is what keeps the Literary Review going strong in a time where both books and print magazines are often declared a dying breed.