In the days before my life became a perpetual holiday, there was always the pair of inquisitive Italians across the table who wanted to know why I had chosen to live in London. They saw I was a writer, and an unambitious one at that; why not live in Italy? They saw I liked eating; allora, why England?
I would invariably reply that British publishing is like Italian food, with large morning newspapers and interesting small-circulation weeklies playing the part of fresh ingredients. Private Eye, I would say, is our buffalo mozzarella. The Times is our De Cecco, our daily dread, our pastasciutta. All sentimental at the mention of foodstuffs, they nodded encouragement. That was the moment to fix them with my most solemn stare and to argue that newspapers create the necessary conditions for writing by marking out the cultural median above which the actual cooking, as it were, takes place. Everything else is just kitchen machinery, sieves, and graters.
I am still proud of the analogy, for the reason alluded to in one of my earlier communications from Rome. Italian food is palpable proof and variegated illustration of the notion that it is supply (which is another word for God and may assume the form of tradition, talent, or the weather), not demand (which usually assumes the form of money), that makes a thing good. The world’s better mousetraps are invented by capricious eccentrics who care little for their bank accounts and nothing for the peace of their neighbors’ larders. The ghosts of her mother and grandmother, not the wild catcalls of a foreigner’s taste buds, are on the mind of our Porto Ercole cook when she is in the kitchen. Ten years ago in London, in a memorable taunt of the devil that is demand, Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review promoted a writer called David Sexton because this way they would always have the word SEX on the cover.
These days, in Italy as much as in America, no sooner do I mention British publishing than the conversation turns to Rupert Murdoch, rather the way just about anything British a couple of years ago meant the Princess of Wales. Yet the fact is that here in Britain Mr. Murdoch owns just one large book publishing concern and only one serious daily newspaper, the Times, together with its Sunday sister, the Sunday Times. This, naturally, is quite apart from the vast variety of patently unserious—that is to say, pulp—print and television holdings which he has amassed, here and the world over. And it is these very interests that are at the heart of the whole tragic misunderstanding I want to describe.
I just spent three weeks in London, where, on the Wednesday between the opening day of Ascot (your correspondent lost £60 without once leaving White’s) and Ladies’ Day (your correspondent made £130 betting from the Aspinalls marquee), I finally had the leisure to acquaint myself with the latest newspaper circulation figures. The dynamics have indeed changed. The chief underlying concern of all journalistic activity is no longer who can write what for whom, but whether Mr. Murdoch of News International or Mr. Conrad Black of the Telegraph Group is top dog and hence the more beauteous animal to suck up to. Apparently it is Mr. Black, because, outside the Murdoch papers, nearly every article about publishing is interrupted to abuse the monopolizing villain and to decry his works.
The inscrutable facts are these. The Daily Telegraph‘s circulation has fallen by almost five percent since May 1997 to a total of 1,070,313 and keeps falling. The Times, which gained more than five percent over the same period, has been losing readers for four months running and now has 753,043, down from the all time high of 861,931 in November 1996. True, the gap between the two widened by 9,000 readers during the month of May, despite the continuing price war which Mr. Murdoch started some five years ago and which has so far cost him upwards of $150 million. But, as Robert Maxwell used to say, we’ll see whose pocket is deeper, which brings us back to the pulp interests which are the source of Mr. Murdoch’s wealth rather the way they were the late Mr. Maxwell’s.
The truth is that, however numerous or lucrative, such interests can’t actually play a significant role in the discussion of British publishing, its tragedy and its likely final, American-style demise. It is quite self-evident that blatant, shameless pulp has existed always, has always been successful, and has often enjoyed a clear commercial advantage over the less frivolous and more rarified subject matter. To rail at Mr. Murdoch for being among our epoch’s purveyors of pulp may be a good thing, a moral thing, even a Christian thing; or else it may be a hypocritical thing, a puritanical thing, even a selfish thing; as with much else in our sad sublunar world, it rather depends on the provenance of the criticism. One thing railing at Mr. Murdoch is not, however, is relevant.
What is relevant is the role in all this of the editor, the journalist, the writer. When I first came to London, one summer afternoon in 1985,1 took a taxi from the airport to the offices of a magazine and asked to see an editor. He came out, spoke with me for five minutes, and gave me work. Nonetheless, if I could be called a prospector, this could not have been called a lucky strike, because what lay all about me in the London of 15 years ago was a writer’s Klondike, a diverse and competitive environment where the gold of publication lay above ground. The man was one of many, indeed one of a hundred or even a thousand others like him.
It may well be that somewhere in the depths of the New York Times today there lurks a kindly gentleman, not unlike Maxwell Perkins the All-American, who does what he can to foster whatever talent comes his way, protecting it from the harsh conformist winds that howl in Times Square and make grown men shiver from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. But against the background of a national monopoly—which, unlike Mr. Murdoch’s News International, the New York Times Company is and has been since the demise of its nearest competitor some 30 years ago—the role of such a figure is morally ambiguous, smacking of provocation and entrapment, while its beneficial effect on the literary life of the nation can only be negligible.
“In a field of battle,” goes a Russian proverb, “one man is no warrior.” Today as yesterday, if the Maxwell Perkins of song and legend is all alone, he is at best a powerless eccentric and at worst an unwitting agent provocateur; but if, like the Englishman I met that afternoon in London, he is one of many, he is a vital sign of his culture and a microcosm of what it offers the newcomer. My point is that the misconceived, ultimately self-destructive war for higher readership numbers among Britain’s newspapers is upending the autonomous nooks and crannies which those who used to make the difference in literary London inhabit in their hundreds.
What, until a few years ago, was a complex, polygonal, internally contradictory, and feudal system of editorial relationships among and within the main quality broadsheets now resembles a struggle for total dominance between the “empires” (meaning, in stark contrast to the KGB, the Internal Revenue Service, or the New York Times Company, nothing more menacing than “newspapers”) of Messrs. Murdoch and Black, with the dying Independent as everybody’s punching-bag and the fantastically successful, center-left Guardian magisterially above the fray. In this, I sincerely believe, the Guardian is now presaging its own future role as the lone survivor of the war, and hence Britain’s future New York Times, because in matters of intellectual monopolizing (a lesson apparently lost on Messrs. Murdoch and Black) victory is not to the swift nor to the widely read but to those who bide their time and never put the Spice Girls on the front page.
Mr. Murdoch will lose in the end, and so will Mr. Black. Insofar as they continue to ignore the fundamental truth that editors, journalists, and writers—not discounts and coupons—are what sells, neither deserves to own a serious newspaper. The struggle for “readers” in which they are engaged to the death is so much shadow-boxing, because frivolous and stupid people (who, from the advertisers’ point of view, are also poor) would always rather spend their time watching Christians being fed to the lions than reading Quo Vadis, not to say Gibbon. Those who pander to their vulgar desires may succeed financially, as Mr. Murdoch has succeeded where overt and utter pulp is concerned. But to have major influence is clearly an altogether different objective, one unattainable by purely commercial means. Despite this, both Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Black have been seeking to attain it by purely commercial means for their respective flagships since their war began.
Meanwhile, as a direct result of the war, the cultural landscape has already been dulled almost beyond recognition. The editor, the journalist, and the writer are the obvious losers. That the ignorant architects of their misfortune will be the losers in the long term is small consolation to anybody. As for me, I seem to have nothing with which to compare British publishing any longer when the Italians across the table ask why I chose to settle in England. What would you suggest I say, for crying out loud? Spaghetti-0’s?