The London Review of Books quietly encourages writers to address front-page issues. And it's no coincidence that female authors have provoked the biggest rows
For once, we should have seen the latest London Review of Books kerfuffle coming. Hilary Mantel gave her Royal Bodies lecture on 4 February, preceded by publicity indicating she would riskily view the Duchess of Cambridge as another lovely bride in the tradition of Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana, all three of whom suffered violent, untimely deaths. Dynamite potential: quite high.
And for once too, the LRB – in contrast to its flustered response in 2001 to the fuss about a Mary Beard post-9/11 piece that said many people felt America "had it coming" – seemed prepared for the media melee, even perhaps relishing it; it was ready with audio of Mantel's lecture for Radio 4's Today once the "story" broke, and pointed out on Twitter that "what she really wrote is about how the media make the royals suffer".
Yet by then things had followed a familiar, tardy pattern, rather eerily echoing Anne Enright's experience in 2007. Fifteen days after Mantel's lecture, five after its publication, a passage was noticed that could be dressed up as a "venomous attack" – just as the earlier Booker winner's reflections on Gerry and Kate McCann (also readable as really being criticism of the media) were spotted and denounced as a "venomous attack" over a fortnight after appearing.
That these rows seem to explode out of nowhere reflects the fact that the LRB doesn't behave like a magazine intent on causing conniptions in Westminster or invading tabloid territory. Buy if you are expecting classier celebrity-bashing or longer, better-written opinion columns then you are liable to be disappointed; its staple fare consists of history, literature and ideas), with pop culture an occasional treat and politics normally restricted to book reviews or foreign dispatches.
This differentiates it from the New York Review of Books, which it emerged from and was modelled on. The US organ offers more current affairs and is likelier to run free-standing political essays. The contrast in focus and style is nicely symbolised by the current covers: David Petraeus for the NYRB, versus not Kate Middleton, or even Anne Boleyn, but an antique jug for the LRB.
However, the British title is also markedly different in this respect from the Times Literary Supplement, which confines its non-review pages to the arts and scholarly speculation, and its writers' diaries (the format in which Enright voiced her feelings about the McCanns) to anodyne ramblings about the freelance life. TLS quarrels tend to be don-on-don, and don't require comment from David Cameron.
So while not primarily political like its US parent, Mary-Kay Wilmers' magazine is far from being as apolitical as its domestic rival, as a list of past and current contributors including Tariq Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Eric Hobsbawm and Pankaj Mishra attests. Broadly anti-neocon, anti-neoliberalism and anti-Zionist, it has hence known more orthodox, NYRB-style controversies, following, for example, a 2006 article on America's "Israel lobby" or Mishra's 2011 Niall Ferguson takedown.
Its speciality, though, is the stealth (real or perceived) attack, coming from an unexpected direction or with spiky opinion camouflaged as academic or literary musings, and either challenging conventional pieties or declining to genuflect to them – a willingness it displayed early on with a Norman Stone hatchet job on the recently deceased historian EH Carr. It encourages superficially unlikely figures – ranging from the then-unknown classicist Beard to a series of novelists, from Angela Carter in the 1980s to John Lanchester and others now – to address front-page issues and public figures.
The LRB has been called "the leading journal in the west edited by a woman", and it can't be pure coincidence that Beard, Enright and Mantel have provoked the biggest rows. But that's partly because their sex gives the press a double stereotype to pounce on: not just bookish types straying dreamily into columnists' domain, but also in the recent instances, female intellectuals (snooty, sheltered, embittered, etc) who supposedly despise less brainy women.