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This item is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

THE tenth anniversary of PNR cannot be allowed to pass with, sounding in our ears, the General Editor's worried self-reproaches about this magazine's shortcomings. Every one knows that from the first and throughout PNR has reflected overwhelmingly the character and sensibility, the persistence and ingenuity and industry, of one man: Michael Schmidt. Charles Sisson and I, whose editorial responsibilities have been altogether more intermittent and lordly (mostly confined to rude sniffings and hectorings in private correspondence), are in a position to know what we all owe to Michael Schmidt-meaning by 'we' every one in the English-speaking world who conceives of imaginative writing as more than an optional self-indulgence. This is the time for that debt to be acknowledged.

Who now remembers that when the twice-yearly miscellany Poetry Nation became PN Review, the magazine was hailed guardedly and apprehensively as a right-wing publication? Or that within a few years that canard had sharpened, so that in some influential circles we were smeared as proto-fascists and anti-semites? This is already hard to credit; there is more force in the objection, sometimes made, that in our tenderness towards the Left we have too often permitted in our pages impenitent ex-Stalinists to rewrite their deluded pasts. The point is that this did not represent a shift of policy on Schmidt's part; he intended from the first to hold and strengthen the constitutional Centre in politics by, among other things, giving equal space and attention to Left and to Right. From the first of course he was under pressure from delicately-minded people, including some of our most regular and valued contributors, to ignore politics altogether, as a dirty business that a literary magazine should not soil its hands with. And it's plain that at times he has wavered, swayed by this argument. He wavers still, if we judge from his editorial in PNR 27, where he ruminates about PNR's promise 'to attend to the wider context of our literary life', and asks himself anxiously: 'How wide is the "wider context", how contingent is it to the rare authentic literary enterprise?' He deserves a straight answer: that context must be at least wide enough to comprehend the doings of the Scottish Arts Council in relation to Ian Hamilton Finlay-a scandal that he has doggedly refused to brush under the carpet, in the face of what with justified irritation he calls the 'shrugging apathy' of the rest of us. And that matter is directly political, in that it shows how state patronage of the arts works out, and arguably must work out, in any particular case of independent and original art-work. So let him continue to badger us on these mundane affairs, as on the process by which (Editorial PNR 26) 'Publishing, which used to be akin to forestry, thriving on good husbandry, increasingly resembles the fast food business . . .'. These matters cannot be discussed except in prose more workaday and wearisome than any of us likes; but they are crucial, and Schmidt is right to insist on thrusting them under our noses.

This raises another issue: Michael Schmidt's dual allegiance as General Editor of this magazine, and as publisher of Carcanet Press. It must have been noticed, though I haven't seen it remarked on, that Carcanet authors by and large get reviewed far more fiercely in PNR than elsewhere. Certainly some Carcanet authors have noticed this, and have been understandably wounded; but it was essential to Schmidt's editorial policy, if PNR was to escape the obvious slur that it was merely a Carcanet Press house-magazine. If I may be personal, nothing pleases me more from the ten years of our existence than the gradual recognition, by Carcanet authors who are often also regular contributors, that when we review them severely that only shows what high hopes we continue to have of them. It amounts to nothing less than this: that in at least one magazine in the Kingdom a severe or unfavourable review is one thing, a hostile review is something else. In fact our review section, I would claim, is one department where there has been demonstrable improvement from first to last-in our early issues, our reviewing was sometimes inexcusably random and sloppy; now it is much more consistent and reliable, thanks to a few like Dick Davis who have undertaken to mastermind important sectors of it. 'Reliable' doesn't mean 'predictable'. And it's to be hoped the General Editor is gratified that those who to begin with looked to see which of opposed factions we would line up with-traditionalist or experimental, Europeanist or Anglo-American, Wintersians or Poundlings-have found themselves continually confounded by an editorial taste that is not eclectic but catholic. Ten years ago, if Thom Gunn had been ready to put in order his ideas about Basil Bunting, he could doubtless have found somewhere to publish them; but I think we may congratulate ourselves that in the 1980s we have shown ourselves, by our reviewing policies, the one right place for such a reaching out across frontiers that in other quarters are still defended with fierce tenacity. (Thom Gunn and George Steiner, it will be noticed, are just two of the distinguished writers who were prudently wary of us through our first years but now seem to think we have proved ourselves.)

When in the last issue Schmidt remarked on 'the relative lack of controversy which greeted some of our more challenging essay contributions', the last thing he could have intended was to complain of our readers. Obviously, without their continuing loyalty we'd be out of business tomorrow. But he did put his finger on something that has surprised all of us connected with the magazine: our readers may be loyal, but they are singularly uncommunicative. Schmidt, I believe, gets letters not meant for publication which sometimes he finds both instructive and heartening. Besides, we are not principally a journal of opinion, and we can do without letters from the promptly and confidently opinionated. All the same, one thing that we certainly hoped for when we started has not come about: that is to say, a dialogue between writers and readers. In black moments, when we notice how many of the letters we publish are signed by those we know of as writers, we think in despair that no one reads us except those who either write for us or plan to. That would indeed be cause for despair. What we need, what all writers need, is a public. After ten years the magazine, we think, must have assembled such a public; but if so, the lineaments of that public are as unclear to us as they were to begin with. Does our readership overlap significantly with that of The London Review of Books, of The London Magazine, of The New Yorker, of journals quite different from any of these? Or do we address a constituency in some measure peculiarly our own? If we could ever spare resources for market research, these are questions to which I for one would dearly like to see the answers. When we have published pieces that we thought of as highly controversial, we thought that the response we would get would point towards such answers; but as Michael Schmidt says, it has always turned out that we were less controversial than we thought. Our readership, it seems, is notably unshockable, and keeps its own counsel. Fair enough, of course; each of our readers has a right to his or her privacy, even anonymity. Still, Michael Schmidt seems to think that he wants, or needs, to be talked back to. Perhaps some grateful readers will oblige him.

This item is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

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