For Clive James, the London Review of Books is "the house magazine of the [British] intellectual elite". With a circulation now approaching 50,000, the fortnightly boasts that is the most important literary journal, not only in Britain but in Europe. It easily outstrips its closest rival, the Times Literary Supplement, though it still only has about half the readership of its original model, the New York Review of Books. Last October, the LRB celebrated its 30th anniversary, apparently in robust health. With a circulation of this size, it should at least be breaking even.
Yet the LRB has always received an Arts Council grant, now around £21,000 per annum. No other comparable literary magazine has enjoyed such long-term, inflation-proof, no-strings subsidy from the taxpayer. The Arts Council offers no justification. It merely states that the money is used to pay contributors. Perhaps the Commons Public Accounts Committee will inquire into how the taxpayer benefits from singling out the LRB for preferential treatment.
The magazine's accounts, as submitted to Companies House, do not include a profit and loss account, but they do reveal that the LRB has to service a debt of more than £23 million, paying interest at a rate of eight per cent, and rising by £3 million a year. It is a reasonable inference that the £23 million debt represents loans, plus compound interest, accumulated over 30 years during which the magazine has come under the control of one person, an Anglo-American heiress. Editor, proprietor and creditor: Mary-Kay Wilmers virtually is the LRB.
When the LRB was launched in 1979, inspired by a piece by Frank Kermode, its editor was Karl Miller, who combined the post with his duties as Northcliffe Professor of English at University College, London, and worked tirelessly to attract distinguished critics. Mary-Kay Wilmers — first deputy, later co-editor — was then married to Stephen Frears and close to Alan Bennett, who had introduced them. There is a certain irony in the fact that, as the magazine became increasingly dependent on the Wilmers fortune during the Thatcher-Reagan boom years, it flourished by feeding the British intelligentsia's anti-Thatcherite fury. Friction between the fashionable crowd that surrounded Mary-Kay and the fastidious intellectuals around Karl was inevitable, and could have only one outcome: Miller departed in 1992, leaving Wilmers in sole charge. Since then, the LRB has grown steadily more politicised, its tone shriller, its coterie more exclusive.