There is never a good time for a "Dear John" call, and mid-morning on 27 February Robbie Millen, the literary editor of the Times, was embarrassed and apologetic. "Budget cuts," he said, "in every department. I’m going to have to drop your column. We’ll keep going until 4 April, but after that, I’m sorry…" Words to that effect, anyhow. It was like the blade of the guillotine finally dropping. But my head had been on the block for sixteen and a half years.
I’d been a contributor to the books pages of the Times since 15 October 1998, when Erica Wagner, the then Literary Editor, hired me as a regular reviewer. The format of the ‘In Short’ column was simple: reviews at first of five non-fiction books each week, later reduced to three, in 150 words, more or less. I’d open with a brief sketch of what the book was about, sample an amusing anecdote or an arresting remark from the body of the book, and finally say what I thought of it. The form was as strict as a haiku, though my style tended towards the rococo in the teeth, occasionally, of sub-editorial cuts.
As a production line, it was intense: 50 weeks a year, allowing for a Christmas break or when an advertisement took priority, I filed copy for the Saturday books pages. I’ve browsed a lot of books – some 2,750 and counting – during my career as a Times reviewer. But as my Dad might have said, it was better than working down the mines. As a freelance gig, it had lasted longer than I had any right to expect. In most respects, it could have been regarded as a cushy number: all the books I could eat, modest monthly payment, and some associated literary status. I would not have given it up voluntarily to anyone else, for all his or her own hair and teeth and youthful journalistic ambitions. But in the end, it came as no great shock to be given the bum’s rush. Any hurt or hard feelings were short-lived.
I do understand the word "freelance" – it means no security of employment, no pension, no golden handshake at the beginning or end, and no entitlement to the job. When an editor leaves, as Erica Wagner did a couple of years ago in an earlier period of retrenchment and bloodletting at News International, loyal hacks fear for their own security. At that time, Amanda Craig was fired from her prestigious (though parsimoniously paid) position as the respected reviewer of children’s books and replaced by an in-house writer. She did not go quietly. Robbie Millen, as Erica’s replacement, sensibly wore a crash helmet and kept a low profile until the Facebook furore died down and Amanda discovered she was very welcome as a books reviewer and literary feature writer elsewhere.
Since budgets have been cut, not only at the Times but also at the Independent and many other newspapers, literary editors are now too often obliged to farm out books for review to in-house staff. When staffers are well qualified, there is no problem. A review of a biography of Alexander McQueen by the fashion editor of the FT will benefit from her professional expertise; Ben Macintyre of the Times will brings deep background to reviews of books about security matters; and the professional knowledge Richard Morrison brings to his Times reviews of books about music is assured and reassuring. There will generally be no complaints from other in-house staffers who, even if they won’t get paid any extra, get nice free books. But when the beauty editor, to take a random example, is drafted in as a fiction reviewer, the books pages are in trouble. Though the books review pages of newspapers seem a little healthier now than they were, in terms of space at least, the quality of reviewing is more at risk. I was always just a jobbing man of letters, but I took reviewing – even in the short form I became used to – very seriously: I owed a duty of care to readers and authors.
Perhaps the day of the freelance reviewer is over: we are all bloggers now. Some, such as John Self, have made such a substantial and consistent reputation for themselves on their own websites as literary critics and reviewers that they are commissioned to review for the books pages of national newspapers and magazines. The traffic now and again flows the other way: a case in point is Barry Forshaw, who, though he contributes well-informed and lively reviews to the Independent and the Financial Times, is the editor of the authoritative and entertaining Crimetime website.
But we have been here before. In 1938, in Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly wrote, "There are not more than four or five posts in reviewing that carry with them money, freedom, and dignity." By reading two books a day and writing for three papers, a reviewer might make no more than a modest income, at the cost of incurring "the hostility of authors, the envy of other reviewers, and the distrust of his friends against whose books he will seem invariably prejudiced… and whatever happens to him (and there are no pensions for literary hacks), he must realise that he is not indispensable."
In the few weeks since filing my last review column, I’ve felt a guilty, sneaking sense of relief. I have occasional reviews to write for other papers, and I’m still contributing a regular books page to Saga magazine, I have two more books to write (and now the time to write them); and I dare say I won’t starve (though a little weight loss would do me good). Life after the Times will be interesting. As Mehitabel the cat says to Archie the typewriting cockroach when she’s been tossed back in the gutter from her life of cream: "toujours gai, archie, toujours gai!"