A Scrappy Makeover for a Tweedy Literary Fixture
Posted May 27, 2018 6:56 p.m. EDT
LONDON — When Stig Abell was named editor of the venerable Times Literary Supplement, or TLS, two years ago, the baffled reaction among book people was nearly audible. Stig who?
That his previous employer had been The Sun, the right-of-center London tabloid that until 2015 printed a jumbo-size photograph of a topless young woman each day on its “Page 3,” only added to the bemusement.
“It was definitely the talk of the town for a while,” said Mitzi Angel, publisher of Faber & Faber in London. (In September, she will become the publisher of the American publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) “The idea that someone would go from a ‘red top,’ as we call them, directly to the TLS seemed sort of nuts.”
A fixture in England and on the Western world’s literary landscape, the TLS is a weekly book review journal with a reputation for being a bit dowdy — less progressive than The London Review of Books, a biweekly, and less agile than the books section of The Guardian, to name two of its competitors.
Yet the TLS, founded in 1902, occupies a stalwart position in the book world. It puts serious reviewers on scholarly books other publications rarely touch. It has published important criticism by everyone from Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot to Mary Beard and Clive James, as well as major poetry from figures like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney.
Martin Amis was a TLS staffer when young. Many other well-known figures have passed through its ranks. Its top editors have tended to be tweedy, clubbable figures who slip between academia and the upper reaches of journalism.
It is hard to imagine Abell, 38, in tweeds. On a recent overcast morning, he greeted a visitor to the TLS offices — they are in the News Building, the gleaming London headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — wearing what is essentially his uniform: a gray T-shirt, jeans, running sneakers and a scruffily unshaven mien.
He had an endearing bit of bed-head (Abell arrives at the office early, to work on his own writing before his staff arrives), but his brown eyes were bright.
He was brought to the TLS to usher it into a new era.
“We want to keep our core audience,” he said. “But there are many others out there — they do all sorts of things professionally — who remember a time, perhaps in college, when they fed their minds and stretched themselves. They want that feeling again. We want those readers, too.”
To find them, Abell persuaded News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp., to grant him eight extra pages per issue. He has kept his review section intact while adding essays, political commentary and other features.
Some of those features have felt right in the TLS’ wheelhouse — for example, a 1918 Edith Wharton lecture about World War I, delivered in France, that the paper had translated and published in English for the first time.
Other features have been less classically TLS. When the most recent Radiohead album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” came out in 2016, the band did not give interviews. But a TLS contributor, Adam Thorpe, was friends with one of the band members and was present for a recording session. He delivered a detailed inside piece. And when Martin Scorsese sent the TLS a letter in response to a mixed review of his 2016 film, “Silence," Abell asked him to expand it. It became a cover story about film and literary adaptation.
Abell is a lively presence on Twitter and he uses it, on occasion, to find stories. After comedian and writer David Baddiel tweeted about a dog whose owner taught it to do a Nazi salute, for example, Abell commissioned Baddiel to write an essay about comedy, ethics and free speech.
Abell, who describes his own politics as centrist, is especially interested in increasing the paper’s political commentary. The TLS was the only English-language paper to review Emmanuel Macron’s book, “Revolution,” which had been published only in French, before the 2017 election.
Abell has made other changes. He has beefed up the TLS website and hired the paper’s first social media staffer.
More significantly, he has increased the number of female writers in the TLS. On his watch, each cover began to have a 50-50 ratio of male and female bylines. In each of its March issues this year, for the first time in its history, the paper ran as many pieces by women as men. The TLS has come a long way. About the female reviewers in its first 1,000 issues, from 1902 to 1921, Deborah McVea and Jeremy Treglown wrote in the TLS:
“It is of interest, though it is not a surprise, that of 1,036 contributions in these early years, the number of women (76) was exceeded by the number of clergymen (81) and almost matched by those of men educated at a single Oxford college, Balliol (67)."
About this subject, Abell comments: “I want to get to the point where we don’t have to think of gender at all when putting together an issue, because we always have a stock of pieces that are half by men and half by women.”
A mix of ethnicities matters to him too. “If you want a bigger audience, people have got to see people like themselves writing for it.”
Abell’s tweaks to the TLS are paying off. The paper is the fastest-growing weekly publication in the United Kingdom, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Paid sales from subscriptions and newsstand have been up 30 percent each of the past two years, from about 26,000 in 2016 to nearly 45,000 today. “It has become more engaged, and its reviewers have become more interesting,” Angel said. “There’s a sense that if something happens, the TLS will cover it. When Elena Ferrante’s identity was revealed, for example, Abell immediately picked up the phone and called a friend of mine to write something for the TLS blog.”
Angel has never met Abell. Neither have most of England’s writers, agents and publishers. He doesn’t go to book parties. He doesn’t do lunch. He maintains, he says, no literary friendships.
When he isn’t at home with his wife, Nadine, a hypnotherapist, and their two young children (a third is on the way), he regularly hosts the BBC Radio 4 culture show “Front Row” and reviews newspapers weekly on the air for Sky News.
His first book, “How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation,” was published in England this month. A review in The Guardian called it " wry, readable, even whimsical.”
Those who do know Abell are not surprised at his steep trajectory. He was born in Nottingham, 128 miles north of London. His father worked in England for 3M, the U.S. corporation that makes Scotch tape.
After attending a nearby private school, Abell went on to Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College, where he graduated in 2001 with a rare “double first” in English. (The word double refers to the two parts of the degree. Abell was Emmanuel’s top English student in both sections.)
After graduation he reached out to the TLS to ask if he could write a book review. The paper said yes. He reviewed an Ethan Canin novel under the byline Stephen Abell.
Stig is a nickname from his youth, a reference to the shaggy cave man in Clive King’s 1963 children’s novel “Stig of the Dump.” One journalist commented that Abell’s beard and Viking name make him seem like the fifth member of Abba. Over the years he would write for most of England’s literary sections.
In 2001, he joined the Press Complaints Commission, an industry watchdog group, and in 2010 became its director. In 2013, he was hired by The Sun to be its managing editor.
He enjoyed the rush of tabloid journalism and the headline wordplay. “Tabloids find themselves in so many messes,” he said, “because while the world is full of nuance and shading, when you have a big space to fill with six words you have to be all in on something.”
Some readers will not forgive Abell for being a senior editor when The Sun published a column by former reality TV contestant and provocateur Katie Hopkins that compared immigrants to “cockroaches." Abell said he regretted the column was not better edited.
He is unafraid of engaging with readers. When he did a question-and-answer session last year on Reddit, the rowdy social news aggregation site, an anonymous participant asked him, “Of all the lies you published during your time at The Sun, what was your favorite?”
He responded: “I can honestly say that I never saw anybody at The Sun setting out to lie about anything in my time. The paper got things wrong, of course, and published views with which many would disagree, but that is something different.”
He was asked by News UK management to apply for the TLS job after the paper’s editor of 14 years, Peter Stothard, decided to step down. Abell wrote a memo that impressed people; no other candidates were considered.
He was officially tapped for the job by Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News UK. (The TLS no longer has any direct connection to The Times of London, though both are under the News UK umbrella.)
Outside the office, Abell’s cultural tastes lean toward America. Three of his favorite novels, the ones he gives people over and over, are Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich” and James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid.”
He has visited Minnesota once, but because 3M is based there, he closely follows the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves. He listens to ESPN and rereads Roger Angell’s baseball books.
He is a fan of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. “I read the first one and then I realized, ‘Oh my God, there are 20 of these?'” He watches the sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and has admitted to a guilty fondness for Guns N’ Roses.
“Editors are very self-important people, but they’re not very important people,” Abell said, touting the bona fides of his staff of about 20. When a TLS fiction editor, Rozalind Dineen, returned from maternity leave, Abell welcomed her back by asking if she would become features editor, a job he privately refers to as “the minister of fun.”
He told her: “So your job is this: In every 40-page issue, I want there to be a couple of things that make people say, ‘Oh, did you see the TLS had that?'”