Ceci n’est pas un supplement
by Thea Lenarduzzi
Ceci n’est pas un blog, either. It is a declaration. We, the Times Literary Supplement, are not a supplement. We are a separate and autonomous publication, with its own front cover and its own back page.
The latest to struggle with this well-established state of affairs is Anne Robinson, alias “The Queen of Mean” on BBC One’s long-running daytime quiz show The Weakest Link. The slip-up was brought to my attention (I was not watching the programme, you understand) after yesterday’s episode in which a contestant was asked: “In newspaper publishing, a weekly supplement to The Times is the TLS, which stands for Times what?” (“Pass”, said Jonathan, a twenty-eight-year-old commercial financial assistant from York).
Of course, I can understand why many might jump to the same conclusion. Oh the treachery of our title! Yet, as a former journalist – with a stint on the Sunday Times no less – one might have expected Anne to get this right. So, Anne, this is for you – a history of the TLS en bref:
The Times Literary Supplement began its life in 1902 as a weekly supplement (yes) to The Times newspaper. But, with Bruce Richmond – the paper’s longest-serving editor to date (thirty-five years) – at the helm, we parted ways, slowly at first. The paper continued to be given out with The Times for a few weeks, but with this notice:
And then, the cord was cut good and proper. That was in 1914, so next year will, in fact, be the 100th anniversary of our rebirth as a non-supplement.
The year gives some indication of the reasons for the schism. As The Times gave over page after page to reports from the Continent and parliamentary coverage from down the road, the “Lit Supp.” was keen that the books piling up in their small corner of the office be valued for more than their potential as barricade material – which is not to say that Richmond and his contributors were deaf to political developments.
On the contrary, in the wake of the declaration of war on August 4, the newly autonomous TLS led with an in-depth round-up of recent books to provide readers with a real understanding of “the crisis”. Cited in Derwent May’s Critical Times is a letter from Lord Northcliffe, the owner of The Times among other papers, to Geoffrey Robinson, then editor of The Times, in which he seems to hold the TLS accountable for a – surely different? – crisis:
“I certainly consider that the Literary Supplement is one of those things which is causing the lamentable figures that are presented to me every day, and which will sooner or later bring about the great crisis”. (But who knows what the man who decided to market The Times as “The Easiest Paper To Read” really intended.)
So, you see, describing the TLS as a supplement to The Times is a bit like describing the Vatican as just another part of Rome: found not far from the old centre, revered by some – no doubt loathed by others – and full of culture and history, involved in politics and economics . . . . Not that I wish to take this analogy any further.
Perhaps, after all, Jonathan-from-York’s “pass” was, in fact, a quiet iteration of defiance.