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Behind the scenes of Arts & Books: Who reviews the reviewers?

Unpacking just some of the books Prospect receives. Photo: Prospect

 

In this month’s look behind the scenes for Prospect’s Editor’s Club, we meet Sameer Rahim.

Imagining how a feature or opinion piece comes together isn’t hard. The editor chooses a writer and a subject, they send their piece in, they both work together to edit it, and then eventually it goes on the page. Job done.

Managing how books are reviewed, however, has one additional, and tricky, step: managing all the new books that are coming out, and deciding which are worthy of review.

For Sameer Rahim, Prospect’s managing editor—and editor of the Arts and Books pages—the process starts with around 300 review copies a month.

“We get a sackful of books every day—between 10 and 20 titles,” Rahim says.

“Firstly I quickly get rid of the books that we really won’t do: thrillers, romance, celebrity stuff.  That usually halves the load. Then I divide the rest into fiction and and non-fiction, all the time thinking what might make a good piece, or who might write on it.”

“Books we will almost certainly do I pile on my desk; books we might do I put on set of shelves near the door; books that we won’t do I put on the chuck-out shelf at the back.”

“That pile eventually gets collected by a bookseller”, Rahim says—after, that is, the rest of the Prospect staff have taken anything that interests them.

Unpacking just some of the books Prospect receives. Photo: Prospect

But keeping on top of what’s happening in the world of publishing isn’t just a matter of sitting back and waiting for a sack of books to show up.

“I also often have meetings with publishers who take me through their catalogues. That can be an efficient way of absorbing lots of information.”

“I usually go through the catalogues every few months as well, and list the books that might be interesting. I always look out for other book sections in newspapers, magazines both here and in the US to see what I’ve missed—there’s always something.”

However much Rahim tries to keep up to date, however, there’s still a Prospect line that he considers core to our books coverage.

“We mainly cover non-fiction, tackling subjects in the Prospect space: politics, economics, philosophy, ideas, history. We don’t cover as much fiction as I’d like, but as well as covering the biggish names, I try and slip in a few outliers.”

Books pile up in the office. Photo: Prospect

There’s also an attempt to keep up to date with new trends: Publishing, like anything, goes through waves. Recent trends are books by doctors—which we covered in a brilliant piece by Joanna Bourke entitled “Are surgeons psychopaths?”—and those on sleeping,” which, he jokes, “we have avoided.”

“A perennial theme is the legacy of the Enlightenment, which we’ve covered quite a lot from different perspectives—most recently in Philip Ball’s review of Steven Pinker’s new tome. Issues around liberalism, democracy and the rise of populism have obviously been on our mind. I also try to have at least one piece on art, film or music as well. We have a terrific piece on Ingmar Bergman and women by Francine Stock in this issue.”

Rahim’s editorial judgement reminds me of the pieces the LRB ran after the death of their former editor, Karl Miller—one of the most famous books editors in Britain, and a man of sometimes idiosyncratic taste. How much, I wonder, does the personality of the individual editor matter?

“A lot,” Rahim says. “Someone else in my position would probably chose a completely different set of books and subjects and it would be as good if not better.”

“Then again,” he adds, “if I just commissioned what I was really interested in, then we would just do pieces on opera and Persian miniatures.”

“I will often commission something to learn more about a subject. We could do more on pop music perhaps, and life-writing.”

Books under consideration for review. Photo: Prospect

“I’m always looking for new subjects though: something I’m excited about is a review of a memoir by Sujatha Gidla, an Indian ‘untouchable’ who now lives in America.”

“A left-field choice, perhaps, but it’s beautifully written and an untold story that also has wider political/social resonance. So in a way perfect Prospect material.”