I was the literary editor for the Independent on Sunday for 11 years, then spent 14 months at the Financial Times filling in for someone on maternity leave. It isn’t the hardest job in the world. You have to get beyond your own personal taste. I’ve seen some literary editors say “I only like crime fiction.” That’s not right. The tone should be an amused one—it’s a dinner-party conversation, with a good mix of voices all saying interesting things.
The tough part about that job is that there’s always an editor pushing this or that way—it became a pain. What it did do, though, was give me loads of contacts, and I still feel plugged in. I’ve got lots to do and say—which was why I started my blog, Suzi Feay’s Book Bag, in January this year. I was staying with my brother in Vancouver; he bullied me into starting it and set me up technically. To begin with, I was just interested in how viral it could go, and, supported by Facebook and Twitter, it immediately took off. “I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst)” has been the line at the top of the blog since day one. I sometimes read 120, in fact. Books have a long shelf life. They don’t go off like milk—and it’s a great relief not to have that constant time thing and not have to be newsy.
How it works
I talk to agents, publishers and writers. I try and craft the writing as much as I can. I hope it’s well written and carefully done. I try to keep posts short, no more than five or six paragraphs. I’d like to do more interviews. Most of my followers are in the industry, but the ripples are beginning to go further and further out. One of my recent posts is called “Where are all the female reviewers?” About 75 percent of people who write for the Times Literary Supplement are men. There was a big debate about this on my Facebook page, but there’s been comment on my blog too. I get comments from real novelists on Facebook and the blog. As a former book-page editor, I know what goes on. That post lifts the veil on the industry—it’s everything you ever wanted to know about a literary editor but were afraid to ask. The truth is, when a new editors come on board they always say they want great ideas, but what they really mean is that they want more things delivered on time and they want big-name reviewers.
I am, it turns out, a literary editor without portfolio. Of course I want to support writers, but the primary thing is to serve readers. There are many misconceptions about what a review really is. Who is it for? This isn’t about “Will Zadie like my review of her book?” It’s not a secret love letter to writers. Reviews aren’t for the writer. With luck the blog will highlight things that should have a wider currency. I want to promote authors who deserve promotion. I was an early advocate of David Mitchell and Sarah Waters. By promoting I mean doing such things as commissioning reviews of Mitchell’s novels, nominating his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as my book of the year, talking about him to other journos, contributing to the general buzz. I also wrote a piece in the Independent that Amanda Ross—of the Richard and Judy Book Club—read. She later told me the piece inspired her to call the book in and read it. It was subsequently featured in the Book Club and won their book-of-the-year award. That’s probably the most tangible example. And the Independent on Sunday was the only broadsheet that reviewed Sarah Waters’s debut novel, Tipping the Velvet (published by Virago), though of course she became a big star after book three.
Where it’s going
The blog is still in embryo, really, there’s still stuff to be developed. I want to give opinions and get people involved. It doesn’t make money, so I supplement it with freelance stuff—a bit of broadcasting, chairing a few literary events (I’ve done more than a hundred over my career!) and doing my own writing. Nobody knows how the money is going to work. Book pages on newspapers and journals are getting squeezed. There are no ads. The pages are shrinking. But what I want to do is give opinions and get people involved. Back in the day I was lucky if I got one letter from readers—now there’s so much to and fro, just as there was about my male vs. female reviewer thing. I’m relaxed about the blog not being monetized. I care about readers.