From tabloid to literary steward

Under Stig Abell, the Times Literary Supplement or TLS is taking steps to enter a new era and has hired the paper's first social media staffer.
Under Stig Abell, the Times Literary Supplement or TLS is taking steps to enter a new era and has hired the paper's first social media staffer.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Stig Abell, editor of the venerable Times Literary Supplement, used to work for London tabloid The Sun

LONDON • His previous employer was The Sun, a London tabloid that, until 2015, printed a jumbo-sized photograph of a topless young woman each day on its Page 3.

So when Stig Abell was named editor of the venerable Times Literary Supplement (TLS) two years ago, the baffled reaction among book people was nearly audible.

Could high art and "low art" be bedfellows?

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 that 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.

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 visitors to the TLS offices in London wearing what is essentially his uniform: a grey T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a scruffily unshaven mien.

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, he persuaded News UK, the British subsidiary of News Corp, to grant him eight extra pages an issue. He has kept his review section intact while adding essays, political commentary and other features.

Some features have felt right at home in the TLS' den - 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, is friends with one of the band members and was present for a recording session. He delivered a detailed inside piece.

Abell has beefed up the TLS website and hired the paper's first social media staffer.

He has also increased the number of female writers. 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, it ran as many pieces by women as men.

"It has become more engaged and its reviewers have become more interesting," said Ms Mitzi Angel, publisher of Faber & Faber in London. "There's a sense that if something happens, the TLS will cover it."

She has never met Abell. Neither have most of England's writers, agents and publishers. He does not go to book parties nor do lunch.

When he is not 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.

He studied in Cambridge University's Emmanuel College, where he graduated in 2001 with a rare "double first" in English.

He approached the TLS to ask if he could write a book review. It said yes. 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, he became its director.

In 2013, he was hired by The Sun to be its managing editor.

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: "Of all the lies you published during your time at The Sun, what was your favourite?"

He responded: "I can honestly say 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, Mr Peter Stothard, decided to step down. Abell wrote a memo that impressed people; no other candidates were considered.

"Editors are very self-important people, but they're not very important people," Abell said, touting instead his staff of about 20.

He wants them to generate word of mouth from readers.

When a TLS fiction editor, Ms Rozalind Dineen, returned from maternity leave, he 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?'"

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'From tabloid to literary steward'. Print Edition | Subscribe