How the Cambridge Literary Review is taking on the establishment

How the Cambridge Literary Review is taking on the establishment

How the Cambridge Literary Review is taking on the establishment

Launched as a reaction to the lack of outlets for challenging contemporary writing, a Cambridge-based journal is finding favour in the very places it aims to be the antidote for.

One year on from its birth and with the fifth issue soon to be released, the Cambridge Literary Review continues to gain prominence, with a strong write up in the Times Literary Supplement and copies on sale in the Tate Modern bookshop amongst others. But its editors believe that the CLR’s clean design and tactile pages host some of the most subtle and stimulating writing currently published by any literary journal in the UK.

"There is no other journal in Britain with a high intellectual profile whose poetry matches the quality of its essays," states Lydia Wilson, one of the founders of the CLR; "we fill a gap in the market because of the type of writing we publish, which is not afraid of complexity and tackling difficult subjects."

Lydia, a Research Fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science Department, started the Review with PhD student Boris Jardine in September 2009, using a grant from the University’s 800th Anniversary fund to get the first issue off the ground. Since then the journal has been making a name for itself, with a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement praising the CLR’s defiant reclaiming of the ’difficult’ label that has been associated with Cambridge’s literary output since the late 1960s. It was during this period that a loose collective of poets known as the ’Cambridge school’ emerged in the city, some of whom have new work featured in the Review’s first few editions.

The ’Cambridge school’ were notorious for their outsider status and avant-garde approach, with writers such as John James and J.H. Prynne at the forefront of the "British poetry revival" of the time. Some see the Cambridge Literary Review as a willing heir to this mantle with its embracing of the abstract, but Boris insists that this is not the case: "We set up the CLR with the intention of undermining the received definition of the ’Cambridge school’, which we felt had become a disparaging term used to pigeonhole a poetic tradition yet to be adequately described. Our first issue contained original works from within and outside of that tradition - to test them against each other, and in some cases show how closely allied they can be."

The Cambridge Literary Review has set about establishing itself as a home for experimental contemporary poetry and prose, featuring the work of a wide variety of writers from the UK and abroad. The writing of young poets such as Marianne Morris and Alexander Nemser (whose work featured in Robert DeNiro’s film The Good Shepherd) can be found alongside essays from established writers and novelists like Iain Sinclair and Rebecca Stott. Other contributions have come from ’Cambridge school’ figureheads and current Cambridge academics, such as Raymond Geuss from the Philosophy Department, whose work covers topics from ethics to architecture.

Despite the Review’s infancy, the editors already lay claim to several coups, including new work from the poet Helen Macdonald (described by the TLS as one of the outstanding poets of the 1990s and a "feather in the cap" for the CLR), and in the forthcoming fifth issue, out in March, a previously uncollected story by the author Donald Barthelme, whose work enjoys immense popularity in the States. The story recounts the narrator’s attempts to seduce the ’perfect woman’, and showcases Barthelme’s trademark sense of the absurd.

The poet John Kinsella once described the ’Cambridge school’ as needing "something to react against." While the CLR’s editors may be wary of endorsing the ’difficult’ label that has both defined and dogged that movement, they are taking a stand against what they view as a staid literary scene in the UK. "We find the literary culture in this country depressingly at odds with the quality of writing produced on these shores," says Boris, "the internet has begun to break down some of the barriers that have allowed a small sub-class to control literary consumption, but there is a need for journals such as ours to select and disseminate the best work currently being written."

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