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The last week of term saw Professor Matthew Philpotts, MLC’s new Head of Department, give his inaugural lecture. A strong turnout not only from MLC, but also including colleagues from the rest of the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures, former colleagues of Matthew’s and, most importantly, his mother, mingled after the lecture over festive treats in the form of mulled wine and mince pies. In this final Q+A of the term, Matthew tells us about the topic of his talk, as well as his first impressions of Liverpool.

What inspired you to look at these three different authors? What do they have in common? 

You mean as well as being very dead, very white, and very male? Well, I’m interested in the many different ways that people act as editors of literary magazines and the many different types of people who take on that role. These three authors interest me because they have three things in common as editors. First, rather than being journalists, academics, or keen amateurs, for example, Mann, Eliot, and Sartre are all examples of authors who edited a literary magazine. But, of course, they’re also among the most well-known and internationally celebrated of all authors. Each was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – even if Sartre turned it down in 1964. They’re also examples of founding editors, that is, editors who launched a magazine, rather than taking on an existing one. Finally, they launched those magazines within about 20 years of one another, during some of the most turbulent decades of the 20th century: the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Their magazines were a way of intervening in the crisis they saw around them in those decades. 

What is the main argument put forward in your lecture?

I suppose the main argument is that the immense reputation of these three writers as ‘authors’ has come to influence perceptions and interpretations of their practice as editors. So in all three cases they’ve been understood as strongly individual, ‘charismatic’ editors who were the main determining influence on their magazines. But in fact the reality is very different. All three were strongly dependent on a whole range of other editorial figures, some official and recognised, some entirely unofficial. For example, all three depended heavily on their wives and partners and also on their publishers. So, we have to think of editing as a joint enterprise, carried out by a network of actors, and its success depends on having the right mix of individuals and the right social conditions. The perception of Mann, Eliot, and Sartre as individual editors is a myth that obscures the social practice of editorship. 

Is this topic part of a wider project? 

Yes, it’s part of a book project called Editing the Twentieth Century. In the book, I’m writing five chapters, each of which looks at a different type of editorship through a set of comparative case studies. I’ve been lucky enough to get a British Academy Fellowship to complete the book and to hold a conference on the same topic at the British Library in September. 

What have you made of your first term as Head of Department? 

Ha! It’s been interesting. Challenging in all kinds of ways, but certainly never dull. Seriously, I think there’s a sense that in the past Liverpool hasn’t managed to project itself as successfully nationally and internationally as it might have done. That it’s a bit of a well-kept secret, if you like. And that’s certainly what I’ve found. We have incredibly talented and committed staff, both in research and teaching, across a huge range of areas. And it’s a very vibrant department that manages to combine outstanding research with a focus on language teaching that’s quite rare for a Russell Group university. But there’s also a great deal of unrealised potential and partly that’s as simple as getting the message out there about what we do have to offer. So there’s a really exciting job to do!