The TLS first appeared in 1902 as a supplement to The Times, but became a separate publication in 1914. Many distinguished writers have been contributors, including T. S. Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf, but reviews were normally anonymous until 1974. From 1974, signed reviews were gradually introduced during the editorship of John Gross.
This aroused great controversy at the time. "Anonymity had once been appropriate when it was a general rule at other publications, but it had ceased to be so,” Gross said. “In addition I personally felt that reviewers ought to take responsibility for their opinions."
Martin Amis was a member of the editorial staff early in his career. Philip Larkin's poem Aubade, effectively his final poetic work, was first published in the Christmas-week issue of the TLS in 1977. While it has long been regarded as one of the world's pre-eminent critical publications, its history is not without gaffes. For instance, the publication missed James Joyce entirely and commented only negatively on Lucian Freud from 1945 until 1978, when a portrait of his appeared on the cover.
In recent decades, the TLS has included essays, reviews and poems by John Ashbery, Italo Calvino, Patricia Highsmith, Milan Kundera, Philip Larkin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Joseph Brodsky, Gore Vidal, Orhan Pamuk, Geoffrey Hill, and Seamus Heaney, among others.
Many writers have described the publication as indispensable. For example, prize-winning Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said: “I have been reading the TLS since I learned English 40 years ago. It is the most serious, authoritative, witty, diverse and stimulating cultural publication in all the five languages I speak.”
The Times Literary Supplement has appeared in works of fiction. One of the most backhanded of such mentions appears in the English translation of Samuel Beckett's novel Molloy (1953), in which Molloy relates that:
... in winter, under my greatcoat, I wrapped myself in swathes of newspaper, and did not shed them until the earth awoke, for good, in April. The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a neverfailing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it.
In Kathy Acker's novel, Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986), the eponymous character laments:
'They've separated us. The evil enchanters of this world such as the editors of TLS or Ronald Reagan...' (p. 101)