Burgess began writing journalism when he was student at Manchester University between 1937 and 1940. While there, he contributed book and theatre reviews to the university magazine, The Serpent, which also published his poems and short stories. After being conscripted into the armed forces in December 1940, he went on to write poetry and film reviews for two Army newspapers, The Rock and the Gibraltar Chronicle, while stationed on Gibraltar. Between 1950 and 1954 Burgess was an occasional contributor to the Banburian, the magazine of Banbury Grammar School.
Burgess’s career as a book reviewer and cultural commentator really took flight after he became a full time writer in 1959. From 1960 he was writing regular signed articles for Country Life and and the Listener, as well as anonymous book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). In 1962 he was appointed as the fiction reviewer of the Yorkshire Post, and he produced weekly reviews of new novels until 16 May 1963, when he was sacked for reviewing one of his own novels, Inside Mr Enderby, which he had published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell. This sacking did nothing to diminish his productivity as a journalist. Within a few weeks he was writing regular television reviews for the Listener, as well as fiction reviews for the Guardian and the Observer. In 1965 he was hired as the theatre critic of the Spectator, and he wrote book reviews and political commentaries for the same publication throughout the 1960s. From 1966 until 1968 he had regular columns in the Guardian and the Hudson Review. A selection of his literary essays, Urgent Copy, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1968.
After Burgess left England for Malta in 1968, he continued to write autobiographical articles for the Listener and the American Scholar, as well as a ‘Viewpoint’ column for the TLS.
From 1969 Burgess was regularly commissioned by the New York Times to write on a variety of subjects, including the state of American education, the future of the novel in the year 2000, pornography, the composition of his third symphony, the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the architecture of Gaudi in Barcelona, Yves Saint Laurent, and the proliferation of cockroaches in New York.
In the 1980s he published a regular Monaco diary in the Saturday Review, under the title ‘Notes from the Blue Coast’. He assembled a second volume of his journalism, Homage to Qwert Yuiop, in 1986 (in America this book was published as But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?). Burgess continued to write for the New York Times, the Independent, the Times Literary Supplement and the Observer until his death in 1993.
A third selection of Burgess’s occasional essays, One Man’s Chorus, was edited by Ben Forkner in 1998, and, in 2018, a further collection of Burgess’s literary journalism was published by Carcanet, titled The Ink Trade.
Burgess would sometimes present his journalism as a subliterary activity and a distraction from the real business of writing novels, but, at others, he made clear how much he valued such work. In his introduction to Homage to Qwert Yuiop in 1986, he writes:
‘I do not mind doing this work; indeed, I enjoy it. It is a means of keeping in touch with a public that does not necessarily read my or anybody else’s fiction. The reading and reviewing of books … keeps my mind open to fresh ideas in both literary creation and criticism. And the need to keep within the limit of a thousand words or so is, as with the composing of a sonnet, an admirable formal discipline.’