Peter Houston

Peter Houston: So what is the New Republic

Laura Marsh: The New Republic is a largely political magazine, it was founded in 1914. It’s always been intensely involved in the question of what liberalism is and what liberal politics looks like. Another thing I tell people about it is that as well as having this focus on politics has always been very involved with culture, arts, literature, and the political dimensions of culture, too.

So if you’re looking at a UK equivalent, would that be like the New Statesman?

I used to wonder about this, too. Obviously, having grown up in the UK, I think we don’t have quite as wide a range of magazines, as exists in America. But the New Statesman isn’t a bad comparison, because it has a very political front half of magazine, and then it also has really good coverage of literature and film and art. So I think that’s a good comparison.

It shows like a real mix between what’s going on in politics and what’s going on in culture.

Yeah, and the idea being that the same kind of person might be interested in both and the same kind of writers might write about both. So someone who’s writing about what’s happening in Washington and Westminster might also have an interesting reading of a new book or a TV show.

And you’re still in print, you’ve got ten issues here, is that right?

Yeah, we were a print magazine, and we also publish daily on the website.

The tyranny of print and web, you’ve got to fill both.

I find the print structure very useful. Because it gives the year of the magazine a rhythm, it also gives me like a set of boxes to put things in. So I know that I need a film piece every issue, or I know that I want to cover something on fiction every issue. So it’s a nice way of structuring what we’re doing and making sure that we’re actually giving readers a variety of stuff, rather than just reacting.

Your role is literary editor, is that right?


What does that mean? What do you do? What’s your focus?

So the print magazine is split into three sections: the front is short, political commentary, the middle is features, and then the back is what I edit. It’s essays about culture books, and other forms of art. So I edit that. It’s a set of usually five or six essays that have about 2000 to 4000 words each. They’re kind of in this tradition of essay reviews, rather than straightforward book reviews. So they’re trying to use a book or in some cases a film or art show to explore a bigger idea.

That bigger idea is the point isn’t it, like a stepping off point? It’s a way for people to get their own opinions about the world out there.

Yeah, I think so. It’s an occasion to think about a subject. So if we were publishing a book about the New Deal, I wouldn’t necessarily want the reviewer to go through and explain what the author of that book does well in each chapter, I would like them to write an essay about the New Deal, and why it’s interesting to think about it now and to engage with other views of that, to give the reader a sense of what the debate is about this subject and how can I navigate through it.

The book is going to be a part of that, and you’re not going to ignore the thing that you’re viewing, but at the same time, I think that the way I see magazines at their most exciting is that you can give a reader a window into a whole world of debate and discussion that they might not otherwise have access to. Because not everyone is spending all day reading every single opinion about what’s happening in politics, or every single take on a new novel.

So your challenge, I would think, is commissioning people that have really good insight and good points of view. You can’t just drag someone off the street and say, can you review this? They really have to be a thinker in their own right.

I think so. I think it’s it’s definitely like there’s a specific form of writing that we do and that several other similar publications do. I think that it’s important for a viewer to be aware of that, as the mode that this is not a straightforward review and for them to be interested in writing in that way. So I think that, in some ways, that review is self-selecting a group of people who admire this form of writing and aspire to take part in it.

Definitely, when you’re commissioning this kind of piece, you can’t dictate what the person is going to say because it’s too complicated. So I couldn’t say, I think we should have something on this because that just wouldn’t work. I have a sense of what I think they might be interested in, and they would have something interesting to say, but part of the fun is that I don’t know what that’s going to be.

You’re matching the right people with the right book basically. That’s the clever part.

Yeah, yeah. So I think you try to get a sense of the writer’s interests, and what they might have something interesting to say about, so not necessarily the thing that they’re always writing about, because they might have said everything they have to say about that, but something that might push them into slightly fresh territory, that will be interesting and stimulating for them and for the reader.

When I looked at some of the past contributors, the list is basically a who’s who of public intellectuals, Maynard Keanes, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell, some of the British ones. How would you compare those kinds of people that everyone knows about to public intellectuals today?

Well, the first thing you have to remember is some of those really famous contributors when they were writing for The New Republic were not well known. Some of them were, but some of them were at the beginning of their careers. They were trying criticism.

For instance, a really good example is that in the 1950s, before he was famous, before he published Portnoy’s Complaint, we published Goodbye Columbus. Philip Roth was the film reviewer of the New Republic, no one had ever heard of him. This was not a big deal to hire Phillip Roth the film reviewer, this was like trying out some kid and seeing whether he’ll be good at it. So that’s one of the interesting things about working in a magazine that’s been around over 100 years is that you get to see ‘oh, this was what a famous writer did when they were just starting out’.

And then when you bring it out from the archive, it’s like, look at this huge, famous person that wrote for us. Of course, there were also people who were already famous, or Nobel Prize winners, bestselling authors who were at the height of their fame for the New Republic, too. And that’s still true. I mean, among the people that have written for us recently, Marilyn Robinson wrote an essay about the anniversary of the reformation, John Banville frequently contributes, Vivian Gornick, who is one of the great feminist writers, writes frequently for us.

So I think there will always be that kind of writing in the magazine. And the other part of your question, of is it hard to get people to write a really solid essay? I think, actually, that’s never been a problem.

I think writing, the quality of writing across the board is improving. I definitely see no shortage of really brilliant young essayists. Because they’re reading so much, they’re reading so many of these essays, and they’re so steeped in on discourse that they really know their way around the form. And they know all the moves and they know how to make their arguments to maximum effect. So I feel pretty lucky that there’s such a wide range of talented reviewers to choose from.

That’s so interesting, in a world where we naturally think that public discourse has just gone to crap, mainly because of social media. So it’s interesting to hear you saying that you actually think it’s, on one level, better than it’s ever been?

Oh, well, I agree with you, the discourse in general is worse and I think that is largely because of social media. But I think in this corner of it, which is the opposite of social media, it takes a long time to publish a 4000-word book review in the print edition of The New Republic.

It takes many months, like it’s not something that you just think, ‘oh, this is my take and you publish it’. Because you’re probably going have to read a load of books, and then make notes on them, draft a piece, then I have to edit it. And that might take a while going back and forth.

And then it’s going to go into a layout, and it’s going to be read by a copy editor. It’s going to be a fact-checker, then it has to be printed, so all these things take time. So I think all of that stuff slows down but also deepens the process of thinking. And I think that’s why it does feel so different from the very quick, reactive conversations that often happen online.

One of my questions for you was what you thought print magazine can bring to the cultural or political discourse in a world of social media where things are moving so fast, but you kind of just answered that. It’s that you actually bring some proper discipline and some proper thought to the process.

I think there’s another answer, too, which is that one of the difficulties of publishing monthly rather than daily is that you can’t predict what’s going to happen in between writing your piece and publishing it. So you have to keep trying to get ahead of events or look ahead. I think the result of that is that you try to come up with ideas that are big enough to last a bit longer. If they’re not quite evergreen, at least, then they might have six-months lifespan instead of a one-week lifespan.

And that’s a really useful way to think about stories and push yourself to find the biggest frame that you can for a story and to broaden it and go into the implications, because those are the things that aren’t going to age poorly. Whereas journalism that just tries to keep up with the latest developments is going to be overtaken the next day.

Focusing on weird Nicki Minaj trees.

Right? Although that one has played for a lot longer than I thought it would. We’re on day four.

How do you think the magazine’s changed in its 100 years, more than 100 years. How do you think it’s changed over its history?

I mean, some of the changes are astonishing and inevitable, because when I look back through the archive, you see pieces that are debating, like whether we should have social security, which is the American version of a pension. You see pieces arguing to provide Medicare, which is medical care for people over 65. And so all these kind of milestones that I’ve always thought of as just this is the way things are, were being played out.

And then pages of the magazine that people who founded this magazine – we’re living in a world where these basic things didn’t exist. And so obviously, as those developments happen, the politics changes.

The magazine’s also been owned by different sets of people over the years, and different owners have different visions for what they want from the magazine. So it started off as a beacon of progressive era thought. And then it became a Washington magazine and moved to DC in the 1980s, became more neoliberal, and then in recent years has shifted back to its roots.

The idea of a progressive, left-leaning magazine in the States at the moment, is quite hard to imagine, to be honest, in some ways, from looking at it from the outside. And is that a tough place to be?

Well, I think there’s there are a lot of magazines that do something similar in the US: Mother Jones, The Nation, The American Prospect. So there is a very lively culture of liberal commentary and writing. And I don’t see anything that unusual about that.

Is it harder in the sense that you’re in the middle of this – we’ve got it in the UK as well – culture war? Does that make it harder, or does it actually solidify your audience?

Definitely there is that, but I think that – and we write about that sometimes and engage with it – there are more important issues that we would cover more often: policy and the big ideas that underpin politics. So I think we’re not necessarily as interested in getting into fights about the rebranding of Mr. Potato Head, because that is a huge distraction.

And I think maybe five or six years ago, a lot of left-leaning media publications felt like, ‘oh well, this is a place we could consolidate our audience and preach to the choir and so on’. I’m not really sure that works, I think a lot of people on the left are not that interested in it, and that they really do want to see policies that will improve people’s lives, like extending the eviction moratorium is one example. So I think that’s where the best work is being done.

Then on the cultural side of things, I’m more interested in looking at enduring subjects. Again, genuine engagement with the work of art and things that might be difficult about it, rather than getting into this back and forth with the right about basically the crudest version of politics playing out through culture.

You also co-host the New Republic’s Politics of Everything podcast. Can you describe the podcast for us? What do you do with that?

So I am the co-host of the podcast with Alex Green, who’s also a host. It’s about a half an hour show, every two weeks. We usually have one story and we usually try to choose a surprising subject or phenomenon and untangle the unexpected politics of it.

So recently, we did an episode on the Lyme disease vaccine and everyone I spoke to thought this sounded amazing, and that they would love to get it and no one had heard of it. No one knew that it had ever been available. No one knew that it had been withdrawn 20 years ago. And so we talked to people about how that happened, why that happened, political decisions that led to it happening, and what the future of something like that might be.

I’ve got to ask you, why was it withdrawn?

Basically, people were very hesitant to get the vaccine, so it feels like an analogue to our moment with the Coronavirus vaccine. And also the manufacturer didn’t have indemnity from lawsuits. So it was being sued, and basically couldn’t afford to keep offering the vaccine in the face of all this exposure to liability. And also, people didn’t take Lyme disease that seriously 20 years ago. So it wasn’t seen as a vaccine that everyone really needed.

So is it a single issue in the podcast, you talk about one topic in the episode?

We’ve done episodes that do a couple different things. But we usually do one subject and we try to go a little bit deeper into it and talk to a few people who have different perspectives, and who can unfold different aspects of this subject.

So what do you think that podcast adds to the magazine mix that you’ve already caught between the print and online?

I think there’s stories that we can do in the podcast that don’t necessarily make sense in the magazine. And partly it’s because the frame of the podcast is this Politics of Everything frame. So recently, we did this episode about how American dentists were horrifically over-treating their patients, giving people like 20 root canals, if you can imagine that.

I’m not sure that’s something that we would actually cover in the print magazine, because it’s a little more focused on Washington and hard politics. And I think our readers might be like, why are you talking about dentists. But the Politics of Everything, that is what we do. We try and take something that doesn’t seem like it’s political, and show the political factors that shaped it, and also just tried to unfold that story more.

So do you think is a different audience coming to the podcast that would come to the magazine?

I hope that there’s some overlap. I think that the people who read the magazine are looking for a range of different stories, particularly because the magazine is this mix of politics and culture. Personally, I also just feel like I listened to a lot of podcasts and I read a lot of magazines, but I feel like I go to them for slightly different things and different experiences, especially as podcasts is something I can engage with when I’m doing dishes, or going on a walk. It’s a slightly different mode.

I think definitely as I’ve been doing more of them, the thing I’ve realised is the way you tell a story in a podcast is a bit different than in a print magazine. When I’m editing for the print magazine, or writing, I’m trying to make these dense sentences that have real economy with the wording so that there’s no repetition and everything is so tight.

And on the podcast, you want to make sure that people actually hear what you’re saying, and, as I’m sure you know, saying things in the simplest way and trying to keep repeating them so that the point gets across. It’s definitely a slightly different mode of telling the story. I think the thing that’s really cool about it is that you can actually hear voices.

When we did an episode about the Tories, we did this episode about why the Conservative Party had dominated English politics for so long. We got to use a clip of Boris Johnson’s voice in which he sounded really ridiculous, and I don’t think that that would have come across in a quote, like in a written quote, because the bumbling nature of it was just as you’re probably aware, really hard to capture.

I think that you can execute a really satisfying twist in a story in a podcast too with a really great piece of audio where someone is basically telling you like everything you’ve heard up to this moment isn’t actually right, because of this fact. That can be really exciting to hear that, to just hear suddenly that twist in the story. It just lands differently than when you’re doing a piece that’s written.

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