Thinking, Shopping and Breaking "The New Republic"
Just over a year ago The New Republic boldly announced, “The Book Won’t Die.” The subheading on the nifty over-fold of the newsstand version titillated with, “How Publishers Learned to Make Money Again,” and the subtitle of the cover story implied that “publishing has escaped the cruel fate of other cultural industries.”
But “how” exactly wasn’t a question the issue actually answered, and which “book(s)” wouldn’t die wasn’t clear either. In fact, Evan Hughes’s feature argued that “the major houses have done their part to uphold the value of the book in readers’ eyes,” but his article could just as easily have been a side note in a lengthy Amazon company memo on how to undermine the value of “the book” in the readers’ eyes.
It didn’t get much better in Laura Bennett’s interview with literary agent Andrew Wylie, where Wylie (a uniquely intelligent, persuasive and powerful voice in the book business) bragged, with a fuck you attitude towards Amazon, by claiming “they can’t get their books into any bookstores.” Overlooking the fact that Amazon has essentially vanquished the bookselling industry, and most of the bookstores that used to exist, Wylie went on to say that he wasn’t nervous about the future, because “the balance sheet of publishers will strengthen, and then, through negotiation, the balance sheet of the writers will strengthen.” Again, there was little evidence to suggest how that would happen, but presumably it would.
Months later Amazon’s negotiating power over publishers became so diabolically monopolistic that literary giants, many of whom are represented by Wylie, formed Author’s United, to voice concern about Amazon’s ability to sanction sales of one of the few publishing houses with the courage to challenge its authority. In a letter published by The New York Times they wrote:
“About six months ago, to enhance its bargaining position, Amazon began sanctioning Hachette authors' books. These sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors' pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books.”
Author’s United pleaded with the hegemonic retailer to consider the needs of writers who were losing readers, income and would ultimately lose their careers if things didn’t change.
But to illustrate how powerful Amazon is, and to show how much writers fear their trade could go the way of the music industry, they held back the punch, deferring with admiration to a company that has proved over the years it has no interest in the cultural, let alone monetary, value of their work.
“We are not against Amazon. We appreciate that Amazon sells half the books in the United States. But Amazon has repeatedly tried to dismiss us as "rich" bestselling authors who are advocating higher ebook prices—a false and unfair characterization, as most of us are in fact midlist authors struggling to make a living. And we have not made any statements whatsoever on book pricing. Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of any books as a negotiating tactic.”
So a year ago The New Republic boasted that the book won’t die, and as an artifact adorning the occasional shelf it probably won’t. But the work of thinking and writing, which has been the intellectual lifeblood of flourishing democracies, cannot be done if thinkers and writers of consequence are “struggling to make a living.” And democracies will capitulate to the tyranny of the markets or governments if the next generation of thinkers and writers has no viable opportunity to critically assess the landscape we inhabit.
A month ago Leon Wieseltier wrote one of his last essays for The New Republic, titled “Reason and the Republic of Opinion.” In just shy of 5000 words, he masterfully argued for a very agreeable, but terribly demanding position; “we need not be a nation of intellectuals,” he said, “but we must not be a nation of idiots.”
As many commentators from every corner of political persuasion have said in the last two days, for the last hundred years The New Republic was an institution that helped us avoid our tendencies toward idiocy. But with the abrupt departure of Weiseltier, and editor in chief, Franklin Foer – in response to the new chief executive Guy Vidra’s pompous announcement that he’s a “war time chief executive” who plans to “break shit” – that persuasive and reasoned voice will likely go away.
To borrow from my college professor Alan Jacobs:
If you hear anyone say, “Good grief, The New Republic isn’t dead, it’s just moving to New York and transitioning from being a magazine to being a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’ — you can safely ignore that person. The New Republic is dead and Chris Hughes killed it. You can rejoice in that fact, lament it, feel nothing; but it remains a fact.
In what follows, Jacobs shares how his relationship with the magazine began as a college student, and while his reading experience could range from enlightening to appalling, it was always fascinating. Of all the magazines he read, The New Republic was the one he “truly cared about.” So Jacobs is one of many readers witnessing the death of a loved one.
But it’s a strange sort of 21st century death, where the vestiges of origin can seemingly live forever; all you need is a Facebook account. Of course, if you happen to be one of the founders of Facebook, as The New Republic’s fledgling owner Christ Hughes is, you can buy almost anything you want (car, house, human being, small country in West Africa or South East Asia), give it plastic surgery, put it on autopilot, or life-support, and maintain the semblance of life for as long as the machines keep working. It’s just that the soul shuts down, and as Aristotle said, “if there is a movement natural to the soul, there must be a counter movement unnatural to it.” Where Foer and Wieselter were champions of the magazine’s natural movements, Hughes’ has engineered the counter movements leading to their departure, and the death of a great magazine’s soul.
So, like “the book that won’t die,” the artifact that is The New Republic, or the brand as it were, may stay alive. But to quote Jacobs once more:
“It happens every week in Silicon Valley: a tiny startup working on some interesting technology is “acquired” by one of the bigger fish in the pond, Google or Apple or Facebook. Maybe the owners are hired; maybe it’s just the proprietary tech the big fish wants. If you happen to be a user of the startup’s product, and you’re lucky, the service or device you were using sticks around, just under a new and fancier brand name. But you probably won’t be lucky. Probably that service gets shuttered, or that device goes un-updated and un-supported, and the cool thing you got in on the ground floor of disappears forever.”
Maybe The New Republic will live for another hundred years, maybe it won’t. But if it is to live a life commensurate with the movements of its own soul, Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra will need to stop breaking shit and start building on the living virtues the magazine has espoused for a century. Those virtues are in desperate need of stewards capable of preserving the democratic values of thinking and writing. Values, like books, that are not solely predicated on their ability to make money.
As Wieseltier wrote in “Reason and the Republic of Opinion,” “the opposite of thinking is shopping.” When Chris Hughes went shopping for a magazine to break, I just wish he bought a shitty one.