Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of the New Republic. Photo: Dan Balilty/AP
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Leaving the New Republic, and what its mass exodus taught me about the future of magazines

The new play Gloria has an irate copy-editor gun down her colleagues; the reality of working at a magazine is much less dramatic – but emotion and ambition still run high.

It’s hardly news that the magazine has become an endangered species. It’s a development I had the misfortune of witnessing first-hand during my brief but eventful tenure as assistant literary editor of the New Republic in Washington, DC.

At TNR, I was lucky enough to work for the legendary literary editor and Washington personality Leon Wieseltier, an imposing figure with a shock of unruly white hair and a mental Rolodex of apt ideas on everything from Henry James to hot dogs. (Klimt, he once told me, “is wallpaper”.)

Though I was only a month out of college when I started at the magazine, Leon trusted me to manage his beloved “back of the book”. People had a way of growing into their responsibilities under Leon’s guidance, and I cared for the books and arts section of the New Republic as tenderly as I could, eliminating bad breaks (hyphenated words breaking across paragraphs or, worse, hyphenation across pages or columns) and widows (lines containing fewer than three words), fact-checking, copy-editing and keeping the office well stocked with M&Ms.

It wasn’t a glamorous job but it was a fulfilling one. I was working in the service of an institution I believed in for an editor I respected. In exchange, I was given the opportunity to write in print alongside the likes of Amartya Sen and Cynthia Ozick. For all his force of personality, Leon had reverence for his writers, even the untutored 23-year-olds he took on as assistants.

But six months after my arrival, the unthinkable happened: the New Republic lost almost all of its staff. In a matter of hours, its legacy went down the proverbial drain after the magazine’s newish owner, Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, unceremoniously sacked its universally well-liked editor-in-chief, Franklin Foer. This betrayal was the latest in a series of efforts to transform the publication into a well of “snackable content”.

The conflict took on symbolic dimensions: old journalism, committed to thoroughness and rigour, was pitted against new journalism, which opted for feats of ostentation calculated to generate page views. Old journalism lost out. Almost all of TNR’s editors, Leon among them, quit en masse. I, too, departed, leaving TNR to the vultures.

Arriving at the Vineyard Theatre in New York last week for a performance of Gloria, a new play about the toxic climate of contemporary magazine publishing, I expected to see something that hit close to home. Gloria came with high credentials. Welcoming it, the New York Times critic Ben Brantley noted that it hinged on “one deeply upsetting event”.

The latest from the acclaimed playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, recipient of last year’s Obie award for Best New American Play, Gloria is set in the offices of an unnamed magazine. The characters are so familiar that they border on the cartoonish: the overeager intern, the jaded staffers, the supercilious editors who can’t be bothered to learn a lowly copy-editor’s name. Wasted talent and short tempers make for an entertainingly if exaggeratedly unpleasant tableau in the first act, which treats us to a barrage of neglected editorial assistants in their late twenties. These sad specimens lament their career prospects and debate the relevance of their work. “It’ll all wind up in the trash by Friday,” says an irate fact-checker. This much I recognised. But the “deeply upsetting event” was brutally unexpected.

It was a literal, rather than metaphorical, massacre: a shooting spree. The play (written long before the attack at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo) dramatically changed direction when an underappreciated copy-editor – the titular Gloria – gunned down most of the office staff, leaving a few stragglers to duke it out in the second act. After the tragedy, the survivors wage petty turf wars, this time in the field of book publishing. Jacobs-Jenkins’s characters are deliciously unlikeable as they skirmish for the rights to the inevitable “Gloria” memoir.

Gloria is a little harsh about the daily reality of working for a magazine, which wasn’t nearly so dispiriting, but its central point is well taken: in a world demanding journalism that sells, how can we write about our experiences, and the experiences of others, without cheapening them? Writers have always been in the business of mining and repurposing personal tragedies – but now that the Chris Hugheses of the world control the purse strings, it is harder than ever to disentangle the forces of emotion and ambition. And here am I, doing the same thing in these pages that the characters in Gloria did in their memoirs: exploiting my own (much lesser) trauma.

One image endures. The week TNR imploded, I shipped hundreds of advance review copies that Leon had opted not to review to New York, to serve as showpieces on the shelves of Hughes’s swanky new office. The same week, I helped Leon pack up his library. He had something to say about each of his hundreds of books. This juxtaposition paints a portrait of my chosen industry that will haunt me for a long time.

Gloria confuses the recent decline of publishing with its total bankruptcy. If we lament the decline of journalism, it is not because we want to remake magazines in the image of their forebears – pre-digital journalism was famously hostile to women, for one thing – it is because we want to inhabit a world where it is still possible to translate lived experience to the page with integrity. And if we didn’t find these acts of translation worthwhile, why would we bother to write articles – or plays – at all? 

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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