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The Orwell wars

Between October 1931 and August 1943, George Orwell wrote a string of reviews and essays for the NS. So why did he aim such vitriol at Kingsley Martin and why did they fall out over the Spanish civil war? D J Taylor and Adrian Smith present two different views.

George Orwell. Illustration by Ralph Steadman

“Corrupt face” of censorship

By D J Taylor

“The best place in which to study the English left-wing mind is the weekly paper the New Statesman,” George Orwell instructed a Fabian Society audience in November 1941. If this sounds vaguely complimentary, what followed – part of a ten-page excursus, filed under the general heading of “Culture and Democracy” – was anything but. As a magazine, Orwell declared, the NS seemed to have only a “symptomatic” value. He had, he continued, been a regular reader of it for many years, and yet: “Never once have I found in it any coherent policy or any constructive suggestion – anything, in fact, except a general gloom and an automatic discontent with whatever happens to be in progress at the moment.”

Between October 1931 and August 1943, Orwell contributed 23 essays and reviews to a publication that, according to the Fabian lecture, expressed “nothing except the fact that English left-wing intellectuals of all shades do not like the society they are living in but at the same time do not care to face the effort or the responsibility of changing it”. They range from early pieces of reportage such as “Hop-picking” and “Common lodging houses” (both signed with his baptismal name, Eric Blair) to melancholic round-ups of popular fiction and rather more considered reflections on Charles Reade and John Galsworthy. Altogether overshadowing them, on the other hand, is the titanic feud with the magazine’s then editor, Kingsley Martin, that Orwell embarked upon in 1937, and which he regarded as conclusive evidence of the English left’s habit of burying disagreeable facts beneath a topsoil of ideological solidarity.

The issue at stake was the Spanish civil war and in particular the suppression of the Marxist Poum militia. Orwell had fought for the Poum and had taken a bullet through the throat from the communist and republican civil guard. Having escaped across the French border from a Barcelona seething with Stalinist hit squads in the summer of 1937, he stopped at the first post office available to fire off a telegram to the NS, asking if it would like a first-hand account. He chose Martin as the repository of these confidences because he believed that, in its reporting of the first year of the conflict, the NS had offered the only reliable account of conditions on the ground.

A letter to his friend Cyril Connolly, an NS regular, sent from Barcelona in early June, notes: “It is a credit to the New Statesman that it is the only paper, apart from a few obscure ones such as the New Leader, where any but the communist viewpoint has ever got through.”

Martin accepted the offer but took great exception to the article (“Eyewitness in Barcelona”) that followed a few days later, on the grounds that it would “cause trouble”. The precise wording of the rejection, probably made over the telephone, is unknown but the underlying principle was confirmed by letter. Whether as a way of appeasing a disgruntled contributor or acknowledging his new-found status as an expert on Spain, the NS then offered Orwell the chance to review Franz Borkenau’s book The Spanish Cockpit. This, too, was turned down – again by Martin, rather than the magazine’s uncomprehending literary editor, Raymond Mortimer – with the explanation that it controverted editorial policy. Or, as Martin put it: “It is very uncompromisingly said and implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong.”

Both articles eventually appeared elsewhere but the damage was done and neither party forgave the other or forgot the principle that had driven them apart. To the end of his life, Orwell regarded Martin as a communist stooge and once asked a lunch guest in a crowded restaurant into which his bête noire had strayed to change places with him so that he could be spared the sight of that “corrupt face”.

Martin’s starring role in Orwell’s dem­onology is confirmed by the entry next to his name in the celebrated list of “crypto-communists and fellow-travellers” sent to the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office in May 1949: “too dishonest to be outright ‘crypto’ or fellow-traveller but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues”.

Hindsight, inevitably, sides with Orwell, as Adrian Smith does here. Yet even the most rabid Orwell-fancier would probably concede that what, on the surface, looks like a classic case of the trampling of free speech by ideological necessity is considerably less clear-cut once you dig a little further down into the ooze of pre-war, left-wing politics.

Martin, a luminous and practically sacerdotal figure, did not take his orders from Moscow. His defence was that the press was dominated by anti-republican propaganda and that each side had behaved with appalling cruelty, “But I had to make my decision on general public grounds, to the end that one side might win rather than the other side.” Additionally, the Borkenau review, according to Martin’s reading of it, was merely a restatement of Orwell’s political opinions. Martin agonised about this stand-off for the remaining 30 years of his life. Not one to forget a grudge, Orwell spent the next five years inserting pointed little references to the NS into his journalism. Most of these had to do with what he supposed to be the paper’s equivocal attitude to the Second World War. Shortly after the outbreak of war, he could be heard complaining about the “conditions” that would have to be fulfilled to persuade the NS to support the conflict – “as if war were a bloody cricket match”. In September 1940, he criticised the defeatist leader writers of the News Chronicle for being “noisemakers like the New Statesman . . . All those people can be counted on to collapse when the conditions of war become intolerable.”

There were other wounding remarks about the NS being “under direct communist influence” and the readership being “worshippers of Stalin”, not to mention a Tribune assault on fellow-travellers so uncompromising (“Once a whore, always a whore”) that it brought Martin – though unmentioned in the piece – to the telephone threatening a libel writ. It is worth asking why Orwell, despite this decade-long odyssey of bad faith and mutual suspicion, kept on writing for a publication whose editorial titan he so much despised and why it occupied such a substantial compartment in his intellectual life. His letters are full of references to its literary pages; he had copies of the NS sent out to him in Morocco, where he spent the winter of 1938-39; and a gift of book tokens had him combing through the reviews in search of suitable Christmas presents.

One of the answers, as Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, once pointed out, is the NS’s sempiternal division into a front half unashamedly devoted to leftist politics and a back half that assumed that a book could have a life of its own, irrespective of the ideological anvil on which it had been forged. Orwell bore no ill-will to Mortimer, who wrote to apologise once the facts of the case had come his way and reassured him, “There is no premium here on Stalinist orthodoxy.”

Another lies in the much more prosaic need to earn a living. It is difficult to think of any other explanation for the round-up of novels by John Llewellyn Rhys, Nina Fedorova, Dan Wickenden and Bruce Marshall that Orwell contributed to the issue dated 22 February 1941, which ends with this sobering judgement: “I must record my opinion that the novels coming out at present are at a terribly low level, the lowest, probably, within living memory.” It was poor consolation, Orwell concluded, to reflect: “The ones coming out in Germany are probably worse.”

D J Taylor is the author of the biography “Orwell: the Life” (Vintage, £10.99)

Unwelcome guerrilla

By Adrian Smith

To be frank, the New Statesman and George Orwell were never a natural fit. Orwell’s first loyalties as a journalist were to the periodical Partisan Review and the Tribune newspaper: throughout the Second World War, the voice of east coast revolutionary socialism published his London Letter and in 1943 Nye Bevan’s mouthpiece for the Labour left appointed him literary editor.

When, in 1984 (note the year), the NS published a slim volume of articles by and about Orwell, the then editor, Hugh Ste­phenson, to his credit, offered an honest assessment of what was always a prickly relationship. The anthology was entitled Unwelcome Guerrilla – Orwell’s view of himself and an apt description of his uncomfortable presence in the columns of Kingsley Martin’s NS.

The magazine’s generous obituary memorably labelled him “the wintry conscience of a generation”, a generation that looked to the NS for uninhibited comment and honest reporting and that, to Orwell’s mind, had too often been disappointed.

The launch of the newly merged New Statesman and Nation in April 1931 proved timely. A dual crisis of capitalism and liberal democracy demanded a fresh, authentically progressive perspective on the continuing failure of fiscal and monetary orthodoxy to combat acute poverty and social deprivation. Readership rose quickly and the then Eric Blair saw Martin’s re-energised weekly as an obvious outlet for material later incorporated into Down and Out in Paris and London. However, only two articles ever appeared and, by the mid-1930s, “George Orwell” was unknown to Martin and his literary editor, Raymond Mortimer, other than as a minor writer whose four books had been briefly but favourably reviewed. On May Day 1937, all that changed.

In London that Saturday, the NS carried a generally sympathetic review of The Road to Wigan Pier, the writer deducing from the second, more polemical half of the book that Orwell regarded the weekly “as a pink rag to his bull-wrath” – and he was right. Any claims that Martin may have made that his paper constituted Labour’s socialist conscience struck Orwell as sanctimonious and self-centred, signalling the remoteness of a radical English intelligentsia from the harsh realities and the material priorities of working-class life.

Ernest Bevin, the trade union power broker and a towering figure in the Churchill and Attlee administrations, had similar views, speculating in July 1945 on how long it would be before Martin would “stab the Labour government in the back”. Bevin, of course, presumed blind loyalty, unlike Orwell, who was always a proud member of the awkward squad. Natural dissenters have to take criticism as well as give it out, yet Orwell was sensitive to the left’s unease over The Road to Wigan Pier, a hostile review in the Daily Worker fuelling an antipathy to the Communist Party forged by his six months fighting to defend the Spanish republic.

On 1 May 1937, Orwell was in no position to read book reviews, favourable or otherwise. On returning from the Aragon front to Barcelona, he found himself vulnerable to the Soviet-backed government assault on the non-Stalinist Marxists of the Poum (the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). The Catalan militias had thwarted the military coup of July 1936, helped defend Madrid the following autumn and aggressively promoted the collectivisation of farm­ing and industry across the north-east of republican Spain.

For the Poum as much as for its anarchist allies, the defeat of fascism was synonymous with social revolution and the smashing of the bourgeois state – promise of the latter would mobilise the masses to facilitate the former. For the government in Madrid, determined to merge the militias within a conventional popular army, all means were justified to reassure the re­public’s middle classes that its sole priority was winning the war. Ministers shared their Russian ally’s strategy of cultivating the western liberal democracies and promoting the Popular Front as a broad, progressive alliance.

Soviet advisers and munitions were so vital to the republic’s survival that the Spanish Communists’ influence was wholly disproportionate to the size of their party. Between May and August 1937, the debate over war or revolution, so cleverly illuminated by Ken Loach in the central scene of Land and Freedom, ended abruptly with the ruthless suppression of the Poum.

Orwell, having experienced the militia’s military indiscipline, was sympathetic to those republicans, not least members of the International Brigade, who argued that inertia on the Aragon front was allowing the Nationalists to intensify their offensive further south. This criticism of the Poum only emerged in 1942, but five years earlier he had been appalled by the violence inflicted on party activists. Militia members, even overseas volunteers, were guilty by association – hence, Orwell and his wife found themselves forced to flee Barcelona.

By early July they were back in Britain, enraged at the extent to which almost everyone on the left accepted without ques­tion a distorted and wholly inaccurate version of events; the notion that a revolutionary party such as the Poum had been manipulated by both fascists and Trotskyists to destroy the republic from within was patently absurd and yet it was commonly believed. Orwell blamed communists and fellow-travellers for fostering the myth, refusing to exempt Martin from a too-easy tolerance of “totalitarian” methods – in other words, peddling “the big lie”. In later years, though Orwell might acknowledge the Poum’s failings as a fighting force, he never forgave those who denied him a platform on which to set the story straight about his adopted party’s brutal destruction; not least the editor of the NS.

By 1937, the magazine’s readership had more than doubled in six years and it was well on the way to becoming required reading for Britain’s educated, left-leaning middle classes. No wonder Orwell looked first to the NS when seeking to publish “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, his prelude to Homage to Catalonia. He assumed that Martin would welcome a counterblast to the propagandist line emanating from Madrid, the Comintern headquarters in Paris and the CPGB offices in King Street. The harsh reality was that he received a polite refusal and, eventually, the piece appeared in the little-read New English Weekly. Here was a signal of what Orwell could expect upon completion of his book and indeed the Left Book Club’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, rejected his manuscript unseen. Eventually, Fredric Warburg published Homage to Catalonia, securing initial sales of fewer than 1,000 copies; what today is the best-known book about the Spanish civil war was all but forgotten when Orwell died in January 1950.

The rejection of “Spilling the Spanish Beans” was met with surprisingly little fuss, perhaps because the piece had not been commissioned. In any case, as D J Taylor notes, to soften the blow, the NS asked Orwell to review The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau. Here was a veteran ex-Communist whose personal impressions of the war’s early stages confirmed Orwell’s belief that an honourable cause had been betrayed by a power-hungry ideology that mirrored fascism in its methods and apparatus.

In his review, Orwell echoed the charges made in “Spilling the Spanish Beans” and again the NS chose not to publish. Mortimer deemed the review opinionated and uninformative, while Martin insisted: “It too far controverts the political policy of the paper.” According to its editor, the NS had allowed commentators on the war to voice concerns over events in Catalonia but Orwell’s opinions “too directly contradict conclusions that have been very carefully reached in the front half”.

In Editor, his second volume of memoirs, published not long before he died in 1969, Martin defended his decision on the grounds of “realism”, arguing that a brutal seizure of power in Barcelona had been the unfortunate but acceptable price of securing Soviet aid for an otherwise friendless republic. Like Henri Perron, the leftist editor handed evidence of Stalinist abuses in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel Les mandarins, Martin feared that the publication of “communist atrocities” would provide ammunition for conservative critics close to home. Unlike Perron, Martin chose expediency over principle, a decision he defended until the day he died: “To me, this was THE war . . . I was very much alone, fighting the republicans’ battle in a very lonely way; and I didn’t see it as my function to play the other side’s game.” Orwell never forgave him, and henceforth dealt only with Mortimer’s successor in the back half of the paper, V S Pritchett.

As a research student in the late 1970s, I viewed the clash between Martin and Orwell in simple, black-and-white terms. Over tea at Charing Cross, with all the arrogance of youth, I pompously lectured C H Rolph – Martin’s official biographer and in his day an NS assistant editor and an inspector with the Met – on why Martin was so demonstrably in the wrong. Never condescending, Rolph gently pointed out that I was not around in the late 1930s and could scarcely conceive how hard it was to generate interest in Spain: the republic faced criticism from numerous hostile newspapers, not least the Daily Mail, and few questioned the National Government’s claim that non-intervention prevented a wider war in Europe. Rolph’s defence of his old friend was persuasive and I became more muted in my criticism of Martin. Yet, in the final analysis, I still consider his action misguided.

In Editor, Martin confirmed his awareness of communist excesses, excusing his silence on the grounds that he had had no idea how bad the situation was and that to under­estimate was understandable, given the un­precedented level of Nationalist violence. Glossing over the abuse of human rights behind republican lines may not, in Orwell’s words, reveal “the mentality of a whore”; but it does suggest a belief that the ends justify the means wholly at odds with the fundamental values of decency, openness and intellectual honesty that the republic was ostensibly seeking to uphold.

The “unwelcome guerrilla” retained a reluctant regard for the NS but that didn’t stop him bearing a grudge. In later years, his mind clouded by illness, Orwell’s judgement regarding the paper and its editorial staff became gravely flawed – witness his ill-founded accusations of cold war sub­version in 1945. There is no excuse for bad behaviour but the combination of Gollancz’s rejection of Animal Farm and Martin’s sneering review when the novel finally appeared constituted a sharp reminder of events eight years earlier. Orwell’s anger still burned, and justifiably so.

Adrian Smith is a professor of history at the University of Southampton. He is the author of “The New Statesman: Portrait of a Political Weekly (1913-31)”

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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How Gossip Girl changed the way we talk about television

Recappers Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler reminisce about the Best. Show. Ever.

If you watched Gossip Girl from 2007-2012, then you’ll know it was The Greatest Show of Our Time. Silly, ridiculous, insider-y, and deeply New York, Gossip Girl was a show that lived and died on its in jokes. For so many of the show’s viewers, talking about this ridiculous Rich Kids of The Upper East Side drama was as important as watching it. But, premiering in 2007, Gossip Girl aired at a time just before social media dominated television conversations. Now, every viewer has a channel to make memes about their favourite show as soon as it hits screens. Gossip Girl was a show about bitchy teenagers mocking each other that cried out for audiences to tease them, too. They just needed a space to do it in.

Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler caught on to that fact early. TV recaps were still a fledgling genre when the Gossip Girl pilot emerged, but the New York Magazine writers could tell that this was a show that needed in-depth, ironic analysis, week on week. The most popular Gossip Girl recaps were born. These included the Reality Index (points awarded for, to take one episode, being “More Real Than Serena Sleeping With a Teacher After Less Than One Semester”), the cleavage rhombus (in tribute to Serena’s fashion choices), and the Most Obnoxious Real-Estate Conundrum of Our Time. If this is all second nature, you might even know what I mean when I say “No points, just saying.” It is these kinds of inside jokes that made New York Magazine’s Vulture recaps of the show so irresistible, and so influential. Each week, Rovzar and Pressler would run down the most absurd and the most spot-on New York moments of the episodes, and soon developed a cult following with a very devoted audience. Their recaps were became so popular that the creators responded to their burning questions, and the two were given a cameo on the show itself. They even also wrote recaps of the recaps, to include the best observations from hundreds of commenters.

Now the show is over, their work has spawned a thousand similarly tongue-in-cheek TV blogs: from ever-popular Game of Thrones power rankings to new versions of the Reality Index for other shows. A decade after Gossip Girl first aired, I reminisced with Rovzar and Pressler about their contributions to the Best. Show. Ever.

How did you come across Gossip Girl? Was it love at first watch?

Jessica: I had just moved to New York. Chris and I were thrown together at New York Magazine vertical Daily Intelligencer. He was much more of a seasoned New York person who knew what things were cool, and I was this yahoo from a different city. I was basically Dan Humphrey, and he was Serena. He got the pilot from a publicist, and he said there was a lot of a hype. The O.C. had been a huge show. So the fact the creators [were] coming to New York, doing all these real location shoots, and it was going to be a New York-y show was exciting, especially to us, because we were in charge of covering local New York news at that point. And it was really boring in 2007! Everything exciting happened the following year, like the Eliot Spitzer scandal, but in 2007 there was nothing going on. And Sex in the City had just ended, so there was a void in that aspirational, glamorous, TV space. So we were like, we’re going to hype this up, and then we’ll have something really fun to write about. And it was fun!

Chris: The CW needed a new hit, and it was the show that they were hoping would define the programming they would make going forward, so they really hyped it up before it aired. They sent us a screener. We watched it and realised that because they filmed it in New York, they were going to really use the city. It checked the boxes of Sex in the City and The O.C., with a young beautiful cast out in real world situations.

Jessica and I decided that this show was going to be a show that we wanted to write about, because it was so New York-y. I don’t think our bosses cared either way. Our bosses were grown-ups! They didn’t watch Gossip Girl! But from the very beginning, we called it The Greatest Show of Our Time, because we knew it was going to be a really iconic New York show. And it was very good at making these running jokes or gags, like Blair with her headbands, or Serena with her super tight dresses.

And the cleavage rhombus?

Chris: And the cleavage rhombus! We eventually got to know the costume designer and the producers and the writers. Once they recognised the things that we were writing about in the show, they would adopt them. The cleavage rhombus came up a few more times because they knew the audience knew about the cleavage rhombus.

Do you have an all-time favourite character or plot line or episode?

Chris: Our favourite character was Dorota. She was very funny and the actress, Zuzanna Szadkowski, was very well used. I think we were all rooting for Chuck and Blair. Sometimes with shows like Friends, by the end, when Ross and Rachel finally get together, you think, “Hm, I’m not sure I wanted Ross and Rachel to get together.” But the show was good at making Chuck and Blair the central romance, and you were psyched about how that ended up.

Jessica: Well, now, of course you look back and the Jared [Kushner] and Ivanka [Trump] cameo was, like, the best thing ever. It’s so nice to remember a time when those two were extras in our lives, instead of central characters. And then Nate, of course, went and bought that newspaper, which I believe was called The Spectator, which was a thinly veiled Observer. There was this succession of blonde temptresses brought in to tempt Nate. I don’t even know what he was supposed to be doing! I don’t know why they were there, or what their purpose was! But that was an ongoing theme, and that was kind of amazing. One was a schoolgirl, one was a mom. Catherine, and Juliet – and yes, I do remember all their names.

But for us, it was the real stuff that was really fun. They put in cameos of people only we would know – like Jonathan Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster. Or the couple who run The Oracle Club [a members’ club in New York] – I saw them recently and we talked about how we still receive $45 royalty cheques from our cameos because an episode aired in Malaysia. And Armie Hammer! They really went out of their way to involve real New Yorkers.

How did it work each week? Did you have screeners and write it leisurely in advance?

Jessica: No, no, we had to do it live! We had a screener for the pilot. We got them probably three times in the whole course of the show. We would normally be up till three in the morning.

Chris: My husband eventually stopped watching it with me because I was constantly pausing and rewinding it, asking: “What did they say? What was that? Did you see that street sign? Do you think that dress is Balenciaga?” It becomes very annoying to watch the show with someone who’s doing that. Each of us would do our own points and we would email them to each other and mix them up. That way you could cover a lot more stuff.

What made you decide to do the Reality Index? Did you ever really disagree on points?

Chris: It always more about wanting to say something funny than about the actual points. Very occasionally we would disagree over whether something was realistic or not. We were both adults, and there was a lot of trying to figure out what kids would do. Like in the first episode, they sent out paper invites for a party, and we said, “Oh, no, kids would use Evite!” And then a lot of readers were like “Are you kidding me? Kids would use Facebook cause this is 2007.” And we were like, “Oh yes, we’re not actually kids. We don’t know.”

Jessica: We came from different places of expertise. He had been in New York so much longer than me. In a cotillion scene, he knew the name of the band that was playing, because he knew which bands people had come to play at cotillion. I was more like, “This is realisitic in terms of the emotional lives of teenagers.” But the Reality Index stopped being about reality early on, and we had to just had to comment on the cleavage rhombus instead.

The comments were really important – how did you feel about all these people who seemed to have as intense feelings about the minute details of this show as you did?

Chris: We definitely weren’t expecting it, more so because internet commenters on the whole are awful. They’re mean and they’re angry and they have an axe to grind. Our commenters were very funny and wanted to impress each other and wanted to make each other laugh. They were really talking to each other more than they were talking to us. We decided, a couple of years in, to start rounding up their comments and do a recap of the recap. This was one of the most rewarding parts about it, because they were just so smart and on top of it. And they definitely disagreed with us. A lot!

Jessica: It did feel like people liked the Reality Index because of the participatory aspect of it. We became more like the moderators of this little world within a world. We couldn’t believe it - we thought it was amazing and bizarre. There would be hundreds of comments as soon as you put it up, it was like people were waiting. And sometimes people would email us, if one of us had overslept or been out to dinner the night before so couldn’t watch the show until the morning. And you got to know people through that – actual humans. I know some of the commenters now!

You wrote the “Best Show Ever” cover story on Gossip Girl for New York Magazine, which reads like it was incredible fun to write, and is now immortalised as a key moment in the show’s history. Every fan of the show remembers that cover image. What’s your favourite memory from working on that piece?

Jessica: Oh my God! It was so fun! We split them up – I interviewed Chace Crawford and Jessica Szohr and Blake Lively. Those kids were in New York living this vaguely Gossip Girl-esque lifestyle at the same time as the show was on, being photographed as themselves, but often in character during filming. So the overlap was fun. Ed Westwick and Chace Crawford lived together in a dude apartment! I think Sebastian Stan moved in. And Penn Badgley would hate me saying this, but he was and is Dan. He just never wasn’t Dan. He lived in Brooklyn and dated Blake Lively and girls who looked like Vanessa. It was so fun to have this show within a show going on in New York.

Chris: The fun thing about the kids, is that they were all really excited. For almost all of them, it was their first brush with fame. Blake Lively was the only one who had an acting background. So they were really excited to be in the city. It was very fun to hang out with them, and they all liked each other. It was fun to be out in the world with them. Leighton Meester is very funny, and a really fun person to be around, and after we did the story someone sent in a sighting to Page Six of us, where we had lunch. And when I went out for lunch with Chace Crawford, who’s also very nice, it was the first time I’d been in a situation where somebody tries to subtly take a cellphone photo of you. I was like: “Wow, I have done this, as a New Yorker, and it is so obvious.” You think you’re being slick and it’s very, very plain to see. And Chace was very gracious with everybody. I wasn’t there for the photoshoot but Taylor Momsen’s mom had to be there, because I think she was 16. And I remember when the photos came back, thinking, “Errr... we have some very young people in underwear on the cover!” But I guess everyone was OK with it! It was a really striking cover, and a really great choice with the white virginal clothes and the implication of the opposite. I love how it came out.

Can you talk about your cameo on the show? How did that work, what was it like?

Chris: That was really fun. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect it to be so interesting and fun. They wanted someone from New York [Magazine], they wanted someone from Vanity Fair, and they wanted someone from another magazine, and I think they’d asked a lot of magazines if they would send an editor. I was at Vanity Fair, and they asked Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief, if he would do it – and he said no. One of my friends from college was by that point a writer on the show, and she said to the producer: “You know, if you want a Vanity Fair editor, I know one guy who will definitely do it!” And then they asked me and I had to ask the publicist for Vanity Fair if I could do it. And she laughed! And I said, “No, I’m serious, can I do this?” And she said “Oh! Uhh… Yeah, OK.”

It was me, Jessica, and Katrina vanden Heuvel from The Nation. Katrina was the only one working the whole time: tweeting and writing stuff. Jessica and I were like kids in a candy store. We were running around checking out the set, opening drawers! They had us wear our own clothes, which was stressful.

Jessica: They put fun clothes on me! It was so nice, I got to wear a really good outfit! Which I wish I had stolen, actually. But we got to the set and they had made up our offices. We sent them pictures of what they looked like and they recreated it.

Chris: They completely recreated it, right down to the Post-It notes that I had all along my bookshelves. Some of the books that I had on my desk were there. It was really surreal. Sitting there with Michelle Trachtenberg and Penn Badgley was completely surreal. They were funny, we joked around, it took probably 15 minutes.

Jessica: My scene was with Penn, and I had a line that made absolutely no sense. And we were all like, “That line makes no sense!” And they were like, “Oh it’s fine, just say it anyway.” And I thought: “Ok, well they’ll cut it out later.” But no, it just… went in.

Chris: But so many cool people had done cameos already, like Jared and Ivanka and Tory Burch, and just a million New Yorkers you’d heard of. So it was cool to join that crew.

You had this cameo, and plenty of people who worked on and starred in the show confessed to having read your recaps religiously. Stephanie Savage even emailed in over the exact location of Dan’s loft – whether it was Dumbo or Williamsburg. What was it about these recaps that allowed them to enter the world of the show in a way that TV writing normally doesn’t?

Chris: It was a very early recap. There wasn’t the endless recapping that there is now, of every show. It was kind of a silly show to recap – it wasn’t like Game of Thrones, where there’s all this politics to analyse. So it was an unusually devoted account of the show, with a ton of attention to detail – and then all the commenters also had a ton of attention to detail. So it was a great way for the show to get a sense of what the audience was thinking. And I think it was just funny for them. When they made a joke, we would catch the joke and laugh at it and make a joke back. It became a fun game for them too.

Jessica: The creators were definitely trying to foster the same atmosphere that we picked up on. They said early on that their goal for the show was “cultural permeation”. So they did what they could to encourage us, in some ways, and responded to us when we had questions.

Do you think your recaps changed television writing? Have you seen anything by other writers in recent years that has made you think, “Oh, we influenced that!”? For me, the Reality Index was very influential, and I feel like it was instrumental in this tone that was, yes, snarky and mocking, but the kind of mocking that can only come out of genuinely, truly loving something – now, that’s how most TV writing sounds.

Chris: I think we definitely were early on the trend of having the audience feel like they had the right to have their opinion on the show known, that they could voice an opinion – and maybe at some point the creators of the show would hear it. I think also having a very specific structure to a recap was new. Over the past ten years you’ve seen a lot of people do Power Rankings or try different ways of doing recaps other than just repeating what happened. I’d like to think that the recaps helped break the mould and create a new format.

Jessica: I definitely see things that are called Reality Indexes, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a thing before us, because it doesn’t even totally make sense as a concept. As far as tone, I think that came both from the combination of Chris’s and my personalities – Chris was more of the fan, and I was more of the snark. But also that was Vulture’s thing – I think the site’s tagline was “heart of a fan, mind of a critic”. It came after the early 2000s era of pure snark and sarcasm. But I just met Rebecca Serle, who wrote the series Famous in Love, and she said the Gossip Girl recaps helped inspire her career. I was like: “That’s amazing!”

Looking back, why do you think Gossip Girl and the conversation around captured the zeitgeist?

Chris: It had a lot of elements of the great shows. It had a core ensemble cast like Friends. It had a very soapy way of running the plots, that just meant that a lot happened in every episode, and not all of it was believable! And that’s really fun to watch. But unlike Ugly Betty, which was making fun of telenovelas, it took itself seriously, which let the audience take it seriously too, while at the same time laughing about it and appreciating how over the top it was. And I also think the cast was very key to it. They were so young and attractive and good, and you could tell they were all going to go on to bigger and better things. You were watching them at the very start of their careers. And they all stayed through the whole thing, and that was great. You knew the show was going to end the way the creators wanted, which made it feel like a great, rare moment in TV.

Jessica: That show captures that era of socialites in New York City, when it was like Olivia Palermo and Tinsley Mortimer and everyone was running around going to parties and being photographed. It was like an education about New York as I was arriving there. And they did an amazing job, especially now, when you look back at it. All those location shots! I don’t think people can afford those any more, they just aren’t happening. And the costumes! All of that was so enjoyable and fun. I’m not sure I fully appreciated how fun it was, like I do now, when everything is much more drab and Brooklyn-centric. But I felt a real kinship with Penn Badgley because we talked a lot over the course of things, occasionally about how we didn’t expect the show to go on this long! He wanted to go and play other roles and I wanted to do… other things, and we were both stuck with Gossip Girl.

And finally: looking back, how do you feel about Dan being Gossip Girl?

Chris: I was talking to someone about this the other day! I still don’t know if in the books, Dan was Gossip Girl. At the time, we didn’t really devote a lot of time to thinking about who Gossip Girl would be. It felt like they were just going to pick somebody in the last season – which they did. But I thought they did a good job of backing up that decision.

Jessica: Oh my God, I was just talking about this! I feel like, you know… It’s just a total disappointment, there’s no getting around it. They tried to play it like they had been planning for it to be Dan all along, and that was clearly false. So it was annoying that they postured in that way. But I remember maybe even just the season before, a character said “Gossip Girl is all of you! Look at you all, on your phones!” That should have been the ending, that Gossip Girl was everyone. That would have been the cleverer ending, in a way. But Dan as Gossip Girl gets a minus from me in the Reality Index. -100

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.