Interview: editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley

On the literary scene, journalism, and the current state of the left

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Sean Smith for The Guardian

In the late 20th century, the literary scene was glamorous and powerful. Newspapers had large literary sections that wrote extensively on the latest novels and their authors. There were many public intellectuals who were journalists as well as novelists. Titans like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Edward Said gave literature a say over cultural discourse and the framing of political debate.

But the editor of the political and literary magazine the New Statesman believes the influence of literature has waned.

“The role of the novel has changed considerably. Very few novelists are what you might think of as central to the public conversation, in a way that the big American writers were in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – people like Norman Mailer.”

Jason Cowley is talking to me in his office. With his dark, loose-fitted suit and longish light-brown hair pushed to the side, his appearance is simple and composed, wary of ostentation or eccentricity. His responses are structured like prose and are spoken loudly and assertively.

“Someone like Martin Amis, who is now 70, was a major figure in the UK in the 80s. He saw writing as a heroic activity, and he saw himself as being absolutely central to the culture, and central to documenting that culture in fiction and representation. That’s changed now. The novel is much more marginal.”

“The internet has changed everything. Amis once said to me in the mid 90s that his mission as a novelist was to go in search of all the new rhythms. To go out onto the street and find out what was going on. Someone like Amis is now a relic because the internet has blown him away. He hasn’t got the capacity to understand how the internet has changed the way we think and write, live and communicate.”

Cowley points to younger writers like the Irish writer Sally Rooney who has emerged this year, as examples of authors who resonate with millennial readers. The great public figures of the past cannot muster the cultural insights they once could. “Amis is now writing historical novels, he’s no longer going in search of all the new rhythms.”

Having studied English and Philosophy at university, Cowley has always enjoyed writing about writing. His first job was for a local paper in Essex and Hertfordshire, whilst submitting reviews and literary essays to various publications. After a period at The Times, Cowley became a judge of the Booker Prize for fiction. He subsequently became the literary editor of the New Statesman.

For Cowley, literature was the lens through which he viewed the world and being a literary journalist enabled him to focus on this. I ask him how this literary evolution has impacted his writing.

“I still read but I don’t read as many contemporary novels in the way I did when I was younger. I’m reading more history and politics now. My essays are both political and literary and I hope one informs the other. But that’s just how I approach it. The daily flow of Westminster interests me less than the bigger trends.

“The New Statesmen was set up as a weekly review of politics and literature, and I’ve tried to return it to something of that original spirit. My reading informs my writing.”

This symbiosis of politics and literature is found throughout his writings. In his new book, a collection of political and literary essays entitled Reaching for Utopia, Cowley uses literary criticism to complement his political commentary. From Nigel Farage to Kazuo Ishiguro, Cowley provides an unassuming perspective through a critique of culture and politics. In one passage, he quotes George Orwell’s opprobrium against those of the left who ‘have always wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian’. I ask him if this criticism is still relevant today.

“Orwell also used a phrase in the criticism of the left where he called them ‘orthodoxy sniffers’ – quite a nice phrase. There is a tendency on the left where they are willing to denounce their enemy but less willing to denounce those on their own side, and I think that’s a concern – it bothers me. But that might bother me because I’m not an ideologue; I don’t argue from fixed positions.”

Before he goes on, his face takes on an expression of authentic concern without losing composure.

“I think the left should be as critical of itself as it is of its enemies. You see this failing with the Corbynites’ reluctance to condemn anti-Semitism or condemn the excesses on their own side. By criticising Corbyn it’s like they are criticising a whole world view. And I think their reluctance is revealing.”

Cowley is curious about the tendencies of some university students to no-platform right-wing speakers. I tell him about the recent protests in Oxford in response to talks by Steve Bannon and Marion Maréchal and the reasons some protesters have given.

“Why would Oxford students not want to give Maréchal a fair hearing? Would they denounce her as a quasi-fascist? But her positions are much more complicated than that. She’s distanced herself from her aunt. And she’s quite interested in the economy where she leans left. This is what I don’t understand – why you wouldn’t want to hear her, and then maybe ask her some rigorous and challenging questions. Why no-platform her, without really listening to her argument? That bothers me. I think students of all people should be open minded.”

Cowley believes that students are missing an opportunity to understand the political forces shaping our age. He argues that Bannon isn’t some marginal extremist, but a strategist who crafted the election of Donald Trump. “What is it that Bannon knows? What is it that Bannon understands?”

Perhaps, the left could learn something from Bannon and people like him. “There is a sense, for all of his flaws, that he understands something fundamental about the dissatisfaction of the working class. Bannon said something, and I paraphrase: ‘Let’s leave the left to obsess about identity politics, race, homophobia, and I go with economic nationalism. We win every time.’

“I think the question your protesters have to ask themselves is why wherever you look in the West, the left are losing, by which I mean the mainstream social democratic left, to Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, the UK, the Czech Republic. The left are either being annihilated or heavily defeated, why is that?

“I don’t think these people should be no-platformed, one should give them a hearing and then grapple with their ideas.”

Cowley’s ideology is sceptical. He tries to accept arguments based upon their content rather than the person making them. He thinks that one cannot be certain that those with different opinions are completely wrong, especially when their arguments are yet to be heard. There is often something to be learnt from those with whom you disagree, and maintaining a rigid, partisan mindset doesn’t help that. Cowley’s editorial policy reflects this independence of thought.

Whilst the New Statesman has retained its leftist philosophy under Cowley’s editorship, he has removed any editorial reverence for arguments from authority. In his words, the New Statesman has “had periods of decline and struggle, periods where it lost credibility, periods where it became either the mouth piece of the Labour Party, or another period where it might have been a rainbow coalition of disaffected left-wing voices.”

The paper has been critical of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, especially in its dire predictions for Labour’s performance in the 2017 general election. A few months before the election, Cowley wrote that what is ‘most striking about Corbynism – apart from the dysfunctionality and incompetence of the leader’s office – is its intellectual mediocrity, its absence of ideas’.

Cowley’s revitalisation of the paper has been recognised by multiple awards. At the 2017 British Society of Magazine Editors Awards, he was named Current Affairs and Politics Editor of the year for the third time. The judges highlighted the New Statesman’s eloquence and independent views.

After becoming editor in 2008, Cowley wanted to return to the founding spirit of the paper, but “I also wanted to take it upmarket and publish better writers, who would write well on the defining subjects of our time: politics, geopolitics, economics, culture, arts.”

“I think the NS can become a bigger and more influential publication, more in line with the American publications like The Atlantic, where they are print-digital hybrids, they retain a magazine but they also have a growing and successful web presence, and then you have spin-offs into podcasts, newsletters, and events. So you become a sort of small but successful media company, and that’s our aspiration at the New Statesman.”

Cowley believes that the New Statesman will achieve this by “taking unpredictable positions, challenging prejudice, challenging establishment complacency, holding the powerful to account both left and right, pursuing vigorously injustice, but also being elegant and witty and well written. So not persuading through our anger and indignation but persuading through the quality of our journalism.”

The New Statesman’s deputy editor, George Eaton, believes that central to Cowley’s editorship was his early decision “to recruit young talent, rather than buying in established columnists (in the style of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, one could say). The NS was where Mehdi Hasan and Laurie Penny made their names and that model has been maintained since, with the arrivals of Helen Lewis, Stephen Bush and Grace Blakeley.”

As a 22-year-old, Eaton emailed Cowley hoping to write about politics. After a single conversation, Cowley hired him as a graduate trainee. Eaton believes that: “Many editors wouldn’t have given me the time of day, but Jason did and that reflects an essential quality for any editor: curiosity and an eye for new opportunities.

“Jason isn’t an authoritarian editor in the mould of Paul Dacre, say. He trusts staff and gives them the freedom to innovate.

“But he’s not an aloof editor in the style of some and he hasn’t treated the NS as a vehicle for launching a side-line career. It wouldn’t have been possible to change the title as significantly as he has if that were the case. I’d add that he retains an essential quality for any editor: a sense of mischief. He’s not afraid to provoke and surprise and that’s one reason the magazine has stayed relevant and unpredictable throughout the decade he’s been editor.”

Whether it be his views on no-platforming, his editorial and leadership style, or his literary criticism, Cowley seeks compelling insight wherever it can be found. He is not bound by ideology or partisan certainty but prefers to challenge hardened positions with healthy scepticism.

As our conversation concludes, I notice the book Arguably by Christopher Hitchens prominently positioned on the bookshelf above Cowley’s desk. Hitchens was a writer who viewed literature as the illuminating light of both politics and ethics, so perhaps there are some parallels between the two New Statesman men.

“I admire his industry, his erudition – he’s a much more polemical writer than I will ever be. I just found at times, although he wrote extremely well and forcefully, I found his certainty and his over confidence off-putting. I prefer doubt and scepticism and humility really – I really do. That’s what interests me. People are stumbling towards something, trying to discover a kind of truth, at the same time knowing there are no permanent solutions. And always be humble, I think that’s important to remember.”

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