Turbulent times: Cowley on upheavals in politics and books

Turbulent times: Cowley on upheavals in politics and books

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley, formerly news editor at The Bookseller, is publishing a collection of his journalism with Norfolk indie Salt.

What’s the idea behind your book, Reaching for Utopia?

It’s a collection of political and cultural pieces that roughly cover the decade I have been editor of the New Statesman. The magazine has existed for more than a century, and yet by any measure the present era is remarkable: Trump, Brexit, the Scottish independence referendum, Corbyn and the rise of the radical left, the crises in Europe, the rise and fall of Islamic State, a mini world war in Syria, an unprecedented shift in power from the West to the East. These are turbulent new times, as we like to say.

Through my journalism I’ve tried to make sense of what is going on. I’m interested in both politics and culture, as well as the politics of culture and the culture of politics. The book is an attempt to explain and understand the forces driving this period of extraordinary politics—a period that has coincided with the rejuvenation of the New Statesman.

It’s been a brilliant time to be editor of a political and cultural magazine and website, and I’ve interviewed prime ministers and party leaders from both the left and right.

You are being published by a small press: was that deliberate?

It was. Salt publishes my friend Phil Whitaker, a doctor, novelist and New Statesman medical columnist. He recommended them, and I spoke to no one else.

I wanted the book to be elegant and well made—a slim hardback—and to be on a small, high-quality literary list. I’ve enjoyed working with Salt and its extraordinary publicist Emma Dowson, who has filled up my diary with festival and media appearances.

When you left The Bookseller [in 1996], the Net Book Agreement was close to its end. How do you think the trade has fared since?

I played my small part in the collapse of the NBA by breaking the story about HarperCollins’ decision to end its commitment to retail price maintenance.

The trade has adapted well to astounding technological change—perhaps better than the newspaper business—by publishing books in different formats and across different platforms. I’ve never believed that people would lose faith in the printed book, and I was delighted to read that book sales rose last year.

What has changed is the status of the literary novel. It has become marginal to the wider culture. When I first started in journalism in the early 1990s, there was huge interest in literary fiction and literary culture. Waterstones, Dillons and Books Etc were opening new shops. Newspapers were expanding their review sections and paying high fees. Publishers were launching new literary imprints and paying extravagant advances. Literary publishers were glamorous, influential figures, and being a newspaper literary editor was one of the best jobs in Fleet Street. It was a different world.

Publishers largely keep themselves away from the political sphere—they are absent from the pages of the New Statesman, except through their books—but it’s an important sector for all sorts of reasons. Do you think they ought to be more vocal?

Publishers should be part of our intellectual conversation. There are publishers who write, such as Robin Robertson of Cape, who is longlisted for the Man Booker, or Simon Winder at Allen Lane, who has indeed appeared in our pages.

But I presume you are referring to heads of houses, who are largely anonymous compared to the likes of Eddie Bell and Gail Rebuck, who dominated the scene when I was starting out. Many of the publishers I used to know are now agents, which perhaps tells us something about the trade. Has it become too corporate in the age of globalisation?

Who are the two people—one from books, one from politics—you have found most difficult to interview?

Ed Miliband was difficult, because the more I interviewed him the less seriously I took him. He had none of the flair or swagger of, say, Nigel Farage or Tony Blair, who are both fascinating interviewees and for different reasons. Theresa May was also tricky because she’s so cautious and lacks warmth.

I once conducted a nightmare interview with James Ellroy, at a live event. He was indomitable and could tell I hadn’t read his latest novel, which must have irritated him because he was in town to promote it. I learned a lesson that day: always be prepared.

Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of an Age of Upheaval will be published by Salt in hardback format on 1st September, priced £12.99.