If the contributors are the brain cells of a magazine, the readers are its lifeblood

Putting a gloss on big ideas

On the outsize influence of small magazines


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The term “artificial intelligence” is tautological: all intelligence is artificial, in the sense of being man-made. There is nothing new about the notion of robotic intelligence; from the Golem to Google, we have been haunted by the Cartesian model of the ghost in the machine.

It flourished during the Enlightenment and the Romantic reaction against it — the eras that gave us such utopian visions as Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain and such nightmarish fantasies as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Then came the computer, which in turn gave us the internet and social media. More than ever before, we are obsessed with the unlimited possibilities of AI, leading to transhumanism, the secularised transcendence of humanity.

Yet there is another, more genuinely humanistic and certainly more humane form of AI, in the sense of a collective yet complementary mind that is more than the sum of its individual parts. I mean, of course, the magazine.

The old AI has one inestimable advantage over the new. However inadequately, magazines generally pay their contributors. The new AI scrapes anything and everything from the internet without paying a penny to the writers whose intellectual property its algorithms harvest.

OpenAI, one of the biggest players in the field, is being sued by the novelists Jonathan Franzen, John Grisham, George RR Martin and 14 other scribblers for theft of intellectual property, risking their livelihoods in the lottery of a class action in a Manhattan courtroom in order to enforce copyright — a legal concept that is well over two centuries old.

By contrast, magazines have enabled innumerable writers to earn a living ever since their inception. That is, amongst other things, their raison d’être. To take one example: Mikhail Bulgakov, the Ukrainian-born Russian author of The Master and Margarita, was a doctor but seldom practised medicine. Instead, after the Revolution he preferred to supplement his income by journalism: first whilst serving as an army physician in the Caucasus during the civil war; later in Moscow, where he was a minor party functionary.

It was as a journalist that he — like Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and many other luminaries before him — learned the art of expressing himself in an unadorned prose that stills feels contemporary. It is journalistic discipline, too, that saves Bulgakov’s flights of fantasy from descending into whimsy.

Journalism is often despised as the most ephemeral of genres — denied the dignity of literature, which is reserved for supposedly more permanent writing. Yet the periodical you now hold in your hand (or read in its online edition) is a direct descendant of journals that stand proudly amongst the most enduring flowerings of intellectual life.

It isn’t easy to think of a great writer who wasn’t also at least an occasional journalist

Another meaning of the word “magazine” is a store of munitions. My own addition to the arsenal of the free press, Standpoint, was founded in 2008. I was editor for just over a decade, during which we made the magazine essential reading across the political and cultural spectrum. Prospect, the centre-Left monthly launched in 1995 by David Goodhart, took him on an intellectual journey that led beyond the liberal consensus. Similarly, Standpoint stood for something both quite specific and very general: the re-education of the centre-Right and the defence of Western civilisation.

At a recent gathering in Cambridge, the editor of this magazine offered a generous tribute: “Without Standpoint,” he told his guests, “there would have been no Critic.” He was doubtless correct in this particular case, but his remark touched on a more general truth. If something is worth defending — a tradition, a nation, a civilisation — then magazines will emerge to defend it.

Irving Kristol, co-founder of Encounter and many other political periodicals, used to say to younger writers: “If you have a good idea, start a magazine.” His son Bill took his father’s advice; so did I. Both of us now run online platforms (mine is TheArticle), but we have also both had the experience of seeing print magazines we had founded taken over and closed down.

Editors come in many forms. Amongst our ancestors are men and women of the stature of Goethe and Dr Johnson, Dickens and Balzac, George Eliot and T.S. Eliot. The journalistic lineage is even more vast and varied, from Addison and Steele to Amis (pére et fils) and Stoppard. Indeed, whilst there have been plenty of great writers who wrote no fiction, say, or who avoided poetry, or who never gave a thought to drama, it isn’t easy to think of a writer who wasn’t also at least an occasional journalist. Quite a few — Theodor Fontane and George Orwell are examples — would never have achieved literary greatness without having spent many years as correspondents or reporters.

A magazine does nevertheless require readers as well as writers. Though largely invisible in its pages, the readership is no less important than what is published. If the contributors are the brain cells of the magazine, the readers are its lifeblood. Like organisms, periodicals depend on circulation. Transfusions of cash may extend their lifespan, but not indefinitely.

Money, though, is a sine qua non. One or more investors must be prepared to sustain the magazine, at least until it can survive on its own revenues. The Critic is very fortunate to have Jeremy Hosking to play this role, just as I could never have got Standpoint off the ground in 2008 without Alan Bekhor whose input never felt like interference. A wise editor appreciates advice from a benefactor who is risking his own money.

The case of the Spectator towards the end of the last century illustrates the tricky relationship between proprietors and editors. Ian Gilmour bought the magazine in 1954 and appointed himself editor until 1959. This was not a success, but from 1963 to 1970 Gilmour recruited two outstanding editors, Iain Macleod and Nigel Lawson, who raised the circulation to 36,000. (Both, of course, went on to become Chancellors of the Exchequer.)

In 1967, however, Gilmour sold the magazine to Harry Creighton. Editor and proprietor soon fell out. When Lawson left to stand for Parliament, Creighton offered the editorship to his talented deputy, J.W.M. Thompson, but the latter preferred to move to the Sunday Telegraph rather than endure Creighton’s bullying and parsimony. (Full disclosure: John Thompson was my father-in-law.)

Even the most admired magazines struggle to break even

The new editor was the ebullient George Gale, but he only lasted three years before leaving to invent the radio phone-in. Creighton thought he could do a better job as editor himself, but the circulation slumped to 13,000 and the losses mounted.

By 1975 he had had enough and sold up to Henry Keswick, chairman of Jardine Matheson, who installed the amiable Alexander Chancellor. Only once harmony between proprietor and editor had been restored could the Spectator recover its influence and, decades later, its profitability.

Even the most admired magazines struggle to break even. During the 1940s, Horizon was the most prestigious shop window in British intellectual journalism. Edited by Cyril Connolly (whose name was emblazoned on the front cover), its revenues were supplemented by Peter Watson, who had inherited a dairy business. Even so, contributors were badly-paid, staff even worse. Yet Connolly himself somehow managed to throw grand parties.

Reflecting on Horizon’s first year in December 1940, Connolly observed that whilst he had begun “with a clean record”, he found “that high-brows write more and better than low-brows, young writers care more than old, and the left-wing more than the right-wing”. It wasn’t virtue-signalling but necessity that aligned Horizon with the country’s “loosely — joined progressive forces”.

Inside the back cover was a droll notice, evidently written by Connolly himself, headed: “Horizon’s Begging Bowl”. It explained that each issue cost £150, which could be covered by the sale of 6,000 copies. But the print run was just 5,000. “We are also unable to pay our contributors as much as we should like. If you particularly enjoy anything in Horizon, send the author a tip. Not more than One Hundred Pounds: that would be bad for his character. Not less than Half-a-Crown: that would be bad for yours.”

One wonders how writers of the calibre of George Orwell felt about being “tipped”. His influential essay, “The Ruling Class”, which appeared in that same issue, began: “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun.” He was right, then and maybe even now. But journalists like him, though hard up, were also privileged: it was a “reserved occupation”. They didn’t have to fight.

A post-war child, my own experience of magazines owes much to the Cold War and, in particular, the Berlin Wall. As a young Telegraph correspondent, I played a small part in its downfall. Before 1989, I had reviewed books for the TLS and other journals, but had not broken through in magazine journalism.

Soon after this episode, the Spectator asked me to write about it. Then Mel Lasky, the mercurial editor of Encounter, commissioned a cover story about Germany. Encounter was by then running out of money and closed a year or two later. But its role in educating the transatlantic elites about the enemies of the West cannot be overstated. Since my encounter with Encounter, I have never looked back.

Another key magazine of that era for which I was proud to write was Commentary. From 1960 to 1995, under the inspired and pugnacious editorship of Norman Podhoretz, it evolved from the house journal of the American Jewish Committee into the main vehicle of neoconservative thought. Norman’s equally brilliant successor, Neal Kozodoy, enabled Commentary to make the transition from the era of Cold War to that of culture wars. When Neal retired in 2009, he went on to found the online platform Jewish Ideas Daily, later renamed Mosaic.

What I learned from these Cold Warriors of Manhattan was that magazines are not about fraternising with the enemy. The first time I met them in the mid-1980s, they took me to lunch. I had come straight from the office of the ultra-liberal New York Review of Books. Bob Silvers, its Anglophile editor, had been gracious. But the Commentary guy’s reaction was blunt. “Silvers can go to hell,” said Norman. “Stick with us, Daniel.” I did.

For the past 15 years Commentary has been edited by Norman’s son, John Podhoretz, who has kept it alive and kicking. But magazines struggle to exert the sway over American elite public opinion they had a decade or two ago. The oxygen has been sucked out of the public sphere by social media.

And then came Trump. The aforementioned Bill Kristol, who had founded the Weekly Standard in 1995 with backing from Rupert Murdoch, became the leader of the Never Trump campaign. An unbridgeable rift opened up between Bill and the owners of the Weekly Standard, who supported Trump. He left after Trump’s victory in 2016; the magazine folded less than two years later.

Bill’s new online pulpit, the Bulwark, combines an assortment of public intellectuals, most of whom are not, like him, refugees from the Republicans. But the stakes are so high — American democracy itself — that it has come together and feels like a proper magazine.

In the technology industry, a great deal is riding on the quest for an Artificial General Intelligence. But this digital idol may prove to be just that — an idol. Human intelligence is unlike machine learning. Whilst AI machines compete to build ever larger language models, human diversity is so infinite that size does not need to be everything. And, like us, magazines are mortal.

The magazine is perhaps the best microcosm of the truth embodied in the United States motto, e pluribus unum. With money, readers and talent all in short supply, magazines have nevertheless helped to save Western civilisation from its worst follies. As Auden’s “September 1, 1939” put it: “We must love one another or die.” To which Connolly added: “We must read one another or vanish.”

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