The University Bookman

 
 

Spring 2018

Conservative Fictions, Fictional Conservatism?

A conversation with Adam Bellow.

A full transcript is below, and the unedited audio of this interview may be played or downloaded here (MP3, 27 MB, 27 minutes).

Interviewed by Mark Judge

Mark Judge: I am speaking with Adam Bellow, who is a well-known editor. He’s done a lot of conservative best-sellers by people like Sarah Palin, Jonah Goldberg, and Dinesh D’Souza. He is currently an editor at St. Martin’s and he has his own imprint there called All Points. He’s also the creator of the website Liberty Island. I’d like to start with Liberty Island. It is a couple years old but you’ve just relaunched it and you have a new look to the website. So tell me what Liberty Island is, its concept, and about the relaunch.

From website to publisher

Adam Bellow: First of all, I’ll say that I was a nonfiction editor on the right—in the conservative intellectual world for thirty years. I’d never published a novel in my whole career but several years ago I noticed that a lot of my nonfiction authors were asking me whether I would be interested in publishing a novel for them. I kept hearing this. I read some of these books and considered publishing a couple of them in the commercial, mainstream publishing houses where I was working, but the feeling was that they were too sectarian, that the audience for these books written by conservatives would not be a broad mass market, and so it was not considered to be a good idea—just did not fit into our business model as publishers. So together with my friend and business partner David Bernstein we launched Liberty Island magazine.

The magazine was at first a digital magazine for short works by right-leaning authors—conservatives, libertarians, anyone concerned with the fate and future of freedom. We published a lot of great stuff. It was really great fun. We got a lot of wonderful material. But soon after launching we began to receive queries about novels. And so we starting soliciting submissions of novel length. And again, although there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t up to our standards as editors, there was a tremendous amount of good quality material in a wide range of fiction genres, ranging from the literary to what we call genre fiction, which includes science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, historical, romance, and other categories.

And so we started publishing novels, but we had some difficulties with distribution. We were operating on a shoestring and it’s hard to put books into physical distribution. So we went through a couple of distributors and then finally we decided to take on distribution ourselves and handle it directly, which is a much more satisfactory arrangement. You have better control over schedules and timing and so forth. We redesigned our website and relaunched it and we are about to roll out a large number of new titles in a variety of genres. We are extremely proud of the books that we’ve selected and have every expectation that they will find their natural readership.

Punk rock and ‘conservative’ fiction

Judge: I often hear from conservatives that, well, the left owns the popular culture, they own Hollywood, they own academia, they own publishing, and I say, well, there’s this place called Liberty Island where they’re actually trying to establish a toehold there. It’s almost like punk rock in the early days where a bunch of guys are in their basement and they create Rough Trade or Creation Records. The point being that for a lot of conservatives who are complaining about this situation, it takes competition to bring out the best talent, and I think Liberty Island is doing that. Isn’t that your model that the competition is producing better books and there’s a market there for these on the right—people just have to know about that? Am I on the right track there?

Bellow: Well, the punk-rock analogy is actually a good one. A couple of summers ago I published an article in National Review announcing essentially our discovery that the creative energy had shifted on the right, into the production of popular culture. It was not limited to popular fiction but also includes video and music and stand-up comedy and a whole range of pop-culture varieties that are reflected in the mainstream culture. But as we conservatives know, conservative viewpoints are not welcome in mainstream culture and so the conclusion of my article, my argument, is that there is a new counterculture rising in opposition to the increasingly rigid and politically correct control of mainstream popular culture.

We at Liberty Island wished to support and promote and give voice to that that counterculture. We called upon our fellow conservatives to support those creative individuals who are laboring in, for the most part, total obscurity with very little encouragement or support. We as editors and publishers are very moved by the persistence and tenacity and commitment of these creative individuals and we think it’s perfectly appropriate to call upon conservatives to support them.

Now the response to my article was interesting because, on the left, there were howls of derision and laughter. What, conservatives write novels? Using what, a rock, a lump of coal? You can imagine what kind of hilarity ensued, because to the left the idea that a conservative could have a creative impulse is laughable on its face.

What I found interesting on the right, however, was a certain reluctance to endorse the idea of what we were calling conservative fiction. What does that mean? Does that mean that we’re going to be publishing novels where Donald Trump is the hero, or about particular conservative policies, or partisan books? And should not culture also be free of any political message or intention and be somehow aesthetically pure or superior?

There is a certain kind of cultural snobbism that we see on the right sometimes, a kind of Parnassian snobbery, which is to say, “that’s nice, get back to us when you discover the conservative Faulkner or Melville.” And our response to that is, what’s wrong with Tom Wolfe or Tom Clancy? We’re not taking about high literature—which we agree should stand on its own aesthetic merits. Although I would also point out that great literary works are often entangled, usually political in some way, going back to the Aeneid, for example, which was commissioned by Augustus to glorify the founding of Rome. Or even farther back, the works of Sophocles, which were open political commentary on the reign of Pericles.

Judge: Or Robert Heinlein?

Bellow: Or Heinlein, yes. Coming more to the future, in the twentieth century there’s no question that particularly genres like science fiction have been political. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451—the utopia/dystopia—many wonderful books have been published that have a political message and that still managed to be popular and entertaining. And that is what we are looking at.

Now when you come to the question of how aesthetic and cultural movements get launched, they often start—as you know having cited the example of punk rock (or grunge rock or blues or any number of other musical genres)—these movements start in small arenas, like the Cavern Club in Liverpool, let’s say, and they attract an initial band of enthusiasts who are the first fans and supporters of the new musical thing. And they provide support to these artists as they hone their craft and develop their sound and style. And then if they’re really good, they break out of that original supportive environment and go national and even global.

That is also true of writers. A good example is Tom Clancy, who wrote novels that were not explicitly political or conservative but were clearly written with a kind of conservative, pro-American patriotic outlook. Clancy’s novels could not initially be published in the mainstream publishing houses. He was first published by the Naval Institute Press—judging by its name you can imagine the kinds of things they publish. Clancy became a big success for them and after he was established as an author with a large audience then he was able to move to a mainstream publishing company. And that’s the model for Liberty Island.

We think of Liberty Island as the bottom rung of a feeder system that doesn’t exist, that needs to be created in order to allow first-time authors and self-published authors whose views are unfashionable and could not be published by left-leaning or liberal mainstream houses to be published and to find an audience and build some kind of base of support so that they can then go on to be more successful according as their talents warrant. That is our ethos as publishers.

A sampling of new titles

Judge: Have you thought about asking Kanye West to be on your board of directors?

Bellow: It’s a great idea. Do you have his e-mail? Does he read? That is the other question.

Judge: He raps, so he’s good with language, I know that. So, if someone says, I want to go to Amazon and Barnes and Noble and order two or three Liberty Island books and give this a shot, what are some titles you can think of that would be a good place to start off?

Bellow: We are rolling out a lot of content this year. Every month we are publishing a new novel or a new series. We have started releasing whole series together in batches.

book cover imageIn the single-novel category we have a book by Frank J. Fleming, who is a writer, a humorist with a following, with PJ Media. We had published a previous book by Frank, and this is is new one. It’s called Sidequest: In Realms Ungoogled. It’s described as an urban fantasy and it’s about a computer coder who is taking an unusual route to work one day and finds himself in an enchanted forest where fairies approach and give him a sword and tell him to learn to use this sword or perish. But he’s too busy, he has to get to work. So he goes to work instead, but then he begins to notice some strange things: the fact that his boss is a demon with horns and fangs, or that an unnamed thing below feasts on human victims in an arena filled with people absorbed in their cell phones. And then he goes on a date with a blonde girl named Shannon and she is wearing a full suit of armor and carrying an axe. She explains that she is a Sister of Torment and she cuts off heads for the Darkness. And no one thinks there is anything funny about this. Nothing out of the ordinary. He’s beginning to see more and more the world as it is. And he goes on an adventure and has to make important choices. It’s a classic light-versus-dark fantasy. Frank is a wonderful writer, very funny, and it’s a terrific story. That book is doing quite well for us.

book cover imageAnd we have a five-book series called Bad Road Rising by Mike Baron. Baron is a very successful author of graphic novels, and in recent years he’s turned to writing fiction. He has a series of books about a private eye, Josh Pratt, who had been a member of a bike gang, a meth dealer, went to prison, had a religious experience, and came out as a better man. In all of his adventures, each of these novels, he has a different problem that he has to solve for somebody, and it usually involves his getting embroiled in some kind of mess with some bad bikers, and also with some liberals, because he lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and naturally is constantly dealing with a sort of liberal folly. What I like about these books, apart from the fact that they’re just really excellent Chandleresque novels—well written, that tell good stories—is that the conservatism is just implicit. Nobody ever gives a lecture in one of these stories. It’s not like reading Ayn Rand. These are just excellent stories with a very sympathetic character, and they’re really page-turning books. These are highly recommended.

book cover imageIn addition there is a trilogy by Quin Hillyer, who is well known to readers of National Review. The series is called The Accidental Prophet, the adventures of someone named Madison Jones, or Mad Jones, who suffers a tragedy in his life, has a kind of religious, Martin Luther–type experience, stays up all night writing a bunch of religious theses and nails them to the church doors. It’s as though Luther lived in the age of Twitter, and Jones becomes quickly the center of a cult. It’s a hilarious but theologically serious book, in three parts. It’s a really fun read.

book cover imageAnother four-part series is by Roy Griffis, one of our favorite authors and a genuine discovery. Roy is a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in San Francisco, and a kind of conservative with a touch of the prepper in him. A really great guy—everyone likes him personally. He has written a series of books set in an alternate American present in which the U.S. fell in 2008, through a combined assault of jihadi invaders from the south and Chinese invaders from the east. So 2008 is the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency, and Bush goes into hiding where he directs the resistance and becomes known as Lonesome George. So these are the Lonesome George Chronicles, and in every volume you meet various groups of resistance fighters around the country. There are various subplots that go through the series; there’s one set in the wreckage of Washington, DC. and another in the American Southwest, another in southern California.

One of the things that I particularly enjoy about this book is that the author has incorporated some real-life characters in it, with alternate futures. One of the leading figures in the book is the actor Alec Baldwin, who as everybody knows is a massive liberal, but in this book, Baldwin is one of those liberals who has his eyes opened after LA is nuked by the Chinese and his wife and daughter are killed and he becomes a leader of the resistance. Another real-life figure who is included in this series is the late Molly Ivins, who is a well-known liberal columnist from Texas who in real life died of cancer in the nineties, but in the novel lives on and witnesses the invasion and fall of America and has her eyes opened to the nature of the jihadist threat and becomes the voice of the resistance on the underground radio.

It’s touches like these that make the book enjoyable—particularly enjoyable for a conservative. And I would say not objectionable to a liberal, which is the whole idea. We don’t want to publish conservative books that are offensive to liberals. There’s no need for that. We want to entertain them and get them to maybe think a little bit differently from the way they have been used to doing. And storytelling is the best way.

Books publishers love

Judge: It is. One of my favorite writers in the world is Meg Wolitzer, who wrote The Interestings, and she has a new book out called The Female Persuasion. A lot of people have been saying that The Female Persuasion is about feminism and liberals are going to like this book, but her book The Interestings was about human beings, about how interesting people are as they get older, and their friendships and their relationships and their struggles. I’m going to read The Female Persuasion because I think she’s going to have some interesting characters in there. It’s the same reason I’m going to read Liberty Island books, because there will be interesting characters in there. Is that right?

Bellow: Yes. These are accomplished works of fiction, and we set a pretty high standard. We get a lot of stuff—we read dozens of novels every year, and the majority we have to turn down—as readers we don’t think they are of good enough quality. But the wonderful thing about what we do is that we are in a position to make discoveries, which is what publishers always want to do.

Publishers want to publish books that they love. I am sitting right now in my New York publishing office, and I get offered books every day. Four or five times a day someone sends me a proposal or a manuscript or calls me up and pitches a book. It would be easy to fill up your list with books that are perfectly fine, perfectly viable, books that would certainly have an audience. But that’s not how we operate as editors—unless we’re publishing crossword puzzle books or sudoku books, which is not what we went to college to do. But let’s say you’re publishing popular fiction or children’s literature or, as I do, political nonfiction. To the degree that we are able, the way we operate is that you choose to publish books that you love, that you resonate with, that you think other people will love as well. That’s what publishing thrives on: the enthusiasm of editors and their conviction, their commitment to certain writers and books.

In our work at Liberty Island we uphold the same standard. We’ve been very gratified to discover that there is a tremendous amount of good stuff being published—written and mostly self-published—by people who simply deserve a larger audience, and that is our role. I’ve only touched on a few of the titles that we’re publishing. I think we have something like thirty books coming out this year all told, so it’s a cornucopia, an embarrassment of riches. We couldn’t be prouder of our writers and our staff and all the work that has gone to try and demonstrate the truth of our proposition that conservatives can write compelling works of fiction that deserve a broad audience.

Judge: That’s a great place to wind up. I want to thank you for talking with me. The website is Liberty Island. Lots of great stuff there, so check it out.  

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C.

Posted: May 6, 2018 in Interviews.

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Order Gets Physical
James Kalb
Volume 46, Number 2 (Summer 2008)

The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at the highest.

Russell Kirk

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