In his introduction to Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, David Wright recounts, in grotesquely comic detail, the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the composition of its essays. Between 1831 and 1841, De Quincey had been sued for debt 35 times. Rather than face his creditors and assured jail time, he exiled himself to Scotland, which still maintained a “right to sanctuary,” allowing defaulting debtors to find housing and go out on Sundays to attend church or visit their families without fear of capture. For up to seven years, De Quincey was “in and out of sanctuary,” squatting all over Edinburgh to avoid not only creditors but duplicitous hosts: “[I]ndeed, one unscrupulous family with whom he lodged blackmailed him for years, extorting far more than he really owed.” But it gets better!
Once he confined himself to his lodgings for fifteen months, fearing if he ventured out the door would be shut against him and his papers held in pledge. Often he was starving; sometimes he was driven to do his writing in the street. At one time he lived on spoiled meat which he got at cut-price from a butcher; yet badgered by duns, crises, confusion, and editors desperate for copy, he managed to support ten dependents, bring up a family, and compose some of the most euphonious and lucid prose of the century.
De Quincey was in his mid-forties by 1831, and more than a decade into his career. By that point he’d already made a name for himself with his infamous Confessions chronicling his opium addiction, his satirical and prescient tour de force “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” and countless essays on subjects ranging from rhetoric to Joan of Arc to German philosophy to histories of dinner and the English mail-coach. He also bore eight children.
Thomas De Quincey went through his life — unusually long given the circumstances — thinking he would achieve greatness through the accepted routes: a novel or a philosophical treatise. What actually happened was more complicated and fascinating. His cerebral faculties and ambitions were only outmatched by his flair for laziness and irresponsibility. Being terrible with money and cripplingly unemployable, De Quincey fell into magazine work, writing quickly about anything that struck his fancy and would sell. De Quincey, along with his rival William Hazlitt, set a high bar for what could be done in the strict confines of a magazine article, while also solidifying the precarious nature of the profession itself.
De Quincey is the patron saint of freelancers, and he haunts the profession to this day. Whenever a scribbler tweets aimless missives to distract from a deadline, De Quincey is pressing the “like” button. Whenever a content farmer posts a snap of their head banging a Starbucks table emblazoned with the text “the struggle is real,” it is De Quincey who is selecting the filters. If a top poster’s check is “in the mail” for a third consecutive month, they will light a candle at their “work space” next to some rancid pork shoulder and Oxycodone and recite some lines from Suspiria de Profundis, and their editor gets hit by a mail truck.
And the spirit of De Quincey could doubtless be felt somewhere in the shadows when the ultimate misfortune befalls a writer: losing a very cushy gig before it even has the chance to start.
Such is what happened last week when The Atlantic terminated a writing spot for Kevin Williamson that they had created for him just two weeks before. The circumstances were strange, to be sure. While Jeffrey Goldberg claimed that he would not judge his writers on their bad tweets, it was on a bad tweet, from 2014, that Goldberg decided to reverse his call. “The Atlantic is not the best fit for his talents,” Goldberg wrote in a memo, “and so we are parting ways.”
Williamson is not the first writer to have been fired at lightning speed. He’s not even the first this year. Yet the outrage from within the commentariat was voluminous. Those on the left cheered at the removal of a sociopathic troll. Those on the right saw another persecution of a truth-teller. But much of the air in the debate was taken up by a center position. This position admitted that, yes, Williamson loves crossing the line. But that is what you do as a journalist. You push, prod, provoke, ask questions, take stands, charge hills, die on those hills, etc. And Williamson was good at that! “Kevin Williamson can be a total jackass,” William Saletan tweeted. “He has also written some of the sharpest, most insightful work I’ve read. Some folks are complicated that way.” SE Cupp echoes Saletan’s sentiment at CNN. “He is one of the smartest and most talented writers I’ve ever met, and I have long been in awe of his considerable gifts. Even when I disagree with him, I am always grateful that he has challenged my orthodoxy.” Jack Shafer writes that, “Williamson almost always goes too far, taking his arguments to thought frontiers where there are no roads, no mobile phone service and sometimes barely enough air to breathe” but he is also “the most eloquent and forceful internal critic of that part of the white working class that went for Trump.”
The third position is notable as it is often the loudest. It speaks righteously of principles and integrity, of “big tents” and of a “marketplace of ideas.” It thrives on the notion that if someone is unguarded in their thoughts but elegant in their speech, they care for the same reasons that we, the right-thinking people, care. This position lives on what it has wrought: Dwight Macdonald, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and some others. ([cough] Stephen Glass). But people of late have become tired of this position. It’s a throwback to a happier time when literal Nazis didn’t populate the White House and postmodern gender terrorists weren’t deconstructing the very concept of education. And while I’d rather not ditch the Centrists for Williamson in favor of the forces of polarization, their repetition of this battle exposes more detachment from ideas than engagement with them.
The secret to defending Kevin Williamson is a simple one: he’s not actually that good. His border-crossing provocations and stinging sentences rest in the shade of superior predecessors. Westbrook Pegler was more efficient; Auberon Waugh was more self-aware. The Williamson style is that of a kind of imprecision bomber, the payload of which is as powerful and endless as its targeting acumen is indifferent. On the surface that makes Williamson a renegade, but compared to the current crop of right-wing polemicists — the reading room fisticuffsmanship of Michael Brendan Dougherty, the spirited surgical malpractice of Maureen Mullarkey, the black market bounty hunting of Jim Goad, the long-distance headshots of Helen Andrews, or the snuff vaudeville of Mencius Moldbug — Williamson is quite safe. Better to provoke widely than narrowly.
But this argument is less about Kevin Williamson, who probably already has job offers lined up as I type this, and more about why a magazine like The Atlantic would hire someone like Williamson. Even in a healthy industry, a majority of magazines shutter within one year of founding, The Atlantic has existed since 1857. It published “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and slave narratives. It was a leading voice for education reform and it endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Nathaniel Hawthorne was their Civil War correspondent. Of course, a magazine that stays afloat for that long cannot also stay the same. While it rests on its pedigree, it has eschewed that which earned it to begin with. When in the past it used to lead the readership toward the good and right of American life, today’s Atlantic is prone to follow a public that gets information at greater speed and frequency. It favors shorter, punchier pieces with “cool” or “insightful,” in addition to “provocative,” angles that will hopefully fill at least three days’ worth of “conversation,” for good or ill. When it wants to chase its older gravitas it leaves it all to Ta-Nehisi Coates. In 2013, the magazine caught backlash for publishing sponsored content for the Church of Scientology on its website. For his part, Williamson was at The Atlantic long enough to publish one piece: a clunker about the failure “the libertarian moment,” which everyone stopped talking about in 2015.
If this debacle is worth discussing at all it is to get at the problem of magazines. The newest and most interesting magazines are highbrow, partisan, or both. Their readership, editorship, and contributors tend to skew young. Magazines like Jacobin, The Baffler, The American Conservative, American Affairs, n+1, The New Inquiry, and Current Affairs cover subjects both popular and obscure with greater depth and ingenuity. They can afford to do this because their audiences are small but dedicated, passing web versions of their content around like digital leaflets. The aim of magazines large and small is to determine what role writing plays in a culture that has drifted towards GIFs, memes, tweets, formless blog posts, and both rambling and hyperproduced YouTube videos. The large magazine plays frantic catch-up with the future, while the small magazine seeks mostly to articulate the concerns of its readers.
This fracture in journalism can and will be framed as consensus against ideology. Some have addressed remedies along the lines of embracing the chaos. Tweeting about The Atlantic, Jeet Heer suggested a magazine called The American Berserk: “Get [Helen Andrews] to argue against woman’s suffrage, get Judith Butler to argue for the eradication of gender, get Andrew Bacevich to advocate for the end of American hegemony.” He is effectively describing H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which under his guidance in the 1920s was a daring and controversial magazine that published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Clarence Darrow, James M. Cain, George Schuyler, and Albert Jay Nock, as well as work from bricklayers, hobos, doctors, and prisoners. At the height of its popularity it was even the subject of an obscenity trial.
But to see the conflict in this way is to ignore a greater shift. Consensus-based journalism thrived in more predictable and less anxious times. Attempts at pivoting it today will do little to dissuade current readers that it is mostly frivolous theatrics. The new readers are guided more by concerns than interests. They are concerned about a viable future, they are concerned about what it means to be human in an increasingly synthetic world, some are concerned as to whether life is worth living at all. The new readers are less patient with the finer points of style or the turn of an argument and are more invested in arriving at what is true. This is the D-beat era of discourse, with a new wisdom set to sprout new conventions. Media in this time, as with media in the 19th and 18th centuries, is tasked with deciphering them and settling on the means through which they are conveyed. Disruption, it turns out, is rather inert.