Literary Serfs in an Age of Revolt

In a recent novel centered on the underpaid interns of New York’s fanciest publications, Hermione Hoby asks whether a cultural legacy can be simultaneously saved and overthrown

Hermione Hoby’s second novel Virtue, published by Riverhead Books in July, following her well-reviewed debut Neon in Daylight, tackles the central contradiction of the always unremunerative, often exploitive hazing rituals that some of the literary world’s most vaunted magazines still run: To talk about interns at “legacy magazines” is to talk about potential futures for old things.

To even think about taking one of these internships, which pay primarily in pedigree rather than actual currency, one must have at least a modicum of respect for those legacies. But that respect can also be a trap, encouraging interns into a sort of conservatism, making them wonder whether it’s worth the ethical sacrifice of conforming to the faded patrician ideals of previous generations whose visions still hold sway, even in the cases (most of them now) where the legendary figures have passed away, to appeal to the dinosaurs at the top of the masthead who made those compromises before.

So interns struggle with whether to lean into continuity or iconoclasm, whether to go with the status quo or strike out and make something new and just. After all, if the next generation doesn’t rebel, how can a magazine, or a person, evolve? And if a magazine doesn’t evolve, should it survive?

Hoby writes from the perspective of Luca, a 22-year-old graduate of Dartmouth (“second-least impressive of the Ivies”) from Colorado, who returns to the U.S. from a year at Oxford, in the fall of 2016, to start a six-month internship at a tony New York literary magazine called The New Old World. “The magazine actually was partly funded for decades by a batty old viscountess aging away in an actual castle in the actual Scottish Highlands, as well as, it was said, the CIA,” Luca’s retrospective narration runs. “I’d never read the thing. I was a fake, in other words, although, it turned out I had plenty of company.” Luca and his fellow interns are allowed into the elite social world of the magazine, into high-flying editorial meetings and parties, while also heading out to join the protests that welled up in the wake of the 2016 election. As they confront these wildly different situations, they have to decide where their priorities, and virtues, lie.

In a conversation with Off the Record, Hoby is quick to point out that her novel is in no sense autofiction, but allows that her first experiences in her journalism career, which has included bylines at The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewHarper’s, and The New York Times, were similarly disjunctive. “It’s this curious mix of the demeaning and the privileged. One feels very lucky to be there, and you’ve fought off lots of other eager ambitious young people to get there,” she said. “You’ve studied English and written a thousand essays on Paradise Lost or whatever, and then, suddenly, you’re photocopying and getting coffee. It’s this kind of falling off where you’re like, ‘Okay, so my privilege has earned me the right to work for very little money or indeed no money in these demeaning tasks.’”

Though Hoby, who grew up in the southeast suburbs of London, never interned at an American magazine, she did the British equivalent at The New Statesman and the London Review of Books. Some of her clearest memories are of The New Statesman’s big summer party. “In that jejune way, I was very excited to be at a party that the prime minister was attending. That seemed pretty cool,” she said, “not that Gordon Brown could be described as cool.” But the LRB had more of that mythological heft that she ended up instilling in The New Old World. “I felt totally out of my depth and awed and idiotic,” she said. “I remember finding it so eccentric and glamorous that they edited by hand. They would print something out, and it would just be covered in red pen. It seemed like a pretty magical place.”

After graduating from Cambridge in 2007, Hoby landed a job at The Observer’s New Review section. “I thought that was going to be my life. I would just work at The Observer or The Guardian, possibly, forever,” she said, “but then life intervened. My boyfriend at the time, who is a brilliant journalist and still in New York — shout out Jon Swaine of The Washington Post — got a job as a New York correspondent. So we moved to New York in 2010.”

She spent nearly a decade in the city before moving to Boulder, Colorado, at the end of 2018. Though she was a freelancer, her social world was filled with people working at American magazines. “Maybe this is just the perspective of an English person coming to New York as a young person,” she said, “but it seemed to me that there was far more of an aura of glamour and literary history surrounding American publications than British ones.”

Those interactions fed the mythology she created for The New Old World. “Anyone familiar with legacy publications, as I guess we’re calling them now, might notice certain details that have made their way into this Frankenstein of a magazine,” she said. Secret backing by the CIA, for instance, may be a reference to The Paris Review, whose co-founder Peter Matthiessen claimed to have started the magazine as a cover. “There’s no doubt I was drawing on years of going to those kinds of parties and hanging out with people who work there and just being in a social world in which people read these magazines and cared about them.”

But caring about these magazines often manifests in different ways in people from different generations. Those tensions make their way into the novel in the frosty relationship between Byron Tancread, the ancient fixture at the top of The New Old World’s masthead (“people said he’d been punched by Mailer once”), and Zara, the most politically radical of Luca’s fellow interns. Hoby declined to name any direct inspirations, but Tancread is a familiar type to anyone who knows of George Plimpton, Lewis Lapham, or Robert Silvers.

“Of course, Byron is a boozy, old blowhard, quite pompous, grandly residing in his corner office,” Hoby said, “but it was important, too, that I suggest a fundamental decency to him. He’s not some kind of sexist, racist old monster puffed up purely with his own self-regard. I wanted a sense that he really believes in literature and he does care about people, but he is also a man of a certain generation.”

Hoby’s fictional intern narrator Luca struggles with that complexity. “I couldn’t work out whether I was meant to revere or ridicule Byron,” he says. “In 2016 there wasn’t really such a thing as a good man, as far I could tell. This was our new doctrine, with, it must be said, a lot of evidence behind it. Masculinity was toxic and, masochists, we turned our gazes to our screens to watch the president confirm it daily.”

Zara is more focused on politics than Luca and brutally, unavoidably more aware of contemporary injustices than Tancread, and her relationship with the retrograde magazine turns more contentious, too. She attends every protest and feels a sort of global desperation. “For people who are coming of age now, it is natural that they’re really engaged, and that’s thrilling to me,” Hoby said. “I had so many questions I had to put to myself with every character, but the questions I had to put to myself with Zara seemed graver. It seemed so important that I answer those very carefully because, of course, I am a white woman writing a young black female character. One of those questions was, ‘Why would Zara do this internship if she has a degree of political disdain for this vessel?’ And I thought, ‘Well, she’s drawn to what’s good in it.’”

After the internship ends, Zara publishes an essay, “Abolish the Literary,” that takes off on Twitter. “A literary magazine like The New Old World is a sick and deplorable lie, she argues, because it congratulates itself on being an institution of humanism,” runs Luca’s summation, “while refusing to acknowledge the political realities — grievous and egregious — that do more harm to humanity than poetry can do good.” “Do you think the magazine will fold or what?” one character asks after the essay is read aloud at a summer home in Maine.

“I don’t necessarily subscribe to like, ‘burn it all down,’” Hoby said. “I think there is much to be saved, and, of course, much to be overhauled, reconsidered, and changed.” Those changes can be hard to make because the people who stick around magazines after their internships often seem, very quickly, to become entrenched in their traditions. “If you get a job at one of these places, you’re not going to want to leave,” Hoby said. “It’s hard to see what you’re immersed in every day.”

Hoby has been thinking lately about the novelist Joyce Carol Oates’s tweet in response to The New Yorker archivist Erin Overbey’s rundown of the magazine’s embarrassing diversity statistics. “The New Yorker has been a model of diversity & originality,” Oates claimed. “Dissatisfaction w/ magazines should inspire others to start their own.”

Hoby is dubious that that’s anywhere near a sufficient solution. It also seems to misunderstand where the people who start some of the best-known little magazines are coming from. “I’m excited by The Drift, for example,” she said, “but my partner Ben [Kunkel] is one of the co-founders of n+1, and it’s really interesting talking to him about this kind of stuff. They did start their own thing because they felt like the stuff they wanted to write about, there wasn’t a place for it, but that didn’t preclude also wanting to write for The New Yorker.”

Even the outsider tradition of little magazines appeals to people who are attracted to very traditional institutions. It’s no coincidence that the “Editors’ Note” in the first issue of The Drift points out that “the founding editors of n+1 sought to bring back the tone and tenor of Partisan Review, that ur-magazine of the literary-intellectual set,” and proceeds to try to establish their magazine, instead, in the even older tradition of Max Eastman’s socialist magazine The Masses which started in 1911. However, they don’t see fit to mention Eastman’s eventual reactionary drift. It’s no coincidence, either, that most of the founders of both The Drift and n+1 are Harvard graduates.

Maybe the ultimate fate of industries, like literary magazine publishing, whose most financially viable days have been gone for decades, is to attract backward-looking people. At the end of Virtue, Luca escapes this vicious cycle and its contradictions once and for all by leaving magazines behind.