When Andrew Breitbart talked about “politics being downstream from culture,” he put into smart coinage a truth that culturally attuned conservatives already fully appreciated. In order to prevail at the ballot box and thus in the direction of policy, conservatives must first win hearts and minds by participating influentially in the creative arts, most particularly in popular cultural milieus like film, television, music, and the literary arts. If conservatives want access to artistic avenues which will help reflect and foster their values, they must be prepared to compete in the arena of ideas against a hegemonic progressive arts community that is adept at targeted demonization, thematic encoding, and narrative spin.
At Liberty Island—which just relaunched its website with a new format and new opportunities for conservative and libertarian writers—it’s all about the storytelling. It’s about providing a platform for voices and perspectives that might otherwise be shut out or ignored by “mainstream” cultural and artistic gatekeepers.
I reached out to the site’s editorial team on the occasion of the relaunch. Managing Editor David Swindle, COO and publisher David Bernstein, and CEO Adam Bellow each agreed to share perspectives on the mission and vision of Liberty Island.
First up is Mr. Swindle, a former PJ Media Lifestyle editor.
You have said that LI is cultural, not political. Can you elaborate on that?
I was referring primarily to content for our daily web magazine. At LibertyIslandmag.com we don’t publish the kinds of polemical essays and ideological blog posts found at dozens of right-leaning political sites all over the web. We feature short stories across genres, comics, photography, satire, writing contests, book and movie reviews, cultural commentaries, and tips for aspiring writers. We welcome contributors new and old to send us their creative work at [email protected] Over the coming years we aspire to grow the site into a kind of conservative Entertainment Weekly with coverage and commentary across as much of the entertainment and cultural worlds as possible.
Please highlight two or three books published by LI that you’d like to share with PJM readers. What about the contests?
If people really want to see what Liberty Island is about, they should check out three book series that showcase just how terrific our authors are. Mike Baron’s ongoing series Bad Road Rising, Roy M. “Griff” Griffis’ The Lonesome George Chronicles, and Quin Hillyer’s Accidental Prophet trilogy. Each of these series represents a different approach to subtly but effectively presenting right-of-center ideas through narrative. Baron embraces the pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective traditions; his hero is a violent but God-fearing ex-con who rights wrongs on America’s highways. Griff has created a thrilling, original contribution to the dystopia genre, crafting a plausible scenario for America’s collapse at the hands of foreign and domestic enemies. And Hillyer writes in the Tom Wolfe tradition, precisely capturing cultural details to satirize the madness behind so much media coverage today.
We currently have a digital bundle featuring the first book from all three series for $2.99. See more about our new titles and the relaunch in the press release here.
One of our most effective – and fun – ways of attracting new writers to our growing community has been through our writing contests. We run a new one each season. Our summer contest is looking for science fiction, and our fall contest will feature a Halloween theme.
Talk a bit about the relaunch. Share some of the conversations that occurred around the need for a relaunch.
Liberty Island operates two publishing endeavors: an online magazine, and a line of print and e-book novels. In both arenas we have made important recent changes.
First, the www.LibertyIslandMag.com site has been redesigned and a new publishing schedule implemented. Whereas the old site was akin to a group of bloggers publishing at will, the new site is more like an organized, professional publication, in some ways reminiscent of how I structured and edited PJ’s Lifestyle section. We feature fresh content every day and are eagerly recruiting new contributors who share our mission of nurturing an emerging libertarian-conservative creative counterculture. The website is our space for growing that community, launching new books, promoting our writers and friends, and hopefully providing a powerful unified platform for a diverse array of cultural commentaries and entertainment news and reviews. This kind of cultural coverage is currently a sort of neglected stepchild at other conservative sites and we aspire to bring it all together in one place so as to maximize its impact.
Second, Liberty Island has published novels since December 2014 when we published Superego, a sci-fi adventure by PJ’s own Frank Fleming. We’re now up to a catalog of 24 titles published through this summer and have learned a few things about the rapidly changing world of digital and independent publishing. In particular we’ve found that multi-volume series by and large have better chances of success than standalone novels. We’ve shifted more in that direction – putting an emphasis on finding, acquiring, editing, publishing, and promoting books with stories and characters so compelling that one book just isn’t enough. We’ll still consider standalone titles for publication, and have several special ones coming out soon. But it’s genre books in trilogies and ongoing series that seem most likely to thrive in today’s fiction market.
It is common knowledge, though sometimes industry spokespeople offer lukewarm denials, that getting a seat at the Hollywood table presents near insurmountable odds for “out” conservative creatives. Screenwriters whose storylines, plot trajectories, and epiphanies further a traditionalist, right-leaning, or faith-based viewpoint often have to take an extreme independent route to get a fair appraisal of their work, let alone an option or outright sale of their script.
Exceptions prove the rule, but films like The Shack and God is Not Dead are exceptions to the typical manipulative, baked-in liberalism inherent in most product offered by Hollywood moguls and studios, films ideologically stacked (sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly) against traditionalist values like American exceptionalism, the desirability of two-parent, father-mother families, and the intrinsic beneficence of market-driven capitalism.
So too with publishing (notwithstanding notable exceptions like Regnery, conservatism’s highest-profile house, offering a wide selection of conservative works, albeit nonfiction only). Novelists and memoirists whose message or theme tends toward justifying conservative or libertarian perspectives face difficult impediments presented by literary agents and a New York-based publishing industry permeated by institutionalized progressive bias.
Understanding the degree to which such bias exists, it’s fair to speculate that if 100 literary agents were asked to represent a book by President Donald Trump–and possibly make hundreds of thousands on a fifteen percent commission–a majority, perhaps a very high percentage, would turn the deal down citing extreme ethical conflicts.
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to principles, but when a creative arts industry’s principles and ideologies all coalesce on one side of the political spectrum, otherwise talented, important, and challenging creative works created by artists on the other side of the spectrum will never see the light of day.
David Bernstein was receptive when asked to share some thoughts about his role at Liberty Island thus far, and about the bigger publishing picture.
What changes have you personally seen in the literary environment since the website first launched? Is it getting any easier for conservative writers to get a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas?
It’s been about 6 years since we first had the idea to launch Liberty Island, and it has been an amazing process. Probably the best thing to come out of it is the discovery that there’s this huge underground of conservative and libertarian creative types — novelists, of course, but also artists, playwrights, filmmakers, poets…all of these incredibly talented and creative people, most of whom are laboring in virtual obscurity, just waiting to be discovered.
The Left is brilliant at discovering and promoting hidden talent. They have a network of foundations, prizes, workshops, literary magazines, and agents whose entire purpose is to nurture young lefty writers and help them find a commercial publisher. Needless to say, conservatives and libertarians are terrible at doing this. We find and promote young politicians and journalists, but we ignore and devalue creative talent. It’s huge problem, and until we collectively make a decision to invest resources in talent development, we’re going to continue to lose the battle for the culture. We need to be as engaged in finding the next Tom Clancy or Tom Wolfe as we are in promoting the next Charles Krauthammer or Mike Pence.
Adam Bellow, son of acclaimed novelist Saul Bellow, is CEO and editorial director and the progenitor of Liberty Island and Liberty Island Media. Bellow has achieved recognition as a literary arbiter committed to confronting and overcoming the bias that exists against conservative viewpoints and traditionalist storytelling in the publishing industry.
He is also editorial director at All Points Books, a new imprint at St. Martin’s Press, whose first publishing deal went to Laura Ingraham and her bestseller, Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump.
Please share some thoughts about how your advocacy of conservative voices in publishing and the literary arts has evolved to the point where you are now recognized as an influential arbiter committed to confronting and overcoming the bias that exists against conservative viewpoints and storytelling in the publishing industry.
As a conservative in publishing, I have seen many changes over the years. When I started out in the late 1980s, conservative voices were not heard in mainstream media and their books were not published except at think tanks and sectarian presses. Today, as a result of our efforts, these barriers have been breached and there are now dedicated imprints at all the major houses.
From one perspective this is a huge victory. But as I argued in National Review a few years back, the books that these imprints are publishing have less and less impact outside the conservative bubble, and in my opinion (speaking as an editor who has spent 30 years in the trenches of the culture war) we have reached the end of what the “left brain” strategy of trying to persuade through facts and arguments can do. No one who does not already share our views is going to be persuaded by these books. Instead (I argued) we need to adopt a “right brain” strategy of using narrative to reach a wider audience. If we really want to contest the liberal dominance of popular culture, we need to stop carping and complaining from the sidelines and start telling stories of our own, stories that embody conservative values without preaching or proselytizing, the way successful conservative authors like Tom Clancy and Tom Wolfe were able to do.
That’s the way to start a revolution. That’s the way to bring the somewhat misleadingly named culture war home to the arena of popular culture itself. That is the way to reach not just hundreds or thousands but millions of people. Because novels and stories have been and remain the primary source of much of what we see on our movie and video screens. And that’s why we created Liberty Island, as a home for the new counterculture that we saw emerging on the right in response to the stifling political correctness and ideological conformity of mainstream popular culture.
At LI we exercise our taste and judgment as longtime publishing professionals to identify and publish the best of the new counterculture. The good news is that there is no lack of talented storytellers on the right, and with the release of our new catalog, we believe we have proven our concept. The conservative novels we are putting out today are line for line and page for page as good as anything being published in the genre fiction space by mainstream houses. These novels represent not just the efforts of individual writers who deserve a wider audience, but the seeds of a completely new culture. We think that’s something to celebrate—and support.