Even in lean economic times, conservative books are a booming business. Once right-wing publishing was the province of profitless true believers. Now conservative imprints are ensconced in most of New York’s major publishing houses. The liberals who dominate the scene hold their noses while their hired-hand conservatives bid big dollars for contracts with the Right’s marquee names.
On one level, it is tempting to greet the rise of the conservative bestseller with elation. Our long exile from the world of letters has ended. We’re on the New York Times bestseller list. We have arrived. But where?
The triumph of conservative book sales has not coincided with great gains for conservative ideas in politics or the broader culture. Conservatives hold little sway in the Republican Party, and the Republican Party holds little sway in the nation’s capital. We’re the backbench of a minority. More importantly, there’s not much intellectual rigor in the Right’s bestsellers. For all the pages printed, the movement runs short on real ideas.
Before Regnery Publishing launched a million anti-Clinton tracts—the first signal to mainstream houses that a certain kind of conservative book could power up the charts—it dealt in short runs of weighty tomes and took a kind of pride in the purity of its niche. Founder Henry Regnery observed in his Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher, “In matters of excellence the market is a poor judge. The books that are most needed are often precisely those that will have only a modest sale.” He lived by those words—early Regnery books included such highbrow, less-than-stellar sellers as Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society and Martin Heidegger’s What Is a Thing? “A remark my father made to me sticks in my memory,” he recalled, “‘If you ever begin to make any money in that business you are going into, you can be pretty sure that you are publishing the wrong kind of books.’”
Regnery made bold choices, also bringing to market works by untested authors—a young Yale student, one William F. Buckley Jr., taking aim at his godless university, and an eccentric Michigan State history instructor whose Conservative Mind would become the movement’s catechism. Back then criticism of liberalism was subject to the standards of good literature and the demands of logic, with stalwarts like Albert J. Nock, T.S. Eliot, and Richard M. Weaver at the helm. They built a canon that has endured for generations.
Now conservative offerings come with diagrams of farting cows—bless Glenn Beck. No one is likely to have his worldview rocked by Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us From Evil or his political eyes opened by Michelle Malkin’s Unhinged. Laura Ingraham’s Shut Up and Sing slides easily down the memory hole. But permanence isn’t their intent. Conservatism has shifted from a modest cast of mind to a playground contest of insults. Millions can play along.
This isn’t to say that bestselling conservative authors don’t manage to pack arguments into their books or buttress those arguments with facts and footnotes. But they do not aim to challenge the faithful or change the minds of their opponents—to turn moderates into conservatives or shake liberals from their delusions. Conservative readers are looking for how-to manuals—an easy way to beat that liberal sister-in-law in a dinner-table debate. Thus Beck’s latest blockbuster offers “the secret formula to winning arguments against people with big mouths but small minds.”
But it may be too generous to say that book buyers are only looking for ammunition: many conservative bestsellers aren’t purchased to be read so much as to be owned. In the bully’s game that talk-radio conservatism has become, if you can’t keep Barack Obama out of the Oval Office, there’s at least some satisfaction in forcing the New York Times to put Obamanation at the top of its list. Besides, stocking up on conservative kitsch yields a rush of inclusion, like wearing the jersey of a favorite football team. Being on the Right is no longer a lonely struggle standing athwart history; it can be more like standing in a stadium doing the wave.
Of course, fan clubs need stars, and the conservative galaxy has its own leading lights. Look at the right-wingers scaling the lists—Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Joe Scarborough. All were autographs long before they stretched their literary limbs. Then look at a few of the other luminaries sharing space with them on the NYT list: actor Patrick Swayze, comedienne Kathy Griffin, late-night talk-show host Craig Ferguson. New York publishers are not interested in advancing the conservative case, and apologetics aren’t the product for sale. Celebrity is merely exerting its endless fascination, and the Right has adopted a blueprint long ago perfected by the Hollywood Left.
No surprise then that conservative books feature prominent pictures of the authors on their covers—complete with flowing blonde mane and low-cut dress for those who can pull it off. Who they are is at least as important as what they are saying, and the texts are written the way a talk-radio show is produced—centered around a charismatic host. These authors are no more expected to be masters of the writer’s craft than Chelsea Handler, whose dizzy Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea recently spent 47 weeks in the top 15. Their job isn’t to enlighten but to entertain. The minds grow dimmer as the stars shine brighter.
The conservatives who sell by the hundreds of thousands belong in the same category—of intellectual depth as well as sales—as professional wrestlers, sit-com stars, and self-help gurus. Radio and TV talker Glenn Beck didn’t extract $3 million from Simon & Schuster for his next two books by virtue of his expertise on climate change but by sheer force of personality. His breakout bestseller, An Inconvenient Book, debuted at the top of the charts and sold over half a million copies. In it, he dishes on everything from tipping in restaurants (15 percent is too much) to dating (decide in the first two minutes whether it will work) to what America can do about oil dependence (nothing—we’re screwed). This is part of his mass appeal: his opinions are unbounded.
Where once conservatives revered Russell Kirk for his historical analysis of the roots of American order or the discovery of a conservative strain in Anglo-American thought, now the Right finds its heroes living, breathing, crying, and laughing. Beck is famous for shedding tears then breaking into mirth on air. He is not limited by the need to gain expertise before confidently concluding that he’s right—the more rashly, the better.
Then there’s the other equation conservatives have solved: controversy sells. Witness the success of Mackenzie Phillips’s celebrity incest tell-all, now in its third week on the New York Times list. On the cover of Beck’s newest number one, the indelicately titled Arguing With Idiots, he poses in an East German military uniform. Inside, he predictably races through the familiar stops—Chappaquiddick, gun grabbing, socialist creep. Not without calculation did he recently declare, on one of those Sunday morning shows watched by people who don’t go to church anymore, “The Manchurian candidate couldn’t destroy us faster than Barack Obama. If you were planning a sleeper to come in and become president of the United States, this is how he would do it.” Persuasion isn’t the point. Beck is fighting his way to the next million. The more liberals hate him, the more his fans will love him—and the more books he’ll sell.
Mark Levin, whose Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto has sold over one million copies and spent 12 weeks in the top spot of the NYT list, is less campy than Beck but no less combative. Intellectual conservatives may find his angry style off-putting, but there are too few of them to guarantee a million-dollar deal. Levin is playing to an easier crowd: what is most striking about Liberty and Tyranny is how familiar much of it would be to anyone who has even a glancing acquaintance with the major works of conservative literature. Yet his book is hailed as groundbreaking by those who can fit their creed on a bumper sticker.
With the rise of right-wing radio and cable talk, conservatives have found a way to hawk their wares. While Regnery books may rank on the New York Times bestseller list, they’re still quarantined from its review pages. But a spin round the radio dial and a spot on “Fox & Friends” can vault a book to top-ten status. The author only gets a six-minute segment, so his sell needs to be simple, catchy, familiar.
When it began publishing conservative books in the late ’80s, Free Press brought out serious thinkers like Robert Bork, Francis Fukuyama, and Charles Murray. In 1994, it was gobbled up by Simon & Schuster, which two years earlier had seen Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be—considered a minor acquisition at the time—rocket up the NYT list to hold the top spot for 24 weeks. The formula was simple: find a conservative star able to stir up a right-wing audience. These books weren’t plotted to reach the general reading public but to engage a new customer: the radio fan willing to buy books. Far from signaling a broadening of the conservative appeal in return for conceding some depth, bestseller status merely indicates migration from one medium of conservative talk to another. All the morning zoo tricks transfer easily to text.
“We published some good books, several, unquestionably, of outstanding quality, which were also well produced,” Henry Regnery wrote of his work in early conservative publishing. “We confronted conventional opinion with some questions it could not evade and found difficult if not impossible to answer. … We did not make any money, but that was not my primary objective.” It may be that conservatives can’t have it both ways. They can either write thoughtful books that sell a few thousand copies. Or they can move millions by the same scheme the Left uses to break onto the bestseller lists then fill the remainder bins—celebrity, controversy, mass appeal.
The poet and sometime senator Gene McCarthy once described bad signs one could come across in his home state of Minnesota. “We Serve All Faiths” was perhaps the worst—the slogan of a mortician. When New York publishers got into the conservative book business, they might have hung out a similar shingle. For while a few rich people have gotten richer by leaping into the publishing mainstream, the movement has lost its conservative mind.
John Carney writes from New York City. He is managing editor of Clusterstock.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org