Friday, July 17, 2009

`Strong Writers with Quirky Minds'

I came of age during the Age of Magazines when my family, not notably bookish, subscribed to piles of them – Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report. My mother read women’s magazines -- McCall’s, Better Homes and Gardens -- and dutifully clipped the recipes. As a teenager I added Esquire and The New Yorker to the heap. And Mad, the first issue of which came out the month I was born – October 1952.

I can date moments in my life by fondly remembered Time covers – Nabokov when he published Ada and The Band when they put out their second album. We looked for Ted Key’s “Hazel” cartoon on the back page of the Post and Norman Rockwell’s covers before we were informed they were kitschy. Magazines were an American habit, a ritual, a tacit means of organizing one’s weeks and months – all of which now feels quaint and long-ago.

Earlier this week my wife brought home the July 20 issue of Newsweek, and I realized I hadn’t looked at a weekly news magazine in decades, not even while waiting for the dentist. I found my indifference vindicated. I have no interest in politics, celebrities and most of popular culture, the subjects dominating the magazine’s pages. The “Books” section devotes a photo and 57 lines of copy to the late David Foster Wallace and his ironically titled Infinite Jest. Most damning is the universal blandness of the writing – machine prose. I compelled myself to sample a bit of everything, smorgasbord-style, and nothing gave me the momentum to read beyond the second or third sentence.

A magazine aimed at adult readers (admittedly, a narrow demographic) must be organized around the quality of its writers. Think of The New Yorker of the nineteen-fifties and early -sixties, when Liebling, Mitchell, Maxwell, Nabokov, Perelman, Balliett, J.F. Powers, Welty and Cheever graced its pages – a reader’s paradise. Such things will never happen again, of course, for many reasons, not least because three of the magazines I mentioned above ceased publication ages ago. Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review, recently published Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, in which he offers a common-sense prescription for magazine excellence:

“A magazine must find strong writers with quirky minds and let each have his head. Their obsessions give a magazine life, and the cacophony of their different obsessions gives it variety. Readers look to favorite magazines for features – elements that stand out like landmarks and that create, then fulfill, expectations. The easiest way to generate features is by using design elements and graphics – pie charts, naked women – though the best way is to build features around writers.”


Jim Murdoch said...

For years now I have only bought one magazine faithfully and that's SFX. I don’t count the TV Guide although I've bought that for much longer. I used to buy a lot more science fiction magazines but I found that all you need to do is stick with one faithfully and eventually they'll cover what you want to read. Other than that I bought MOJO when Blondie reformed and when Kate Bush released Aerial but that's it. I think the Internet was the final nail in the coffin for me. All I needed were bullet points. I didn’t have time for anything else.

My family never bought magazines except maybe the Exchange and Mart which was the 1960s equivalent of E-Bay so it wasn't till I was earning my own money that I got to dip into that world. The only one I stuck with for any length of time was The Listener which was basically a supplement to the Radio Times both titles reflecting the fact that they came into existence when there was no television. I also bought Melody Maker or New Music Express most weeks but they were really newspapers I suppose if we're being picky.

I've always been disappointed with magazine writing. I only stick with SFX for, as I've said, the bullet points; I scan most it. But it's the one hour in the month where I sit down and do something that is purely for me – no one is expecting me to write a review of it in three days.

Anthony said...

Cabinet magazine is the only magazine that I read cover to cover and TLS is usually worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

A good blogroll is now the equivalent of the 1950s New Yorker, i guess.

ricpic said...

If Brookhiser is correct, editors must edit with the lightest hand possible, a rarity.

Playboy, in its heyday, did just that and attracted writers as diverse as Mailer, Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, Gay Tallese and, if memory serves, even Updike.

ricpic said...

Oops. Gay Talese.