28 November 2012

The Intellectual Situation

Issue 15

This is the Intellectual Situation for Issue 15: Amnesty. Become a digital and/or print subscriber and get the issue now!

Every magazine’s death should be one with its life! Just because an industry is dying does not make it something else. We always interpret a medium’s death by its life.


Listen up, Ladies

Every time a plane flies over New York, we think, “Oh my God — is it another Atlantic think piece?” We mean, “an Atlantic think piece about women.” The two have become synonymous, and they descend upon their target audience with the regularity and severe abdominal cramping of Seasonale. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” “The End of Men,” “Marry Him!” These are articles intended to terrorize unmarried women, otherwise known as educated straight women in their twenties and thirties, otherwise known as a valuable market, if not for reliable lovers then at least for advertisers. Their purpose is to revive one formerly robust man of the house, who for years has been languishing on his deathbed: the cigar-smoking, suspender-snapping, mansplaining American general interest magazine.

Listen up ladies, these articles say. We’re here to talk to you in a way that’s limited and denigrating. Each female author reports on a particular dilemma faced by the “modern woman,” and offers her own life as a case study. Power Mom Anne-Marie Slaughter regrets that she couldn’t help her son with homework while working at the State Department. Straight Talker Lori Gottlieb admits she wishes she had married just about anyone. Single Lady Kate Bolick suggests that it may be possible to live alone and be happy, but only relative to the nightmare of trying to have it all. “Having it all,” or having what you thought you wanted, is never presented as a plausible option; these are stories of living with disappointment.

The problems these women describe are different, but their outlook is the same: traditional gender relations are by and large bound to endure, and genuinely progressive social change is a lost cause. Gently, like a good friend, the Atlantic tells women they can stop pretending to be feminists now. (Gottlieb: “We aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want traditional families.”) The sensible path for ambitious women is to downsize — excuse us, restructure — their ambitions before circumstances force them to do so. These arguments are so constricting, so controversial, and so anxiety-provoking that they routinely attract hundreds of thousands of readers. Last summer, Slaughter’s article brought record traffic to the Atlantic website with 1.7 million hits.

The first of the woman-baiting stories — Gottlieb’s “Marry Him!”—was published the same year that the then-flaccid Atlantic implemented its “digital-first strategy.” As Justin Smith, named Atlantic Consumer Media president in 2007, put it: “We decided to prioritize digital over everything else. We were no longer going to be the Atlantic, which happens to do digital. We were going to be a digital media company that also published the Atlantic magazine.” This meant removing the website’s paywall, developing additional blogs and aggregators, and instructing salespeople that it didn’t matter what percentage of their sales were for print ads. They just had to hit their target figure, and digital was fair game.

What do women have to do with the internet? We submit that, at least in the eyes of media executives, women are the internet. Women, we mean the internet, are commanding a larger share of the traditional print market. The internet, we mean women, is less responsive to conventional advertising than to commenting, sharing, and other forms of social interaction. Women, we mean the internet, are putting men, we mean magazine editors, out of work. The internet, we mean women, never pays for its content — or for their drinks! The only dignified solution for publications like the Atlantic is to die, alone and unread, in the ghost town of the printed word. But the Atlantic has chosen the survivalist alternative: abandoning the old settlement for the domestic, we mean digital, realm, where it gives women what they want and, even more than what they want, what they fear.

Now we don’t even have to wait until that time of the month for the latest pop-neuro stats about the female brain extrapolated from studies on rats. The Atlantic allows us to check them daily on its new online vertical The Sexes, dedicated to stoking a “confusing” and “even perilous” conversation about contemporary gender roles. In her introductory message, the editor promised not to bait readers with “pseudo-provocative posts like ‘Is This Dress Making Us Look Fat?’” while a few inches down the screen, two women writers were already wondering, “Is It Weird That Politicians’ Wives Are Wearing Dresses Instead of Suits?” Spinoff talkbacks and livechats continue to offer advice about optimizing one’s time and “working differently,” and blog posts raise new and related fears: Do parents get more colds than non-parents? Do stressed men seek larger women? Why do successful women feel so guilty? That last one is a rhetorical question. Here’s one for the Atlantic: What if you stopped posing these patronizing, asinine questions and then asked us how guilty we feel? What if we told you, not one goddamn bit?

But like the guy who just won’t take no for an answer, the Atlantic will never stop asking. Guilt is a gold mine. “Marry Him!” They might as well say, “Subscribe!” The Atlantic takes one reactionary impulse and sublimates it with another, hoping it can persuade us to make the same error in reverse, substituting our freshly provoked anxiety about finding a fuckable husband with an intense desire to commit to a reliable magazine. So far, this strategy seems to be working. The Atlantic had its first profitable year in decades in 2010, and in 2011 made more than half its ad revenue from digital sales, while print ad sales were the highest they’d been in years. In fact, since we married our deadbeat boyfriend, quit our job, and accidentally had quadruplets through in vitro fertilization (all boys, thank God!), we’ve realized we could use some of that cash, so we’re thinking of pitching an article: “Why You’re Failing the Daughters You’ve Never Had and Probably Never Will.”

Let Them Eat Print!

Women are the internet, and the internet is women. How else to explain male writers’ terror about taking it with them to the office? Women writers may admit they have a hard time working while online, but for men this appears to be a much more profound issue, and in some cases a hardware problem. (Zadie Smith thanks the internet-blocking application Freedom on the acknowledgments page of her latest book, but she didn’t name an entire novel after it.) Men tear the ethernet cord out of the socket, they hot-glue the socket, they use computers so old they say they were made without a socket. They claim they must avoid the internet so as not to masturbate all over their computers (see “The Porn Machine,” Issue Five). But their stories of covering up and gluing shut suggest that for men the internet is in fact the site of a perverse fear of penetration. They have withdrawn into a cult of the unplugged.

The magazine for these men is not the Atlantic, which treats the internet like a woman and placates it, but Harper’s, which treats the internet like a woman and ignores it. The defining difference is that Harper’s, in the person of publisher Rick MacArthur, doesn’t have to worry about making a living. While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacations.

MacArthur’s grandfather was the billionaire John D. MacArthur; his father became a millionaire in his own right when he started the Bradford Exchange, which makes almost all the world’s collectible ceramic plates, and later purchased the gadget manufacturer Hammacher Schlemmer. (Harper’s employees reportedly receive discounts at Hammacher Schlemmer; no word if they’re getting deals on ceramic plates.) In 1980, when Harper’s was on the verge of closing, Rick MacArthur used his family’s resources to save the magazine. Today his Harper’s Foundation is its only source of financial support; in 2009, he contributed more than four million dollars to cover the magazine’s losses that year. Even as newsstand sales and ad revenues declined, MacArthur refused to consider any online strategies or allow his foundation to accept money from other donors, who might try to impinge on his reign. He would remain the magazine’s sole benefactor, no matter what the cost.

We heard MacArthur speak at the Columbia Journalism School in February, when he took a trip down memory lane to explain his refusal to put Harper’s online. When MacArthur was a young reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, thirty years ago, “the copy-desk chief was a brilliant and acerbic man named Tom Moffett. Moffett thought that reporters were lazy wimps . . . and he dared me one day at the Billy Goat Tavern . . . to work for him. Was I man enough? Over my fourth Old Style I insisted that I was.”

Permitted to spend six weeks on the copy desk, MacArthur found that Moffett’s “sink-or-swim boot camp for copy-editing and headline writing was brutal.” But he was determined to prove himself an able recruit, and eventually received affirmation from Moffett: he was man enough for the job. But MacArthur didn’t want to be a copy-editor — he just wanted to prove that he could be, that he was not a boy among men — and Moffett, seeming to expect his response, smiled and said, “Someone’s got to keep the ads from bumping into each other.”

From this anecdote, MacArthur drew the following conclusion:

To the extent that commercial newspapers and magazines are advertising catalogs — with writing wrapped around them — they are vastly more effective in purveying commercial messages because with paper, you can’t help bumping into the ads on the way to reading the articles in between. . . . At some point you’ve got to turn off your computer or your iPad, but the mail and the brochures and printed matter just keep coming.

This complete mischaracterization of the nature of daily existence is the basis for MacArthur’s belief that eventually print will triumph over the internet. “In the long run, I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the [online] advertising ‘model’ has failed and readers are going to have to pay . . . if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad, or a sex act.” (“Sex act!” We can’t help it, the phrase makes us fantasize: MacArthur is prone on a chaise lounge, and he’s not alone. There’s another person in the room, and it’s his analyst, who’s having a field day with that phrase, “sex act.”)

So that’s where the women are: having sex on the internet. We were looking for them, but we couldn’t find them in Harper’s. We saw one there from time to time — Marilynne Robinson or Francine Prose or Barbara Ehrenreich — but almost never together. Harper’s seems to publish twice as many dead men as living women. Since he died, Roberto Bolaño has had nearly as many pieces in the magazine as Smith, who is not only alive but at one point was Harper’s books columnist. (In 2006, then-editor Lewis Lapham realized he would never be able to get enough dead people into Harper’s, so he founded his own magazine, Laphams Quarterly: “by and for the dead.”) The July Harper’s featured an article by Albert Camus and a letter by Ernest Hemingway on what it’s like to kill a cat. For those more interested in contemporary affairs, there was an interview with a man who enjoys eating fermented meat.

What else? There are transcripts of trials, pieces of evidence. Short stories about people getting into fights. There are accounts of the moon landing and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. There is masculine preciousness, belles lettres about rough living — an essay about trees and a memoir by an older man from another country. Someone writes an article about “listening for silence.” If you would stop talking I could listen for some silence!

With enough money, you can force the past into the present, or at least hold the future at bay. Harper’s, it turns out, is the Petit Trianon of publishing. Marie Antoinette had her artificially aged cottages and working dairy farm, and MacArthur has his fully operational magazine, which both embodies and celebrates the values of his old Chicago newsroom. At Harper’s, the administrative staff is largely female, the board is entirely male, the writers are almost all male, and the internet barely exists.

It would be one thing if Harper’s nostalgia were only a question of office culture or distribution. But it permeates the pages of the magazine, determining not only the approach to subject matter but what subjects are worthy of being included at all. Although Harper’s circulation is small, its reputation is such that it continues to have a say in what counts, and what subjects are worthy of serious thought by serious people: in other words, what constitutes the nation’s public life — and, by extension, which lives constitute “the public.”

We imagine asking Harper’s, What about women? Their response would probably be, Well, what about women? The voice of Harper’s is pitched such that the question can only be asked rhetorically. Matters of gender and sexuality do not actually matter. In one of the few instances where they were even raised, when Thomas Frank wrote about abortion in October 2011, the case was actually made that the pro-life movement is ineffective, and that abortion rights are a non-issue. Frank suggests that what happens on the state level just doesn’t matter, because it’s not on the national stage — an argument that willfully overlooks decades of pro-life activism that has strategically and deliberately built the movement state by state, and that this tactic has accounted for much of its growth and many of its victories.

Does Frank not know about states? Of course he knows about states, he wrote a whole book about Kansas! The guy loves states. But this is the Harper’s way, to will things out of existence, to hope if you say it doesn’t matter — whether “it” is women’s status as equal citizens under the law, as autonomous individuals, or “it” is the entire internet — that it won’t actually matter. And that would be great, because if it doesn’t matter — if the culture wars are just imaginary, ignorable skirmishes, and the internet is only a passing fad — then nobody, and nothing, will ever have to change.

Back from the Dead

We are not filled with hope for Harper’s when we recall that it was founded, in 1850, to import English cultural life to New York. Early issues syndicated articles from English periodicals, serialized English novels (Jude the Obscure, Return of the Native, Dickens, and more Dickens), and published a dispatch from Thackeray on his visit to Tintern Abbey.

While Harper’s was trying to reproduce the culture that New York didn’t have, the Bostonian Atlantic, founded in 1857, was trying to create one that didn’t exist. An early Atlantic prospectus declared that “the best interests of this nation demand of literature a manly and generous action, and . . . an elevated national American spirit will always be found illustrated in these pages.” When that masculine ingenuity was imperiled, one hundred and fifty years later, by the collapse of the American magazine industry (which the Atlantic had practically founded), it revived itself by dredging up certain truths about its origins. The inflammatory, fundamentally conservative cover stories the Atlantic now runs to provoke female readers are not an arbitrary last resort. Call it the B-side to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: cashing in on stereotypes about female readers, and female nature, is the foundation on which the Atlantic was built.

When the Atlantic was founded, most readers of popular magazines were female. So, too, were their writers, and Atlantic editor James Russell Lowell took women writers — among them Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe — and their considerable name recognition on board when putting together early issues of the magazine. Others involved in the magazine, like Thoreau, considered such work beneath the Atlantic‘s mission. Charles Eliot Norton allegedly informed Lowell that “he heard the Atlantic roundly abused in some academic circles for publishing second-rate love stories.” Norton did not have to spell out for Lowell that these stories were written by women.

Even Beecher Stowe, often identified as part of the magazine’s founding circle, was put to the use women contributors often have been: when early attempts to fund the magazine faltered, prospective donors were encouraged by “the cheering news that Mrs. Stowe would be among the first contributors.” When the magazine celebrated its twentieth anniversary, Mrs. Stowe was not invited. No woman was. Reporting on the event, the New York Evening Post reflected that

the Atlantic Monthly‘s staff of writers is much more largely masculine than is that of any other magazine in the country. It is, in a certain sense, our masculine magazine, and has always been so. A bigoted bachelor insists that this is because the Atlantic Monthly confines itself more wholly than any other magazine does to literature in the strict sense of the term, neglecting all the little prettinesses of household interests and all the gushing sentimentality which . . . women mistake for literature.

A hundred and fifty years has not been long enough to throw off this association: of the masculine with the serious, the feminine with the frivolous. And it is this original schism — original sin — that simmers beneath every article extolling the virtues of print and lamenting the waning of its empire. For what was it that made magazines so good, anyway? What was their private and singular claim to the truth, and the authority to tell it? That they were not like the stuff women read, or wrote.

And so it is that two magazines, which have responded to the advent of online publishing with two entirely different models, nevertheless manage to reproduce in their responses an identical worldview. It is that men and women continue to belong in particular social roles, and that this traditional structure of gender relations will never be transcended — that such a transformation is not only impossible, or improbable, but fundamentally unimaginable.

Complacencies of a Beach Towel

So what’s an old magazine to do? Should it be like the New Yorker and just . . . it’s hard to say what exactly the New Yorker does on the internet. They do not post their best pieces, except when they do. They do not have their best writers blogging, except when they do. Really, what the New Yorker has done online is remain totally unembarrassed by everything they have done online. Did they spend one zillion dollars on a “digital reader” for subscribers that must have looked great at the pitch meeting but shrinks the 10.5 Caslon type just past the point of readability? Yes, they did. Did they hold a pet photo contest on Halloween? Yes, they did. But do they care? No, they don’t. This may be a model for others, or it may just be something this one magazine can get away with. Hard to tell.

Anyway, we were very upset, and to add insult to injury our dog lost the Halloween contest to two little gerbils reading tiny dictionaries, but then we realized we could just take a Xanax and read the Paris Review. We love the new Paris Review, partly because it always makes us forget what year it is, but never in a depressing way, like Harper’s. We opened a recent issue and found all our favorite hits from the archives: poems from an ancient civilization, an experimental short story by a woman, some brightly colored art that must have been very expensive to print, and obscene fiction by a Jewish person. But what satisfied us most was the feeling that we were enjoying a product with a past, and with the distinction of an earlier age. Where did that feeling come from? Was it the Xanax (or maybe it was Valium) that made us suspect that if the issue had been released in 1959, no one would have noticed that it came from the future?

We were so absorbed in the Paris Review that we almost forgot about the internet, where, as it happens, the magazine maintains a very attractive website. We have so much fun looking at the Paris Review blog, with its pictures of bookshelves and book covers and many items about children’s books, for some reason. Our favorite part of the website, though, is the online store, where the magazine has recently branched out into adult apparel, infant apparel, intern apparel. They’ve done seasonal coffee mugs, notepads, fountain pens. The Paris Review beach towel never fails to send us into an admiring trance, with its line drawing of two Bolaño characters (or are they Paris Review readers?) lounging on what must also be in their universe a Paris Review beach towel.

We were familiar with heritage brands, but we had no idea until we saw the Paris Review store that a literary magazine could become one. Now, though, it makes perfect sense: the editors have an even richer legacy to work with than the late ’90s revivalists at Abercrombie & Fitch. Founded in 1953 by members of the declining American aristocracy, the Paris Review was an attempt to recover fiction and poetry from “criticism,” which is to say from Jewish critics and other middle-class strivers. These were people not rich enough for leisure, and so leisure, for the Paris Review, became the place from which literature must spring. The magazine supposedly was half-based in Paris because the prewar avant-garde secession had occurred there, but the real pleasures of expatriation, for William Styron and Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton, were fashion and tourism, narcissism and cognac. In the blasé letter that stood in for a founding manifesto, Styron pretended not to know the meaning of zeitgeist.

The Paris Review was anti-intellectual, but not philistine. A truly great consumer can’t afford to be. If Bergdorf’s is selling Gaddis this season, you must wear him. And the Paris Review has always done one thing that literary scholars and literary fantasists have thanked it for: it has published interviews with great writers, writers famous for their careers elsewhere. The “Writers at Work” interviews have always been lovingly informative about the vanities of the suffering artist — whether he writes with a pen or a typewriter, at one time of day, under what mystical inspiration — and if these facts often seem as wonderful as fiction, it is because the interviews famously are turned over to the writers themselves to correct and rewrite, to make over as whatever self-portraits they like — and why not? It’s like asking a sculptor to do his own bust. Better still: when taking a meal at the Tour d’Argent, one does not burden the chef with one’s opinions on seasoning.

One way to deal with a limited, parochial legacy is to ironize it. You could say that the new Paris Review queers the sensibility of the midcentury magazine by recreating it so appreciatively and so lavishly that the result looks like the literary equivalent of a Todd Haynes film. When it comes to the print magazine itself, it is clear that a product this beautiful is not meant to be read, but to be eaten, and so the Paris Review is now what print always feared the internet would force it to become: a consumable, a lifestyle product, and, in this case, one of many offerings in a literary-themed specialty store.

And what’s wrong, exactly, with the lush-looking catalog being put out on White Street? We like to imagine ourselves on one of its pages, surrounded by fresh flowers and watercolor portraits of ourselves while celebrating the special voice and talents of elder statesman James Salter (a man whose literary greatness resides in having been born too late for glory, missing World War II for Korea, missing the Lost Generation for sex with French chambermaids, missing Fitzgerald’s Hollywood for Downhill Racer)—perhaps while writing a thank-you note to James Salter on a custom letterpressed note card — and it doesn’t look so bad. Exhausted publications have done much worse.


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