Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Of life and love-nubs, sex and selves, hype and help. Part 1.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

The quote above has been used about a zillion times in connection with making just about every point that can be made, so I apologize if some of you think I'm going to a too-familiar well. But, I submit, never has the quote been more relevant.

I'm sitting in a doctor's office the other day, waiting the obligatory 40 minutes for him to spare a few seconds for me, and I pick up a copy of Men's Health magazine. As many of you know, I was once employed by the Men's Health organization, at least indirectly, as managing editor of Rodale's books division for men. Our content was l
argely derivative of the magazine (which is largely derivative of itself, as that recent flap over recycled Men's Health cover lines suggested. This goes to a point that I make early in SHAM, which is that self-help buyers are essentially, if not pointedly, being sold the exact same content over and over again. And you wonder: Since 80 percent of Men's Health's paid circulation of 1.8 million consists of subscribers, who presumably get and read the magazine each month, why doesn't the advice "take"? If the help is really helping, why do they need to read it month after month? But I digress).

Anyway, I'm reading the front matter—which, counterintuitively, consists of the material in the front of the magazine—and I'm growing progressively more dispirited at the intellectual torpor of what I'm reading. Then I come to an advice column by the so-called "Girl Next Door," Carolyn Kylstra. And after about 77 seconds of love-nubs, clever euphemisms for female masturbation ("Jilling off"?) and cutesy pet names for dildos and the like, I could take it no more. I walked into my doctor's office, screamed at him for leaving me waiting unattended so long, forced his head into a sink and drowned him in a vat of spoiled H1N1 vaccine...

To be clear, before we go any further, this isn't just some peevish rant against my ex-employer, Men's Health
which, make no mistake, is hardly the worst offender. Many of the guys I used to work with are still there, and aside from being funnywhich is obvious in the magazinethey're smart and introspective and thoughtfulwhich is far less obvious in the magazine. And that's the point: They don't seem to think their audience is smart and introspective and thoughtful. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that they don't seem to think their audience is interested in being smart or introspective or thoughtful. The saddest part is, they're probably right. Smart/introspective/thoughtful doesn't sell magazines. I often wonder if it sells anything.

A bit of personal history here. In my early years as a writer, I did a number of pieces for a magazine called Harper's (not the "bazaar" one). This was a calculated, deeply meaningful act on my part. I'd always greatly admired the magazine, so when it came time to attempt to launch a writing career at age 31, it was only natural that I'd send that first piece
a memoir of my days as a white salesman in Harlemto Harper's. I was lucky enough that Lewis Lapham (now with his own gig after more than three decades at the helm) liked it, bought it, ran it.* And when that January 1982 issue arrived containing my first published story, I greeted it with all the enthusiasm of the proverbial kid-on-Christmas-morneager to see my byline, yes, but every bit as eager to see what other ideas my story would be surrounded with: the tank in which I swam, as it were. You see, what I most remember about my infatuation with Harper's was that almost no subject was treated in a pat, formulaic manner. There were no givens, no authorized, "house" points-of-view; nothing was taken for granted. Nor was there any advice, per se (except perhaps whatever clarity one might achieve by reading between the lines of someone's essay and finding personal relevance in it, as one might also do in reading good poetry). Harper's, then, was truly and purely a journal of ideas.** If you could sustain a complex argument over the course of the several thousand words they'd give you to make your case (or hang yourself)—if you could meet that barthen they'd publish you, no matter who you were or what you were arguing. In theory they'd let you do a piece about "why serial killers are good for society," if you could make the argument elegantly and do so without tripping over your own logic. It was all about the argument and one's skill in making it. Sometimes the stories didn't even have a clear intellectual resolution; their sole raison-d'etre was to make you think something through, or merely follow along as the author went through his or her paces, thinking it through. Counterintuitively, once again, those of us in the industry call these "think pieces." And there is almost no market for them today.

Really, there's almost nothing in the culture that reinforces intellectual meditation (not New Age meditation!) for its own sake. Books today will not succeed unless they have as a central character a vampire or a wizard, ideally both. In fact, I hereby give you today's ideal book-title concept:

The Vampire-Ate-My-Wizard DietLose Those Ugly Love Handles in 2 Weeks! (Plus, Free Bonus Sex Tape: 'I Slept with Paris' 3D!)
Think of the movies you've seen lately: Was there anything that didn't hew to some established commercial formula? Anything that struck you as having been designed chiefly to make you think about life? (I'm not talking about some Sundance winner that somehow exploded out beyond its niche and into the general population; I'm referring to films made by major studios for wide release.) Television, of course, celebrates stupidity. Former FCC czar Newton Minow had already dismissed TV as a "vast wasteland" in 1961, long before he could've imagined that there would one day be a Jersey Shore. Even the typical Sunday political show is less about thinking or true intellectual engagement than about posturing and defending one's political turf—less a true debate than a verbal volleyball match put on for the amusement of the partisans in the audience.

I can hear you already: "Steve, you're looking for ideas in all the wrong places. If you want high-level thought, you don't go to magazines like Men's Health." I have two levels of response to that.
Level 1: Men don't think? By the way, it's even worse for women. Go to the "women's interest" section of your local bookstore and take a gander at what's there. If I were a woman I'd be much more outraged about that than about whether they run right-to-life ads on the Super Bowl.

Level 2: So where are the 1.8 million-circulation magazines for people who think? As I write this, the circulation of Harper's is around 200,000about what it was in 1860. At various points in its life cycle, Harper's has been kept alive only through the largess of a philanthropic organization. On its own, it would've sunk below the water line.
Doesn't anyone give a damn about anything but love-nubs (and how to rub 'em) anymore?

NEXT TIME: Why this nonsense is actually counterproductive in the pursuit of genuine self-help.

[Click here to read Part 2 of series.]

* Technically, Lapham "went on hiatus" for a while after a spat with management, so it was interim editor Michael Kinsley who ran it.
** It must also be said that somewhere during Dubya's presidency, Harper's itself became a more intellectualized form of MSNBC, stumping for Leftist causes and finding every opportunity to throw oh-so-witty barbs at Bush. That was a shame. Intellect, in and of itself, shouldn't have a political agenda.


Matt Dick said...

Today I went to my daughter's school and read poetry to her class (she's 10 years old and in 5th grade). They are doing a poetry unit, and while I think the teachers are doing a pretty fair job, I was unhappy with the selection of poetry.

I'm all for modern, it-doesn't-rhyme-and-i-don't-capitalize-letters poetry, but does that kind of poetry make sense without the cultural foundation that it is counter to? I'm not sure. What I *am* sure of is that the Romantic poetry canon is no longer de rigeur in children's education. So I do my small part and read poetry and talk about it to my kids' classes every year.

Today I did The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. This is literature. This is poetry that makes you think. The Highwayman takes about seven minutes to read. A group of 50 ten year-olds and I talked about the themes and meaning behind this poem for an hour. We touched on (and I mean "we", not me lecturing) true love, jealous love, divine retribution, the meaningless of life, death, the afterlife, revenge and more. These kids were *more* than capable of understanding the major themes and some of the subtlety. These are standard public school 5th graders, not genius kids in a magnet school. Plenty bright, mind you, but not geniuses.

But instead, they get cute popular poems. I love Shel Silverstein, I really do, I own most of his children's and adult work, but he isn't the highest art that should anchor a poetry unit in school.

So there *is* an appetite for deep thinking... but it takes work. It takes the willingness to spend an hour talking about a seven minute poem. But, oh man, is it worth it. When I got to:

"... the trigger at least was hers." My voice caught in my throat... what a poem!

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: The Highwayman, my God, it's been so long since I thought about that one! But yes, without question, I agree, it is one of the most haunting pieces of literature ever put to paper. And I know it's more cliched of me to single out the last two stanzas, but for my money, there is little in the history of poetry that will sends chills up your spine, and even bring a tear to your eye, as dependably as those lines. Possibly the much-quoted ending of The Hollow Men (whose title, interestingly, is almost a homophone with that of the Noyes poem.) But little else. And keep in mind this is from a devoted Eliot/Berryman/Stevens fan. I also like Bukowski when I'm pissed off about something.

Thank you for posting this.

Matt Dick said...

I don't know that it's so surprising that an Eliot guy could love a traditional romantic poem. Just because Jethro Tull is my favorite band doesn't mean Denyce Graves doesn't also knock my socks off (best Mezzo Soprano ever).