Friday, December 05, 2008

The Fall of an Icon in the Penny Press?

The last issue of The Atlantic was a scarifying caution, mainly because the magazine's new redesign is so damn ugly. But the mere shock of the new look was sufficient grounds for me to give the entire issue a pass, wondering if my aversion to novelty was as much to blame for the lukewarm impression I got as anything the magazine's graphic designers were up to.

This is the second issue of the new design, however, and my shock has abated enough for me to say a couple of things with clear-eyed certainty: first, the magazine's new redesign is so damn ugly, and second, the new graphics are only the surface of the problem.

The real concern here is that finally, after a century (ten times longer than most magazines even survive), The Atlantic has chosen to become dumb.

The re-design only serves to draw attention to the fact that the content of the magazine has undergone a not-so-subtle shift away from the verbose complexity that has more or less always marked The Atlantic. The average length of articles is noticeably shorter, fizzy ephemera like cooking and travel are now up front to catch potential nitwit browsers, instead of in back to reward serious readers with a nice dessert. And James Parker's piece on Jim Carrey would have been embarrassing to find in Maxim. Finding it in The Atlantic is very nearly akin to a sign of the Apocalypse.

True, there were still a few meaty pieces in the issue. Joshua Hammer's piece about the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the resulting investigation, and the ripples it'll all have in the Middle East was involving reading and emblematic of the best of the old Atlantic. And book critic Benjamin Schwarz rightly praises Barry Cunliffe's Europe Between the Oceans (and offers an unexpected but equally right endorsement of Norman Davies' massive Europe: A History). And Christopher Hitchens - his 'trenchant book reviewer' cap firmly on - is wonderful writing about Richard Yates.

Likewise the always-delightful Caitlin Flanagan, who here is the inspired choice to dissect the phenomenon of the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer, although when she refers to that saga as "contenders for the most popular teen-girl novels of all time," she must sure mean very distant contenders; as impressive as the sales figures for the Twilight saga, they don't as yet come near the figures for, say, the Anne of Avonlea series (to say nothing of a certain intrepid girl detective who has - and always will have - everybody else easily beat). Still, Flanagan, Schwarz, and Hitchens are all reliably good in this issue, although even such a mighty trinity can't entirely distract from the troubling developments in the front of the magazine.

Any change, a friend recently reminded me, necessarily involves growing pains - maybe this is so with The Atlantic. I certainly hope so, although this issue gives me little grounds for such hope. We'll see what next month brings.

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