Friday, January 21, 2011

A Harlot High and Low in the Penny Press!

As I've had occasion to inform you all from time to time, I read a LOT of periodicals. I subscribe to more than two dozen (it's oft said but bears repeating: subscribing is the only way to go), which means I actually read a lot of periodicals every week, ranging across almost the whole gamut of intellectual content.

The magazine industry spent quite a bit of money in 2010 on in-house ads assuring readers that magazine-reading has seldom been healthier, and I like to believe that - for one simple reason: if magazines were to die, I'd lose a great deal of first-rate reading from my life. For while it's true that roughly a quarter of my subscriptions are for periodicals I use far more than savor (and virtually all of my non-subscription impulse-buys are of this nature - sometimes, certain Australian-produced magazines will have such alluring nature photography on their covers that I'm prompted to pick up the issue and learn all about that wildlife's mating habits), I read the vast bulk of it in search of the same thing I search for in books and in online literature: first-rate writing.

Of course, first-rate writing can take many forms, from the slash-and-jab buzzings of 'lad mags' to the Churchilllian eloquence of the stately literary reviews. But that very spectrum is one of the strongest appeals periodical literature has for me: it keeps my aesthetics limber - it keeps my eyes open for how well some piece of writing works, not just how many times it references Religio Medici. We're all prone to a calcification of our likes and dislikes - but that calcification is deadly to the brain, and every safeguard we can take against it is well-justified.

That's one of the main reasons I subscribe to the number of 'men's interest' magazines I do, even though a) I disagree completely with their world-view (in which it's presumed that if you graduated from business school and are male, you will share a lock-step 100 percent of the dreams, desires, irritations, preoccupations, and relaxations as every other male who graduated from business school) and b) I dislike intensely their hypocrisy (which are impossible not to notice, when every three-page article on some new fat-burning way to exercise is interspersed with colorful full-page ads for cigars, and when magazines devoted to exercise feature on their covers male celebrities who are devoted to tobacco and couldn't exercise for more than ten consecutive minutes without coughing up slush-balls of blood-flecked sputum that writhes on its own for a full minute after ejection): they tend to have comparatively deep pockets, so they tend to attract some talented writers.

And sometimes, the little confluences are fun too - like the resonance between the latest Outside magazine, featuring a black-and-white photo of head-shaved, dead-eyed tobacco addict and champion surfer Kelly Slater on the cover, and the latest GQ, the cover-feature of which is a list of the 'coolest' sports stars since 1957 (when GQ was launched, naturally) - a list on which Slater appears. The Outside editors felt defensive enough about putting Slater on their cover to include an editorial note defending the decision - largely on the grounds that Slater -and pro surfing in general - doesn't get the coverage he deserves anywhere else. It was amusing to see a little of their 'if not us, then who?' grandstanding defeated by the generous write-up William Finnegan gives him in GQ, including this little hymn of praise:
I didn't get him when he first burst on the scene. He came out of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and had the choppy, histrionic style that small, crummy waves encourage. But his raw talent was supreme, and his surfing smoothed out in bigger, better waves. His balance, reflexes, speed, and wave-reading ability were off the charts. His thinking, moreover, about the mechanics of wave riding is densely analytical. Hearing him break down what actually happened inside a barrel from which he emerged, seemingly miraculously, is a master class in what makes the previously impossible possible.

Boston readers might remember that Slater is connected through one of his few non-surfing-related organs to local sports, since back before he started shaving his head Slater was briefly the owner of Gisele Bundchen, who's currently owned by New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady (Brady's studious mug graces one of the issue's many alternate covers; there is no version that features Slater). Bewilderingly, Brady is also featured in this issue, even though calling him in any way 'cool' is a open-palmed insult to other nominees like Muhammad Ali or Julius Erving. The always-entertaining J. R. Moehringer digs deep into his b.s. bucket for some justification:
You can't watch Brady stroll the sideline like the love child of Clark Kent and Grace Kelly without imagining every detail of his private nirvana. The trick is not letting it torment you. Even if you live in Indy or Jersey or Pittsburgh, don't begrudge him. Next time Brady hoists the Lombardi Trophy, put your hands together, give it up. Recognize that the game has been elevated, sanctified, by his artistry. Celebrate his good fortune and good looks with good cheer. Surrender. Only then, if karma exists, will you have any chance of coming back as Brady in your next life.

What you'll do in that next life - apart, apparently, from carrying a man-purse, walking your chattel's pocket-pet, and choking at crunch time - will presumably be up to you. One thing's for sure: a shaved head would be such an improvement.

I'm perfectly willing to admit that stuff like GQ and Outside (and let's not even get started on Details, which makes those two look like serialized installments of The Gulag Archipelago)(seriously, if you're actually able to read an issue of Details, get yourself to the nearest emergency room as fast as possible - you have suffered a concussion, and every minute could count) often represents the shallow end of the periodical pool, but in both these issues, well toward the back, after the broads-and-brewskis antics have calmed down, there are serious - and seriously good - pieces of writing. By far the most entertaining example this time around is Mark Harris' hilarious and thought-provoking screed "The Day the Movies Died," in which he laments the way Hollywood has been overtaken by marketers packaging multi-million-dollar products rather than directors creating art. He locates the origin of this evil in the moment Top Gun struck American theaters like a fratboy-hurled brick to the intellect. I of course find this touching, since it's exactly what both Locke Peterseim and I were writing (I ponderously, he entertainingly) thirty years ago (I'll include relevant links as soon as the dear old Daily Iowan joins the rest of us in the 21st century).

Of course, thirty years ago we had no idea how bad the phenomenon Harris describes could become, although that phenomenon is rendered at least a bit more palatable by how damn zingy Harris is in describing it:
In Hollywood, though, not all [marketing] quadrants are created equal. If you, for instance, have a vagina, you're pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn't worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985 ... well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call "the olds." I know - you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.


Harris allows that all his doom-and-glooming has a silver lining (basically, cable TV), but whether he's right or wrong about Hollywood today, reading prose like that is a pure pleasure.

Of course, when it comes to the pure pleasure of reading prose, much is determined by the subject of that prose - heck, that's where the term subjective comes from. The very best writing on big-wave surfing or Hollywood blockbusters will always interest me less than even second-rate writing about books - precious little book-writing in the mighty TLS ever descends to second-rate. I've mentioned countless times here what a banquet of delights every issue is, and the 14 January issue was no exception.

The highlight for me was an intensely, memorably thoughtful review of the new volume of Christopher Isherwood diaries. The piece is written by James Fenton, and from first to last it's searching where it could easily have been merely summarizing. It's a perfect demonstration of how the very best book-criticism makes fascinating and worthwhile reading entirely independent of the books on which it's predicated. When Fenton is writing in this key, I could read him forever:
If the sexual world of Isherwood seems in some ways dated, that is partly because some of its assumptions have indeed dated. It would be one thing, perhaps, to propose sexual freedom within a relationship, as a way of asserting that the gay man belongs to bohemia rather than the bourgeoisie (although it seems hard to insist that every gay man should live by the laws of bohemia). But supposing, buried somewhere in the psychology of this phase of a social revolution, there was a pessimistic assumption about male sexuality - an assumption that the homosexual male would be promiscuous because he couldn't be otherwise. And suppose this pessimism derived from a source (religious, psychiatric, conventional) which was fundamentally anti-gay, and which had an interest in warning men off what it conceived as a lifestyle choice: don't go down that road, sonny, or you will end up sad and alone. Then we might just conclude that the whole matter of gay promiscuity deserved a second look.

"But what do I know?" he writes. "I know only what I read." But when a reviewer has range and wit enough to invoke Thom Gunn to counter the self-pitying morbidity of somebody like Christopher Isherwood, I'd say he knows plenty.

Two ends of the spectrum, then, in some ways, in every reading of the Penny Press - but the quality-hunt is thrilling in its own right, and being provoked to laugh out loud or re-examine an old opinion over a heaped plate of cheap Chinese food ... well, that's plenty thrilling too.


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