Sunday, May 15, 2011

Literary Magazines

Today, there are what are known as "literary magazines." These are magazines that focus solely on fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, literary criticism and reviews, and general high-brow literary ... stuff. They tend to be expensive and rather hard to come by for the average reader--you don't see them on grocery store shelves, nor do you stumble over them in many doctors' offices. 

And then there are non-literary magazines, some of which are for women (the majority), some for men, and some for children. In these magazines, advertising seems to reign supreme, followed by how-to...cook something, decorate something, make something, build something, be inspired by something, or what have you. Sometimes the articles are in-depth and well-researched, sometimes they depend on pretty photography to really present any information. But often the articles are short, to the point, and shallow. I (and others) call this the CNN-ization or USA Today-ization of the print media. It is assumed that we readers merely skim magazines and newspapers, if we read them at all. We are thought to have the attention span of gnats.

And yet ... people spend hours on the Internet searching for millions of pieces of information a day. We read stories, news, how-to, medical advice, chat/forums, look at photos, and, well, who knows what all!

Once upon a time, magazines filled a need for entertainment, information, how-to instructions, aesthetics, and even community. Just for one example of many, I have a 1936 Good Housekeeping magazine. It's a hefty publication, put together in such a way that it is still a joy to behold all these decades later. It puts me in mind of living in Oklahoma, where my friends called magazines "books." It always struck me as a strange thing, since books are permanent, and magazines are disposable. But that really shouldn't be the case, and it wasn't always.

This magazine is from my collection (thank goodness others saw these treasures as permanent!):

Notice the cover. First of all, it has gorgeous artwork, commissioned expressly for this magazine. The cover literally is a work of art on its own merit. It's not a photo of another work of art or design as most magazines are today. This cover is by Horace Gaffron, whose signature is on the cover art, and he is given billing at the top of the contents page inside the magazine. I'm stunned that I can't find more on this amazing more later on him!

But... in addition to the wonderful original artwork, there are six names listed at the bottom of the page. Nothing about them, just names. Quite a stark contrast to magazine covers today that scream all kinds of information at you--and then you go try to find the matching story inside and it's either impossible to find or nothing like what you were expecting from the cover!

Inside, on the contents page again, we find--again, top billing--eight pieces of fiction. The pieces are by Achmed Abdullah, Edison Marshall, Margaret E. Sangster, Elsie Singmaster, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Irene Hunt, Helen Topping Miller, and Burgess Johnson (oops! Anyone know anything about Burgess?). These are all authors of varying fame for their day, mostly lost to us now. The stories inside, given prominance at the front of the magazine, are illustrated in color and elaborately, and given enough space that it can take a couple of visits back to the magazine to get each story read completely.

Authors used to look on publication in magazines as a real triumph. It was a way to make one's name as a popular author. Mark Twain did it. Jack London did it. Charles Dickens was the master of serialization. Magazines once were literary--Cosmopolitan was the place to be printed! Additionally, there is a page in my Good Housekeeping dedicated to a single poem, and two pages dedicated to children's enjoyment. What a great idea...

So, this magazine, aimed at women--in fact, specifically homemakers, has a little (really a lot!) of everything. These women readers aren't treated as one-trick ponies (recipes and decorating, oh my!), or as singly focused on their house work. They are given information, yes. Recipes, yes. Some decorating, yes. But also fiction and poetry and fashion and art work. Color. Romance. Fun. Aesthetically pleasing and, yes, escapist material to be enjoyed for a full month or more. This is no magazine to skim through and toss in the garbage. Of course, it's radio, television, print, and a friendly visit or two all wrapped up in a 25-cent magazine.

Why'd we stop including art and literature in forums that reach a wide audience? Let's take it off the pedastal and put it back in our hands. Let's make story writers, artists and illustrators, and poets household names. Now that truly is a "good thing."

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