The Death of the Magazine
Reading the latest moan linked from Arts and Letters Daily, The Curse of Tom Wolfe by Michael Shapiro for CJR triggered some weird thoughts. Shapiro writes of judging a competition for feature writing:
Then there were the solid pieces. Every technique that Wolfe had so feverishly explained in his essay was on display. But the experience of reading them felt like meeting a perfectly attractive person whose features could not later be recalled.
Tom Wolfe was a featured speaker soon after the rhetoric program was instituted on our campus. One of my professors jumped at the chance to pick him up and drive him around town. He told me that what he remembers most was the discomfort of Wolfe, as he sat in my teacher’s old pick-up trying to be careful not to soil the pristine white suit. Most of the authors listed as “new journalists” in the article aren’t so coolly distanced, or so easily forgettable. What was distinctly missing from the article is a discussion of the real reason why those authors were successful— it wasn’t their technique but their personality that was different. That’s what I find fatiguing about reading most articles, and what makes them so forgettable— the lack of distinctive personality to go with their technical good looks.
Still, after going back and reading a lot of articles in Nation written by James Agee in 1943 a few days ago, I wonder if it isn’t the public that has changed, rather than the writers. Even the ads are different. “Have you read Kierkegaard?” one publisher’s ad asked. I don’t see many advertisements for philosophers these days. And the choice of topics also seems to have narrowed to mostly personalities and politics, which, oddly enough, was the focus of Agee’s column on film for Nation. He wrote at great length poetically about US Government training films, for example. He found them to be horribly propagandistic compare to their British counterparts. And he wrote about censorship— the deletion of the words “stallion” and “fascist” from the film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls. The articles were fluid and engaging, around twenty years before the “new” journalism.
Also striking was Archibald MacLeish’s indictment of the newly sanctioned Bureau of Psychological Warfare. He wondered if it was some new form of war created by Freud. He also questioned the US involvement in terrorism, when this was what we were supposed to be fighting against. Funny how things come around. I think I need to read more magazines, especially old ones. They used to employ some very fine writers— writers with personality, not just glossy technique.