BOOKS MARCH 6, 1944
The United States is a nation of magazine readers. The British, French, Russians, and Germs read, in normal times, far more books than we do, but fewer and smaller magazines. When the average American wants to spend an evening improving his mind, he turns not to his favorite poet or philosopher (he has none) but to The Reader’s Digest. That is his food for thought. When he seeks solace or entertainment in the printed word, he looks to the fiction in The Saturday Evening Post, to folk characters like Scattergood Baines, Ephraim Tutt, and Chief Engineer Glencannon. American women get both information and entertainment from The Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and The Woman’s Home Companion. Both men and women learn, or see, what is going on in the world in Life or Look, while some sophisticates keep a closer eye on things in Time or Newsweek. If the reader’s taste is either higher or lower than the average of these magazines, he can find satisfaction in dozens of other periodicals up and down the scale. But these, and a few more like them, are the mass magazines, and the mass magazines are this country’s popular literature. Books still reach a relatively small audience. Newspapers give us the day’s news and, in comic strips, a few belly laughs. Movies seldom pretend to anything more than light entertainment. But the mass magazines—each issue containing something to suit the reader’s every mood; each page laid out to fill and relax his color-craving eye—are our literature, our adult education, our culture.
Like movies, the radio, and the press, the magazines naturally defend the dominant values of the society in which they thrive, and rarely rise above them. To criticize the magazines for being what they are is merely to criticize those values. Taking them for granted, however, the magazines, it seems to me, speak better for our culture than most of the other idols of our marketplace. They assume, at least in their nonfiction, a higher degree of intelligence and intellectual curiosity than do the movies and newspapers. Politically, they are a few shades less reactionary than the daily press. Even in its worst days The Saturday Evening Post was not in the same class with the Hearst or McCormick-Patterson newspapers. Now that Bernarr Macfadden has lost control of Liberty, no large magazine carries the standards of organized reaction. When, on rare occasions, the magazines deal with serious human issues, they are never as cheap or inane as the movies. They may lack esthetic values altogether, but even the fiction is written with an admirable kind of correctness, and they are not guilty of assaults on the English language like those made by the movies, the newspapers and, worst of all, popular songs. The information they dispense may be incomplete, but it is generally accurate and as often as not, important. Obviously, they reveal the weaknesses of American life, and are afraid of its real strength, but I do not think they prey on our weaknesses to quite the extent other mediums do. I am not trying to say that our magazines are above criticism, but I think it relevant to observe, for purposes of comparison, that the inevitable man from Mars would get a somewhat higher impression of us from our magazines than he would from our movies, radio, or newspapers.
What effect has the war had on the magazines? Fundamentally, very little. It has, of course, immensely increased circulation and advertising revenues. Although in England paper rationing appears to have helped the magazines to improve themselves, making them less dependent on advertising and forcing them to exercise greater editorial discrimination, wartime restrictions here have had no such effect thus far. Most magazines are slimmer and less lavish than in prewar years, but they still offer plenty of slickness, glitter, and paper for the reader’s money. On the whole the institution remains unchanged. Fiction, by far the weaker side of popular writing, is as puerile as ever. The smooth, bloodless, beautifully Aryan young men who used to wander through Good Housekeeping in bathing trunks are now decently clad in khaki, and the wry, harassed family providers, the butt of so much American humor, now have their little adventures in plane-spotting posts. But of course they have not changed, for they never were human. Except for an occasional blood-and-thunder piece about Russian or Chinese guerrillas, the fiction is still unsubtly oriented to middle-class illusions and aspirations. Plots are still concocted by changeless formulas; humor is still adolescent; the writing is still workmanlike but never bold. Some editors occasionally publish writers like William Faulkner, Kay Boyle, and Eudora Welty, but as a rule their courage fails them on the far side of Somerset Maugham, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Marjorie Kinan Rawlings. First-rate spy and detective stories turn up with fair regularity, but most mystery writers are as banal as Faith Baldwin.
Fiction as not improved, but advertising, which the war has changed, is worse than before. And for a very simple reason. Before the war advertisers were interested only in selling their products. Now they give us their wisdom, and their wisdom is vastly inferior to their products. The story of the financial steal being made through “institutional” advertising will provide one of the juiciest postwar exposés.
A year after Pearl Harbor an industrious journalist labored long in the pages of the ten largest magazines (aside from Life and The Reader’s Digest, which are special cases) and brought forth an analysis# of the kind of articles they were publishing in wartime. He found that of 556 articles that appeared in seven month after December 1941, 48 percent were devoted to such subjects as Hollywood, athletics, successful business men, radio entertainers, and so forth. Twenty percent were factual reports on foreign countries and their political leaders. About the same percentage dealt with our armed forces—articles on military strategy, how the Garand rifle works, I-Was-on-Corregidor, how the tank corps trains its men, General MacArthur’s wife. Of four articles on labor, none was more serious than a platitudinous essay by William Green in The American. There were several articles on individual congressmen, but no discussion of the role of Congress. Negroes, Jews, Japanese Americans—the whole race problem? Nothing at all. Of hundreds of stories dealing with one phase or another of the war, not one dealt with the basic problems of our foreign policy—Darlanism, relations with Russia, our niggardly treatment of China, international cartels. Science, invention, and technological change got wide coverage, but no writer ventured to suggest where it all might be leading us.
As quantitative analysis, this sounds just about right, and roughly the same figures would approximately describe the situation today. But the author might have saved himself a good deal of effort by simply noting that the magazines avoid ideas, ideas in every shape and form, as painstakingly as they solicit advertising. Forced, in a time of great events and increasing public seriousness, to say something about politics and world affairs, they concentrate scrupulously on the revealing but noncommittal fact, skirting controversy at the mere threat of its appearance. The wonder, to my mind, is not that they have so little to say about the State Department, but that, avoiding such critical matters, they manage to say anything of even remote importance about American life. Yet quite often they do. The America of the short stories is as mythical as any Ruritania, but in the hands of the magazine journalists it often comes surprisingly alive. At least its steel mills roar like real ones; its talk, its follies and its folkways are reported and with considerable insight; through the “profile” form, now used everywhere, one can see some of the delicate shadings and complexities of persons in public life, even though one will never learn from the magazines exactly why these people are where they are. Using a reportorial technique borrowed partly from the muckrakers, but more heavily from the innovators at Time and The New Yorker, both of which are masters at arranging facts and ignoring ideas, writers like Maxine Davis, Samuel Lubell, Walter Davenport, and Alva Johnston often draw sensitive and balanced portraits from contemporary life.
Reading the magazines you can follow the progress of the war in as much military detail as any one man could master. But you could never get from them even the faintest notion of why we are fighting. How often have we said that while we are winning the war of men and machines, we are losing the war of ideas?
The big business of magazine publishing, as Robert Cantwell has pointed out, began with the McClure’s of the progressive period. Before the muckrakers started their prodigious unearthing of political corruption, Harper’s, with a circulation of 130,000, led the field. The figure had been exceeded only for a brief period, in 1850, when Godey’s Lady’s Book sold 150,000 copies a month. When, after a row with the publishers, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker walked out of McClure’s, its circulation had reached 750,000. At the same time other magazines—Colliers, Everybody’s, The American, and Cosmopolitan—left the 100,000 and began looking toward a million. The muckrakers had started something. They had brought news into the magazines, and a very exciting kind of news, too. Or perhaps more important, as Cantwell believes, their triumph had been essentially a literary one. They had, like so many of the poets of their day, given Americans the stories and the names they knew. Whether this or the news element accounted for their success, the muckrackers had started something, and they made the magazines grow.
The advertisers moved in at the peak of the muckrakers’ success. They had been able to ignore the magazines that published romantic fiction and literary criticism for the élite on the Atlantic seaboard, but they could not afford to ignore millions of avid readers in all classes and from all sections. The buyers of popular magazines represented one of the largest blocs of purchasing power in the country; they were the mass in mass production. When manufacturers found this new way of reaching the mass, they not only expanded their market greatly but they put the magazines on a new financial basis. In the last century periodicals were supported entirely by their readers’ cash; early in this century they became dependent on advertising. The nickel, dime, or quarter that the reader paid covered only a fraction of the cost of production. In fact, its real function was less to help defray publishing costs than to assure the industrialist that people wanted the magazines in which his wares were advertised.
The muckrakers left McClure’s and bought The American. They had to quit to escape the tyranny of S.S. McClure, but soon they found that even a magazine democratically controlled by its own high-minded writers was subject to outside pressures, particularly from advertisers. Steffens, for one, felt that the self-imposed restraint of this coöperative venture was more objectionable and more deceptive than the dictatorial ways of the former employer. He resigned and the others soon fell out among themselves. Ironically, The American, under new management, was soon to become the most pious of all worshipers at the shrine of business success.
Under the impact of advertising, the magazines changed in many ways, but the journalistic techniques of the muckrakers, stripped of their political implications, remained. The new magazines published fiction of about the same quality their predecessors had used, but it was aimed more directly at the middle class and became more self-consciously American; French and British noblemen were supplanted as heroes by the native variety of nature’s nobleman. Editors made greater efforts toward humor, the light touch and lively illustration. They discovered that American women made excellent copy and also that American women would buy anything that told them how to improve their homes and to do it easily. And, although the editors knew that most readers still paid out their money for entertainment, they never failed to devote a portion of their contents to a broad, capable and, within certain clear limits, a realistic coverage of American life. As the years went by, they kept widening their appeals, and circulation kept rising steadily, unchecked even during the depression.
This pattern has worked perfectly for almost thirty years. The magazines that follow it still, collectively at least, dominate the field. Today, however, the two largest American magazines are comparative new-comers, and both are based on new, though different appeals. The Reader’s Digest, which has 9,000,000 readers in this country and 1,000,000 more abroad, carries no advertising, no short stories, and little illustration. Life, which 4,000,000 Americans and Canadians buy each week, carries a great deal of advertising, no fiction, and is almost all illustration. Despite innumerable attempts, no imitator has been able to stand the competition of The Digest (mainly because its exclusive-reprint agreements give it an effective monopoly in its class), but Life’s circulation becomes even more impressive in the light of the 2,500,000 steady readers of Look.
It seems to me more than likely that these two monsters of magazine publishing will set the tone for the future. Different as they are, both appeal to strong traits in the mentality of the twentieth century. They are made to order for the man in a hurry. He may be a man who wishes to know the latest about the situation in Turkey, but he wants—indeed he is forced—to learn on the run, picking up his knowledge in neat, small packages. We have all of us been conditioned by the movies and the five-minute news broadcast; Life gives us pictures and The Digest gives us brevity. Like the daily newspaper, they both give us many opportunities to fill, with real or apparent usefulness, the brief interludes of our lives. They are edited for the moments we spend waiting for the street car and the last ten minutes of the lunch hour, the time sin which the average person does most of his reading today. Both have learned the value of giving the reader a “story,” of supplying vicariously, as fiction does, the experiences denied him in real life. To visit a showgirl’s apartment with Life’s photographer is every bit as good as to go with the fortunate hero of a short story—and better, too, because it is real and the eye can see what the mind, reading fiction, would have to envision. The Reader’s Digest does much the same thing with fact. Rather than cover a story in its largest outlines, it will seek out the individual element and give plot, suspense, and human interest to the subject by viewing it through the eyes of one man.
All this is perfectly legitimate journalism, and yet it seems clear that it is leading the magazines toward increased superficiality at a rapid clip. I say this without for a moment forgetting that both magazines, and especially Life, have done excellent work. No publication, for example, has gone further than Life in trying to bring ideas before its readers. Its editorial page, written by Russell Davenport, has been consistently intelligent and often courageous. While other magazines dared not touch the issues involved in the coal strike last spring, Life made a bold and sympathetic interpretation of the minders’ case. True, it has been the outlet for Henry Luce’s pronouncements on the American Century, but the American Century, whatever you may think of it, is at least an idea of the future, and most magazines have yet to discuss, much less propose, a program. When, early in the Italian campaign, there was danger of a deal with the House of Savoy, Life published an eloquent warning against appeasement, by G.A. Borgese.
Still, there is slight reason to suppose that editorial courage has anything to do with Life’s popular success, and The Reader’s Digest, although it has used its economic independence to call the bluff of many advertisers, has shown no eagerness to deal forthrightly with ideas. Life’s success is unquestionably based upon its handling of pictures. By no means the first picture magazine—vide, The New York Times’s elaborate Mid-Week Pictorial, long since dead—it was the first to arrange photographs so that they tell a story, rather than to scatter them around in the kind of rococo designs that Henry Luce called “cookie shapes.” By dignifying semi-pornography as sociological inquiry, Life brought the undraped female out of the Police Gazette and into the family journal. Every issue makes some concession to the voluptuary. Life makes its readers feel that the yare learning something about American history when they examine the beards of a half-dozen patriarchs whose careers are summed up in two-line captions. It will explain inflation with pictures of experts, generally photogenic, and outline their varying positions in the standard captions of an even two lines. In general, it acts on the assumption that anything short of pure abstraction can be explained in pictures.
Magazines used to argue that they were particularly valuable to those who lacked the time to read books. The Reader’s Digest was designed for those who were too busy to read magazines. Its function was to cull the best passages from the best articles in the best magazines. For some time, however, it has been following a greatly modified procedure. Many of its articles now appear in its columns for the first time. As long ago as November, 1936, Fortune stated that “it not only pays generous fees to thirty-five magazines for exclusive reprint privileges but even supplies certain of the magazines, gratis, with original articles which The Reader’s Digest proceeds to reprint and condense the following month.”
The editors of The New Yorker, in declining to renew their contract with The Digest, explained their position in the following letter to their contributors:
**(excerpt)** The Digest started out as a reprint magazine, but grew into something quite different. Nowadays a large proportion of its contents is frankly original with The Digest and not presented as reprint material; and of the stuff that is presented as reprint material much actually originates in the office of The Digest and then gets farmed out to some other magazine for first publication. The effect of this (apart from spreading a lot of money around) is that The Digest is beginning to generate a considerable fraction of the contents of American magazines. This gives us the creeps, as does any centralization of genius. The fact seems to be that some publications are already as good as subsidized by The Digest. Our feeling is that if The Digest wants to publish a magazine of original material, it should do so in a direct manner. We believe it should not operate through other publications to keep alive the reprint myth. We don’t want to be in the position of receiving for consideration a manuscript that has already been bought and paid for by someone else, for we regard such a situation as unhealthy. We were willing to be digested, but we are not willing to be first supplied, then digested. ** (end excerpt)**
This change has come about largely as a the result of a the publisher’s belief, certainly justified by results, that he knows better than any other editor what magazine readers want. DeWitt Wallace, founder and owner of The Digest, has learned that they want their capsules even smaller than those originally dispensed. He has learned that they want more humor in their lives. Chiefly he has learned that they want what they read to be constructive, to hold out hope, except in matters bearing on the federal government. No mass magazine has ever taken a consistently dark view of life, but none has gone so far as The Digest in celebrating good cheer, and the trend has become more and more noticeable amid the encircling gloom of the last few years. When The Digest publishes an article on production, it tells how two soldiers took war jobs and in their spare time produced, hour for hour, upteen percent more than the regular (union) operatives. It would like nothing better, I am certain, than to hear of an armless worker, who, running his machine with his feet and hoeing his victory garden with his toes, produced more cartridge shells and bought more war bonds than anyone else in his factory.
Most of the currents of our time seems to favor this kind of journalism. The pace of our life, quite aside from the temporary exigencies of war, demands speed in even the communication of knowledge and ideas. A materialistic culture fosters the illusion that we can understand something if only we can have it pictured for us. The sheer bulk of our printed literature encourages the idea of abridgement and predigestion. The principle of selectivity, spurious or otherwise, for which The Digest still stands in the minds of its readers is enshrined even in the field of books, where at long last we are approaching mass distribution not through educational or economic measures but through institutions like Book-of-the-Month Club and the immense apparatus recently launched by Sears, Roebuck and the Gallup Poll. The evidence in the case does not rest upon Life and The Digest alone. In recent years the older magazines have been frantically trying to adopt the new formulas to their own problems. When Ben Hibbs succeeded Wesley Winans Stout as editor of The Saturday Evening Post, he promptly began to shorten articles and to introduce more picture stories. They have sought the visual appeal by making typography louder than ever, and gradually the photograph, or the photographic technique in drawing, is coming into use even to illustrate fiction; notice how many magazines now use photographs on the covers. Much can happen in the next few years, but the trends which Life and The Digest represent seem certain to dominate the magazines, as they have dominated so many areas of American life. Moreover, if the postwar plans of many magazines succeed, they will be carried abroad. Time, Newsweek, and The Reader’s Digest already are planning to become international. I should not be surprised, ten years from now, to see The Digest boasting 200,000,000 readers for its Basic English edition.
I have not, in this article, tried to go beyond discussion of the mass magazines, which are only about 15 out of approximately 7,000 American periodicals but which account for perhaps half the combined circulation of all. As a matter of fact, the connections between the great popular journals and the rest of the field are in most cases tenuous, often almost nonexistent. The vast majority appeal to special-interest groups—ranging, say, from the Sunday-school pupils of the Two-Seed-in-the-Soul Predestinarian Baptist Church to the great number of Americans who read magazines like The American Home and Popular Mechanics. Many magazines, the hundreds of “pulps,” for example, carry almost no advertising and so are on a completely different economic basis. The great trade journals are often read principally for their advertising and so are on a different footing vis-a-vis their readers. Much could be said about the phenomenon of “true crime” magazines and the comics, but what might be said would have little bearing on any others.