The Magazine Reader

Looking at 12 Years Between the Covers

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Last week, the cover of Us Weekly screamed in big yellow type "The Plot to Destroy Lauren," and my first reaction was, 'Oh, no, they can't destroy Lauren."

My second reaction was, "Who the hell is Lauren?"

It wasn't the first time I was utterly baffled by a magazine cover since I started writing this column, but it turned out to be the last. That's because this is my final Magazine Reader column. I'm taking The Post's early retirement buyout and heading off to pursue other interests, such as sloth and gin.

For nearly 12 years, I've been paid real American money to read magazines and write about them. During those years I've pondered the glories of magazines ranging from Life to Sounds of Death, from Reason to Paranoia, from George to Jane, from Spy to Sly, from Good Dog! to Murder Dog, from New Beauty to New Witch, from Modern Maturity to Modern Ferret to Modern Drunkard.

And let's not forget Wrapped in Plastic, a magazine devoted to David Lynch's long-dead TV show "Twin Peaks."

Such are the fruits of the First Amendment, God bless it.

Many strange things happened in magazines in those 12 years. The National Review published a story called "Is Sex Still Sexy?" McCall's published a story called "My Boy Built a Bomb! Trouble Signs No Mom Should Miss!" Glamour posed the question "Is your hair making you look fat?" Fitness asked, "Is Your Body Toxic?'" Reader's Digest asked, "Are you normal or nuts?"

Playboy covered the Enron scandal by publishing a photo gallery called "The Women of Enron Uncover Their Hidden Assets." GQ ordered its readers to "Lose the goatee." Men's Health revealed "Why beautiful women make you stupid." Field & Stream decreed that "Hogs are the new deer." And Child offered this advice: "Get Happy! Why giggling is time well spent."

In the magazine business, as in nature, life is a Darwinian struggle that is frequently nasty, brutish and short. Every year, more than 500 magazines are born and nearly as many die. During the past 12 years, Life died. So did Civilization, My Generation, Spy, George, Talk, Brill's Content, Punk Planet, Doubletake and Mademoiselle, plus Lingua Franca, a smart, funny magazine about academia, Gadfly, a lively pop culture magazine and recently, the music magazines Harp and No Depression.

Replacing the dead on newsstands was a crop of newborns -- Maxim, Portfolio, Real Simple, the Week, Blender, the American Conservative, Hallmark, Found, Mental Floss and a fine literary mag called the Believer. Meanwhile, the Oxford American, a magazine of Southern culture, died and was reborn. And Radar, a snarky pop culture mag, died, was reborn, died again and was reborn yet again.

As of last night, it was still alive, but stay tuned.

Perhaps the most influential magazines of those 12 years was Maxim, a British "laddie" mag that debuted in America in 1997. Specializing in pictures of B-list starlets in bikinis, quick, frothy articles and adolescent humor, it was an immediate success, its circulation soaring to more than 2.5 million. Soon, nearly every magazine aimed at young men -- Esquire, GQ, Playboy and Rolling Stone, among others -- started to look and read like Maxim. Fortunately, that trend faded and today all of those magazines publish long, smart, serious pieces along with the quick hits.

Nearly as influential as Maxim was O: The Oprah Magazine, which arrived in 2000 and sparked a hideous trend toward me-zines -- magazines edited by, and devoted to, the glories of a particular celebrity. There was "mary-kateandashley," a magazine by and about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, actresses who were then 14 years old. Gene Simmons, of the rock band Kiss, started a me-zine called "Gene Simmons' Tongue." Actor Sylvester Stallone started one called Sly. Golfer Jack Nicklaus had one called Nicklaus.

And in one of the dumbest moves in magazine history, McCall's -- a 125-year-old women's mag -- renamed itself Rosie and became a vehicle for talk-show yapper Rosie O'Donnell, who promptly ran a cover photo of herself holding up her bandaged, injured finger.

Mercifully, all these mags are gone now, except, of course, Oprah's magazine, which is still going strong, and still running a photo of Oprah on every cover. But I wouldn't be surprised to walk past a newsstand tomorrow and see a magazine called Britney! or Brangelina or Keef: The Keith Richards Lifestyle.

In the last 12 years, there have been many changes in magazines, but some things never change. For instance, Cosmopolitan and Glamour keep running sex tips and discovering hitherto unknown sex acts pretty much every month. For all those years, I have assiduously studied approximately 2,638,419 sex advice articles, and I believe I can now boil down all their wisdom into two simple rules:

1) Insert tab A into slot B.

2) Season to taste.

In 12 years as The Magazine Reader, I've frequently earned cheap laughs by mocking the follies of this or that magazine. But, as Tony Kornheiser likes to say: We kid because we love. I've loved magazines since I was 10 years old, when I'd run to my grandmother's house every Wednesday to see the latest issue of Life.

Human beings love stories and a magazine, at its best, is where a writer can take the time to sit down and tell a good story: I went off on an adventure and here's what I saw and heard and how it felt and what I think it means. Newspapers sometimes do this, too, of course, but not as often as they used to, alas. Most magazines don't do it very often or very well but some do -- Esquire, Harper's, Smithsonian, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, GQ, Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, National Geographic and, of course, the best of them all, the New Yorker.

Needless to say, there are other good magazines out there, too, and later I'll kick myself for neglecting to mention them.

While we're at it, let's not forget Us Weekly, which was kind enough to inform us about "The Plot to Destroy Lauren." As it turns out, Lauren is Lauren Conrad, star of the MTV show "The Hills," and the people allegedly plotting to destroy her are her co-stars Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt. To make matters weirder, the plot allegedly involves a "sex tape" that may or may not actually exist.

If you want to know more, you'll have to read the story yourself because I'm outta here, Vladimir.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company