Toby Lester: back to the future

Toby Lester’s writing is a dance that I am not familiar with. I am currently taking a History of Journalism in America course in which we spend a lot of time deconstructing journalistic technique. Lester’s articles “The Other Vitruvian Man” and “Armchair Travelers” both conflate the past and present in an untraditional way. As a reader, I feel as though I am in the past which strikes me as funny but also as riveting. When Lester quotes Petrarch in the opening of “Travelers,” I feel as though Petrarch is his casual subject: “‘Each famous author of antiquity who I recover,’ he fulminated.” Additionally: “But reviving them, Petrarch quickly realized, wasn’t going to be easy.” The un-distancing of the past engages me about a subject matter I might otherwise take little interest in. Rather than examining Petrarch’s writing in a history textbook manner, the reader is up close and personal with his thought process. Similarly, that Lester approaches the new Vitruvian Man sketch from a personal relationship creates a refreshing dimension to historical journalism that I would not expect. We are able to look over Sgarbi’s shoulder at his research and access a past perspective through trained eyes. We see him “discover, to his amazement” the sketches, and we can follow his hunch about Leonardo and Giacomo Andrea collaborating. It is very “inside baseball” but “inside the historian’s office.”

Some questions I have for Lester might be:

  1. How did you break into this genre?
  2. How do you feel your writing on historical subjects differs from the writing of others?
  3. What was your first job out of school? It is on everyone’s mind…
  4. How are your days structured now? What kinds of things are you working on at the moment?

me and all my friends

I doubt I can write in this picture. Similar newness to blogging. Call me a baby blogger.
I doubt I can write in this picture. Similar newness to blogging. Call me a baby blogger.

So far, this blog has been public, because I still can’t be certain of how to make it private retroactively. While I have never blogged before (writing daily about myself reminds me of how my mom used to want a detailed, full day summary after high school, and I used to respond with: “fine.”), having a topic to write towards for this class has made me consider my invisible (certainly nonexistent) audience, especially in my interface. Evans says in his chapter about audience that “[w]e want to create a continuous dream into which our readers can enter, leaving their realities behind for a while” (22). I have sought to achieve this through the white space I’ve used, to create a blankness not unlike the magazine page. If I were reading about magazines, my guess is that I would also be in the mood to read an actual magazine as well.

I thought about, and could still change my mind, a layout with more contrast. However, after I realized I wanted a type of square graphic for the heading and I took that desk-lamp glow picture of some magazines I had lying around, I warmed up to the idea of a softer interface. Later, as I was thinking about my choices for this post, I realized this could be a beneficial thing. Presumably, if someone is reading about magazines, about various stages of their production, then they don’t know as much to begin with. Like me, they are learning. A softer, more dream-like interface feels more accessible to a newer audience. Less intimidating than say, Appetite or blink, which both exude an expert aura. I’m no expert. I’m just a student writing things down. I like to think also that my little pictures for each post adds a zine-y effect, like a snatched out treasure meant for a collage.

Evans quotes Cheryl England, editor of MacAddict about content: “When we first started MacAddict, the audience was, well, me. That’s not very scientific. The best I can say here is to have someone on staff who has a real feel for the person who cares about the subject—and you don’t get this through research studies or other dry things” (35). It is safe to say my audience is currently myself. Writing about a subject I am interested in for me, myself, and I has already led me to a pattern. It feels, so far, like a casual conversation with the magazine spread out in front of me at some café where there is just the right amount of light on the glossed page. That’s how I have imagined things so far. If my audience were to exist, they would be doing a similar thing.

seventeen in 1971

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Johnson proposes that magazines can be “cultural artifacts that reflect societal norms and demographic trends, mirroring gender interests, ethnic concerns, and current events” (86). While Johnson’s history of the magazine was extensive, I kept wondering where the nonliterary magazines snuck in. Cosmopolitan is mentioned early on in the chapter, having evolved into a publication “encouraging sexual freedom and expression” (68). However, I kept wondering how we got from Ladies’ Home Journal —for “manners, morals, and milieu in polite society”—to Seventeen. I went down the virtual candy store isle and studied a series of pages from ’Teen March 1971 issue. There is of course the right amount of cringe-worthy material. My personal favorite: how to play the “weighting game” so that special someone will notice you at the beach—don’t worry, it is a lose or gain game for “Fat Fannies and Skinny Minnies alike!” It is a cultural artifact, in this way, “how we were” as Johnson would say.

And yet, directly after this lengthy description of “girth control,” I found an instructional article about the lack of information families receive on missing soldiers in Vietnam. The article centers on Bonnie Appleby (could this really be her name?) of Tuscon, AZ who’s dream “isn’t to become a world famous model or to marry a movie star” but to know what happened to her father, who went missing in action. Addresses for politicians and journalists are provided so that readers might write about this issue. I wondered if this same juxtaposition could happen in a teen magazine now given the narrowing of magazine interests since then. I could hardly imagine an article about Syrian refugees cropping up next to a cat eye makeup tutorial. But I suppose this is just how we used to be. In some ways, more superficial. It be equally unacceptable to print a story with the headline “Calling all you Fat Fannies!” as it would be to print a politicized call to action. That was seventeen in 1971, we can imagine: doing crunches in stripped pajamas and licking envelopes for POWs before tie-dying your sheets with Rit liquid dye—”if you can tie a knot, you can tie-dye with Rit.” And someday we will appear equally strange.

McSweeney’s and the mysterious magazine mission statement

Recently, I have found myself on the cusp of buying myself a present: a subscription to a most wonderful, most absurd literary journal (in case you have not heard of its wonderfulness yet) called McSweeney’s. This San Francisco based publishing company also publishes books of poetry and The Believer—self reported as “The Greatest Magazine in America.” Upon receiving the assignment to analyze a mission statement for Magazine Production and Publishing, I had no problem calling up their website from my favorites. I looked specifically at The Believer (maybe to stop myself from spending all my money) and was surprised at the lack of coherent mission statement. I was expecting something much different than what I found:Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 4.21.18 PM

“The Believer, a five-time National Magazine Award finalist, is a bimonthly literature, arts, and culture magazine. In each issue, readers will find journalism and essays that are frequently very long, book reviews that are not necessarily timely, and interviews that are intimate, frank, and also very long. There are intricate illustrations by Tony Millionaire and a rotating cast of guest artists, poems, a comics section, and regular columns by Nick Hornby and Daniel Handler.”

Rather than describing what the magazine does for the reader, The Believer’s statement hinges on what the magazine contains. After reading the Better Homes and Gardens mission statement, which talks about shaping visions and creativity “to live a more colorful life,” I was expecting at least something more emotive or inspiring from McSweeney’s. I was expecting a clearer voice. At its most voice-infused moment, the mission statement pokes fun at its article length.

Because McSweeney’s is such an acclaimed (and all around cool) brand, I figured that there must be some reason for not delivering a punchy little mission statement, full of the personality packed inside its publications. I suppose that McSweeney’s is more concerned about hooking readers with The Believer’s content than expressing a personality they might deem obvious. Rattling off the awards and authors might serve to establish credibility with a new reader, who might be so impressed by the magazine’s prestige that they are inspired to read it. And still, I wonder if a reader, and the type of quirky reader McSweeney’s targets, would be better appreciate something less instructional and more…whimsical.

uses and gratifications

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 3.55.10 PMWhen I look at Bitch, I know immediately that this magazine is not for everyone. The edgy (and to some, offensive) name already targets a specific set of individuals: young females just seriously discovering feminism. And yet, the “feminist” label is still too broad, still too faceless a mass to really live up to the uses and gratifications theory applied to magazines in our textbook: “this approach encourages users to focus not on the medium, but on the user of that medium.” Focusing on how the consumer uses Bitch rather than analyzing what Bitch is in the abstract (is a magazine really a magazine without a reader, I think not) makes it easier to see how the magazine works. The theory proposes that consumers use media to meet five needs: cognitive, affective, personal, social, and tension release.

A reader of Bitch is looking for specific cultural commentary that they would not be able to get in a mainstream media source. This is her cognitive use for buying the publication—she wants to seek out a certain perspective and deepen her own understanding . I picked up Bitch because I wanted to know more about what other women think about what goes on around them. In that cute little cognitive paragraph in our text book, if Bitch was an example, it would say: “Bitch looks at the media and its products through a lens that takes into account the historical and cultural representation of gender in pop culture.”

For me the affective-ness of the magazine is reason I have a copy. The cover aesthetic—a bright blue punch—that is what lured me in. Maybe I could have sought out feminist critiques online or simply browsed Bitch Media’s website to click on the different news stories. But I didn’t think of that, not once, when I was holding the matte cover magazine in my hand. I wanted to read this conversation in this format specifically, without the noise of the Internet. Like our “Seven Books in Seven Days” reading—I didn’t miss my device, and it didn’t miss me.

From a personal standpoint, the magazine made me feel as though I was absorbing important information as I read. I discovered the history of the dildo and contemplated the lack of mentally ill black women on TV. I felt that I was self-improving because I was learning a lot in one place and learning information that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. My sense of self-betterment lends itself to social use and gratification. By reading Bitch, maybe I have more to contribute to a dialog on the legacy of women in Blues music. If I keep reading, I’ll understand more and better about my situation as a woman in this crazy world. If the information wasn’t appealing enough, Bitch is also nonprofit and engages in all sorts of activism. “Bitch. It’s a noun. It’s a verb. It’s a magazine. It’s a feminist media organization.” What a killer way to drop the mic on your About page.

Even as I am learning and feeling pretty great about my expanding knowledge, I am also escaping into a world where the perspective is skewed in my favor. That’s tension release. The textbook offers tabloids as an example of escape, but they tend to stress me out. I would much rather escape into a room with Kate Tempest and Wendy Red Star, National Indian Leg Wresting Champion and talk to them about what they are doing. So that’s where I went. And given these uses and gratifications, I would definitely go back.