Thursday, January 14, 2010

Well, No One Ever Claimed The New Republic Was an Expert on Magazines or Sex


In an article in political magazine The New Republic, writer Tom Bissell reviews Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, a new book by Elizabeth Fraterrigo published by Oxford University Press.

He starts off by writing that Fraterrigo basically succeeds in making her case that Playboy is responsible for the world in which we live in many ways (sexual revolution, appreciation for luxury goods by the masses, some leadership in racial integration, etc.). Much of the rest of the review won't be new or interesting to any of us in the magazine business, but he has this seemingly contradictory statement toward the end:
But it always had something with which to justify itself, which was the quality of its articles, stories, and interviews -- and, as Fraterrigo argues (though does not much explore), it was this that ensured, even from Playboy’s foes, a certain amount of grudging respect. The problem with Playboy was that its editorial content has never been strong enough for it to be only a magazine. It also had to be a lifestyle.
 "[I]ts editorial content has never been strong enough for it to be only a magazine"? Its editorial content did more than earn it "grudging respect." In fact, its editorial content for much of its time was better than the editorial content of most other magazines. The reasons are that editor Hugh Hefner had high standards and he was willing to pay to get the top writers and reporters -- everyone from William F. Buckley Jr. to Joyce Carol Oates to Jonathan Safran Foer to Jane Smiley to ... oh, forget it. None of that seems to add up to much for Bissell, who can't get over the nekkid ladies in the magazine's pages or its wider cultural impact.

Perhaps he just chose his words carelessly and intended to say something to the effect that Playboy's ambitions were always too large to be confined to a magazine, and he would have been correct there. But that's not what he wrote.

Bissell's review is an acceptable introduction to the book, and it might let people decide whether they want to buy it. But it's not good at understanding the point or the medium of the book's subject. His review reminds us that we shouldn't expect penetrating social commentary from that political magazine. (You'll get more from Royal Flush magazine.) Strangely, you have been able to get politics from Playboy for many decades. So which magazine is more dispensable?
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