Wednesday, October 09, 2002

PLAYBOY STINKS WATCH: Matthew Yglesias hips us to three whole paragraphs of Playboy: Lousy Magazine from Charles Taylor in Salon. There's more behind the hideous Salon firewall.(Why doesn't Salon ever charge by the article? I don't get it.) If anybody has the magic Salon key--a charitable person, giving the doomed web magazine their money--and wanted to e-mail me the full text--why, that'd be right nice. What's there is this:

It's December 1968 and you grab a mag at the local newesstand. The table of contents includes the following: a quartet of short stories by Alberto Moravia; a symposium on creativity with contributions from Truman Capote, Lawrence Durrell, James T. Farrell, Allen Ginsberg, Le Roi Jones, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Norman Podhoretz, Georges Simenon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Styron and John Updike; humor pieces from Jean Shepherd and Robert Morley; an article on pacifism in America by Norman Thomas; a piece on how machines will change our lives by Arthur C. Clarke; an essay on "the overheated image" by Marshall McLuhan; contributions from Eric Hoffer and Alan Watts; an article in defense of academic irresponsibility by Leslie Fiedler; a memoir of Hemingway by his son Patrick; Eldridge Cleaver interviewed by Nat Hentoff; a travel piece by the espionage novelist Len Deighton; and the first English translation of a poem by Goethe.

Yes, folks, that was Playboy. And lest you think that issue was a fluke, an overstuffed Christmas goodie, the ad for the January 1969 issue promises a story from P.G. Wodehouse, an article by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, fiction from Robert Coover and Sean O'Faolian, and a never before published tale by Lytton Strachey.

Sure, the reason most of us started reading Playboy was for the girls. But when the history of American magazines is written, people who said "I read it for the articles" will have the last laugh. As will Hugh Hefner, who told a reunion of Playmates in 1979, "Without you, I'd be the publisher of a literary magazine." With new editor James Kaminsky starting this month, and even Hefner saying the magazine needs to recapture its distinction, Playboy has the opportunity to be a catalyst for change in the magazine world. It can do what it did in the '60s and be a magazine with balls (and boobs), leading the moribund magazine world into a new era of editorial rebirth. A pipe dream, I know, but not a complete fantasy.

I mean, he's right: what he's describing is a pipe dream. The success of Playboy back then is not reproducible in our current culture, in my opinion; the genie is out of the bottle, porn-wise, and there's no need to put it back in the bottle. If I want a quality opinion magazine (like what Taylor is describing above) I'll pick up The Atlantic. If I want quality nekkid wimmen I'll pick up Club International. Why--as a consumer--would I need to mingle the two anymore? Get them in the same magazine? I don't get it.

Playboy always lacked focus, by the way; the articles were window dressing, just like the pictures of the girls. It was all propaganda for the sophisticated-male lifestyle Playboy was promoting, with Hef as the Mary Kay-like figure at its center. It's just more obvious today, either because the day of that lifestyle is long past, or its importance has been minimized in a culture that has grown vastly more complex since the 60s--where that lifestyle is one choice among many. I like the second explanation, because I like thinking the 60s revolution had some benefits, a more diverse culture the chief one. But anyway: good luck, James Kaminsky; I don't know how you're going to pull the rabbit into the 21st century, but maybe you'll do it and I'll spend money on Playboy magazine again.

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