Clean living

As Time Inc.'s latest magazine demonstrates, trying to sell the simple life is a slippery task.

Published March 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Less is more seems to be the philosophy behind Real Simple, the latest publication from Time Inc. "Low stress living," reads one cover line, and the rest rush behind it like a flurry of found poetry: "one dish dinners/simpler skin care/clothes that work/nurturing friendships/serene spaces." The simple things we tend to overlook in our complicated lives. But simplicity has a price (in this case, $2.95).

Promotional materials identify Time Inc. as "the publisher of In Style, Cooking Light and Health," which should give you some idea of the publication's desired identity. Real Simple (a title sure to give William Safire fits) means to celebrate la dolce vita but doesn't want you to think you need money to enjoy it. "Eating well is the best revenge" may have been an alternate philosophy. That and living in spacious, well-lit, comfortable homes that (despite the pedigree dogs and happy children) are amazingly clutter-free.

Indeed, Martha Stewart (the queen of clean) hangs over Real Simple like a friendly ghost, and small wonder. Editor Susan Wyland edited Martha Stewart Living for three-and-a-half years, and Time Inc. is no doubt hoping some of that circulation magic (nearly 2.5 million) will rub off here. (Time famously fumbled its own deal with Martha, allowing her to go off to multimedia fame and fortune.) Wyland began developing the Real Simple idea when she joined Time's People Magazine Group in 1998.

But where Stewart's shtick is studious affect ("Hollowed-out eggshells are lovely, natural holders for tiny flower arrangements" says a posting on Stewart's Web site -- as if you had time to hollow out egg shells, find tiny flowers and then arrange them), Real Simple eschews pretension. In a sort of high-falutin' photo essay on flowers, we're told to let go of our inner Martha: "When you get them home, don't worry about arranging them; natural looks better and, well, more natural."

(I was way ahead of the curve on that one.)

If the great fashion magazines of yore (Vogue, Bazaar) justified their swank fantasies as an escape from the humdrum, Real Simple (a sort of beauty-and-shelter hybrid) holds out a fantasy of austerity. "Life is complicated," writes Wyland in her editor's note and before going on to bemoan the harried lot of the modern woman. "We go to sleep with tomorrow's to-do list scrolling in our minds. And I think a lot of us are longing for a way to make things simpler."

"Life is short/full of stuff," sang the Cramps, in a slightly different context. Real Simple longs to get rid of all that stuff for you -- and I'm not just talking junk mail (though there is a piece on how to get rid of that). There is a whole section here dedicated to soul, and not of the James Brown kind, either. Martha Beck has an essay on the importance of personal rituals, while Elizabeth Houghton rhapsodizes on the lost art of writing a note in pen, putting it in an envelope and throwing it in the mailbox.

The desire to divest yourself of needless possessions is as natural and cyclic as the urge to nest, and at the end of our stuff-filled millennium, closet cleaning is all the go. Whether you view it as a fad or a natural progression, the revived interest in Buddhism (or at least talking about Buddhism) is another indicator of a movement toward spiritual dust-busting.

"The Art of Doing Nothing," by Veronique Vienne, has been a surprising bestseller and can be found in your local bookstore nestled beside titles like "Simple Pleasures" and "The Woman's Retreat Book." The message is as old as "The Book of the Dead": Relax, turn off your mind and soak your feet.

But magazines, alas, are made to sell stuff -- even magazines dedicated to helping women get rid of stuff. Stewart overcame this inherent contradiction ingenuously: She markets and promotes merchandise designed to help you do things yourself (flocking pine cones and other homely tasks). She has also made herself a brand, so that her Web site, books, magazine and TV show are like beams radiating from the sun queen.

Real Simple is starting from scratch, though not without assistance. The 216-page premiere issue (hitting newsstands March 27) has a guaranteed circulation of 400,000 and includes 112 ad pages. A number of these ads are indiscernible from the editorial in their message (coffee is all about serenity now) if not their design (a spread for Wamsutta linens really threw me). More galling is the placement of some of those ads. There are dozens of right-hand, full-page ads where articles often should be. (Advertisers traditionally fight for right-hand pages as editorial battles to keep them.)

In what seems to me a rather fitting irony, a piece on "stress reduction" (that could have been titled "Meditations on running out of gas") by Francine Prose is broken up with a butt-ugly ad insert for a variety of household products. Prose recently wrote a jeremiad against the vapidity of the Oxygen network and women's magazines in general for the New York Times Magazine. For a writer who has benefited financially from writing for some of those same publications, it seemed an ungracious and self-serving move. Seeing her writing offset by a plug for kitty litter gave me some perverse pleasure.

There is some requisite editorial about things to buy here, most notably in the front-of-the-book section "small pleasures" and the sole fashion feature. But none of it is very high-end (OK, a $32 bra), and most of the emphasis in Real Simple remains on getting rid of it (whatever it is). There are articles about how to pay your bills online and do less laundry. ("The first rule you should establish is: one towel and one washcloth per person a week" -- which I believe is the rule on Rikers Island.) A few months of Real Simple and things will start disappearing from your house so fast you'll think your boyfriend is a junkie.

Too much simplicity can be a dangerous thing, though. Take this advice from a service piece on cleaning your bathroom: "Next, spritz the bathroom mirror with glass cleaner and wipe it down with paper towels." Or the observation in the flowers feature that "any signs of yellowing and withering ... could mean they were picked quite a while ago." Suddenly "real simple" starts to take on a "Forrest Gump" cast.

Trying to sell the simple life is a slippery task. Real Simple is handsome in its design; the food spread looked especially inviting and some of the writing is cool and concise. But there is an air of unreality to the whole enterprise that I find off-putting. The articles say incorporate these steps to simplicity in your daily life, but the pictures portray a life of cleanly privilege unlike any I know. "Art-direct your life" is more like it.

The reality of these contradictions is brought home in what I thought to be this issue's signature piece, Megham Daum's first person account of moving from Manhattan to ... Nebraska. The high cost of New York living and the threat of ending up in Brooklyn compelled her to pack up and head for the heartland. "There are few fancy restaurants," she writes, "no one gets dressed up for a night on the town, and movies never cost more than $6, and they never sell out."

I like the idea of paying $6 for a movie and getting a seat with no problem. I've actually found a way to do that here in New York: It's called a matinee, and most theaters still have them. Sure, it means taking time off from my work day and laboring later into the evening. It's not often I get a chance to go to a matinee but it's a hell of lot less of a commitment than moving to Nebraska.

It's like the old farmer's adage about breakfast and the difference between involvement and commitment, the kind of thing you'll hear out in Nebraska. "The hen was involved," the farmer says, "but the pig was committed."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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