How low can they go?

Women's magazines, once the source of first-rate writing, now offer a steady diet of diets and product tie-ins to readers who get no respect.

Published December 10, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

When Mademoiselle died a very public death in October, media eulogizers across the nation remembered the magazine with yearning and disdain: They celebrated its illustrious literary legacy, but recalled with bitterness the decade-long identity crisis that preceded the magazine's demise.

After 66 years of continuous publication, Mademoiselle had become little more than a product-pushing, "Sex and the City" fanzine, a far cry from the magazine that launched the careers of writers like Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon and Jennifer Egan -- and won O. Henry Awards (43) and a National Magazine Award for Fiction in the process.

Its disappearance from newsstands marked an official departure, but there are those -- editors and readers alike -- who believe that Mademoiselle died, along with a handful of other "women's glossies," when they stopped publishing fiction back in the 1990s. The move was seen by some media analysts to have been financially inevitable, but was interpreted by many in the worlds of media and publishing as a surrender to simplistic marketing instincts and a misinterpretation of readers' interests and aptitude.

Whatever the motivation, the disappearance of fiction from the pages of Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar and Redbook marked the end of an era in which these magazines, competing with "men's magazines" like Esquire and Playboy, published some of the country's best fiction writers -- in many cases before they had been published anywhere else. And the fall of Mademoiselle, despite its many attempts to revamp itself to please advertisers, has revived the debate about whether readers of so-called women's magazines would ever buy glossies that included fiction.

In their early years -- from the turn of the century until the mid-1960s -- women's magazines had a specific mission. Says Eileen Schnurr, a former Redbook editor and Mademoiselle's last fiction editor, "Women's magazines were meant to be women's companions. It was a different time, a pre-television era. They'd talk about all of the housekeeping problems and so on. Women were all at home in those days. It helped them with their problems and entertained them with stories."

This audience of housewives, despite a label that now registers as a term of disrespect, was believed to be interested in fine writing, and the magazines vied for their subscriptions -- the only way the magazines were sold for many years. Redbook began as an all-fiction magazine in 1903, and published five stories and one condensed novel in every issue until the 1970s. Harper's Bazaar, eventual winner of 51 O. Henry Awards, published the work of Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, John Cheever and Gina Berriault. And before Helen Gurley Brown came to reinvent Cosmopolitan, the magazine was often compared to the Saturday Evening Post, collecting 12 O. Henry Awards for stories by Booth Tarkington, Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates and Gail Godwin.

But as women left home to join the workforce, editors of women's magazines felt compelled to adapt to their readers' new lifestyles. In 1965, "Sex and the Single Girl" author Brown, an editorial novice, was brought in to revamp Cosmopolitan, which was believed to be losing relevance with the modern woman. Brown transformed the genteel and writerly publication by introducing readers to the "Cosmo girl," a sexy, sassy and savvy woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it -- at work and at (fore) play.

The transformation of Cosmopolitan into Cosmo forever changed the face of women's magazines. The self-conscious, sexually liberated voice resonated with readers -- and advertisers took note. Cosmo's circulation skyrocketed from 800,000 readers to more than 3 million. Publishers suddenly made circulation numbers an editorial concern. Recalls Ellen Stoianoff, a Family Circle senior editor and Mademoiselle's fiction editor from 1965 to 1976, "Before this, the editor in chief was the only one who had been included in sales and money issues. Suddenly the person who washed the windows was concerned with how well the magazine sold."

Editors were expected to go on ad sales calls as a "partner" of the publisher, says Suzanne Braun Levine, a former board member of The Association of Magazine Editors (ASME) and veteran editor of Mademoiselle, Ms. and Columbia Journalism Review. "Nobody ever said that the editors were supposed to produce editorial content that the publisher could sell, but they would be made aware of how helpful it was." As a result, says Levine, "editors' loyalty was distracted from readers, their focus was divided between the readers and the publishers."

Adds magazine veteran Katherine Brown Weissman, who now serves as a contributing editor at O magazine, "It was deemed necessary for survival to think very much in terms of image and markets, the way you would in making or selling any product. The problem with fiction was that it didn't help magazines compete; instead it used pages every month that could have been devoted to material that would appeal to a far broader sector of the market.

"Style rather than substance became hugely important in order to distinguish oneself among the many competing magazines," says Brown Weissman. "The 'voices' of these magazines were reinvented over and over, as was their look."

There were some editors, according to Levine, who attempted to give their readers more substance while still pandering to advertisers; but they were few, and they didn't last long. She remembers Glamour's legendary editor in chief Ruth Whitney (1967-1998) confessing to her that she'd "sneaked in an article about abortion." Says Levine, "Ruth knew where to put these serious articles in the book so that the advertisers wouldn't freak out, and she knew to run them without illustrations so that they wouldn't call too much attention to themselves. She knew how to play the game."

But sometimes the rules of the game were brutal. "When [women's glossies] salespeople went out to sell against Ms.'s salespeople, they would say to advertisers unspeakable things like 'You don't want to be in a magazine where your ad may be facing a picture of a vagina.' They were really gross about it -- that's where the real warfare took place."

Competition for the Cosmo dollar further intensified with the arrival of a new crop of publications, like Elle, Allure, Sassy, In Style, Jane and Marie Claire, and it became harder for editors to, in the words of Levine, "put out the magazine with the material an editor thinks the readers want and need." Publishers, still focused on subscriptions, now cared even more about newsstand and advertising sales.

The glossies' new objective was to offer readers "the most/newest/hottest bunch of features, which would either be wildly entertaining or rock bottom useful or life-changing, or ideally both," says Brown Weissman. "Sensitive, literary short stories simply didn't fit into this equation. Their appeal was too amorphous, inconsistent, unquantifiable." Levine says that even Ms. magazine, renowned for turning away ads for products deemed unhealthy to women, did not triumph in the battle to keep fiction in the mix. "You could sell against beauty, opinion, profiles of celebrities, but not fiction. That was the argument we heard at Ms. all of the time."

Editors, pushed by advertisers, assumed that a short story would not draw readers to one magazine over another. Instead, the glossies chose to compete in a concrete realm, where quality would be reflected by immediacy, usefulness and quantity. "That's one of the reasons that numbers [e.g., "452 New Looks" (Marie Claire), "The Top 10 Threats to Your Health" (Glamour)] became so popular as cover lines and as organizing concepts for articles," says Brown Weissman. "They were definite and crisp and seemed to promise a limited but essential array of facts, ideas or tips that the reader could use immediately."

The formula has changed very little. These days Cosmopolitan is primarily devoted to dispensing its signature advice about sex and how to keep a man ("7 Bad-Girl Bedroom Moves You Must Master," "Cosmo's Guide to Dating Mucho Men," "Wrap Him Around Your Finger"). There are requisite articles on beauty and fashion, health and fitness and a page dedicated to career counseling, as well as two "news" features ("I Believe Survivor is a Scam"). Harper's Bazaar gives fiction little more than a nod -- usually a brief listing of upcoming book titles. And Redbook has morphed into a guidebook on the 21st century marriage.

Meanwhile, men's magazines have endured various identity crises, still managing to maintain their literary traditions. Adrienne Miller, Esquire's literary editor, says she publishes 10 short stories a year. "We've been doing so since the 1930s," she says. "We all want more pages than we have. But fiction is so important in Esquire's history that no matter who owns or edits Esquire, as long as there's an Esquire, I'm quite certain there will always be fiction."

Playboy's fiction editor, 30-year veteran Barbara Nellis, says that literature is as much of a tradition at Playboy as the centerfold. "Even amidst the tough economic times, when there have been fewer pages, we've never ever cut out all of anything. Maybe we did fewer pages of something, maybe we did a shorter story. But we never gave up the fiction."

The reason men's magazines can continue to publish fiction, according to Edie Locke, Mademoiselle's editor in chief from 1970 to 1980, is because "they can show clothes and they can show a certain amount of grooming, but they can't give you 10,000 pages of hairstyles, or five more ways to put on eyeliner. They have to fill the pages with something."

But fiction doesn't function as filler in the magazines that still publish it. Ask any advertiser: There are plenty of ways to use pages, and fiction is not the most effective vehicle for product tie-ins. The fact is that fiction is considered an integral part of these magazines' efforts to promulgate an image of the modern American man as worldly-wise, cultured and sophisticated.

Says Nellis, "GQ, Esquire and Playboy try to say 'We think you're cool enough to have these facets in your life, one of which is being well-informed and well-read. And so you can feel that you're well-informed and well-read if you read us.'"

The idealized male, as depicted in the ads and editorial content of men's magazines, is interested in wine, cars, style, the perfect shave and naked women, as well as fine writing. Meanwhile, the ideal woman of the glossies is apparently devoid of literary interests, perhaps even unable or unwilling to read more than a couple of paragraphs at a sitting.

"There's something deeply insulting about assuming a woman can't read anything longer than 500 words," says Nellis. "What [glossies] are saying is that we're not even going to give you a chance [to read something more substantive]. We know you're not interested." Gross, who has also served as an editor at Vogue, Elle and the defunct Mirabella, adds: "I've had experiences at Vogue where we'd commission a writer and get something in baby talk. I've always been allergic to baby talk, this talking down to women. I don't know if there's an equivalent in men's magazines. Perhaps there's a whole other macho testosterone-driven language or tone."

When Helen Gurley Brown took over Cosmo, advising the Everywoman "was absolutely revolutionary," according to Nellis, "but it doesn't take into account how women have changed since then." Today, just as in the late 1960s, "women's most urgent needs are assumed to have to do with family or relationships, appearance, health and self-esteem," says Brown Weissman. "Women's magazines may be more honest and unpretentious than the sometimes self-important features of the men's magazines. But women usually have to get their literary nourishment someplace else."

And they do. Fifty-six percent of the New Yorker's readers, and 48 percent of Atlantic Monthly readers are women, according to the Mediamark Research Inc. (MRI), the leading U.S. provider of total magazine audience counts. Women also go behind enemy lines: They comprise 40 percent of Esquire's readership, 37 percent at GQ and 17 percent at Playboy. (Men, on the other hand, rarely peruse women's magazines: They make up just 17 percent of Cosmopolitan's readers, 14 percent of Harper's Bazaar readers, and 13 percent at Vogue.)

There is no way to know if women may are reading men's magazines solely for the fiction, but according to Levine, they have traditionally picked up men's mags in search of in-depth features and more extensive news coverage. "Women have always read Esquire because it is perceived as a serious issues magazine. And Playboy is this strange hybrid -- the joke was that people read it for the interviews and the fiction," she says. In the case of women, that may be true.

New arrival O magazine, with a staggering 14 million readers, was introduced as something of an antidote to classic glossy fare for a female audience. Under the direction of publisher Oprah Winfrey, established novelists like Amy Bloom or Susan Choi address the familiar theme of self improvement in O, but rather than suggest makeovers, they tend to offer articles and advice columns about intimacy, spirituality and self-confidence.

Yet despite Winfrey's status as a patron saint of novelists, her magazine does not publish fiction. "Oprah doesn't like a short read," according to editor Gross, "and the interest [of readers] has been increasingly about real life -- memoir, biography and personal journalism."

Given the success of O -- without the benefit of fiction -- it is unlikely that short stories will find their way into the pages of glossies any time soon. But the magazine's determined (though not always successful) attempt to address readers with respect and intelligence is reason for hope. So too is the trend in magazines like Elle, with 4.5 million readers, and Marie Claire with 3.14 million, of devoting more pages to news features and even investigative journalism.

This is not to say that glossies are necessarily being hurt by this hunger for intellectual heft: Vogue still has more than 10 million readers, Glamour, an estimated 12 million, and Cosmopolitan, in the vicinity of 17 million -- almost twice as many as Playboy and Maxim, and three times the readership of GQ. But the heavy hitters, if they stick to old formulas, will most certainly have to share their readers, who, for the time being, will have to buy more than one magazine to satisfy their needs as thinking human beings.

"The magazine business has gotten so niche-oriented that things you used to find in one magazine, you now must go to so many different ones to get what you need," says Levine. Given the current economy, and a potential lack of generosity among readers of glossies, it is unlikely that this buying habit can be counted on to continue. More plausible is the triumph of "women's" magazines that take their cue from the general interest model of the past, filling their pages with news and fiction, as well as fluff.

By Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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