Magazine Critic Reflects on an Ending Era For anyone who didn't want to browse through the pages of Black Belt, New Witch, Modern Drunkard, Smithsonian or Cat Fancy themselves, there's been 12 years of the Magazine Reader column in the Washington Post. The writer was Peter Carlson, who retired this week.
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Magazine Critic Reflects on an Ending Era

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Magazine Critic Reflects on an Ending Era

Magazine Critic Reflects on an Ending Era

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The subscription is cancelled, the letter to the editor left unanswered, the periodical tossed into the recycling bin. However you want to put it, the magazine reader is no more. For a dozen years, Peter Carlson was said reader for the Washington Post, and also for anyone who didn't want to browse through the pages of Blackbelt, New Witch, Modern Drunkard, The Smithsonian, or Cat Fancy Magazine. Carlson's Magazine Reader column was the best kind of criticism, boosterish when it needed to be, snarky when called upon, always inquisitive, and a great service to the reading public. Alas, Carlson has taken a buyout, and bye-bye, Magazine Reader. Hello, Peter Carlson.

Mr. PETER CARLSON ("Magazine Reader," Washington Post): Hello.

PESCA: So, should I hate Warren Buffet? I always used to like Warren Buffet, but I know he has a big stake in the Post, and a lot of you Post writers are taking buyouts now. Why did you take yours?

Mr. CARLSON: Because Warren Buffet set up this wonderful retirement fund that has a gazillion dollars in there, and they are eager to give us that money.

PESCA: And so now in your retirement, are you going to finally get to these things called blogs you've been hearing so much about?


PESCA: Never.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: I hope not.

PESCA: What are the trends that you've seen in ten years, slash, are we just going to hell in a hand basket?

Mr. CARLSON: Well, no, we're not going to hell in a hand basket. There was a trend for awhile there after Maxim came in that any magazine that appealed to young males was trying to do the Maxim thing, but they kind of got over that, thank God. They also got over the trend toward celebrities running their own magazines about themselves.

PESCA: Oh, (unintelligible).

Mr. CARLSON: After Gene Simmons' Tongue came out - you remember Gene Simmons' Tongue Magazine?

PESCA: I'll never forget Gene Simmons' Tongue. Gene Simmons' Tongue is seared on my memory.

Mr. CARLSON: As a magazine concept, though, it was somewhat wanting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Oh, man. Do you think magazines are a good, I don't know, weather vane for the culture? Or does it really speak to more of a niche than even the magazine business would care to admit?

Mr. CARLSON: I do think that, in all seriousness, as newspapers get smaller and more web-oriented, they're getting rid of what really I have done as a full-time job, which is writing long feature stories, you know, narrative tales, and magazines are basically going to be the only medium that does that anymore, in prose.

So the ones that do that, God bless them that they're keeping it up. I mean, I spend a lot of time making fun of the goofier magazines, but you know, the New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, GQ, magazines that actually tell stories, God bless them. They're still doing it. They do some great stuff, and people should actually buy them.

PESCA: What is a topic for a magazine that you would normally have zero interest in as a topic, and yet you felt it really worked as a magazine?

Mr. CARLSON: Well, you know, Modern Drunkard. Let us praise Modern Drunkard. Who would have thought that a - basically a magazine making jokes about drinking too much, could be any good beyond the second issue? But it actually is. It's still very funny about, you know, drunk jokes, basically. It's amazing that they can keep doing it and it's still good.

PESCA: And I guess on the other end of that continuum is Real Simple.

Mr. CARLSON: Real Simple, yeah, I said bad things about Real Simple on the first issue, and it was an immediate success. In fact, I reviewed Oprah's magazine when it first came out, and was as scathing and funny as I was able to be, and then, of course, it was a huge success, and about a week later I got a call from the PR woman for Hearst Magazines, which publishes it. And she said, Mr. Carlson, I'm just calling to tell you that we've gone back to press and we're printing another 750,000 copies of this issue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: So I said well, lady, that is the nicest gloating I have ever heard.

PESCA: I'll read a few quotes. Here are some things I liked that you've written over the years. The Weekly Standard is a truly excellent, right-wing, war-mongering magazine, no matter what your political persuasion might be. And you wrote, Jane competes with magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour, which are awful. Jane is awful, too, if truth be told, but it's awful in a good way, a charming way, a quirky way. Cosmo and Glamour are formulaic and predictable, but you could never guess what Jane will print next.

And then you write, like most sophisticated intellectuals, I believe that America's best personal ads appeared in America's best transportation magazine, Outlaw Biker, where incarcerated women advertised for Harley-riding studs. But then you checked out Harvard's ads. Within minutes I was stunned, amazed, transfixed. The women of every red-blooded man's dreams were advertising their availability. So tell me, what did you get when you called some of the women who placed these ads?

Mr. CARLSON: Well, I found out, much to my amazement, that there was somebody ghost-writing them. They were going to a woman whose name escapes me at the moment, who told them basically, for a price, how to write a good personal ad in Harvard Magazine to capture a hopefully wealthy Harvard graduate, and it was wasted on these Harvard nerds.

PESCA: If I hired you as a consultant, what sorts of advice would you give on how to build a perfect magazine?

Mr. CARLSON: If I was honest, I would tell you not to hire me as a consultant, but of course, I wouldn't be honest, so I would tell you that you'd have to give me a longstanding contract, so I could slowly think about this and - I don't think there's any real formula, to tell you the truth. I mean, who would have thought that there would be two magazines, for instance, appealing to people who participate in beauty pageants? Or New Witch, or Placebo Journal, or Business Ethics?

PESCA: What's Placebo Journal? What's Placebo Journal?

Mr. CARLSON: Placebo Journal is a humor magazine for doctors...

PESCA: Oh, my God.

Mr. CARLSON: And basically it makes fun of the patients. It's about all - much of the humor is about quote, unquote, "narc seekers," patients that come in complaining of vague elements in the hopes that you'll give them dope.

PESCA: And did they print X-rays and make fun of the things that people had lodged in their bodies?

Mr. CARLSON: Yes, they did, every issue.

PESCA: Who knew?

Mr. CARLSON: By the way, there are two magazines at least for everything. It's like Coke and Pepsi. So if there's one magazine about, you know, people who like to play hopscotch, there's going to be another magazine competing with it.

PESCA: Right. For Outlaw Biker, there's Unlawful Motorcyclist.

Mr. CARLSON: Easy Rider.

PESCA: Oh, there you go. That's the one.

Mr. CARLSON: Easy Rider, by the way, had the greatest job-interview advice for its readers. I happened to have jotted this down. Here it is. Quote, "There's really no wrong answer, as long as you don't tell the truth."

PESCA: It strikes me a little bit like you're almost like an anthropologist. You get a glimpse into subcultures. Have you ever thought of it like that?

Mr. CARLSON: Yes. I have thought of it like that, and I consciously thought to - you know, write about the magazines of different subcultures, and there are of every subculture. Surfing, I wrote about a bunch of surfing magazines, skateboarding magazines, body-building magazines, and it really is the second-best way - second only to, you know, meeting a person like that, and sitting down and talking to them, reading the magazines.

And you find out what they're thinking about, and how they look at the world. It's really amazing. And of course, most people who read them are in that world, so they don't look at it that way, but coming from the outside, it's fascinating. I mean, there's Beanie Baby Magazines, several magazines for people who collect Barbies. Granted, I only looked at them once. But that was enough for me, but they keep on going.

PESCA: And did you try to evaluate it like - do you try to put yourself in the minds of the target audience? Do you try to guess what they would like or...?

Mr. CARLSON: No. I try to show the - you know, to tell the readers what these magazines show about what these people are like.

PESCA: Right. And finally, now that you're retiring and stepping down, what subscriptions will be kept alive? What magazines are you actually going to be paying for?

Mr. CARLSON: Well, I was hoping the word wouldn't get out, so these people would keep sending the magazines to me for free, but seriously, if I was going to subscribe to magazines, I'd obviously subscribe to the New Yorker, which is the best magazine in America, and the best it's ever been, I think. Rolling Stone, Harper's I love, the Atlantic, Esquire, there's a whole bunch that I would pay for. Although, I've got to tell you, it's going to pain me to pay for them, after getting freebies for all these years.

PESCA: Peter Carlson has written the Washington Post Magazine Reader column for 12 years. He wrote his last column this week. Thank you very much, Peter.

Mr. CARLSON: You're quite welcome.

PESCA: Take care, sir. I really enjoyed it over the last dozen years.

Mr. CARLSON: Well, thanks a lot.

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