Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How can we read good prose when we're reading so much junk?

As my daughter and I stood in line at the grocery store yesterday, facing a display of magazines including Us, People, and The National Enquirer, she asked: "Why are people interested in reading about all these celebrities and made-up stuff?"

"Well," I said, unloading food from my cart onto the conveyer belt, "I think people like to read about celebrities for a couple of reasons. Making fun of how the celebrities look or what the celebrities wear makes people feel better about themselves."

"That's not very nice," E-girl said. "And it's dumb."

"Yeah, it's dumb," I replied, "but what's dumber is when people read about celebrities and think they really know something. That's what they know and share with people."

"I don't want to read about it," she said simply. I would have given her a big hug and kiss at that moment if the cashier wasn't ready and the grocery cart wasn't between us.

Would it be hypocritical at this point to confess that I read People magazine whenever I'm sitting in a doctor's waiting room? Reading it occasionally is like a trivia challenge, trying to guess why people are it in. I can recognize rock stars and most actors. But Snooki and all these "real" housewives? I don't know why they are important enough to merit my time, or a magazine cover. What have they done besides appear on TV?

Women's magazines used to publish short stories, but now they fill those pages with celebrity profiles. Sigh.

I looked at the rack of magazines and wondered at how much effort had gone into producing them—the writers, photographers, editors—and how, as far as I was concerned, it was all for naught, for no real value. Was there one paragraph with valuable information, one sentence of beautiful prose, in the entire rack of them?

Where are the writers who once might have written the short stories and essays for national publications? The lucky ones have retreated to literary magazines, the luckiest to The New Yorker and a few other journals that actually pay. The rest of us, to blogs.

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