Just a little over a month ago, I used this space to dissect the revised Atlantic monthly magazine, now that it's left it's longtime perch in Boston and has been trying to reposition itself in Washington, D.C., with an eye, its editors readily acknowledge, to becoming more of a player on the political scene.
My focus back then was the March edition that, much of the time, looked at the pervasiveness of certain extreme religious viewpoints, and how they've been affecting politics in the United States and throughout the world.
I discussed some of the quirkier points of the retooled Atlantic — for example, that it no longer gives any space to fiction (one of its staples when it was a fixture in New England, as it very consciously tried to create a Boston literary mode in response to New York). But even more intriguing in light of this cut was the fact that it continues to give scads of space to assessing books and the arts. All of which may be just a response to the times, since it's said that those people who do read these days prefer reading reviews of books rather than the books themselves. That way they can seem informed without having broken a sweat.
I pointed out all these changes without once denying that the Atlantic's mission was still to be a serious journal printing material that might matter in peoples' lives. Then the April issue popped up on the stands with Britney on the cover! The lead story on Ms. Spears was, granted, not only about her, but also analyzed the phenomenon of what was called the "new paparazzi."
Granted, there were other serious stories plugged on the cover: One considered Calcutta's new middle class, another described the dealings of a uranium smuggler. And critic Christopher Hitchens provided another splendid, lengthy essay about a new biography of the poet Ezra Pound.
But still, there was no denying that Britney was on the cover, larger than life, so to speak, and in dazzling color, and that Hollywood in various forms was also the starting point for other articles: One analyzed the return of the paranoid style in recent big-budget movies, thanks to the influence of the Iraq war, and critic Thomas Mallon deconstructed the Joan Crawford myth via a new biography.
None of this was objectionable, and all of it was done with style and intelligence. But the initial sight of Britney was definitely startling. Perhaps the editors had taken a trip down to the local magazine store to see how their generally sober covers were doing competing with all the glitter that predominates on the newsstands these days. And so, seeing that their customary frontage was being swamped by all the flesh and celebrity faces on display, maybe they decided to give in to the competition and see if a bit of pandering would boost sales. I don't know for sure. Lots of media types commented on the cover, but the editors haven't let on what effect it had.
And the May issue has returned to the traditionally sober layout, for a story that considers Israel's future. So go figure!