YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Regarding Media

A Serious Shift in Readers' Interests


Of all the unexpected events since Sept. 11, one of the more unexpected has been the resurgence of America's serious, general interest magazines. Less than a decade ago, savvy media analysts routinely questioned not only the relevance, but also the longevity of the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and the New Yorker. They were dinosaurs, quaint artifacts of the unwired universe, of the dead epoch that began with movable type and involved such plodding occupations as reading.

Today, circulation at all three publications is up and--more important--under editors Michael Kelly and Cullen Murphy of the Atlantic, Lewis Lapham of Harper's and David Remnick of the New Yorker, the journalism, commentary and cultural criticism in all three have taken on a renewed confidence, vigor and immediacy.

None of this surprises the San Francisco-born Lapham, whose long tenure at Harper's makes him the most senior of the group. He and his colleagues, Lapham said in an interview this week, are responding to a seismic shift in American culture that began Sept. 11, 2001. "Our readers' appetites are fundamentally different now," he said. "When everyone is feeling that the only important thing in life is the next Lexus and worship CEOs as demigods, there is little appetite for ideas or good writing, which is what our magazines are about. But the fact remains that you can get more out of good writing than you can from a 500-channel television universe that inevitably dissolves into incoherence. Writing involves thought and creates coherence, which is an appealing commodity in this atmosphere of concern.

"When the trade towers went down and the economy went south," Lapham said, "people realized that their sense of entitlement to security was an illusion and their presumed prosperity the product of manipulation. In this atmosphere, intelligent writing becomes a comfort. I think it is interesting that the new appetite for good thinking and writing has been accompanied by a rising interest in history. You can see that on the bestseller lists and, even, in the History Channel's increased ratings."

History is something that always is on Lapham's mind, and it informs his other vocation as one of America's foremost essayists. Since Sept. 11, he has devoted his monthly essay in Harper's to an ongoing critical appraisal of the Bush administration's response to events. Those pieces have been collected in a single volume, "Theater of War" (The New Press; $22.95).

As an essayist, Lapham is a leading practitioner of the style that might be called American baroque--a school that includes Gore Vidal and the late Murray Kempton: The syntax is formal, even ornate; historical and cultural allusions are frequent and erudite; the politics are both left-wing and populist; the undercurrent is irony and the sensibility might be termed American high tory.

Something of Lapham's flavor is captured in this passage from the essay, "Res Publica:"

"As was proved by events on the morning of Sept. 11, the laissez-faire theories of government do us an injustice. They don't speak to the best of our character; neither do they express the cherished ideal embodied in the history of a courageous people. What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, race or ancestry but their voluntary pledge to a shared work of both the moral and political imagination. My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from pride in its armies or its fleets, and I admire the institutions of American government as useful and well-made tools (on the order of a plow, an ax, or a surveyor's plumb line) meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. The Constitution serves as the premise for a narrative rather than as the design for a monument or a plan for an invasion.

"Any argument about the direction of the American future becomes an argument between the past and the present tense. Let us hope that it proves to be both angry and fierce.... "

The impediment to such an argument, in Lapham's view, is Americans' historic reluctance "to avail themselves of free expression. De Tocqueville took note of our extreme aversion to saying anything that will make people squirm. We are a fair-minded people, but unwilling to give offense. It's not really timidity, but a kind of politeness."

Lapham feels no such inhibition when it comes to the Bush administration whose "policy on these defining questions, is incoherent, filled with contradictions. I think Californians have been quicker to pick up on that than people in other parts of the country. When it comes to Iraq, for example, they are inclined to ask such impermissible questions as, 'What has Saddam Hussein actually done to us?'

Los Angeles Times Articles