Chit-Chat for Men?

From: Dan Stiffler <>, 03 Dec 2002
Subject: Chit-Chat For Men?

In George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), a journalist is proposing a new paper to be called Chit-Chat. He begins by laying out the rules:

"No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into a least two paragraphs." He suggests that the paper would "address itself to the quarter-educated," the "young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention."

The journalist then analyzes his intended audience:

"...what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chat information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat."

When I read these lines in a recent Jonathan Yardley book review in the Washington Post, I thought about Hefner's statement that PLAYBOY would be moving to shorter articles. They would be important, he said, but shorter.

Gissing's novel is, of course, a satire aimed that brand of journalist who is interested primarily in the bottom line, not in the quality of his publication. That the two—profit and quality— often go hand-in-hand escapes him. Unfortunately, his attitude is based on condescension. The audience is "quarter-educated," with a short attention span. Clearly, he doesn't consider himself in the same class.

Today, much is made of the MTV-generation's short attention span. Raised on fast-edit television, this demographic cluster apparently cannot sit still for a minute. Attention deficit is the clinical diagnosis. Pass the TV clicker is the prescription.

Interesting, isn't it, that this same group "incapable of sustained attention" existed at the end of the nineteenth century, long before the advent of MTV...or TV, for that matter. Maybe, as some have suggested, "the more things change, the more they remain the same." Maybe, we have always had a class of "quarter-educated" and, maybe, we have always had publications intended for that class.

I am quite sure, however, that Hefner was not thinking of that class of readers when he founded his magazine nearly fifty years ago. In fact, there already were magazines (many printed on newsprint) that featured sexy girls and short, spicy stories. Instead, Hefner aimed at the fully-educated male, one who could have a "quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex" (Dec 53).

There can be little doubt that Hefner's comment about shorter articles is influenced by the success of magazines like Maxim and Stuff. I have mentioned here before (but it's been a while) that a former student of mine did some freelance writing for Stuff magazine during the summer of 99. She was between Wall Street jobs, where she had been, among other things, a newsletter editor. She told me that when she went to work for Stuff, the editors there told her that she would have to scale down her prose and aim at the adolescent male mind. They might well have said the "quarter-educated"; that is, if they had known George Gissing's work.

PLAYBOY will lose its literate soul if it aims at the Maxim/Stuff crowd. In the recent Chicago Tribune article (reposted in the Seattle Times), Arthur Kretchmer notes that moving the editorial headquarters to New York will put James Kaminsky into the action. Kretchmer mentions a recent three-part article published in The Atlantic (William Langenweische's "American Ground") and how it had all the buzz at the publishing tables in New York (The Atlantic, btw, is edited out of Boston, as it always has been). I wonder if this isn't just wishful thinking on Kretchmer's part. If Hefner wants shorter articles, there will be no "American Ground" in PLAYBOY. What Kaminsky seems to be aiming for are "'the morning shows and the "20/20s".'"

Something else I have mentioned here before: there was a time in the sixties when PLAYBOY was proud to be listed in the company of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Saturday Review. This came at a time when PLAYBOY was building its readership. Kaminsky, the new guy, has a chance to return PLAYBOY to its former status. He will do this by distancing himself from the Maxim philosophy of condescension. Those of us who care about the future of PLAYBOY wish him the best.


Dan Stiffler

Peggy Wilkins
Last modified: Mon Apr 5 01:47:16 CDT 2004