A How-To Happy Ending
The numbers are in for how monthly magazines sold in the first half of 2008, and overall, things don’t look good. Women’s glossies are leading the pack, so to speak: magazines like Vogue, Glamour, Marie Claire, and O: The Oprah Magazine are all down by double-digit percentages. Over at Jezebel, they shrugged and offered a facetious list of reasons for the decline. These included “the covers suck,” the abundance of “expensive shit,” and the proliferation of “‘news’ you can’t use.”
I grinned, seeing these numbers so soon after slamming the cover shut on Cathy Alter’s book Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over. In what she calls “a social experiment on myself,” Alter decided to devote a year to taking the advice of women’s magazines, spending a month each on things like fitness, relationships, fashion and “spirit.” It’s true that when she had the idea, her life was not in great shape: she was fucking her idiot coworker (in her cubicle), drinking too much, and spending too much money. Given this, there’s something sort of sweet about her taking up with some dozen monthly magazines in an effort to smooth things out. She tries out Real Simple’s step-by-step advice for saran-wrapping sandwiches, applies O’s “Index of Dread” to her feelings about an upcoming camping trip, and paints her apartment’s stucco walls the “Icy Blue” recommended by Glamour.
From the very beginning, though, her premise has some holes. Alter may tout her book as showing how magazines saved her life, but it isn’t really true. One of the book’s biggest problems is that she doesn’t lean on the magazines enough. Every month, she cherry picks some (ch)articles and follows through on them. Her contact with their advice is appropriately irritating (both in how it’s dispensed, and her necessary obedience to it), but it doesn’t feel anything like the immersion we were promised. She’s never engrossed enough in the material to make her inevitable conclusions -- Cosmo can be ridiculous and helpful! -- or her path to reaching them, at all surprising. These magazines could be flamboyant, compelling characters of their own. Instead, they are a thoroughly boring foil.
Alter has put herself in a bind. She seems to know that if she sticks to her book’s premise and details how she followed the often-insipid advice in these magazines, it will be seriously annoying. But if she doesn’t include enough of their peppy voices, her experiment will be pointless. Since she goes into this knowing what to expect from women’s magazines, her engagement with them is neither appropriately skeptical, nor truly innocent. As she wobbles along the thin line between these two approaches, she’s unable to keep things believable.
The whole exercise is built upon a willful naïveté that is pretty unconvincing. If Alter had devoted her whole book to learning to cook, or becoming a sex goddess, or developing dazzling self-confidence, it may have been excruciating (and still redundant), but there would have been more at stake. Instead, she basically runs through all the steps that supposedly go into being a perfect woman, one chapter at a time. There are too many strategies to master, and most women will have attempted a good number of them at some point during their adolescence. There’s little attempt to portray this as any kind of critique of the myriad demands put on women, which would have made sense given that Alter tackles a different “problem area” for each of twelve months, and still has plenty left over at the end of the year.
While a question like, “Why can’t a cerebral, unconventional, authority-questioning woman still believe in the power of the perfect mascara?” may be rhetorical -- even as it exhibits a profound ignorance of contemporary feminism -- it also encapsulates the bind so many women find themselves in. Sometimes, standing in front of the magazine racks at your local newsstand, it can feel like you’re seeing those fluorescent cover lines for the very first time. They’re trying to help you! Why didn’t you notice this before?
Even if Alter’s project is loosely based on this idea, her story needed to involve something unexpected for it to be worth reading. She seems to believe that it did: that her negotiation with these magazines revealed surprising things about the medium, about herself, and about women more broadly. Instead, readers get to witness her freaking out in anticipation of her boyfriend proposing, attempting to make a decent chicken soup from a Real Simple recipe, planning a surprise party, and trying out some bold purple eye shadow. When she gets around to piloting some sex advice, she’s so elusive in her descriptions of how she’s applying it that it’s hard to tell what she’s actually doing. When she finds out a close friend has pancreatic cancer, she whimpers, “Up until that point, I had thought my magazines had the power to prepare me for anything. But not this.” Alter’s project may be silly, but she is not an idiot. And so it is impossible to believe her.
I should have expected this, right? I’m not a self-help reader; I know what kind of blandly redemptive messages tend to come in this kind of packaging. And I’ve tried to stop recreationally picking books like this apart -- they’re not written for me, or for the people who like to read about how bad they are. My interest was piqued, though, by Alter’s astonishingly literal reading of these magazines, which are such easy and exhausted targets. She’s written some stuff for McSweeney’s, and her intentions seemed good. I was willing to give her credit and hope that she’d do something interesting with the premise.
Oh, well: “If I learned anything over the year,” Alter concludes, “it was that the only constant thing in life is change.” It sure took a lot of glossy pages to figure that out. I hope she recycles.