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So What Do You Do, Peter Carlson?

The Washington Post's 'Magazine Reader' on his gig, his career, and his favorite obscure mags.

- October 7, 2003

"The Magazine Reader" is a biweekly column in The Washington Post's Style section, and it's one of the few places in which the fine art of magazine writing and editing gets its due—and its comeuppance. Since 1996, the man doing that due-ing (and, less poetically, that come-upping) has been Peter Carlson, magazine lover, former magazine writer, and Style reporter, and he writes about magazines large and small with savage wit and genuine admiration.

It's a column with a long history at the Post, invented back in 1947 by a woman named Katharine Graham, who just happened to be the publisher's daughter. Later, as publisher in her own right, Graham led the Post to national prominence by supporting her reporters and editors through such momentous events as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers saga, and Carlson quips he took the "Magazine Reader" gig with the hope that he'd get to be publisher one day, too.

Whether or not he'll ever occupy the executive suite, Carlson describes himself as an old-fashioned print guy. He started his journalism career at the Boston Herald American, endured "about a year and half of unemployment-slash-freelance-writing-slash-starving," and then moved on to People magazine before joining the Post as a Sunday magazine writer in 1986. Carlson's a mag fan who'd spend a great deal of time reading them even if he wasn't paid for his critiques, and he spoke with at the end of September.

Birthdate: September 1, 1952
Hometown: Syosset, New York
Lives now: Rockville, Maryland
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "None. When I got this 'Magazine Reader' gig, I had to read a lot of magazines and so some other reading had to go. I figured it was either books or the New York Times, and the Times went."

What do you try to do with "The Magazine Reader"?
When I got it, they didn't really tell me what to do. It was wide-open territory. And what I perceive to be what they want is to tell readers what's in magazines, and what's good, what isn't—and not, for instance, that Joe Blow has been named the assistant managing editor of GQ this week. I get a lot of press releases on that, but I don't pay much attention to it unless it's someone who had a big impact on magazines who's retiring, like Helen Gurley Brown or Hugh Hefner. And since the Post doesn't give me any guidelines, I treat it as a way to write about interesting things and have some fun, and I try to write funny a good bit of the time.

You succeed.
I succeed often enough, I guess. Most of the time I'm writing feature stories, and this is something different. I get to choose exactly what I'm going to do, I get to choose how I'm going to do it, and I get to shoot off my mouth.

How do you go about it? How many magazines do you read, for example?
Well, I skim many magazines. I must get at least an average of 15 or 20 a day in the mail. Actually read? I look very closely at probably 40 or 50 magazines regularly. I'm always looking at The New Yorker and Esquire and Harper's and The Atlantic and all the ones that would pop to mind, and then I also haunt the newsstands and look for the more obscure stuff. You could go crazy just writing about the top 40 magazines in America. So I look for weird stuff. I'm going to do a thing in October on Haunted Attraction—every industry has a magazine, and the haunted house industry does, too, so I'm going to do something around Halloween on their magazine. It has wonderful ads for severed heads that drip fake blood—I can't resist that.

Do you just look over magazines until you find something you think is worth writing about, or do you have any kind of schedule?
It looks random, but it's somewhat less random than it looks. I have two columns, basically, during the monthly shelf life of a magazine. So in one of the two I try to tell people, "Here's three magazines, and two of them may have good stories in them, and the other one may look good but is actually horseshit." That will be more of the reader-service one, and then the other one will go a little bit more afield and look for something odd.

How did you get the job?
I was working at the Post magazine as a writer there, and Bill Powers, who had been doing the column, left to go to The New Republic. There was a posting saying, "Who wants to do the magazine column?" When I lived in Boston, a guy named George Frazier used to do it in the Globe, and then he died and was replaced by George V. Higgins, the novelist. I always enjoyed reading them, and I always thought, "Boy, this is a fucking easy job—the guy gets to read magazines and write about them. That's got to be one of the greatest jobs for somebody who loves magazines." I've since found by actually doing it that it's a little more difficult than it might look. But when they posted it I applied, and I think a couple of other people did. They gave us each a tryout and they picked me.

At the Post Magazine you wrote memorably—and scathingly—about Tom Clancy. For that piece you invented an alter ego—Carl Peterson—as a way of imitating Clancy's writing style. How did you come up with that, and how did you get away with it?
He has his alter ego in his books, and I wrote is as a parody of his type of writing, so as "Carl Peterson" I came to interview him and saw his tank in his yard and all that. Just to show you the power of the press, I thought that was about as good a comic attack on an author and his latest book as I could possibly do. A lot of people thought it was pretty funny and scathing. It ran in the Washington Post Magazine, with a circulation of like 1.2 million in the Washington, D.C. area. And when the book it had skewered came out, it debuted at No. 1 on the Washington Post bestseller list. So there you have it.

Now that you've moved from magazine writing to magazine criticism, how much heat do you take from colleagues?
Not as much as you think. People I have written scathingly about are not pleased with it, but you expect that. Some of them have responded in some forum or another that ends up on Romenesko and somebody tells me about it, but it hasn't been that bad. I certainly don't mind; if I'm living by the sword I don't mind if people use it against me. I'm kind of surprised there's been as little as there has.

You've written a good deal on trends in the magazine industry, and you seem to have a particular affinity for writing about magazines named after celebrities.
The celebrity naming thing I've had a lot of fun with. In the inaugural issue of each one I usually count the number of pictures of the guy, and then all I have to do is call up my clips and compare it with all the others. I think I may be more amused by that than the readers, but it's kind of fun. They keep on coming. We have a celebrity culture, so I guess celebrities figure their name is a brand, and they spin it off as a magazine. Do an album, do a movie, do a TV show, do a magazine—why not? So I suspect we'll see more; they seem to be doing well. Oprah seems to be doing OK with it. I love how Essence put Oprah on the cover this month. I'm wondering whether Oprah is worried that people will run by the newsstand and grab the wrong picture of Oprah off of it and buy the wrong magazine. I guess she's above that.

What about lists?
They keep on coming. Editors perceive—and they may be right—that the attention span of readers is shorter than it used to be, and it's a very easy way for a writer to package information. Instead of an essay in which you describe the 19 most fascinating coming-of-age novels, you just list them and have a paragraph on each. You get your point across very fast. It's great for lazy writers, and it's great for lazy editors, and it's great for lazy readers, so I don't think it's going to go away anytime soon. And some of them are great. But there's an awful lot of them.

What are your must-read magazines?
I love The New Yorker, and the only perk I have on this job is that The New Yorker is delivered to me every Sunday morning by a man to drives it to my house. I thought I was really hot shit until early one Sunday morning he delivered the wrong copy to me, and it was addressed to Noah Adams of NPR. I mean, Noah Adams is a fine human being, but we're not talking about Henry Kissinger here. I love the new Atlantic—Michael Kelly made it really great, and it's continued to be great. I like Harper's, although lately I haven't been as turned on as before. GQ has got a new editor, and it looks interesting. And I love The Week, the newsmagazine put out by the Felix Dennis empire that gave us Maxim. It's just very quick rewrites of news stories. They'll usually do what conflicting columnists will say about an issue—it's a quick read, and it's great.

That leads me to my last question. Since you love lists so much, give me your list of the Top 5 Great Magazines We've Never Heard Of.
My god, you'd have to let me look through my files. Can I get back to you on this?

Yeah, let's do it by e-mail.

[Later, by email...]

Peter Carlson's List of Eight Great (Sort Of) Magazines Nobody's Ever Heard Of:

Outre: The articles cover the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture from the last century or so. The ads are great, too—strange stuff like Army VD movies and driver's-ed horror-story movies.

Punk Planet: The only punk magazine worth reading, even if you're not a punk. A sort of new-millennium Rolling Stone.

Modern Drunkard: A funny magazine devoted to the highs and lows of getting bombed, plastered, looped, shitfaced, and three sheets to the wind. With great '40s-style graphics. The Door The subtitle sums it up well: "The World's Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine." It also has some serious religious stories and it keeps track of the weird antics of our zanier televangelists.

Paranoia: A magazine for conspiracy theorists and, yes, paranoids. The magazine that dared ask the question, "Did Nostradamus Predict Osama Bin Laden?"

Placebo Journal: A humor magazine for doctors that reveals that the sound you hear upon leaving your doctor's office is your doctor laughing at you.

Wrapped in Plastic: The world's best magazine devoted to the cinema of David Lynch. And, I hope, the world's only magazine devoted to the cinema of David Lynch.

Trip: The Journal of Psychedelic Culture. The fact that this is on my list might explain something about the brain that could compile this list.

Dan Dupont edits the online news service and contributes regularly to Scientific American.

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