(A Classic essay by Andrew Ferguson)
I am one of those folks Barbra Streisand sang about so dramatically, the people who read People.
Each Tuesday my issues arrives, under my wife’s name, and I gobble it up like a giant eclair, in private, in wolfish gulps. Having done so I do not feel, pace Barbra, like the luckiest people in the world. In fact I feel sort of dazed, as though I had just been pummeled at high velocity by hundreds of thousands of tiny marshmallows.
Perhaps you think I’m slumming. I am not slumming. I do not disdain People; I love it. In a pop culture suffused in irony, fevered by cleverness, People is dead to irony, immune to cleverness. I love its reassuring predictability, its knack for reducing everything to the same level of inconsequence. In my current issue, for example, the death of the Resistance fighter who hid Anne Frank’s family is noted alongside the announcement that Alex Trebek and his lovely wife are expecting their second child. Birth and Death, the renewal of Life: it’s like, you know, the Great Mandala.
People people know that each issue, from front to back, will be nearly identical to the one that preceded it. We do not like surprises. As I write, this week’s People features on its cover a toothsome TV actress who has taken a new lover even as she makes a startling comeback in a surprise hit series–as distinguished from next week’s issue, which will feature a toothsome country singer who has taken a new lover even as she makes a startling comeback with a surprise hit record–or Princess Di. But this week’s issue does contain a surprise: a jarring note to rouse us from the pleasant catalepsy that People induces in its readers as part of a sacred compact.
On page one, in the space usually reserved for a publisher’s note, we find instead a “letter” from People’s managing editor. It takes the form of a tribute to the magazine’s rounding managing editor, Richard Stolley, on the occasion of his retirement. In such circumstances overstatement is forgivable: memorial prose, said Malcolm Muggeridge, is always noteworthy for its “prevailing flavor of syrupy insincerity.” The problem here, though, is not insincerity but sincerity; there is little doubt that the letter means what it says. Mr. Stolley is praised, as he should be, for rounding People. But he is praised for even more: we are told that he “all but single-handedly invented the genre of personality journalism.” Lights flash, sirens sound. Genre? Personality journalism? People readers are entitled to blanch. All along, in blissful torpor, we have assumed we were reading gossip vetted by fact-checkers and laundered by Time, Inc.’s lawyers. Gossip, in other words, delivered with a certain sobriety (all the pictures are in black and white), but gossip nonetheless: primped, plumped, and processed for the entertainment of all and the edification of none. You could of course dismiss this high-toned talk as you would any instance of title inflation. Gossip left to amateurs remains gossip. In the hands of highly paid professionals, it intensifies, by means of genrification, into “personality journalism.”I remember Ed Norton, the sewer worker on The Honeymooners, telling a pretty girl that his official title was “subterranean engineer.” But Mr. Stolley wants more than to assume the title of genre-founder. “People,” he is quoted as saying, “made the responsible but unrelenting study of personality and behavior a legitimate and even essential part of American journalism.” He even uses the word “craft.” It’s like Henny Youngman citing Bergson in defense of mother-in-law jokes. Mr. Stolley even says this: “Someone once described People as having changed the soul of American journalism.”
I want to know that person’s name. It is a commonplace that the sphere of publishable “news” has greatly expanded since People first appeared. Subjects once considered private are now deemed worthy of public attention. And People, as chicken or egg, surely played a part. That does not mean, as the magazine’s subterranean engineers seem to think, that they have thereby enlarged our store of truth. It would be interesting to compare one of People’s pieces of “personality journalism” with, say, a press release concocted by an MGM flack in the Forties. The range of subject matter would be different, of course the MGM flack would never have described his starlet’s undying devotion to her bastard children. But in both pieces of writing, the amount of genuine information would be about the same–which is to say, almost none.
And that’s just fine with me. People carries its own simple rewards, and not one of them involves the “unrelenting study of personality and behavior.” In any case, the magazine will survive its brief dip into pomposity. We people who read People know what we like, and the editors like giving it to us; Say’s Law holds us both in its immutable power. Where else can I learn–to choose a random item from this week’s issue–that Jane Seymour “is eager to quash rumors that she has an affinity for her leading men”? Quash, Jane! Quash, People! We hear you! That’s the magazine I know and love, and they can’t take that away from me.