Lying in the gutter, looking at the stars: My Year as a People Magazine Subscriber

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

Do you slum it?

I don’t mean do you read Tom Clancy or books written by a guy standing near a cardboard cut out of Tom Clancy. And I don’t mean Shopaholic (guilty), Twilight (guilty with a hint of self-loathing), or Philippa Gregory (guilty — and the subject of a future Book Riot post as soon as I finish Lady of the Rivers). I mean the book lovers’ anathema: the magazine.

And I don’t even mean classy magazines. This isn’t a pour-a-glass-of-red-wine-and-curl-up-with-BBC-Good-Food conversation. Or an I-have-a-specialty-interest-to-justify-this-expensive-subscription-to-something-obscure discussion. This isn’t picking up Vanity Fair to read Hitch’s articles or buying Bitch to support the mission behind it.

There are good magazines out there.  This isn’t a blog post about good magazines.

This, my friends, is a conversation about People magazine, a publication I have now been a subscriber to for almost a year.

I’m a literate person. I read the greats; I read the pop. I love literary fiction and science fiction and YA fiction and on and on and on. I even read poetry. And see that reference to Wilde in the title of this post? That’s right. Wilde. But every Friday, a People pops through my mailbox and lands on my doormat. And every Friday, I squeal a little with glee.

Last Christmas, my bestest best friend bought me my People subscription. I was at the end of my first semester at a new job, working too hard, never finding time to relax. She thought a junky magazine subscription would be just the thing to encourage a little bit of weekly downtime.

And let me tell you something: People is junk. I mean, it really is. I actually give a publication like National Enquirer more credit, because at least they are making stuff up and showing some invention. People is really just a collection of press releases submitted by publicists; true snark, even, which you might expect to find within its pages, is absent. It’s like Entertainment Tonight: publish nothing that might offend, as we’ll need more content for tomorrow. It is bland and banal. Nothing earth-shattering, and nothing critical. Not even a word about, say, Ricky Gervais and his controversial Golden Globes hosting. Just six pages of pictures of dresses!

It is the vanilla iced milk of magazines.

And I love it — wholly and unironically.

I love sinking into its vapid, vacuous pages and finding nothing of substance. Of particular joy to me are the reviews — of music, movies, tv shows, and especially of books. It is incredibly rare for something to get fewer than two stars from the good people at People. But as they only use a four-star rating system, this gives a very narrow band of differentiation. For example, in the issue next to me right now, Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great, Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters, and the new Sue Grafton title all rate either 3 or 3.5 stars. In the issue before, the new Stephen King also received 3.5 stars. I mean, I actually think it might be an art form to give readers so little information over so many pages. The desire to please the publicists is palpable.

(Sometimes they do give bad reviews, but only when something has been so soundly trashed as to make the negative review utterly uncontroversial. Like, for example, they helpfully suggest that you not go and see Jack and Jill. I know: you’re crushed.)

And yet, there is something strangely comforting in intellectual porridge. It’s escapist in a truly unexciting way, like if your escapist fantasies involved a midwestern bed and breakfast. It’s humdrum, but pleasantly so. Because even a Dan Brown novel will challenge me by getting my hackles up about constructions of narrative or the symbol as bludgeoning device. People promises no challenges at all.

And sometimes, being unchallenged is just was the doctor ordered.

I don’t think I will continue my subscription; it’s not cheap, and like many magazines, it has to compete with the internet’s desire to give me all the same celebrity gossip for free and with considerably more edge. But I think I’ll miss learning nothing about anything for an hour a week. I’ll have to replace it with something.

Like inserting the Q-tip slightly too far.