All gloss and no substance

Do British consumer magazines stifle original voices by moulding writers to their corporate image? David Goodison reports

When the New Yorker marked its 70th anniversary earlier this year, the New York Observer spoke of its intellectual decline. Lamenting a golden age when Dorothy Parker and James Thurber were contributors, it concluded that "one reason for its failure is that Tina Brown is a Brit".

American writers pride themselves on a tradition of original voices, not least Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer - those journalists and essayists whom Tom Wolfe claimed "dethroned the novel as the No 1 literary genre". To them, the current rash of British editors in the US, ranging from Vogue's Anna Wintour to the National Enquirer's John Cathcart, is infecting that noble heritage with the values of the UK glossies: superficiality, the cult of celebrity and, above all, total disregard for bold, distinctive writing.

The Americans are right to sneer. The British glossies represent a triumph of style over substance. Rather than encouraging disparate voices, too many simply establish their own corporate identity, moulding writers accordingly. With house styles based more on readership profiles than risk-taking, contributors must tailor their copy to fit a homogenous, constrictive tone - or face being rewritten or spiked.

Although a few magazines, such as the New Statesman and the Face, encourage diversity, elsewhere writers are having their opinions tamed and their politics removed; one feminist writing for an Emap Metro title found her copy changed to include references to "hunks" - a mild but indicative example of current trends.

At National Magazines, Cosmopolitan, which claims to speak "the international language of young women", regularly makes established journalists rewrite features two or three times before that language has been achieved. And Esquire, which prides itself on encouraging style auteurs, seldom strays from upmarket hetero-blokishness.

By insisting that contributors conform to rigid house styles, inventive journalism is being smothered. The result is an impoverished, soundbite culture in which the journalist is often no more than a glorified researcher following directions from the editorial boardroom.

If Rolling Stone can include outspoken columnists (PJ O'Rourke is one of its alumni), why does its British equivalent Q never allow its contributors to employ the first person? Marie-Claire, for all its editorial awards, also seems intent on dispensing with the writer, relying more and more on emotive first-person accounts.

Perhaps the malaise is not so new. In George Gissing's novel New Grub Street, published in 1891, one character makes his fortune from launching a magazine of "the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information - bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics". A hundred years on, it remains the creed by which British glossies live.

Cosmopolitan

Company: National Magazines

Circulation: 460,582

Editor: (in situ until September) Marcelle d'Argy Smith

Cosmo-speak: "Approach the search for your Mr Wonderful by using all the qualities that make you successful in your career: imagination, ambition, self-confidence, communicative skills. Where can you open up new markets for personal expansion?"

What the editor says: "Our readers are very busy; they want to digest information quickly. If we're using a writer because of the piece of research they are providing, we're obviously forced to put it in a style which is clear and readable, though maybe less lyrical. We can't be Solzhenitsyn. That's why it's very helpful sometimes to use bullet points or put things in boxes. People think there is a formula, but there isn't.

"As editor, I look for a chorus of voices which are sympathetic. I don't rewrite copy, I send it back. Norman Mailer rewrote The Deer Park five times. I don't see why somebody can't rewrite a Cosmo article a couple of times. A lot of newspaper journalists think, 'Oh Cosmo, that's easy' and toss something off. If I see a lack of logic in an article, why should I accept it just because it's from somebody well known?" A freelancer's gripe: "When I wrote for them, there was a classic formula. They want you to reveal all your secrets to illuminate a particular problem. You have to talk about your own experience, other women's experiences, then come up with a pat solution. I began to resent that. There's only a limited number of shocking or interesting experiences a person has, and when they've bled you of them, that's it.

Sainsbury's 'The Magazine'

Company: New Crane Publishing

Circulation: 312,440

Editor: Michael Wynn Jones

Sainsbury-speak: "Every housewife had to be something of a conjuror in those days. Only a touch of magic could make the meagre rations go further and distract attention from the monotony of the daily diet, while producing a rabbit from the hat for Sunday lunch was truly magical."

What the assistant editor, Lesley Dobson, says: "I used to be assistant editor on Bella and that had such a tight formula it was very difficult for anybody new to write for it. Bella has a style sheet which it sends out to people, telling them what to put in the first paragraph, etc.

"We don't do that here. We use writers who know what tone to take. It's not high-falutin. It's got to be interesting, lively, direct and imaginative. It has to be written in an individual way, but it does also have to fit in with the magazine's style, which is not having too much of the writer in the piece. I don't want any fancy writing around or being too clever."

A freelancer's gripe: "The commissioning can be a bit woolly at Sainsbury's. Rather than getting a clear vision, the piece evolves as you do it. They never make me rewrite things in terms of style, though they do tone things down so as not to offend the reader. It's very unlike Marie-Claire, where they know exactly what they want and make you rewrite things three or four times, or the weeklies, which always rework it in the house style, so it often comes out cheesy."

Our Baby

Company: IPC

Circulation: No ABC figure yet. Print run is 119,000.

Editor-in-chief: Jayne Marsden

Our Baby-speak: "Those first precious moments spent getting to know your baby are a very special time for parents. But joy can quickly turn to concern - and even shock - if you discover that she has a birthmark, particularly if it's on her face."

What the deputy editor, Valery McConnell, says: "We look for people who write in a way which sounds as if they are talking to you, somebody with a very warm style, who can make direct contact. Some writers may be medically superb but need warming up. We rewrite because we know our style. We cover a lot of emotional ground and run readers' experiences because it's often the best way of telling people what to expect from parenthood. If someone sees a long feature on forceps delivery that is full of facts, they are not going to read it. But if the piece starts with two case histories, people will read it."

A freelancer's gripe: "They tell you at the outset what they want. It is aimed at readers from a particular class and background. That presents difficulties when you're doing a piece that is heavily interview-led. A lot of the women that I interview are not from that background, and they are extremely articulate. You have to tone down a lot of what they say, and eliminate the more thoughtful points. Otherwise, the magazine comes back to you, saying, 'This is not what we were looking for'."

She

Publisher: National Magazines

Circulation: 281,109

Editor: Linda Kelsey

She-speak: "I ran upstairs, crying with the pain and shame of it all. I was 16. For eight years I had known about my mother's extramarital love affair. She had never actually told me, but I knew."

What the editor says: "The voice of the magazine is of primary importance. We run the kind of features that readers will relate to in some way. A first-person tone usually rings more true than endless case histories of anonymous people. For me, it's important to find the writers who can write in a way which relates to the reader.

"I don't dictate how the writing should be, but I choose the writer to match the tone of the magazine. If you try and turn a writer into something that they're not, it doesn't work and you end up with lousy copy."

A freelancer's gripe: "I was asked to write on what I took to be a sociological issue and they threw the piece back at me, saying it was dry and boring. 'Make it emotional and gripping. Talk about your own experiences,' they said, without even asking me whether I had had those particular emotional experiences."

Q

Company: Emap Metro

Circulation: 214, 225

Editor: Danny Kelly

Q-speak: "Sporting Falstaffian face fungus and the jocular twinkle of a man who, at 52 years of age, has just acquired his first Harley-Davidson, Pete Frame cuts a cheery, eccentric jib."

What the acting editor, Andrew Collins, says: "The Q style came directly from Smash Hits, where it was coined. It's been passed on down the years and developed. Often we'll use letters rather than words. If somebody's a G for P, that means they're a glutton for punishment. It's a good way to get people in the club and rewards those who read the magazine regularly. It's important for Q because the style diffuses the seriousness of the rock stars we speak to without actually being horrible to anyone. We might occasionally insert Q language into somebody's copy but that's OK. Anybody writing for the magazine will understand that."

A freelancer's gripe: "They take a great deal of care over the freelancers' copy, and although there are obviously a lot of standard jokes, they're mainly kept to the front of the magazine. Occasionally, however, they would insert snidey remarks into album reviews that I had written. Irritating beyond words."

FHM

Company: Emap Metro

Circulation: 90,607

Editor: Mike Soutar

FHM-speak: "It's not even as if I'm fat. In fact, I'm 6ft tall and built like a toothbrush. But I've now reached the age where I've only got to have a couple of Lowenbraus and a chicken korma and, by next morning, I've miraculously developed a paunch of Leighton Rees proportions."

What the editor says: "At FHM we lead by example. I look for writers who share my viewpoints. I want contributors who can write coherently in lots of different ways, but there are ways that I want them to write. We very seldom rewrite things. If they're just not right, I'd rather spike them.

"The Emap Metro style is described round the company as: 'Come on in, the water's lovely'. That's the way the company drives its magazines. It's quite a turn-on for the reader to feel part of a big in-joke."

A freelancer's gripe: "I was commissioned to write a frothy piece about sexual novelties. The features editor thought it was wonderful but a few days later he rang back, saying that the then editor wanted all the jokes taken out. He felt it was far too rude. But what did he expect? It's a rude subject. They must have been aware of that when they commissioned it. Now, of course, they're desperately trying to move downmarket because of the success of Loaded."

Empire

Company: Emap Metro

Circulation: 151,134

Editor: Andrew Collins

Empire-speak: " 'Hahahahaha. What do you think?' gurgles the not-at-all unattractive Lauren Holly when it is posited that it might have been a tad difficult remaining linear of visage amid the botty burping shenanigans in the thing that they call Dumb and Dumber."

What the managing editor, Philip Thomas, says: "Empire used to buy in a lot of material from the States because it couldn't get access to interview certain actors. We would then rewrite it simply because it was American. But in the past few years, we've been able to get access to any one we want. Now we can send the writers we want and we do very little to anybody's copy. The writers know our style and what our readers want. That's what it boils down to, what our readers want. Most of our funnies and asides are put in the working pages we do in the office. In terms of freelance copy, I actually enjoy using different styles and different people. We have all sorts of different styles of writing in the magazine, which is important. If it was homogenous, it would be very boring."

A freelancer's gripe: "When I wrote for Empire I made a conscious effort to keep my writing light, breezy and a bit sardonic. Time after time, though, I'd find puerile blokish jokes inserted into my copy, which would often skew the whole tone of the piece so that an interview, for example, would seem snide and make it read like a piss-take."

Interviews by Richard McClure

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