Stop Smiling

When you see the words Stop Smiling in the title of a magazine on the newsstand next to the words "The Downfall of American Publishing," it's hard not to grab it. This doesn't even take into consideration that an image of the late and great Hunter S. Thompson is sitting on the cover.

Stop Smiling is a 10-year-old magazine that was started by artist JC Gabel for "High-minded Lowlifes," as the tagline puts it.

Basically, the magazine is a fan zine of new and old artists, writers, musicians, photographers, and illustrators, but it costs $5.95, so the homages are on fancy, heavy stock paper with expensively produced, art-directed-to-death photography. The writing, however, is altogether mediocre, and this is a striking problem in issue #22, which is about the publishing industry and its downfall.

When I read the editor's note, I got excited because the editors were going to answer some important questions. The note reads: "The Downfall of American Publishing attempts to determine where the publishing industry is heading: What are the great novelists of today? Why are there tens of thousands of magazine on the newsstands, yet so few of them are good? Is literature, as we knew it, over? How has the consolidation of media over the last decade altered the printed word." Wow. That's a lot for a little magazine to take on.

Here's how they try to do it: In an excerpt of "The Business of Books" by Andre Schiffrin, the founder of The New Press, he tells the following story about a meeting with Alberto Vitale, the publisher of Random House. "Vitale looked through the books that we were about to publish for spring 1990, a list we were particularly proud of. 'Who is Claude Simon?' he asked disdainfully, having clearly never heard of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. I then noticed that he would begin reading on the right side of the page, where the print runs were listed, and then only move to the puzzling titles."

That was a good start, and as I continued to read I thought I would run into more good criticism of the myriad of problems in today's publishing industry. Instead, the rest of the magazine offers a bunch of funky valentines to the stars of the business that read like college papers. There is a piece on how Grove Press became the center of outlaw culture, a boring and clichéd romp through City Light Books, an interview with Philip Gourevitch, the new editor of the Paris Review in which he says nothing new or earth-shattering except that readers should not worry, that even though he's putting more reportage into its pages, the literary journal is not in danger of becoming a magazine of journalism. There's an interview with Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham in which he (without irony) criticizes celebrity journalism. There is also a story about how Harold Ross started The New Yorker, which offers nothing new. The only good part of it is the excerpts of some of the letters that Ross wrote his authors. The best was to E. B White. "Mr. White: If you get that story done, I'll take steps to get you a new cushion for your chair. H.W Ross."

The oral history of Hunter S. Thompson by Anita Thompson, his spouse, David Rosenthal, editor and publisher of Simon & Schuster, and artist and Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman, is a fun read, but the best part of this particular valentine is a letter written by Thompson himself to Keith Richards. "Every time I hear your music I think of leftover collard beans and stale cornbread. I think of Bugs - wasps & flies & huge filthy bees that creep into yr. Tennis shoe and sting you on the toe while they die."

By far the best piece of writing in the magazine is an essay called "My Life as a Commodity" by Curtis White, who published a book with Harper San Francisco called "The Middle Mind." The book started as an essay in the magazine Context. "The essay was a response to an irritation," he writes. "The irritation was the persistent presence within mass culture of a kind of criticism and art that presented itself as serious while being something of a good deal less than that in fact. I discovered product and marketing functioning in the place of art and thought." Sadly, that's the feeling I get with Stop Smiling.

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