RecentlyÂ Tyler Cowen and I wrote the following dialogue about Entertainment Weekly, of which we are both big fans. We failed to get it published — perhaps because we broke an important freelancing rule: Never submit a finished piece,Â as Jack Hitt told Berkeley journalism students. Our loss is your gain.Â
SETH When my friends look puzzled that I subscribe to EW I say “entertainment” means art.Â It’s about art. They could have called it Art Weekly but they didn’t want to scare people.
TYLER The age of the review has been replaced by the age of the cue.Â There’s too much wonderful stuff out there to read pages of reviews.Â I want a letter grade and a few sentences on what it is and whether I might like it.Â If I love the product I can go read lengthier reviews on the web afterwards, when I understand the context and don’t have to worry about spoilers.Â Most critics don’t realize just how much they are dead in the water, and replaced by trusted intermediaries — like EW or favorite bloggers — who offer just a few guiding sentences. I often disagree with EW but I always know where they are coming from.Â I can usually gauge my own best guess, relative to the evaluation in their review.
SETH After a reading I overheard a famous author and his friend discuss the B that EW had given his book. “It helped settle debates around the house about who’s the better writer,” he said — his wife’s book had gotten a B+. They agreed that assigning grades to books was shallow. Listening to them, Tyler, I thought what you say: Hey, the rest of us need the time. Sure, there’s something superficial about treating complex artistic productions, such as books and movies and albums, like homework assignments — but why exactly is that bad? I call it the Chez Panisse model. The distinctive style and concerns of Chez Panisse came from mixing haute cuisine with French bistro food — bistro food treated as seriously as haute cuisine. Your blog, Marginal Revolution, is another example. Blogging is just a variation of diary entries, the lowest form of literature — but people such as you are lavishing great care on it and creating new effects. Likewise, EW lavishes great care on the assignment of lowly, shallow grades â€“ the accompanying review, for example. The rest of the magazine also treats “low” culture with great respect. All that praise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All that space devoted to American Idol. What I want from magazines is to take me where I wouldn’t have gone. To expand my world. Long ago, The New Yorker managed to often do that. Now, not so often. Now it is EW more than any other magazine that manages to get me to read or watch or listen to stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. It’s not just reviews; it’s reviews of beach books (“which no poet would deign to touch” as one of Nabokov’s characters put it).
TYLER I find the grades for books are the least reliable section of EW.Â Which for me means they are the most reliable section.Â If they like a book, I know to stay away.Â How could a critic be better or more trustworthy than that? Too many readers are too concerned about affiliating themselves with prestigious magazines, rather than learning something. EW takes us to new places because the magazine covers only what is new, or newly reissued.Â Other cultural contributions (dare I call them “products”?) simply don’t exist for the magazine.Â That’s what is truly startling about the pages, not what is there but what’s not there. We need to take that seriously, as our culture already operates on that basis.
SETH I once wrote EW to say they should cover radio. I want to know what’s as good as This American Life. What do you think they should cover but don’t?
TYLER I’d like to see more coverage of satellite radio in particular, plus Internet radio, both of which are national. Most of all, I’d like their take on new technologies for consuming culture.Â What’s the best way to connect a computer and a television?Â Is there anyone you would trust to give a better answer about a simple and cheap method?
SETH I can rent a DVD for $1/day at a local store. At my public library, they’re free for a week. With so much “entertainment” so available, the value of filters goes up. Whether the founders of EW foresaw this or were lucky, I don’t know. I do know that the grades ( e.g., B-) attached to every review are filters of filters. Smart. At EW they are clear on the concept. Entertainment in the EW sense might be America’s biggest export in terms of dollars. It could easily be America’s most influential export, since it enters the brain. So economists should pay more attention to EW, the only magazine that gives a sense of what all this stuff is about and might answer the question of why American entertainment has achieved such world dominance. Does sheer wealth mean a country can make more easily exportable movies and TV shows? Or is it the universality of English that is the secret? I don’t think there is a magazine like EW in any other country. Nor earlier in history. While TV Guide seems to be fading away even as TV is booming, EW, with its much greater emphasis on reviews and broader coverage, is thriving. I think stories teach values — we imitate the hero, don’t do what the bad guy does — and EW is the first magazine to devote itself to this market: What stories are we telling? The values of EW staffers, therefore, get huge leverage. Maybe the magazine is written by about 50 people. Each of them may have more power over what stories people are exposed to– keeping exports in mind — than the President of the U.S. Than anyone else in the entire world! Than the editor of The New Yorker. All 50 of them. Where is EW, with its vast power over our values, taking us — meaning the world? They are probably more pro-gay than the average person. They certainly like The L Word, for example, and think that Ugly Betty is a great show. They have never published a “courageous” (muck-raking) article, such as Silent Spring, but neither do they publish fawning profiles. I think the Must List demonstrates tolerance and acceptance of differences; relatively small and quirky projects make the list. They have embraced reality shows and cable TV, both of which thrive on quirkiness.
TYLER This is getting complicated. Let me try some familiar territory. Hereâ€™s what I think of Entertainment Weekly:
TV coverage: A
Movie and DVD coverage: A-
Music coverage: B-
Radio coverage: D
Book coverage: A+
The Must List: A