What exactly makes a magazine a magazine? In all likelihood, most people (unless they’re a serious magazine nerd) probably haven’t considered this question; a magazine is simply something they read and their critical thinking is saved for the content inside rather than for the theory behind the magazine itself. If pressed, though, many might say a magazine is a collection of writing based around a certain topic.
While this answer is OK, it isn’t entirely sufficient. An anthology of essays is a collection of writing based around a certain topic, but we wouldn’t call it a magazine. In the end, a magazine is a magazine because it has a substantial run, i.e., it is an ongoing project. Whereas almost any other art form, whether it is a novel, painting, or film (and to be clear I’m not including god-awful film franchises like “The Fast and the Furious” under “art”), is completed once it is released to the public, a magazine never really has an end in sight.
Perhaps another question that could be raised in this discussion is what format does a magazine have to appear in in order for it to be considered a magazine? For example, must a magazine appear in a print format or can online sites (like ours!) be considered magazines as well? Unlike the initial question, this one is a bit more complicated.
Recently, a few “little magazines” (defined as such because they serve smaller niche audiences), led by Dave Eggers’ Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, have attempted to begin to answer this question. After the initial three issues, McSweeney’s has changed its format for each subsequent issue. Two of their most interesting issues with regard to format are Issue 17, which resembled a bundle of mail, and Issue 36, which came in box shaped like a sweaty human head. Part of the project of McSweeney’s, then, is to experiment not only with the content of a magazine, but also to push the genre forward by experimenting with the presentation of the magazine itself.
Following in the footsteps of McSweeney’s is another San Francisco based periodical known as The Thing Quarterly. The Thing has taken the McSweeney’s idea that the actual magazine object itself can be art — as opposed to the art being limited to inside the magazine — and pushed on it even further. The Thing doesn’t come with any of the items one would normally associate with a periodical. There aren’t any essays, stories or poems. Rather, when you subscribe to The Thing, you are sent an actual art object.
According to their website, for each issue The Thing’s editors Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan invite an artist “to create a useful object that somehow incorporates text.” Past issues have included a window shade by Miranda July, a table mirror by James Franco, and a shower curtain by McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers, all of which have incorporated text as a way to tell a story. The Thing’s primary goal is to ensure that people live with and make use of art in their homes, as opposed to simply placing it on a wall, which is what drew Eggers to the project from the beginning.
“I loved their impulse to make art accessible and use the mail and this deceptively simple packaging, and then make it something you don’t hide away in a closet or hang on a shelf, but you use it,” Eggers told SFGate.
Even without this quote, it’s obvious why Eggers would be a supporter of The Thing. Like McSweeney’s, The Thing is pushing the boundaries of what a magazine can be. Herschend and Rogan clearly share similar aesthetic sensibilities with Eggers, something that becomes even more clear when they discuss The Thing.
“We started The Thing because we wanted to publish a magazine. Through an organic process, it became an object, not a magazine,” they told The Daily Californian. “We think all art is functional. We just want people to be able to live closer to art, for it to be in people’s everyday lives.”
Of course, a statement like “all are is functional” is a contentious one that I’m not sure I agree with. If all art is functional, viz., designed to be practical rather than only attractive or even simply thought-provoking, then what exactly is the function of something like “Girl from the North Country” by Bob Dylan? Even if I grant that the material record is part of the art (which I would really need to be convinced of), it still doesn’t serve any practical purpose. I can’t eat my cereal or play Frisbee with it without likely destroying the actual (my opinion) art, i.e., the song.
No matter what side you fall on, it’s clear that much of the aesthetic theory surrounding The Thing is debatable. In the end, though, Herschend and Rogan’s quarterly is an important periodical because it is continuing to push the magazine genre forward. This alone makes The Thing one of the most valuable magazines in existence today.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ Beertopia: Victory’s Headwaters Pale Ale
♦ The Nightmare Before Chris Bosh(mas)
♦ The Noblest of Experiments
♦ Seriously, People, Enough With the Dolphin Obsession
♦ Beertopia: Gordon Biersch Brewing Company’s Josephsbrau Prost