Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Shame

Oh, the shame.

Why didn't it come in a plain brown paper wrapper?

Why did the postman always leave it poking out of the mailbox with the glossy cover facing the street where everyone could see it?

Once a month I'd rush home from school to retrieve it from the mailbox before anyone else in the family saw it.

Then I'd carry it upstairs to the privacy of my bedroom wondering if I should hide it under the mattress or just casually fold back the cover and keep it on my bedside table.

Is there any shame equal to being THE ONLY TEENAGE BOY IN THE ENTIRE KNOWN UNIVERSE who has his own subscription to:

In my defense, I should say that I had never really looked at SEVENTEEN MAGAZINE until the day it showed up in my mailbox. Oh sure, I'd seen it on magazine racks and newstands. I'd seen girls huddled over copies in the school cafeteria. But I'd just never felt drawn to a magazine whose cover captions looked a lot like this:





Yet I now had this magazine home-delivered every month. It all started because of an assignment in my high school journalism class. We each had to write an interview with a fellow student and then our teacher submitted our articles to a journalism contest sponsored by SEVENTEEN magazine. I believe the top prize was $500. Another hundred finalists would receive a free one-year subscription to SEVENTEEN.

I didn’t win the five hundred bucks...but I did win a magazine subscription. At first I was excited to think that something I'd written had won any kind of prize...but then that magazine -- chicklit before the term had even been coined! -- started arriving in the mail:





And it wasn't just the girly-girl articles that embarrassed me. I was embarrassed by the photos on the cover -- teenage girls hugging themselves and each other, teenage girls jumping rope, teenage girls staring pensively into the future with their chins resting on their fists. I was embarrassed by all the articles on hair and make-up and clothes. And then there were the ads...promoting the kinds of products that were sold in aisles I wouldn't even walk down in the drugstore.

So you're probably wondering why I didn't just toss each newly-arrived issue in the trash, or maybe give them to a female classmate or something.

The truth is: I liked the short stories.

I know that sounds unlikely as someone who claims to buy PLAYBOY "because of the articles."

But remember, this all happened back in the day when many novelists got their start writing short stories for magazines such as THE NEW YORKER and MCCALLS and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. Some were even “discovered” there by agents and editors and went on to publish bestselling books.

There wasn’t, however, a comparably large magazine market for young adult material. If you were interested in writing for teens, you could try Sunday School weeklies, with their strict moral guidelines (hint: in the Sunday School market, a girl might wear a potholder vest, but she’d never practice a “come hither glance.”) There were also a few school publications, SCHOLASTIC and SCOPE and the like. But the absolute best market for strong, realistic, even literary, teenage fiction back then was SEVENTEEN magazine. Every issue featured at least one short story and many of them were later anthologized in hardcover volumes such as STORIES FROM SEVENTEEN and SEVENTEEN FROM SEVENTEEN.

Even better, every year SEVENTEEN sponsored a fiction contest for teenage writers. Past winners include Lois Duncan, Joyce Maynard, Lorrie Moore, Curtis Sittenfeld and -- are you ready for this? -- Sylvia Plath.

Is it any wonder that I, and a thousand other aspiring young-adult writers, read and studied the short stories in every issue of SEVENTEEN? I never did submit a story to them, but I definitely learned a lot about short-story writing during the year I was the only teenage boy in the entire known universe to have his own subscription to SEVENTEEN Magazine.

Many decades have passed since then. I’m no longer an easily-embarrassed teenage boy and would no longer feel that kind of a silly shame if I was caught reading SEVENTEEN magazine. Heck, a few years ago, when Rob Thomas (RATS SAW GOD; SLAVE DAY) had a Christmas story in that magazine, I even went out and bought a copy of my own. I wasn’t the least bit embarrassed as I swaggered up to the counter and slammed the issue down to pay for it...hidden between a copy of U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT and POPULAR MECHANICS.

The world has also changed in the past few decades. A lot of the “adult” magazines that used to publish fiction have either gone belly-up (MCCALLS, SATURDAY EVENING POST) or they’ve just quit publishing short stories. That’s a real loss for today’s crop of aspiring writers who can no longer use what were once called the “glossies” as a training ground for their talent. Things are even worse for young adult magazines. SEVENTEEEN still sponsors a writing contest for teenagers and the prize is still lucrative -- five thousand dollars. But I was astonished to see that fiction entries must be less than 500 words. That’s barely two pages -- a scene, a vignette, or what is often called a “short short story.”

According to the Writer’s Market, SEVENTEEN still publishes some fiction, but the writers’ guidelines firmly state:

"We no longer accept fiction submissions."

What a loss for aspiring YA authors trying to break into the print. And of course what a loss for young readers.

Now that’s what I call a real shame!


Wendy said...

Peter, I'm curious, during what decade did you read Seventeen?--if you don't mind sharing.

I have many issues of American Girl (the Girl Scout-sponsored magazine, which was similar to YM or Seventeen) from the 1950s; I love to read them because I know they're what the characters in my beloved vintage YA were reading (and because they're awesome). I was first introduced to American Girl by one of those short story collections, a library discard of American Girl Christmas stories--I was really impressed with the quality of the writing. (I have all of their collections now.) I have some of the old Seventeen fiction collections, too, though I still think as a whole the American Girl stories were better, maybe a little edgier. American Girl published very short reader submissions in every issue (drawings, too), and I was so impressed with one that I googled the author to find out if she'd ever become a "real" published author. I found that she was teaching creative writing at a university in South Dakota, I think, and I wrote to her that I'd liked her story--she wrote back with understandable astonishment. The story had been published almost fifty years earlier.

Did you ever read Sassy magazine? That was the magazine of my youth, and oh, how we loved it, as I'm sure you know. Sassy published AMAZING fiction during its short life, and many of us remember some of the stories in surprising detail. When I read Criss Cross I said it reminded me of the fiction in Sassy, which was about the highest praise I could have given it.

Bybee said...

I loved Seventeen's fiction!

Redbook used to be a good magazine for short stories, too. My mom subscribed to it. Actually, I liked it the best.

Anonymous said...

Here's what's scary. I REMEMBER that cover. I got Seventeen for a number of years. When I finally stopped subscribing, they actually called my house to ask why. My mother said, "Well, she used to be a teenager, and now she's NOT."

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments. Very much appreciated.

Wendy, I got my free subscription to SEVENTEEN in the mid-seventies. I've never read either AMERICAN GIRL or SASSY, but I think I'll try to track down that volume of Christmas stories you mention; I love holiday stories!

Bybee, a number of children's and young adult authors got their start in REDBOOK as well, including Barbara Corcoran and Sue Ellen Bridger. My favorite writer M.E. Kerr published a story in their as well, some time after she became a professional writer. It's such a loss that magazines of this type no longer regularly publish fiction. Writers NEED a place to tell their stories.

Anonymous, I just pulled that cover off the internet when looking for a picture to accompany the blog. I actually subscribed a couple years earlier. It's funny to see how the covers evolved over the years. All the recent ones I saw looked very similiar to each other and were so "busy" they almost made me dizzy. That's a funny story about your mother.


Wendy said...

It's called Christmas All Year 'Round: Stories from the American Girl, edited by Marjorie Vetter, 1952; it's quite hard to find, even compared to the other American Girl collections (First Date stories, Horse Stories, etc; my favorite after the Christmas one is American Girl Book of Sports Stories).

Melissa (& Billy) said...

I remember reading Seventeen back in the day (before I graduated to Cosmo, LOL) and yes, now that you mention it there were short stories in there. What a shame they aren't there anymore!

Personally, I disliked the whole 'tips and tricks' thing. I did learn to make Chicken Parmigiana from Seventeen, though (as part of a Valentine's dinner). The only issues I really really devoured were prom issues. I'd probably die of laughter if I saw some of those now!

lauren said...

I'm female, but I mainly subscribed to Seventeen for the fiction, too. When I cleaned out my bedroom one summer during college, I spent hours going through my old magazines, tearing out the short stories and recycling the rest. I then mounted each magazine page on a piece of plain copy paper and affixed them all into a 3-ring binder. (Oh, I had so much time back then!) A rather awesome keepsake of early '90s teen magazine fiction.

I entered the Seventeen Fiction Contest several times but never placed. (Once I got the *brilliant* idea to send them seventeen different stories for the contest. Oof.) Most of the winning stories were excellent, and a few of them I still think of often. I occasionally Google a few of the authors' names to see if they've decided to continue writing YA fiction.

I'm saddened by the 500-word limit on the current submissions. That's hardly a single column of magazine text!

Thanks for this post!

CLM said...

My mother was a runner up in the Seventeen contest in (I believe) the summer of '55. This must have been soon after the year Sylvia Plath, two years older, won because she has mentioned it (Sylvia Plath was famous even in college because of her highly publicized Mademoiselle internship).

The contest was still going strong when I was in high school in the late 70s. I entered once and quite miffed not to win. I remember being very unimpressed with the winners that year! However, I don't remember any recognizable authors from my years as a subscriber.

rams said...

Mid-sixties, here -- and I'd forgotten how much we loved the stories by M.J. Amft. Must Google -- especially (do I NEED to devote neurons to this?) one titled "Memento, Memento." Seventeen's stories seem to me to have been better than American Girl's, but it was an older audience -- and American Girl had a story about a girl dreading her first burka and discovering instead how much freedom it gave her...

Brooke said...

I went to an author talk with Leo & Diane Dillon a few years ago, and they mentioned how illustrating an article for SEVENTEEN had been their big break. Diane said something like, "illustrating for Seventeen meant that you had arrived." Somehow I doubt the magazine has the same cachet for illustrators today.

Chandigarh said...

Things are even worse for young adult magazines. SEVENTEEEN still sponsors a writing contest for teenagers and the prize is still lucrative -- five thousand dollars. But I was astonished to see that fiction entries must be less than 500 words.
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peacebreath said...

I am looking for a short story from the very early 70s editions of Americian Girl. It may have been a fiction contest winner, and the name of the story was, Failure to Respond. Great story, I would love to revisit it, does this sound familiar to anyone?

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