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:
* FUN, FRESH, AND FEMININE FASHIONS FOR FALL
* PERFECTING THAT "COME HITHER" GLANCE
* MAKE A FAB VEST OUT OF POTHOLDERS
* PRETTY IS AS PRETTY DOES : DO YOUR MANNERS NEED A MAKEOVER?
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:
* OUR CUTEST SKIRT PATTERN EVER!
* FLIRTING #101 : IT'S ALL IN THE WALK
* DO GOOD GIRLS EVER SAY "YES"?
* LOTSA TIPS FOR LUSCIOUS LIPS
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 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!