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Is the Atlantic Magazine Making Its Readers More Stupid?

The magazine is obsessed with the “you won’t believe this!” angle.

This article is reprinted with permission from the L.A. Review of Books -- a multimedia literary and cultural arts magazine that combines the great American tradition of the serious book review with the evolving technologies of the Web. Visit L.A. Review of Books today.

JAMES BENNET WANTS US to have a conversation. The editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, who took the helm in 2006, has overseen a remarkable rise in the magazine’s fortunes and profile. He has turned The Atlantic from a money bleeder into a moneymaker, from a worthy but familiar cultural artifact into a brand chattered about by people who are not usually considered part of the chattering class. And what gets the most chatter of all are The Atlantic’s frequent, and frequently controversial, articles about gender issues.

This summer, despite (or because of) the clichéd cover image of a toddler stuffed into a woman’s briefcase, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “ Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was an instant sensation, attracting 1.7 million visitors to The Atlantic’s website and generating an all-time high of 200,000 Facebook recommendations. Other attention getters: Kate Bolick’s “ All the Single Ladies” (November 2011), an exploration of the current state of unmarried womanhood; Lori Gottlieb’s “ Marry Him!” (March 2008), an argument that women should settle for Mr. So-So lest they end up like Kate Bolick; Hanna Rosin’s “ The End of Men” (July/August 2010), which presented evidence that women are outstripping men in higher education and on the job market; Rosin’s self-explanatory “ The Case Against Breast-Feeding” (April 2009); and Gottlieb’s “ How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” (July/August 2011), an indictment of so-called helicopter parenting. These stories have sparked lively and sometimes anguished responses in other magazines, newspapers, and popular blogs, as well as on Facebook, over lunches, and during book-group get-togethers. Four of them have sparked book deals (for Gottlieb, Rosin, Bolick, and Slaughter), and CBS has purchased a sitcom based on Bolick’s meditation on the single life.

The list above doesn’t include two of the magazine’s marquee names, columnists Caitlin Flanagan and Sandra Tsing Loh, who write almost exclusively on contemporary women’s lives. While both predated Bennet’s tenure, Loh, the author of Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! as well as a number of other books and plays, has come into her own as a cultural commentator since Bennet’s arrival, turning out marvelously funny and shockingly candid pieces on everything from (resentfully) caring for an aging parent to her own divorce. Flanagan, for her part, is infamous for approvingly invoking the days when a woman had sex with her husband whether she wanted to or not (“ The Wifely Duty”) and for opining that “when a mother works, something is lost.”

Clearly, a contrarian reflex is at work here, and it isn’t unique to The Atlantic’s sex-marriage-mommy pieces. The magazine so routinely reaches for the “you won’t believe this!” angle that McSweeney’s recently published a parody entitled “Counter-Intuitive Cover Stories in The Atlantic Magazine.” The list begins with “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (both actual Atlantic cover lines) and proceeds to “Are Houses Making Us Homeless?” and “Are Paperweights Making Our Papers Fly Away?”

In an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011, Bennet said that The Atlantic’s aim is “advancing constructive engagement” and making “provocative arguments on consequential questions that are relevant to our readers and our times.” Elsewhere, he uses the word “conversation” a lot. To a Washington Post reporter about the Slaughter article: “Our hope is to start the conversation.” His Editor’s Note in the issue containing “All the Single Ladies” called Bolick’s story “the latest installment in a running conversation among our writers and readers about the structural changes in the American economy, and their impact on men, women, and the family.” During an NPR interview: “Our aspiration in doing any of these pieces [on the economy and gender] is to start a conversation.”