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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.

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If you visit the website for an organization called VIDA, you can see the results of its annual surveys , which track the number of major magazine pieces published annually by men versus women. All that can be said about the truly discouraging numbers is that they put The Atlantic in a slightly better light. I am a compulsive magazine subscriber and reader, but before learning about VIDA I had utterly failed to register that male writers in magazines from Harper’s to The New Yorker to The New York Review of Books still often outnumber women writers by three to one. I don’t claim to know why this is so, but clearly something is very wrong. In this context, I’m grateful that The Atlantic has given quality real estate to Rosin, Bolick, et al., in recent years. If its numbers overall are still badly skewed, if eight of its nine bloggers are men, well, these are things for it to work on. Maybe The Atlantic’s editors should be trying a whole lot harder to find more women to write stories on politics and the economy.

Generally, I think there’s nothing so very wicked about the “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” or even the “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” kinds of stories. At worst, I tell myself, they lead to bloviating and unnecessary anxiety. At other times, I wonder. For sure, when The Atlantic runs broad-brush trend stories on its cover or gives over column after column to writers who generalize and preach, it’s not doing much more than generating website hits and selling copies. But constructive engagement requires a deeper kind of thinking. Among other things, it means fighting the temptation to describe My Problem as Everyone’s Problem or to trumpet significant changes in social behavior or human consciousness where these just don’t exist. Promoting “big ideas” via shaky expert commentary or received wisdom or cleverly turned phrases can contribute to the degradation of serious public discourse. Self-appointed shepherds of that discourse have a responsibility to encourage humility and scrupulousness. There was a time when the experts “knew” that autism was caused by emotionally withholding mothers, that up to 90 percent of women were sexually frigid, that mothers who didn’t “bond” with their infants in the first hour after birth would have emotionally damaged children. Magazine articles were written based on the research and self-confident pronouncements of those experts, and they look pretty blindered and ridiculous now. Let The Atlantic, with its stated interest in furthering the gender conversation, look to posterity as much as to its sales numbers.

Pamela Erens's second novel, The Virgins, will be published by Tin House in summer 2013. Her debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Erens's short fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in a wide variety of literary and mainstream magazines, and her criticism appeared most recently in The Millions and Gently Read Literature. She was formerly an editor at Glamour magazine.