“Playboy” and its Readers
To the Editor:
It would be a pleasurable challenge to answer Professor Benjamin DeMott’s critique of Playboy [“The Anatomy of Playboy,” Aug. '62] were it not for two rather confounding difficulties. The first is that, from his description of his target, we can only recognize it as ourselves because he gives it our name; in his syllogistic sleight of hand, Popculture is bad (who’ll arise to deny it?), Playboy is the apotheosis of Popculture (a proposition he fails to prove), therefore Playboy is bad. The second is that hacking a path through the densely prolix jungle of his prose left us not quite certain just what the hell he was driving at. We think we have it figured out, however, as we’ll point out in a moment, and our conclusion leaves us with the image of DeMott firing his heaviest artillery with something of a dull thud, avoiding striking his feet only because he’s got them planted firmly in his mouth.
DeMott shows ignorance of journalism as well as of the eroticism which he seems unable to take or leave alone. He lumps Playboy with other, imitative, magazines which may indeed indulge in calculated prurience, then he compounds his error with a singular lack of academic interest or insight into just what it might be that makes Playboy so very much more successful than its sexier imitators. But his omissions are not at issue; his critique is.
DeMott suffers from plerophoric autism, that is, a subjective conviction that his fantasies represent reality. A minor but precise case in point leaps from the pages of his diatribe. Playboy has a sort of mascot we’ve given the name of Femlin—a miniature girl gremlin prone to playing innocent practical jokes, as do so many miniscule creatures of folklore. Drawings of this pixie playing one of her tricks decorate each issue’s humor page. In our May issue she is shown observing a man shaving with an electric razor, then unplugging it, then laughing at the man’s puzzled scrutiny of the razor when it ceases to function. Admittedly this is a simple-minded prank—especially by comparison with what DeMott’s fantasies made out of it. According to his account in COMMENTARY (Page 114, column 2) the drawings represent a girl unplugging an electric razor but generating enough libidinal current to keep it running by holding the plug in her hands, whereupon the man “touches the buzzing machine to her pleased nipple.”
Quite apart from some mild curiosity concerning DeMott’s rather original notions of what constitutes erotic pleasure for a female, one is reminded by his pathetically revealing fantasy of nothing so much as the tried joke about the man who makes prurient and lascivious comments on innocuous Thematic Apperception Test pictures, then says to the administering psychologist, “Hey, Doc—how about lending me those dirty pictures for a stag party?”
We have dwelt on this small episode because it has direct bearing on DeMott’s major charges: that our editors “offer a vision of the whole man reduced to his private parts,” that we present all women as “wild wild wild to be snatch,” that we published a Françoise Sagan novel for the purpose of proving that she has “nothing else on her mind,” et cetera, allegations which have as little validity as his interpretation of the Femlin’s prank, or his characterization of her as being designed to create “the ferocious female Urge as supreme reality.”
To back up his charges, DeMott gives his own interpretation of, among other things, a Playboy article and a Playboy panel discussion. Of the first, “The Love Cult,” by Alfred Kazin, he says it was “admitted” to the magazine (he should know how hard we worked to get it!) because it criticizes “people who believe in the possibility of a perpetually loving connection between two human beings.” Only those who have had the privilege of reading the article can realize to what degree this is either a willful misrepresentation, or—more likely—the result of a total inability to understand the simple yet elegant prose which Kazin writes. The truth is that this article inveighs tellingly against the misuses of love, ranging from its devaluation via commercialized abuse of the word itself, to the ideational disfunction of believing that “love” does, in fact, conquer all, as exemplified by popular fiction and TV drama.
As for the Playboy Panel in question, the subject was “The Womanization of America,” discussed by a group including Ashley Montagu and Dr. Theodore Reik. According to DeMott, we “tolerated” it (anything that doesn’t suit his thesis is explained away as somehow having found its way into our pages by accident or editorial inadvertence) because we had the last word; “a speech against marriage . . .” he calls it, and supports the charge with a quotation completely out of context. For contrast, here is a quote very much in context:
As our nation becomes emancipated from the notion of associating sex with sin, rather than with romance, and as young people are increasingly freed of feeling guilty about a play period in their lives before settling down to marital maturity, so the attitudes of the sexes may well become more healthy toward each other, may acquire a mutuality and mutual appreciativeness which does not entail the obliteration of differences, but rather heightens their pleasures and allows individuals of each of the sexes a fuller and more natural development of psyche and spirit, mind and body.
Those were, in point of verifiable fact, our last words.
One reply to DeMott’s attack is to state that he is guilty of exactly that of which he accuses us: preoccupation with sex, oversimplification, and distortion of reality.
This is the reality:
We feature girls because they’re attractive, stories because they are entertaining, jokes because they are funny. Our vision is not that of man reduced to his private parts, but of man enlarged through his capacity to interpret and enjoy life, one aspect of which—but by no means the only one—is the healthy enjoyment of sex. We don’t really see Evil as a woman’s disinclination to sex, as he avers, any more than we interpret Good as non-stop copulation for all. To derogate Playboy with a discussion limited to sex is to ignore much of the substance of the magazine: articles and fiction of high merit which DeMott dismisses snidely as the result of the editors’ “lust for respectability.”
It seems pointless to multiply evidences of the DeMottic myopia, for we already have enough to draw a conclusion. Simply, it is that DeMott’s psyche can’t tolerate the thought that women enjoy sex and may even, on occasion, seek it.
In fact, the very idea sends him into a logorrheaic snit in which he interprets our recognition that females experience libidinal urges as our always and only presenting them in error or in oestrus (i.e., possessed of frenzied desire)—a view which equates Playboy’s fun-loving Femlins with yoni, the mythical genital figure of female power. Ockham’s Razor is applicable here: once one grasps this simplest of explanations for DeMott’s fevered distortions, they all fall into place, and it seems almost cruel to criticize him. . . .
A. C. Spectorsky
Associate Publisher and Editorial Director
To the Editor:
I would say Mr. DeMott makes unnecessarily heavy weather of Playboy. One would almost think from his account that its readers read nothing else. Since most of them are students they do read other things; there is no need to suppose that Playboy represents a preoccupation. Granted that the implied philosophy of much of “that stuff” is jejune or absurd, one needs to ask if anyone believes this philosophy. Probably no one does.
Let me anticipate the possible retort that I am corrupted by Playboy gold. I did contribute one article. It was actually a heartwarming experience for a person of my class. I refer to the class of authors most of whose things are rejected by magazine editors—and whose accepted pieces are nibbled away at by the editorial rabbits. Although I received some insulting letters from persons who maintained that I had adapted my style to Playboy, I in fact sent them the substance of a lecture I had delivered to a group of professional writers; they agreed in advance of seeing it to change and alter nothing; they carried the whole transaction through in a smooth and gentlemanly fashion; changed nothing; and appended to their admittedly handsome check a promise not to claim reprint rights (as some of the magazine editors are now beginning to do).
New York City
To the Editor:
Without bothering to remark on Professor DeMott’s forbidding prose—is this the kind of stuff they’re teaching the young kids to write at Amherst?—let me just say that his inclusion of Nugget in the opening sentence of his Playboy article is all wet. We do not have “a foldout naked babe” as our “widely publicized key feature” (known in the trade as a gatefold). We can’t afford it and we think our girls are pretty enough even though they don’t fold. For DeMott’s and your readers’ information, we also publish such writers as James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Nelson Algren, Kenneth Rexroth, Chandler Brossard, John Clellon Holmes, Colin Wilson, Wolf Mankowitz, Gregory Corso and on down the line. We are in touch with our time, our place, its tempo. What does the good prof want of a mass magazine? Granting the small amount of con all of us must use to stay in business (Macy’s as well as Playboy), why must he write on such a bitterly puristic plane that he can’t see the damn lively work that the men’s mags are doing? Writers have to eat and have a responsive audience and we’re giving the good ones more of both than they’ve had in years. We might even publish DeMott if he’d grin a little.
New York City
To the Editor:
Something must be rotten in the State of the Academy when we find a professor of English (Benjamin DeMott), hopelessly impaled on the horns of a linguistic dilemma, while a real estate man (Daniel M. Friedenberg) [“Can the Alliance for Progress Work?” August] tackles a subject equal in scope and complexity to the worthy professor’s and, using the English language as his tool, proceeds to cut away the fat from the meat of his argument.
Professor DeMott sets himself a task . . .; bogs down on the job, and then blames his work difficulties on the inadequacy of his tools. The moral tongue, we are told, is a “dead language.” An “intense linguistic inhibition” is a mark of the age we live in. The remaining critical instrument which looks any good at all—the “aesthetic vocabulary”—cuts only wind, and very little at that. To what avail the “mumbled” groan of a wounded, cultured soul, when the booming roar of vulgar approval resounds throughout the land? . . . But what is missing has very little to do with outmoded vocabularies. Human life does not come down to the “coupling of beasts.” . . . What is missing is the instrumentality of courage, without which most other tools of culture and intellect are impotent.
The business man used courage in dissecting a sacred cow, while the professor of English . . . could not make much of a dent in an imitation bird of paradise.
Mr. Demott writes:
Messrs. Spectorsky and Krim are reasonable in tone, loyal to their product, but nevertheless hard to argue with.—We, the editors of the girlie books, are the new arbiters of style. We, the editors of the girlie books, are saving the world for good books. I, the Editorial Director of Playboy, know that a man who criticizes my magazine must be some kind of pervert. I, the Editorial Director of Nugget, know that anyone who criticizes my magazine hasn’t a laugh in his hide. Who could penetrate this much self-congratulation? Say to Mr. Spectorsky, who claims to be for “the healthy enjoyment of sex,” that his own phrases (“females experience libidinal urges”) are as chilly as a VD clinic, and he will answer that he’s “not quite certain what the hell” you’re driving at. Tell him that many people read his sketches of “funloving Femlin” as I read them (I asked around, in the hope that I was wrong and could get out of writing the paragraph), and he’ll send you an offprint on the fag underground. Tell either Editorial Director that this fall an academic newsletter—I don’t have a connection with it—censuring the girlie books in far sterner terms than mine went out to hundreds of American university teachers, and both fellows will recite the tired cant of the Kitsch-Pro about dumb professors. Tell them that their support of “good writers” is only an agent of literary hypocrisy—one among many forces now destroying trust in writers good and bad—and they will answer with winks and nods and “small amounts of con.” (The problems of literary trust aren’t, after all, as simple as they’re made out to appear in Mr. Krim’s defense of the girlie books as Patrons. More than one writer supported by mass magazines also turns a dollar from week to week by abusing mass magazines and explaining “our” moral confusion to us; in thus divvying up honor as well as the pot, these writers markedly reduce their effectiveness as Sages.) The fortunate fact remains, of course, that the truth about the girlie books is as available to COMMENTARY readers as the nearest newsstand. But I have to say that the bouquet of Mr. Spectorsky’s innuendo in his closing paragraphs does seem to me to obviate the need for fresh research.
Mr. Bentley doesn’t claim that I misrepresent the “Playboy philosophy”; his point is that nobody believes the philosophy. I tried to treat the philosophy in question as the top of an iceberg, and to suggest that the girlie books might be traced to the widespread acceptance of some ideas about the relation between modern thought and the past. A hundred years ago J. S. Mill was convinced that the ideas mentioned—no need to spell them out again here—were becoming voguish among the elite; I doubt that Mr. Bentley would deny that they are common elsewhere now; and my case was that this in itself indicates that the foundations of disbelief in the “Playboy philosophy” are growing weaker.
The last correspondent contends that without the “instrumentality of courage” most tools of culture are impotent; my answer is that to accept old moral languages and definitions now requires an instrumentality not just of courage but of mindlessness. It’s never easy to recommend the latter. Mr. Lorber does me the courtesy, however, of responding with an argument rather than with a diagnosis, and under the circumstances I especially appreciate his decency.