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Liz Breslin: Small Talk – Short Short Stories in Cosmopolitan

a short short essay about the short short stories found in Cosmo

A magazine is the holder of short sharp objects, ready to escape, explode. This essay is a look at how the content of one particular magazine – Cosmopolitan – has changed over the last hundred or so years. Context is everything1.

An essay and a modern magazine have the rule of three in common. In Sales Speak, it is a good idea to repeat yourself between three and seven times to embed your product. In essay terms, we do this too. Here, I’m going to tell you what I think of Cosmo’s osmosis. Here’s me telling you about Cosmo’s osmosis. Here’s what I’ve told you. Say ‘Cosmo’s osmosis’ three times, fast, after four shots of something sweet, while taking a properly angled chin-chic selfie in your best skyscraper heels. Or don’t.

Most of my research for the modern Cosmopolitan was based on the January 2017 edition, which I have been carrying conspicuously around town. I bought it with actual money rather than upcycling it from a surgery. Reactions from students, friends and people in the post office have generally included, but not been limited to, raised eyebrows, implying but you’re not the sort of person who reads that sort of thing.

True. Although once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, Cosmopolitan (officially, and not very catchy-ly titled Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan) was very much a literary, earnest affair, a repositioning from its inception as a family-friendly magazine. And I am clearly literary and earnest.

While The Listener and Landfall were gathering steam in New Zealand, Cosmo was one of the first publications to highlight the short short story. And every other kind. It was self-styled as The Four-Book Magazine, ‘since the first section had one novelette, six or eight short stories, two serials, six to eight articles and eight or nine special features, while the other three sections featured two novels and a digest of current non-fiction books.’2 During this period, Cosmo paid big, up to $5000, for submissions. And boy did that get the writers rolling in. You may be familiar with some of the names from 1898 onwards – Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells3. War of the Worlds? You read it in Cosmo, serialised, first.

But don’t expect to see their earlier editions immortalised at cosmopolitan.com. If you click on a teaser to a vintage pdf, this is what you get:

In the 1960s, under the editorship of Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo took on the aura of ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ and no wonder, since HGB authored it. Sales soared and Cosmo has been going down that enlightened / trainwrecking / crass / feminist / antifeminist / liberated / are-you-really-reading-that-young-lady-what-will-your-father-think (delete according to your worldview) route ever since.

A cursory browse of the January 2017 issue (quick fire, remember, magazines) gives us horoscopes, ‘328 dresses, shoes, bikinis & more’ and a mostly visual story about swiping, sexting and sexing. There is an in-depth story about being a crime scene cleaner and an interview with Chrissy Teigen, styled as ‘Fun, real and brutally honest.’ She talks breezily about exposed nipples, flappy vaginas and her perfect partner. There is no inkling of the postpartum depression that she candidly exposed not two months later in March 2017 in Glamour magazine. Her teeth are stunning. Her skin flawless. Her tits all there. In a Twitter/Insta/choose-your-seconds-on-Snapchat world we embrace our short short stories – visual and/or character-counted – and Cosmo’s pages are full of flash fiction snippets, insights, innit…

Oh sorry, I think the last one is an advertisement, but you can see how it gets confusing.

To give the Cosmo peeps their due, I couldn’t find any other magazine or newspaper supplement in New Zealand that reviews only and all female fiction on their book pages. And it is clear from the January 2017 editorial that, though Cosmo has osmosed (it’s a word) greatly over the years, the buzz of self-improvement is still very much to the fore.

This, in the context of awarding Social Media Star, Actress (someone should tell them), Entrepreneur, TV Presenter, Artist, Game Changer, Humanitarian, Sportswoman and Radio Star Of The Year. And the winners are …probably not the freelance writers who definitely don’t get paid $5000 a story any more.

I’ll leave you with some advice from the experts. I enjoyed talking. Thank you.

Liz Breslin


1 Margaret Atwood said that in the Handmaid’s Tale. It is the truest sentence I know.
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmopolitan_(magazine)
3 http://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/news/a15647/famous-authors-cosmopolitan/

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