February 7, 2023

Never have I seen such a magazine

By John Guy Laplante

I know magazines. I gobble them up — a great variety of them.

I just saw my first issue of this one. Yet it’s been around for more than 40 years!

I just spent two wonderful hours enjoying it. And I’ll get another good two hours out of it.

It’s very different. So different that I’ll call it unique. “No other like it.” That’s a word that should not be used lightly. But unique I believe it is.

There’s one thing that amazed me right off. It’s that it has had the same editor / publisher since its first issue. Sy Safransky.

These days, editors, particularly, seem to last 12 to 18 months, then they’re gone. Then the new editor toys around with the editorial content. So the magazine retains its name but it’s hard to believe it’s the same magazine. Are you with me on this?

How did I hear about it? Good question. As I said, I read many magazines.

I am 99 percent sure Sy Safransky, eager to build circulation, went to a mailing list company—there are many—and shopped for a list of verified magazine subscribers, with their addresses, of course. At $$ per thousand names. I was on the list he got.

I got a letter from him, enjoyed his spiel and he sent me a sample copy, the September one.

As I’ve said, I’ve seen only that one.

Now I’ll describe it in detail for you, but for the moment I won’t tell you its name.

As I continue, maybe one or two of you will figure it out and say “It’s the such-and-such magazine!”

That would please me. And I’d ask you, “How did you ever get to know it?”

After all, its subscribers number only some 70,000. And for a national, I repeat national, magazine that’s been around that long, that isn’t much.

Its cover price is $5.95. It makes a point of saying its Canadian edition is also $5.95.

Its format is 8.5 by 11 inches, which is the same as the New Yorker, Time, the Smithsonian, the Atlantic, Harpers, and so on.

It carries zero advertising. Yes, zero. I know of no other commercial magazine like that. Ads are essential to them. No ads, they die. But this one has thrived.

Everything in it, except for its name on the cover, is black ink on white paper. “Process color,” which is the technical name for printing publications in color, is hugely expensive. My guess is this is why this magazine forgoes it.

Not that it suffers as a result. Not one bit. My opinion.

And this September issue is 48 pages. That’s big for a magazine without ads.

Are some of you beginning to pick up on these clues?

This just happens to be issue 525. I just noticed that. That’s an enormous number to have been produced under the direction of one man.

Its content is divided into “departments.”

The first department, a big one, is called “The XXX Magazine Interview.” It seems to be a feature in every issue. It’s nine pages long. Very meaty.

The interview has three photos, including one of the author, Alex S. Vitale. There’s an intro about him that runs better than a thousand words.

He is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Social Justice Project under the umbrella of CUNY, the City University of New York.

The headline of his interview is “To Protect and to Serve / The Overpolicing of America.” I repeat, overpolicing.

He says things, and cites things, that are very, very troubling. Worth reading.

The second major department is “Essays, Memoirs, and True Stories.” F0ur articles, three of them very substantive. By four writers.

The first is “Cop Diary,” by Edward Conlon, a former detective with the New York City Police Department. I read it. It’s an eye-opener. A shocker.

He has written for the New Yorker, Harpers, and such. Impressive.

The second is “Now I look for you.” By Natalie Kusz. A one-pager, a mere 200 words or so. She’s looking for someone, in one bad place after another. Her final line: “If I find a vestige, I think, I will rest.” Poor lady.

Editor’s note: “Natalie Kusz is the author of the memoir ‘Road Song’ and the recipient of a Whiting Award , a Bush Foundation Fellowship, and other honors. Her Plan B career would have been hairdressing, and on certain writing days she wonders why she went with Plan A. She lives in Spokane, Washington.”

I think Sy Safransky’s Problem A was he needed a one-page filler, and his Solution A was he found Ms. Kusz’s “Road Song.”

I wish he had known of me. I think I could have supplied him with a decent one-pager. Just joking.

The third is “Stolen Time,” by Saint James Harris Wood. A writer, musician, and father of three sons. He will soon be released from prison after serving 18 years for bank robbery.

Unusual for an ex-con to get published like this, don’t you think?

I read the whole thing. Very worthwhile.

The fourth is “Unexpected Things” by Marion Winik. She is the author of eight works of nonfiction, teaches writing at the University of Baltimore.

I haven’t read it yet.

The third major department is “Photo Essay,” another regular monthly feature.

It is entitled “Old School Boxing,” with photos by Thom Goertel. There are nine. An editorial note says he became a photographer when his dad gave him a camera as a kid. And he’s been taking pictures ever since.

The text is by Jim Kuhnhenn, a White House correspondent for many years and a fellow of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

His text is a couple of thousand words long.

It’s about Buddy Harrison, about sixty, owner and trainer at Old School Boxing.

He teaches boxing to any male interested. Black,white, or Latino. Hoping to make pro. Or for self-defense. Or to keep fit. Or the brutal pleasure of it.

Big muscular men. Teenage boys, too. School dropouts. Policemen. Professional men.

Buddy Harrison is an ex-con also. Found religion. Really straightened up the day he became a dad.

He doesn’t do it for the money, we’re told. At times he’s had a hard time coming up with the rent. He’s a natural and impressive do-gooder.

The article is a great read. Glad I read it.

The next major department is Fiction. It features a short story by Jennifer Swift. We’re told she recently completed a master’s in fiction writing at John Hopkins University.

Her story is entitled “Stories We Tell Now.” But it’s not that short. Several thousand words.

I only glanced at it. Looks good.

Well, do you have any idea yet what magazine this is?

The next department is Poetry.

“Ode to my kind,” by Jim Moore, Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is from his ninth collection of poetry.

His poem is a long introverted reflection. It’s some 40 lines long. No two lines the same length. No two lines that rhyme.

I only glanced at it.

Mr. Moore should have composed it as a paragraphed essay. My opinion.

To me, true poetry must have a definite structure and a definite rhyming pattern, and it must make sense. If it doesn’t have these, it ain’t poetry.

I don’t think I’ll get around to this one.

There’s another poem, entitled “Feeling Fucked Up,” by Etheridge Knight.

A very dark, painful poem, so called. He is bitter. Angry. Furious.

He died of cancer in 1991. So his poem is decades-old.

He was a black man. Dropped out of high school. Wounded in Korea. Became addicted to pain meds. Turned to crime to support his addiction. Served eight years in prison.

Yet eventually he was honored for his poetry by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. Very impressive.

His poem is a long rant — “Fuck this, and fuck that, and fuck that, and fuck that, on and on and on.” A kind of terrible super-diarrhea.

Very powerful. I can understand why the magazine published it, and why he had been so honored.

I feel very badly for the poor man. A tragic figure.

But again, not my idea of poetry. Sorry. Maybe making it look like poetry makes readers think it is poetry. Not so.

So you can see by now why this magazine cannot call itself a family magazine, à la Readers Digest or the Saturday Evening Post.

The next department is “Readers Write,” which is another regular monthly feature.

In this issue the theme here is “Endurance.” Readers can submit anything in which “endurance” plays a role. Some 15 readers sent in personal life experiences in which “endurance” had been a key factor. Some are hundreds of words long.

A note says they may be edited for clarity or whatever. “Writing style is not as important as thoughtfulness and sincerity.”

Some are signed. Some say “Name Withheld” to protect the writer. They are wildly different.

Apparently the number published is a small percentage of the number received. Writers who get published receive a one-year free subscription. No $$$.

I’ve read half a dozen. Very interesting. Very powerful. I found this the best thing in the magazine. Definitely I will be back for more.

The theme of “Readers Write” for the October issue will be “Accidents,” and that for November, “The Weekend.”

It’s a very clever concept. Never saw such before

I did mention that the cover price of the magazine is $5.95. That would be $72 a year.

However, the subscription price for 12 issues is $32. A bargain. And that includes free digital access to everything published since 1974.

I found it interesting that it has published four anthologies covering the best of what it has produced in its four decades.

The anthologies have individual prices, but all four go for $50, which is 30% off.

That seems a cheap price given the high quality of its content (except of its “poetry”) and how very interesting and enlightening much of it is.Well, finally now, do know what magazine this is?

It’s “The Sun.” Just that. “The Sun.”

I’ve looked and looked but have found no explanation why it got named that.

Now here’s some background about it.

Its offices are in a two-story house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That’s famous for the state’s university. But no connection.

It was founded in 1974 by Sy Safransky and a friend, Mike Mallets.

After graduate school Safransky had spent three years traveling cheapo through Europe and parts of the United States.

He had worked as a general assignment reporter for two years at a newspaper in New York City.

Somehow he made his way to Chapel Hill. He became friends with Mallets, an illustrator. Kicking ideas around, they got the idea for a little magazine.

The story goes Sy begged, cajoled family, friends, anybody to write stuff for it, then typed it all up. Mallets came up with the illustrations.

Another new friend printed it for free providing the two fellows furnished the paper.

Desperately they sought ads for it.

The price was 25 cents a copy. Sy hawked it around town.

After a year or so, Sy and his buddy Mike split up. No idea why.

Oops, I just caught myself calling him Sy again. Not just Safransky or Mr. Safransky. Just Sy.

Well, I’ve never met him. Never heard of him. He’s totally new to me. So how come? I think it’s because I like him. Admire him.

Well, to continue, at times on the side, to keep it going, Sy had to find a real job, sometimes hard physical labor. More than once he thought he’d go broke. He persevered. He slowly hired some talent. Kept going.

After 10 years he had built up the circulation to approximately 10,000. Sy dropped the ads.

I’m sure many thought he was nuts.

He has said that as a 100% reader-supported magazine, The Sun automatically got more respect and credibility.

I don’t know of course, but he must be very close to retirement age, or into it.

I like The Sun. I’ve subscribed. I hope he maintains the course.

I’m going to donate my well-read copies to our local public cornucopium. That may generate a few more subscribers.

If this interests you, you can learn a lot more at www.thesunmagazine.org.

That’s another interesting thing. It’s .org. Not .com. It turns out that The Sun has become a non-profit and counts on donations to help keep it going.

Truth is, Sy Safranski and his magazine and his philosophy about all this, along with his passion and even lifestyle, have fascinated me.

I’ve spent more time digging and poking around than I want to admit. There’s a lot out there. I had a good time.

If you also feel curious about all this, go to it. It’s all very fascinating. You’ll find a log more at Google. Also Bing. Also Wikipedia. You’ll have a good time, too.

Yes, “The Sun” is unique. Hey, maybe that’s why it got named that. We have only one sun, right? If you know of another magazine that parallels this one, please let me know. I’d love to take a look.




















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