We were greatly dismayed that your issue on Pornography and Erotica [Issue 115] did not include a single article by women or men who speak for the feminist movement’s protest against pornography. One would expect that a publication which prides itself on being an alternative to mainstream media would be a little bit more interested than a Time or Newsweek in giving rise to the dissenting voices of women and men who consider the multi-million (billion?) dollar pornography industry as the proliferator of sexism and violence against women (and children).
To continue to pretend that the debate about pornography is limited to a squabble between the Moral Majority and civil libertarians is to join hands with those magazines against which you define yourself in attempting to kick women out of the conversation. The pornography issue is thus publicized as a debate between hung-up right-wing men arguing for decency and sexually “liberated” left-wing men, who also consider themselves the defenders of Constitutional rights. The old illusion is maintained: pornography — by definition and in its history created by men for men — will be debated between men.
At the risk of appearing “un-hip” but with a dedication to the liberation of all people from systematic subordination, exploitation, and violence, we protest your treatment of pornography by asking you to discontinue our subscription.
Interesting subject, pornography. The issue, though, seems to be union, and if love is the measuring rod, then at one end we know of asceticism and celibacy as practiced in certain religious experiences, and at the other, pure hard-core porn. Everything else is only a shade of gray. It is a well-known truism in advertising that the two greatest sellers are sex and death. Who needs to go to an alley bookstore to see porn? Pick up Family Circle at the local super and really look at the photographs in the ads. Do you suppose that is honest shrimp pictured in that luscious Kraft remoulade? Guess again — airbrushed embryos. And when you look at a photograph of scotch and water in the next Time, check to see how many penises and skulls and bones are hidden there. I saw a beautiful Oscar de la Renta dress once all in mauves and deep indigos and every other ruffle had been airbrushed to look like a pulsing vagina. It was in Vogue. But airbrushing is a well-kept libidinal tactical secret in advertising. So we buy the dress and we feel some transcendence for a moment. We eat the shrimp and feel sensate and secure. We drink for the same reasons, masturbate, have sex and buy all the images. But they are the wrong images because we have forgotten that union is the issue.
Just a quickie to let you know there’s another “silent” subscriber to and for whom your creation is a significant stimulation and inspiration (warm glows and smiles). I could go on but we both have our work to do. Don’t forget that your work is beautiful and worthwhile and whether you’re hearing it or not, know that THE SUN shines in many lives and regions. I see it widely shared here (Wolfcreek Wilderness School) and in my other home (Monteverde, Costa Rica).
I suspect many readers may have tight budgets and wish they could help more with your struggle. Don’t be discouraged. Most really high and decent ventures I know of seem to exist within and through struggle. Perhaps it’s no accident, eh? Carry on.
David Searls used to contribute regularly to THE SUN before he became a high-powered advertising executive with Hodskins, Simone, and Searls in Raleigh, N.C. I asked him recently for some advice about finding more readers — perhaps through advertising — and he responded with this letter, in which he praises our new anthology (see back cover) and offers some valuable hints for anyone who wants to promote anything. It was too good simply to consign to my files and is printed here with David’s permission.
The back cover mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky is everything I expected, and more. It’s a first-class literary anthology. I mean, the mother is a book. And it’s so good. It’s a chest of treasures, and it deserves notice.
Which I think it should receive, for two reasons: 1) the cream rises to the top, and the cream here is so good it’s damn near intoxicating; and 2) books are much easier to review, promote, sell and read than magazines. With all due respect to THE SUN as a magazine, books are a better medium for durable literary goods. By design, books are made to keep, magazines to throw away. THE SUN’s resistance to disposal testifies to the yearnings of its contents for packaging that grants a longer shelf life.
I think your lament, in the most recent fundraising mailer, that “it turns out there is not a vast audience for this,” is premature. I mean, OK, so we’ve had rave notices, features on public radio, and all that. And OK, so behind every promise of riches seems to lurk another ego with a problem. And true, THE SUN is a sometimes difficult discovery experience, even an acquired taste. But let’s face it: THE SUN is still known only to a relatively tiny population. It may never find a readership the size of the Superbowl audience, but neither should it be consigned forever to a microcosm of poets, ex-hippies and low-rent seekers of truth.
I think ultimately THE SUN’s natural constituency is limited only to a population that appreciates good literature with something rare: equally high levels of spiritual and empirical content. It is that peculiar combination that makes THE SUN a discovery experience for which a large number of people ought to be eligible.
I argue here not for “thinking big,” but rather against “thinking small.” There are a lot of small magazines. THE SUN deserves the label by the scale of its circulation, by the modesty of its form, but not by the scope of its interests, which is universal, or by the height of its literary standards, which is high.
While I agree that “what draws people to the magazine is, finally, a mystery — some unpredictable conjunction of temperament and circumstance, marrying us for a moment, joining us in a telepathic surge disguised as words,” I think the characterization of this marriage as transitory is wrong. I would wager that many members of THE SUN’s voluntary audience (that is, those who were not introduced as blind dates, through gift subscriptions) enjoy marriages with the magazine that outlast the ones they carry on with other human beings. Maybe I’m wrong (certainly I’m projecting a bit), but I think we have a pretty low turnover rate here, and for a good reason.
I do think THE SUN is a vehicle for telepathic exchange, a “surge disguised as words” that makes it something of a religion disguised as literature. This, by the way, has been the direction of the magazine’s drift over the years. The quality of its spirituality and literary content has steadily increased. And I think that quality is owed, in both cases, as they must be, to their grounding in experiential reality.
No doubt you feel uncomfortable with the characterization of THE SUN as a church, or derivatively, of you as its pastor (rabbi? pope? founding prophet?). But I think the analogy is a good departure point for further thought, and perhaps more importantly, for instruction in the arts of fundraising.
In my decade in a business mistakenly characterized as one of persuasion, I have made a number of discoveries, now among a body of functional axioms immodestly titled Searls’ Laws. These include:
- Logic and reason may sit on the mental board of directors, but emotions cast the deciding votes;
- You can’t blow a closed mind;
- Advice is the only thing in the world that everybody wants to give and nobody wants to take;
- Nothing recedes like success;
- Repetition is the sincerest form of redundancy; and
- There is always something else.
Among others. All of the above, and some more obscure ones I can’t think of right now, are the reasons why I think you need public relations more than advertising.
First, advertising tends to cost money, and unless you have a lot of money to throw at a goal, it won’t work.
Second, public relations depends on word-of-mouth, which is free and always works at some level.
Case in point. Until, here at HS&S, we had our first clients for whom the price of advertising was not an obstacle, I thought advertising was almost a crap shoot: it just didn’t work most of the time. Early this year we ran a four-color full-bleed two-page spread ad in twenty expensive trade magazines, for a cost to the client of a couple hundred thousand dollars. They received orders, directly attributable to the ad, in many millions. Which is why they didn’t sweat the cost of the ads, or anything else. (They also pay their bills right away, bless them.)
It is my belief, therefore, that advertising works best when it involves enormous amounts of money. In military terms, it’s a superpower strategy: bombs away.
On the other hand, public relations works like a Trojan horse. At our agency, we have achieved far more, for some clients, with a few words in the right ears, or with articles planted in key publications, than the same dollar value of advertising ever could have delivered.
My immediate PR recommendation is to get A Bell Ringing into the right hands. Get it reviewed. See, A Bell Ringing is the strong selling piece you’ve needed for years. And it’s a Trojan horse. Disguised as an anthology of good stuff from a small magazine, it succeeds as a Work of Literature that guarantees a series of discovery experiences that should leave the reader wondering, “What the fuck is this? Why have I never heard of this magazine? Where can I get this?”
How can anybody ever see a dog the same way again after reading John Rosenthal’s Rufus piece? Or think about dying the same way after reading Peg Staley? God, Sy, there is life-changing stuff in here. We’re not just talking entertainment, good summer reading, a nice item for the shelf. We’re talking religious experience without hallucinations, blurred vision or slurred speech.
Looking back over this, which I just did, I don’t want to stretch the religion simile too far. In fact, I’d like to jump to another one.
Conversation. I think that’s what THE SUN really is. Most of its writing is in first or second person voices, its contents a web of words stretched, like the reality it maps, between the profoundly personal and the perversely universal.
Which is why I think anybody who lives by “self-honesty, thoughtfulness, the willingness to live with questions instead of answers,” and likes to read (and perhaps to write) about it, is an eligible subscriber, or “Friend Of The Sun.”
And that’s also why I think asking for regular tax-deductible donations is a good idea. Tell them it’s kind of an obligation. Like tithing. It works for your mainstream churches, so what the hell.
There’s another one of Searls’ Laws, and the only one in which I really invest much pride, that applies here:
Invention is the mother of necessity.
It’s a subtle concept. But very true. Marx could have used it. The point is, there are no models for original things, and once discovered, original things often grow into necessities. Beyond food, shelter and love, there are remarkably few things that we own, and on which we depend every day, that were required by our grandparents. And that includes many good things, like books, music and magazines.
I think THE SUN is an invention with the power to mother a lot of necessity.
Last year you printed an article written by Colin Wilson about “peak experiences.” [Issue 108.] I read it and liked it. I copied it and sent it to friends. I went looking for Colin Wilson.
The Philosopher’s Stone brought me the most pleasure and excitement of Wilson’s novels, although The Mind Parasites and Space Vampires (filmed as “Life Force”) are on my reading list.
The Occult, which I am currently reading, is outstanding. Wilson says so simply what part purposeful activity plays in achieving and maintaining an enhanced state of consciousness. When I am reading his works it’s true.
His first book, written at 24 and published in 1956, is The Outsider. I just found a copy in a used bookstore. Having only leafed through it, I can say that I have found an author who speaks to me and makes me aware I am glad to be alive. Thanks to THE SUN.
I have just finished my May issue of THE SUN and could wait no longer to write you a fan letter.
Ah, the esoteric, the spiritual, the divine. I have listened in on other worlds and been presented other possibilities. I love THE SUN for that. I have learned things in your magazine I probably would not have taken the time to learn elsewhere.
But you know what I finally realized? When I read your Editor’s Note and your definition of subscriptions on the inside cover and your poems and your anything, I smile. I nod. I feel as though someone else is thinking it like I am. I love that you have more questions than answers.
When I got done reading about you and Norma and the stethoscope, I felt great — not because Norma sent it back, not because a friend of Norma’s didn’t and has to live with it. I felt great because I have come to expect from your writing what to other people may be just an incident in the day, a fleeting moment without consequence. Month after month you look at what has been going on in your life and share it with your readers to see what you and they can learn about life and themselves. When I read the Editor’s Note I know that I am going to be given a view or a question I might not have stopped to find for myself.
And that, to me, is the best writing there is. Thank you for the knowledge and the laughs and the questions.