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About United's Mile-High Private Literary Magazine

"Last summer at a writers' workshop in Oregon, the novelists Anthony Doerr, Karen Russell and Elissa Schappell were chatting over cocktails when they realized they had all published work in the same magazine," Alexandra Alter writes on the front page of the New York Times.

"It wasn't one of the usual literary outlets, like Tin House, The Paris Review or The New Yorker. It was Rhapsody, an in-flight magazine for United Airlines.

"It seemed like a weird coincidence. Then again, considering Rhapsody's growing roster of A-list fiction writers, maybe not. Since its first issue hit plane cabins a year and a half ago, Rhapsody has published original works by literary stars like Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Amy Bloom, Emma Straub and Mr. Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two weeks ago.

"As airlines try to distinguish their high-end service with luxuries like private sleeping chambers, showers, butler service and meals from five-star chefs, United Airlines is offering a loftier, more cerebral amenity to its first-class and business-class passengers: elegant prose by prominent novelists."

So now the class divide even extends to in-flight magazines.

*

"There are no airport maps or disheartening lists of in-flight meal and entertainment options in Rhapsody."

That stuff's for the hoi polloi.

*

"Instead, the magazine has published ruminative first-person travel accounts, cultural dispatches and probing essays about flight by more than 30 literary fiction writers."

As long as those accounts don't reflect poorly in any way on air travel.

Guiding writers toward the right idea occasionally requires some gentle prodding. When Rhapsody's executive editor asked Ms. Russell to contribute an essay about a memorable flight experience, she first pitched a story about the time she was chaperoning a group of teenagers on a trip to Europe, and their delayed plane sat at the airport in New York for several hours while other passengers got progressively drunker.

"He pointed out that disaster flights are not what people want to read about when they're in transit, and very diplomatically suggested that maybe people want to read something that casts air travel in a more positive light," said Ms. Russell, whose novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

First, I'm pretty sure we'd all rather read the first story Russell pitched.

Second, I'm pretty sure nobody wants to read something that casts air travel in a more positive light - fiction, in other words.

Third, it's clear by this point in the article that participating literary geniuses have been enlisted as pawns in a marketing effort.

"[Russell] turned in a nostalgia-tinged essay about her first flight on a trip to Disney World when she was 6. 'The Magic Kingdom was an anticlimax,' she wrote. 'What ride could compare to that first flight?'"

Or, more like, what could compare to the check I received for recounting that first flight as better than any ride at Disney World?

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"In addition to offering travel perks, the magazine pays well and gives writers freedom, within reason, to choose their subject matter and write with style."

Within reason.

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"Some of Rhapsody's contributing writers say they were lured by the promise of free airfare and luxury accommodations provided by United, as well as exposure to an elite audience of some two million first-class and business-class travelers."

Name those writers - so we can be sure to avoid them.

*

"There's nobody that's looked down their noses at us as an in-flight magazine," said Sean Manning, the magazine's executive editor. "As big as these people are in the literary world, there's still this untapped audience for them of luxury travelers."

Because luxury travelers have never been exposed to literary bigwigs before? All of their usual readers fly coach?

*

"Ms. Oates also wrote about her first flight, in a tiny yellow propeller plane piloted by her father. The novelist Joyce Maynard told of the constant disappointment of never seeing her books in airport bookstores and the thrill of finally spotting a fellow plane passenger reading her novel Labor Day. Emily St. John Mandel, who was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction last year, wrote about agonizing over which books to bring on a long flight."

No more agonizing now that Rhapsody is here!

*

The rest of us are stuck with Hemispheres.

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Rhapsody's media kit claims the magazine has "the most affluent audience in print."

More affluent than Oil & Arms Merchants Monthly?

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Another Rhapsody boast: "Reaching those who run the economy."

. . . into the ground. Oops, we don't want to mention crashes.

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And: "Rhapsody partners with notable contributors: National Book Award winners, Joyce Carol Oates and Julia Glass, Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell; renowned photographers Mark Seliger, Brigitte Lacombe, Nigel Parry, Tony Duran and Michael Muller."

We hope to sell luxury goods to chumps drawn to the magazine by their stories!

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Looking at the rate card (page 10), it's easy to see how Rhapsody can afford to pay these writers.

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If only the airlines' could chop off the coach section and still fly their planes.

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Live the Life - of rich white people frolicking in a fountain after a long-night of partying in expensive clothing.

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Another horrid couple.

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Someone pounding aluminum who will never see this article because they can't afford first-class.

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Here's how the Guardian approaches the story, which is more to my liking:

"Would you like to read a new monthly luxury lifestyle and literary magazine, crammed with articles about theatre, art and fine dining, and original essays and stories by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Emily St John Mandel (whose novel Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction last year), Pulitzer prize-winning Anthony Doerr and Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm)? With an unpublished story by the late Elmore Leonard in its June edition? You would? Well, too bad! You can't! Because all this is to be found only within the elite confines of Rhapsody, the in-flight magazine created exclusively for United Airlines' premium-cabin (that's first and business class, plebs) customers and visitors to its United Global First airport lounges and United Club locations. So, get back to your warm G&T and tinny earphones, you, and stop rubbernecking at those for whom extra leg room and champagne on tap wasn't yet quite good enough."

See. It's all in the framing.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on May 5, 2015


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