First-Class Reading and Airport Futures

In-flight magazines are the nadir of non-literary writing. How did they come to be a destination for A-list authors? ...

First Percy Shelley dispersed messages in floating balloons over the Irish Sea, and then there were short stories on Chipotle cups. A New York Times article from May 3, 2015, explored the latest iteration of literature out of context:


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. 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.

I want to linger on an awkward dynamic in this paragraph: between highbrow literary art, on the one hand, and the disposable culture of flight on the other. An in-flight magazine, with all its connotations of sticky pages, half-done Sudoku puzzles, and gimmicky ads for bizarre products, seems a strange venue for those best-selling literary writers to share. In-flight magazines are the nadir of non-literary writing, the epitome of what we might call “airplane reading” in a disdainful tone. How, then, does it come to be a destination for A-list authors? Is it simply that art is seen to be therapeutic or uplifting for otherwise miserable passengers?

<i> The first manned hot-air balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, takes tethered off at the garden of the Reveillon workshop, Paris, on October 19, 1783</i>. Image courtesy of Library of Congress / Wikimedia

The first manned hot-air balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, takes tethered off at the garden of the Reveillon workshop, Paris, on October 19, 1783. Image courtesy of Library of Congress / Wikimedia

The Times article goes on to describe the growing popularity of arrangements between writers and transit companies, from airlines to Amtrak, as driven by the potential for something particularly rare in the digital age, a “captive audience.” Indeed, such an alliance was in the news in another form last year, when Southwest Airlines launched an in-flight reading series of sorts, wherein writers would stand up in the aisles and read to their captive audiences. The word “captive”—used in the Times and also in an LA Times article about the Southwest in-flight readings—is curious, given certain associations that airlines would probably rather avoid.

The idea of an airline acting as a “literary patron” suggests that it is not simply bored, plodding herds of air travelers who need the cocktail sipping literati, but rather the despairing writers “in this shaky retail climate” who need the financial largess of airlines.

So the dynamic flips around—easy enough. But things get weirder. We go on to learn that Rhapsody is not your average in-flight magazine, but is in fact a publication reserved—even guarded—for first-class passengers. In other words, it has a class status attached to it that then reflexively complements the league of writers with whom we began. The Times elaborates:

Mark Krolick, United Airlines’ managing director of marketing and product development, said the quality of the writing in Rhapsody brings a patina of sophistication to its first-class service, along with other opulent touches like mood lighting, soft music and a branded scent.

It would now seem that the classy aura of literature reflects and bolsters the ambience of the first-class cabin. Our authors are not simply hapless benefactors of the one percent, but rather have something to offer that is consistent with the “other opulent touches” appreciated by first-class flyers. In some ways, it might even be argued that the writing not only completes the first-class cabin, but also adds to it: literature “brings a patina of sophistication” to first-class service. This may remind us of Jacques Derrida’s famous formulation of the “supplement” as that which is both necessary for self-identity and which adds on to self-identity—thereby complicating what the “self” would even mean, isolated and intact. Who is the first-class passenger, without the abetting agent of Literature? Don’t worry, though. You won’t find any continental philosophy in the pages of Rhapsody—there is a line in the sand you do not cross when it comes to airplane reading, even in first class.

Back to our literary writers who seem at once natural and unnatural seatmates in the first-class cabin. The New York Times goes on to explain exactly how Rhapsody works:

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. Certain genres of flight stories are off limits, naturally: no plane crashes or woeful tales of lost luggage or rude flight attendants, and nothing too risqué.

Naturally. I love this line: “no plane crashes or woeful tales of lost luggage or rude flight attendants, and nothing too risqué.” No disasters, no lost objects, no rudeness, no sex—well, there goes most of what we call “literature.” In a startling revelation, we see how the concept of nature is in fact defined through literary parameters. (For the record, my colleague Mark Yakich and I are just about to bring out a book called Airplane Reading, which does include all those tales deemed too … unnatural for an in-flight magazine: delays, drama at the departure gate, bomb scares, too many beers consumed at the airport.)

As if Rhapsody’s agenda isn’t clear enough, the article goes on to stress this point. The Times quotes editor-in-chief Jordan Heller: “We’re not going to have someone write about joining the mile-high club,” he tells them. Still, “despite those restrictions, we’ve managed to come up with a lot of high-minded literary content.”

With in-flight magazines like these, who needs liberal arts education? Aren’t these “restrictions”—exploring them, exploding them, turning them inside out—precisely what drive literature, at its best? Can literature exist, much less thrive, with this counterintuitive topical constraint? Or, in light of the long history of literary constraint, might this create the optimal conditions for a writer to sit down and, well, write something good?

No disasters, no lost objects, no rudeness, no sex—well, there goes most of what we call “literature.”

The article really gets interesting here, from a pedagogical standpoint, though that’s probably not what they were going for: “Guiding writers toward the right idea occasionally requires some gentle prodding.” For instance, the article tells the story of Karen Russell being invited to contribute a “memorable flight experience,” but when she pitched a story of a multi-hour airport delay chaperoning grumpy teenagers, the editor of Rhapsody asked her to reconsider: “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.” Russell ended up submitting “a nostalgia-tinged essay about her first flight on a trip to Disney World when she was six.”

So what we have here is an acclaimed author asked to contribute something for a magazine, then hemmed in by a mandate qua naturalized assumption that people do not want to think about “disaster flights” while on an airplane. However, the author does not leave in a huff of artistic integrity; Disney World soars in to save the day. Everyone is happy: no one writes or reads anything that might make one think critically about the enterprise in question, human air travel.

The article offers further examples of Rhapsody writers and their chosen—or sanctioned—topics:

[Joyce Carol] Oates … 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.

This final author, Emily St. John Mandel, is an intriguing inclusion, particularly given what we have just been thinking about under erasure—stories of “disaster flights.” Mandel’s National Book Award finalist was 2014’s Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel that hinges on “disaster flights” par excellence: a highly contagious flu virus travels around the world on commercial jets and kills nearly everyone within a matter of weeks. One group of survivors makes their home at the Severn City Airport, which also comes to house an inadvertent “Museum of Civilization.” It is a wonderful novel, replete with hauntingly familiar scenes of obsolete airport accouterments. Thus, running parallel to its primary narrative is an anticipatory requiem for air travel at large. An early section of the novel delineates an “incomplete list” of things that are no more:

No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put up your tray table in its upright and locked position—but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Teenagers snuck into them to have sex. Rust blossomed and streaked.

Needless to say, this kind of literature would hardly be appropriate for the pages of Rhapsody. And yet, readers will find a tamer story by Mandel there. If they like her writing, they may even buy Station Eleven in the airport bookstore for their return trip. But what then, when they have veered from the tranquil pages of Rhapsody, and are reading about “disaster flights” in a novel? The status of literature trembles between approved and illicit, between entertaining the traveling liberal subject and agitating the fragile human in flight. Mandel implicates air travel in the end of human civilization as we know it—this should be code red for the editors of Rhapsody.

I want to conclude this essay with a slight swerve to my home airport, 11 miles west of the city of New Orleans, a site of disaster and recovery, at turns. The call sign for the Louis Armstrong airport, KMSY or just MSY, refers to an earlier name: the Moisant Stock Yards. The airport was originally named after John Moisant, a legendary daredevil aviator who crashed and died in 1910 on the agricultural site upon which the airport would later be built. For a human pursuit that seems prone to superstition and overabundances of caution, I am struck by how a fatal crash lurks behind the airport’s simple, pragmatic call sign, evoked countless times each day as aircraft depart and arrive.

Now the New Orleans airport is slated for wholesale reinvention. A glassy new terminal building, with an $850 million price tag, is currently being planned for construction across the runways from the existing hodgepodge of concourses and gates. The new airport is billed as a “world class terminal”—a veritable Xanadu, with the most decadent, if also minimalist, fixings, so tourists and locals alike may enjoy the perks, efficiencies, and capital flows facilitated by modern air travel.

In his book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson observes how contemporary culture tends toward “abstract and nonsituated” feelings, such as those experienced in “the anonymous space of airport terminals that all run together in your mind.” In the architectural plans for the new Louis Armstrong airport, we see bold attempts to ward off and eschew Jameson’s diagnosis of postmodern space. There is greenery, open areas for music and art, and a vibe of relaxation usually reserved for zones far beyond the tarmac. On the other hand, we may detect hints of a disaster to come—particularly given the vexed state of coastal erosion and rising seas. In the background of the striking conceptual mock-ups, the Mississippi River looms, churning and churning, suggesting other environmental limits and flux.

In the many-windowed architecture of the new terminal, we may hear echoes of one of the characters of Station Elven, the latter-day psychoanalytic business consultant Clark Thompson, who lives on at the Severn City Airport even as its name and purpose have become utterly obsolete: “Clark had never thought so much about airport design, but he was grateful that so much of this particular airport was glass. They lived in daylight and went to bed at sundown.” The new airport renderings anticipate post-apocalyptic life, even as they seem to project a flush and verdant future of air travel to come. But as Station Eleven suggests, the end of petromodernity is nigh, one way or the other; what we do with the remains is up to us.

In a forthcoming Object Lessons book called Earth, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen reminds us that “humans have always loved their apocalypses.” I think about airplane reading’s normative sterility, and also the tame futurism of airport design, and I wonder how we might begin to move toward a different relationship to air travel. What would it look like for humans to acknowledge the chapter of air travel as coming to a close—perhaps even to welcome this, in favor of some other form of travel, migration, habitation? Whether looking at something as seemingly innocuous as in-flight magazines, or as intricate as large-scale airport planning, I am interested in the nature of flight. How we have, for better or worse, naturalized this form of vehiculation—and how this also means that flight is subject to change, to active reimagining and revision. icon

Featured image: The proposed new MSY. Image courtesy of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport