Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
There is nothing so exciting as a beginning. Those first audacious steps are clear and free, fueled by nothing more than an idea, or an aspiration. When Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925 he invited his good pals, the funny friends he knew through holding court at the now-mythic Algonquin Round Table, to contribute. He envisioned a sophisticated humour magazine, a more cosmopolitan alternative to Life. When Dave Eggers started McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern he mostly just knew that he wasn’t working on a zine.
In the front pages of The Art of McSweeney’s there is a reproduction of a print-out of the original email Eggers sent to his circle: “This thing will be about trying new, and almost certainly misguided, ideas.” Can you imagine starting anything any other way? “C’mon everyone!” Eggers wrote in 1998, “It’ll be fun, and if we’re not careful we might make publishing history.” And of course, they did.
So did WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, in its way. At least insofar as it was, to my knowledge, the first and only magazine for hobbyist bathers. I wasn’t alive during its five-year run, but I recently had the good fortune of being introduced to the magazine through a new book on its history: Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Like so many good things, my relationship to this book, this mag, began on a whim. It came home with me after a post-brunch-poke-around in Type Books.
It’s mostly spreads and covers from the magazine, interspersed with an essay by WET‘s founding editor Leonard Koren. The book is self-published, and feels like a necessary if hopelessly niche piece of magazine publishing history. Koren recalls gearing up for the first issue, the pit- and occasional prat-falls of working within a self-consciously silly though often sensual purview. His straightforward and sensible prose gives you the feeling that this is a sort of private address, a lesson in just going for it, in running with an idea, in designing, editing, and publishing a magazine about bathing.
Situated in Los Angeles at the height of new wave, WET from the start seemed to both poke gentle fun at the idea of hobbyist magazines and build a West Coast party network for legitimately avid bathing enthusiasts. Koren threw bath parties and other events to compensate the many artists, designers, photographers and writers that he published between 1976 and 1981 (WET never turned a profit, and never cut cheques to its contributors). The magazine had a strong design sensibility, and ran themed issues that featured pieces as diverse as reviews of new soaps, general cultural commentary, comics, photo essays and reviews. Richard Gere and Debbie Harry graced the occasional cover, and Matt Groening’s comics ran inside. The Making of WET includes a special little comic featurette about a cantankerous rabbit reviewing varieties of soap, detailing his traumatic history with the sudsy stuff. Channeling the ethos of the magazine, it is playful and certainly absurd.
Nancy Bonnel-Kangas wrote a lovely remembrance of WET for the winter 1997 issue of Emigre (a sadly folded design mag produced by the typographic company of the same name). She’d happened upon the magazine when she was an undergrad, and its willingness to run nude photos and its seemingly bizzare take on the world really spoke to her. So much so, in fact, that she would eventually be inspired to found and publish Nancy’s Magazine, which she jokingly describes as like WET with more crafts. “The brilliance” she wrote, “is that “we all knew that popular culture, sort-of-new-wavy music, odd architecture, raw art, nakedness and funky clothes mattered.” And it is sort of brilliant to find yourself in intellectual harmony with a magazine of kooky jocularity, something that feels fun, fresh, and made for you.
Emily M. Keeler generally prefers showers to baths, but loves a good steam. Follow her on Twitter at @emilymkeeler if you please.