I miss magazines. It’s a strange pain, because they are always with us in a way: they watch from the shelves of supermarket checkouts; fanned pale around the table in hotel lobbies; appear in your mailbox long after the subscription is terminated, like an ex who refuses to accept the breakup.
But they also disappear. This accelerating erosion has not been big news in times of pandemic, war, and actual erosion, and yet the absence of magazines authoritatively documenting such events, or distracting them, as they did with measured regularity , is keenly felt.
Time passes or limps, but life is gone. There is no more money. Print editions of their former profit-producing sister publications Entertainment Weekly and InStyle ceased publication in February. It was goodbye to Saveur and Marie Claire; shrouds for Playboy, Paper and O. (As I type this people are tweeting about The believer bought by a sex toy site.)
Two recent books — “Dilettante,” by longtime Vanity Fair editor Dana Brown, and a new biography of Anna Wintour, by Amy Odell, formerly of cosmopolitan.com — are graveyards for dead or zombie titles that were once glowing hives of human whim. Gourmet. Joan. Impertinent. Clever. Darling. Hippocrates. Petticoat. Might, founded by author Dave Eggers; Viva, where Wintour worked for a time with Bob Guccione’s girlfriend; and Loaded, a men’s magazine from England that wowed young Dana Brown.
“There were so many magazines in 1994,” writes Brown. “So many new magazines, and so many awesome magazines. All the young talents of the moment avoided other industries and flocked to business. It was the coolest place to be.
Then suddenly the coldest. On the big, swanky cruise ship Brown had just boarded — Vanity Fair, where he’d been invited by Graydon Carter when he was barback at Restaurant 44 — he and so many others could then only see the tip of a huge iceberg they were on. hit: the internet. Smartphones, little self-published monster magazines that will only stop when their owners die, were on the horizon. These may have looked like life rafts, but they were torpedo boats.
Periodically, no pun intended, publishers release a bunch of work books for what used to be called “the slicks.” (There was a fat, indignant pile of spoilers, for example, after William Shawn tiptoed away from The New Yorker.) such books rarely reach the bestseller list. André Leon Talley’s “The Chiffon Trenches” (2020), which dealt with blatant racism in the fashion industry, was a brief and brilliant exception. Talley died in January, and his memorial service in late April was another postcard from the glory days of magazine-making, a more elegant and cohesive affair than the Met Gala that followed, with its increasingly wacky slideshows. But the clicks trample the slicks.
Passing by a branch of the McNally Jackson bookstore not too long ago, I looked up from my phone and saw a copy of Dan Peres’ “As Needed for Pain,” on his way to Details, the inner-city bible turned brilliant metrosexual that folded in 2015. Originally published just months before Talley’s book, Peres’ memoir was on the outside shelf for $1, presumably a Appropriate fate for a history of drug abuse and expense accounts. (Peres has joined as editor and associate publisher of Ad Age.)
Brown further documents the raucous excesses of that era, the cutbacks that followed, and, most hilariously, the great silence that followed a furious “buzz” hunt and even a short-lived, high-profile rival magazine called Talk. “The phones stopped ringing, the conversation stopped,” he wrote. “The office was overrun with rows and rows of quiet, helmeted, Invisaligned and Warby Parkered youngsters in their twenties on bouncy balls, sipping mud from tiny cubicles, tapping away at their keyboards. The modern workplace was turning into a dystopian, Dickensian and Gilliam-style adult kindergarten.
There had been so many lively dialogues. But we’ve yet to see the bestselling book or TV show like “Mad Men,” which conveys the true excitement, glamor, and urgency of the print magazine business, which, while still in existence, has transformed beyond recognition and will never be as it was at its peak. Despite Odell’s diligent efforts to capture Wintour and Gerri Hirshey’s in-depth biography of Helen Gurley Brown, “Not Pretty Enough”, and Grace Mirabella’s memoir, we are still awaiting the definitive account of the queens of magazine, power and the influence of this sisterhood.
Seventeen magazine “was just my dream,” Wintour is said to have said in Odell’s book. “I couldn’t wait for him to come every month.” My mom called Seventeen’s big back-to-school issue a “big pile of junk” and threw it away while I was at summer camp. Years later, still reeling from the loss of this savvy big sister, I found a copy of the same issue on eBay.
This been a pile of junk. But just as Esquire printed Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe between liquor ads and cheesecake photos, Seventeen paid to print short stories by Sylvia Plath and Anne Tyler between the Hope Chests and Maybelline ads. Plath worked a summer for Mademoiselle, drawing on her experience there in “The Bell Jar”. (For a beautifully accurate account of this era, I recommend Elizabeth Winder’s “Pain, Parties, Work.”) Joan Didion developed her compact-style writing captions for Vogue. It was there that she learned “a way of looking at words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”
Young graduate readers of Seventeen, YM, Sassy and others at the forbidden bonus on the coffee tables of divorcees: Cosmo and Glamor and Self. “My favorite title of all magazines,” author Michael Chabon told me of Self in an interview decades later. He was joking. But these publications have helped and shaped many young women as much as the comics did Chabon and his male protagonists in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Instagram is not the same; there’s no surrogate aunt in charge, and there a “story” is just a never-ending series of silly music videos.
Each year, the American Society of Magazine Editors awards a handsome prize, a brutalist-looking elephant called Ellie, modeled after an elephant sculpture by Alexander Calder. Any writer would be proud to have it on the mantle. (Certainly more presentable than the Webby for line work, which has the perplexing shape of a spring.) Researching the origins of the elephant, I came across another award called the Ellies, which recognizes businesses in the North American escalator and elevator industry.
It’s the kind of factoid the internet can reliably deliver in seconds, and yet the joy of discovering such things has been entirely lost.
The history of modern American literature is intertwined with its magazines. The future may look like a lot of loose threads, waving in the wind.