I miss magazines. It’s a strange pain, because they’re still kind of with us: staring off the shelves at supermarket checkouts; fluttered limply around the table in hotel lobbies; shows up in your mailbox long after the subscription is canceled, as an ex refusing to accept the breakup.
But they also disappear. This accelerating erosion was not big news in a time of pandemic, war and actual erosion, and yet the absence of journals authoritatively documenting, or inferring, such events, as they used to do with measured regularity, has been keenly felt.
Time moves on, or falters, but life is over. There is no more money. The print editions of their former sister publications Entertainment Weekly and InStyle, which were once frothing with profits, stopped publishing in February. It’s been au revoir for Saveur and Marie Claire; shrouds for Playboy, Paper and O. (As I type this, people are tweeting about The believer is bought by a sex toy site.)
Two recent books — “Dilettante,” by Dana Brown, a longtime editor at Vanity Fair, and a new Anna Wintour Biography, by Amy Odell, formerly of cosmopolitan.com — are cemeteries of the dead or zombie titles that were once glowing hives human caprice. . Gourmet. Jane. impudent. smart. Honey. Hippocrates. underskirt. Might, founded by author Dave Eggers; Viva, where Wintour worked for a while under Bob Guccione’s girlfriend; and Loaded, a British boys’ magazine that wowed young Dana Brown.
“There were so many magazines in 1994,” Brown writes. “So many new magazines, and so many big Magazines. All the young talent of the moment eschewed other industries and flocked to the company. It was the coolest place to be.”
Then suddenly the coldest. On the large luxury cruise ship Brown had just boarded—Vanity Fair, where he had been beckoned by Graydon Carter while barbacking at Restaurant 44—he and so many others could then see only the tip of a massive iceberg they were standing on. to touch: the internet. Smartphones, little self-edited monster magazines that will not rest until their owners die, were on the way. These may have looked like life rafts, but they were torpedo boats.
Periodically, no pun intended, publishers publish a ton of books on works for what were long ago called “the slicks.” (There was, for instance, a thick and outraged pile of sniffs, say, after William Shawn tiptoed off from The New Yorker.) Despite reliably broad review coverage — the media loves to investigate itself — such books rarely reach the bestseller list. André Leon Talley’s “The Chiffon Trenches” (2020), which addressed blatant racism in the fashion world, was a brief and shining exception. Talley died in January, and his late April memorial service 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 crazier slideshows. But the clicks trample the slicks.
While walking by a branch of the McNally Jackson bookstore not long ago, I looked up from my phone and saw a copy of Dan Peres’ “As Needed for Pain,” about his time at Details, the inner-city bible that became glossy and folded in 2015. Originally published just a few months before Talley’s book, Peres’s memoir was on the shelf for $1, probably a fitting lottery ticket for a drug and expense report story. (Peres has rallied as editor and associate publisher of Ad Age.)
Brown further documents the vociferous excesses of this era, the austerity measures that followed and, most hilariously, the great silence that followed a furious hunt for “buzz” and even a short-lived, high-profile rival magazine called Talk. “Phones stopped ringing, conversation stopped,” he writes. The office was flooded with rows and rows of silent, headsets, Invisaligned and Warby Parkered twenty-somethings on bouncing balls, gulping slurp in tiny cubicles, tapping their keyboards. The modern workplace turned into a dystopian, Dickensian, Gilliam-esque kindergarten for adults.”
There had been so many spirited dialogues. But we have yet to see the hit book or television show like “Mad Men,” which exudes the true excitement, glamor and urgency of the print magazine business, which, while still existing, has changed beyond recognition and will never be as it was in its bloom. Despite Odell’s diligent efforts to capture Wintour, Gerri Hirshey’s thorough biography of Helen Gurley Brown, “Not Pretty Enough,” and Grace Mirabella’s memoirs, we still await the definitive account of magazine queens of the power and influence of this student association.
Seventeen magazine “was just my dream,” Wintour says in Odell’s book. “I couldn’t wait for it to come every month.” My mom called Seventeen’s big back-to-school song “a piece of junk” and threw it away while I was at summer camp. Years later, still heartbroken at the loss of this knowing big sister, I found a copy of the same song on eBay.
It used to be a lot of junk. But just as Esquire published Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe between the drink ads and cheesecake pictures, Seventeen paid to print short stories by Sylvia Plath and Anne Tyler between the hope chest ads and Maybelline. Plath worked for Mademoiselle for a summer, drawing on her experience there in ‘The Bell Jar’. (For a beautifully specific account of this time, I recommend Elizabeth Winder’s “Pain, Parties, Work”.) Joan Didion developed her compact writing captions for Vogue. It was where she learned “a way of seeing words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”
Young readers graduated from Seventeen, YM, Sassy and the like to the forbidden bounty on the low coffee tables of divorcees: Cosmo and Glamor and Self. “My favorite title of any magazine,” the author Michael Chabon said to me in an interview decades later about Self. He was kidding. But those publications have helped and shaped many young women, just as 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 a “story” is just a relentless series of silly video clips.
Every year, the American Society of Magazine Editors awards a nice prize to a brutalist-looking elephant called the Ellie, modeled after an elephant sculpture by Alexander Calder. Any writer would be proud to have it on the mantel. (Certainly more presentable than the Webby for online work, which has a mind-boggling shape like a feather.) While researching the origins of the elephant, I came across another award, the Ellies, which companies in the North American escalator- and elevator industry.
This is the kind of fact that the internet can reliably deliver in a matter of seconds, and yet the joy of discovering such things has been completely lost.
The history of modern American literature is intertwined with its periodicals. The future can feel like a bunch of loose threads, fluttering in the wind.