You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

July 01, 2008

Clay Felker, RIP

By: Michael Gerber

Legendary editor Clay Felker has died at 82; here's the NYT obit.

Along with his one-time Esquire-mate Harold Hayes, Felker has always been a bit of a hero of mine. His New York continued in the 70s what Hayes had demonstrated in the 60s: the vision of a magazine as a beautiful, lively, important thing. "Beautiful" because it was written and designed passionately, by artists like Tom Wolfe and Milton Glaser. "Lively" because it was fully integrated into the culture, not apart from it, and examined it all. (In a magazine like Hayes Esquire or Felker's New York, nothing was too small that it did not deserve a bit of intelligence to illuminate it; nor too big that it could escape a bit of puncturing wit.) "Important" because it had some power of its own.

The great magazines of the 60s and 70s--Esquire, New York, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon--these were the last batch that introduced ideas into the culture in the way only TV and movies do today. Not coincidentially, Felker's generation was the last group of really top-flight creative people to enter the business, and I would guess that was because they grew up before TV began rewiring our brains. There is something about having to come up with the images on your own that gives print and radio a different kind of imaginative rigor, and all our misplaced populism about TV and movies (really a sort of wishful present-ism) doesn't change that.

In Felker's magazines there was a willingness to address any topic, in any way that suited it best. This is a function of intellectual confidence, in themselves and their product and above all their readers, that editors simply don't show anymore. (I suspect they could have it, in the right environment; my friend Ed Park did some great editing at The Believer.) Heading down the chain of command to artists and writers, the uncertainty only increases--a magazine's content is only as audacious as the editors controlling it.

And so people with the capacity of a Felker or Glaser or Wolfe don't go into magazines today, because what a magazine is, and what it is for, has devolved into something unworthy of them. With very few exceptions, the American magazine business can be seen as an arm of advertising, and shares with advertising all of its flaws: its lack of substance; its obsession with surface; its confusion of currency with importance; its manipulative aspect; and above all its tendency to repeat itself. But unlike advertising, there is no driving force behind the modern magazine. In our time, selling something is an utterly elemental pursuit; a magazine is simply a vehicle, one among many, no more beautiful or necessary than a billboard.

Most really intelligent people aren't interested in, say, Justin Timberlake; and those really intelligent people who must force themselves to keep up with such things are, in my experience, gloomy tending toward miserable. Successful or not, they live in the chilly shadow of their own wasted potential. You cannot work in American magazines without ceding some portion of your brain over to topics that really only enthrall 13-year-olds, and though the same thing is true to a certain extent in TV and movies, the brute amount of money flowing through those industries means that a lot of offbeat and interesting stuff happens in spite of itself. Not so with magazines.

Felker said, "I believe that print — now that broadcast has become the dominant mass media — has to be aimed at educated, affluent people.” This is undoubtedly correct, on both the ad and edit sides, and grows more so by the day. As print retreats, its few gestures towards mass appeal are merely cross-promoting truly popular forms like TV or movies. But it is a shame; there are certain things that print can do better than other media, and need to do if we're going to have a well-functioning country. The newspaper experience can be replicated via internet; for the moment magazines are still trapped on paper. Killed by the old technology, not yet saved by the new one, those few magazines that still insist on their own territory--that demand the reader come into their sphere, not simply consume more facts about famous strangers in a slightly different way--are more irrelevant than ever.

Felker's New York probably hastened that slide, in that what it spawned wasn't a new generation of Glasers and Wolfes, but a puffy lifestyle magazine for every mid-sized city. Art is difficult, and the gap between success and failure large and obvious. Commerce is a much more predictable transaction; and so without someone at the top who is completely committed by the idea of creating a new world of the mind via ink on paper, a magazine inevitably declines into just another way to make a buck, and a not very efficient one at that.

—Michael Gerber

Posted at July 1, 2008 03:09 PM

Most really intelligent people aren't interested in, say, Justin Timberlake; and those really intelligent people who must force themselves to keep up with such things are, in my experience, gloomy tending toward miserable. Successful or not, they live in the chilly shadow of their own wasted potential.

I don't see your point.

I'd say more, but my GQ profile of Charlize Theron is due in two hours.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 1, 2008 03:16 PM

There is something about having to come up with the images on your own that gives print and radio a different kind of imaginative rigor, and all our misplaced populism about TV and movies (really a sort of wishful present-ism) doesn't change that.

Nonsense. Why is "having to come up with the images" the ultimate in imaginative rigor? Might as well say that silent movies are vastly superior to print, because you have to come up with the words yourself.

Posted by: ethan at July 1, 2008 05:15 PM

Why is "having to come up with the images" the ultimate in imaginative rigor?

I don't know if it's the ultimate in imaginative rigor, but I suspect coming up with images requires more brain power, and hence gives your imagination more of a work out, than coming up with substitutes for your other senses.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 1, 2008 05:25 PM

Ethan, I didn't write "the ultimate"; I wrote "a different kind."

You may disagree, but I find that intellects nurtured by TV and movies seem to be textured differently than those that were shaped primarily by radio and print. We can argue whether or not this change is a net positive or not, but it seems pretty clear that it has helped destroy print magazines as any kind of cultural force.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at July 1, 2008 09:26 PM

Sorry. I'm pretty cranky and emotional recently, and both "nonsense" and "the ultimate" were overreactions. I should also have mentioned that I agree with just about everything else you said. Except for the thing about Justin Timberlake. I like pop music and I won't apologize for it. I like other things, too.

There may be a difference between brains shaped by TV and brains shaped by text, absolutely. Mine was shaped by both, so I can't be sure*. But I also think that the problem with visual media isn't so much the format as the content (although I'm sure Woody Allen could drag Marshall McLuhan out from behind a cardboard cutout to tell me what an idiot I'm being here), not to mention the ownership. From the beginning TV was owned by a very small number of corporations, where until relatively recently print magazines were owned by a much more diverse group. I'd wager that's the main reason that magazines used to be more lively than TV, and that the Conde Nastification of all of them is primarily why it's no longer the case.

Basically, it seems to me that any medium is as good as its content, and my relationship to it is as good as my ability to engage with it.

*I'm also young enough that I have no experience of magazines as you describe them.

Posted by: ethan at July 2, 2008 12:58 AM

Oh, and also sorry for pooping on your obituary piece. That wasn't classy.

Posted by: ethan at July 2, 2008 01:11 AM

No worries, Ethan! Your point about diversity of ownership is well taken. I have a suspicion that TV in particular interfaces with our sensory apparatus in ways that may not be wholesome, but that's just a suspicion, and since I'm in the middle of writing my first TV pilot, I mustn't be too concerned (or easily co-opted). :-)

Full disclosure: I'm only 39, and became aware of said mags after they'd faded. So there might be a bit of "in those days, men were giants" revisionism going on. Still, I remember the day I discovered the big bound volumes of Hayes' Esquire at Sterling Library--I stayed up 'til closing reading Michael Herr's stuff from Vietnam...Thrilling.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at July 2, 2008 03:54 AM

Clay Felker worked with Gloria Steinem in the CIA propaganda mill at the Helsinki World Youth Festival in 1962. Steve and Cokie Roberts were also toiling for the CIA in Helsinki. The cover organization was the Independent Research Service.

You can read a sanitized version of Steinem's work in an interview in the NYTimes 2/21/67. That was before she became a "feminist" and was squired by Henry Kissinger and Stanley Pottinger. That was her next assignment.

In order to fully understand the penetration of the free press by the intelligence community (and the incestuous relationship between the intelligence community and the press), an examination of the findings of the seventies congressional investigations into the CIA is necessary. Hundreds of reporters, editors, owners of newspapers and magazines, were agency-connected. That was back in the seventies.

Also, read Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960 by Christopher Simpson.

Back during Watergate, when the big riddle that the country's press corps agonized over was who "Deep Throat" was, and yet no one ever mentioned Bob Woodward's history with the Office of Naval Intelligence and his top secret clearance in the Pentagon (or his editor Bed Bradlee's work out of the Paris CIA office,for ex) then it's pretty clear that the fix was in. The fix is always in.

Clay Felker was owned. He might have been an entertaining puppet and his writers may have written with intelligence but they were shoveling the shit that his owners wanted the public to read and believe. The blinders that he gave us to wear fit well.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at July 2, 2008 10:26 AM

now THAT, mr ethan, is how you poop on an obituary :)

Posted by: almostinfamous at July 2, 2008 12:28 PM

I hear you, Bob--before I ever knew who Clay Felker was, I was snooping around the territory you speak of; I was the only kid at Oak Park High browsing the Church Committee report during study hall.

Gloria Steinem also worked for Harvey Kurtzman's "Help!" magazine--yet I still can laugh at that (and wish there were something like it around today). Julia Child was OSS/CIA, and I can still eat her recipe for coq au vin. Bob Woodward's status as an asset doesn't really inform my opinion of "Wired," though maybe it should. I'm not disputing your point, which I think is absolutely valid and utterly necessary, just demonstrating its limits. (For me.)

Felker wasn't just "owned" by the government, he was "owned" by all the corporations that advertised in his magazines, and by his business partners, and--most importantly--by his own weaknesses. One does not get to be Clay Felker without lusting after power and influence. I can still like his magazines; furthermore, I can still praise the positive aspects of what he helped create, without denying or apologizing for the negative things he aided.

I think your comment is an excellent thing to keep in mind when assessing Felker. Thank you for adding it.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at July 2, 2008 02:00 PM

Agree, Mike. The big picture can always be discouraging, and it can be frustrating that smart articles in Esquire run side by side with company propaganda. Every time I read a new revelation by Sy Hersh I am cursed knowing that this information didn't arrive by some patriot risking his life to spread the truth, but rather is a leak from another faction within the military-industrial complex which is opposing the Cheney wing's adventurism. A close review of Sy Hersh will show you this.

Anyway, I used to enjoy New York Magazine way back when. It's just now in my cranky dotage that I taste the poison mixed in my drinks and am apt to spit from time to time.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at July 2, 2008 03:11 PM