I'm a sucker for a cheap subscription. For years I subscribed to Vanity Fair because I was able to get it for $1 a month. I paged through each thick issue, gazing upon countless pages of advertising for gaudy watches, men’s colognes, hideous Italian suits, and other merchandise I should not care to own. I did not so much read as glimpse the magazine, ending, always, on a note of slight disappointment, with the Proust Questionnaire or brief celebrity interview at the back of each issue. When they raised the subscription price to $36, I bailed out.
I ponied up 12 bucks for a one-year subscription to a magazine called Details, which, as I recall, also gave me a gym bag along with my subscription—so handy for a man who doesn’t go to any gym. I soon enough discovered that male vanity was featured in the pages of Details: moisturizers, Prada garb, $900 shoes, and all that. God, the architects say, is in the details, but His presence was nowhere to be found in Details. I let my subscription lapse.
I recently subscribed to GQ, or Gentleman’s Quarterly, a magazine that is in fact a monthly and distinctly not for gentlemen. The magazine has lots of small print set out in different colors, and is the reverse of reader-friendly. Intellectuals used to refer to “slick magazines,” by which they denoted, contemptuously, the quality of the paper of journals aiming at a mass market. GQ, like Vanity Fair, is both slick and thick with ads, though without a lot to read. One of its contributors, called the Style Guy, “solves your sartorial conundrums.” Only this month he informed a worried reader to button all the buttons on his double-breasted pea coat, except the collar button, though he allowed that while driving he might want to unbutton the lower button. Hope he set that agitated reader’s mind at rest. The male editor of GQ, whose photograph appears with his “Letter from the Editor” each month, uses ample mousse in his hair. Should a man of my pretensions to seriousness be reading a magazine edited by a man who mousses up his hair?
I recently resubscribed to Esquire for the derisive sum of $5. For this, a mere finsky, I was also allowed to send a free subscription to a friend. How could I say no? The editor of Esquire doesn’t use mousse in his hair, but some may nonetheless have seeped into his brain. In Esquire’s pages advice is offered on what to drink, where and what to eat, how to dress, advice on leading one’s sex life. One gets the idea that the Esquire reader, like the GQ reader, doesn’t negotiate the world too well on his own.
A note from the editor in the most recent issue of Esquire announces a free app that can be used with your iPhone that will “enable you to see video and animation related to stories in the magazine and to make purchases directly from the magazine,” while no doubt also providing you with a nice piece of gefilte fish.
Old and out of it is how reading Esquire and GQ makes one feel. Yet not unhappily old and out of it. I find I am glad not to know the names of rappers mentioned in their pages, content not to read the witless celebrity profiles of the movie stars featured on their covers, delighted not to be entrapped in the shearling-collared 30-pound sweater designed by Ermenegildo Zegna shown in their advertisements.
GQ was never a great magazine, but Esquire once was. Under its founding editor, Arnold Gingrich, it published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Irwin Shaw, and many of the best writers of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. In the 1960s and ’70s, under an imaginative editor named Harold T. P. Hayes, it published Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Malcolm Muggeridge, Dwight Macdonald, and many other lively writers. No matter what the subject, if an article appeared in Esquire, one felt one needed at least to begin reading it; and one usually wound up finishing it and pleased that one had.
Are there no longer writers around to produce such a magazine? Or are there no editors willing to publish things that genuinely interest them instead of what they believe will fascinate and sell products to dopes? The illiteracy of the young, the digital culture, the shortening of the national attention span, these are among the reasons given for magazines’ currently being in lean days. Instead of knocking themselves out whoring after the young, might magazines do better to return to the simple formula of providing articles that remind their readers that the world is an endlessly rich, complex, and amusing place? An app must be available that can help editors rediscover this formula.