Friday, June 18, 2004

A Deadly Case Of Esquire Nostalgia

I was 19 when I bought my first Esquire magazine. I'd browsed through library copies from time to time, but wasn't yet compelled to commit any loose change to a magazine that didn't seem to have an identity distinct from Psychology Today. Then they published the November '84 issue.
The cover grabbed me, with the fabulously adolescent juxtaposition of a Playmate-like waif in GI Joe togs. The accompanying article, Why Men Love War by William Broyles Jr., knocked the air out of me and nearly got me enlisted (instead, I read James Jones' From Here To Eternity and The Thin Red Line, whose purple prose convinced me that enlistment and war are "pleasures" best experienced vicariously).

And so I became a regular impulse buyer/reader. The yearly fitness issue was reasonable and informative, providing an entertaining alternative to Sports Illustrated and the comical Weider publications at the time. I literally read every single page of the summer fiction issue (bear in mind, this was the era of Jim Harrison's delirious "Food" column!).

Esquire promptly lost me after it committed two simultaneous brutal moves: they dropped the summer fiction issue (the editor at the time made the jaw-dropping claim that nothing of substance had been submitted) then went and published Smiling Through The Apocalypse: An Esquire History Of The Sixties. The latter is an enormous collection of articles that ran in the magazine during the 60s and early 70s. I was able to find a used copy, which I bought and devoured in three weeks of giddy indulgence. It left me with the unmistakable impression that Esquire's only competition during the 60s was Playboy and Time Magazine. Who'd of thunk it? Esquire was once a magazine that really mattered!

These days Esquire is struggling to become the competition, but it's a little unclear precisely who they hope to compete with. Like every other magazine hoping to attract the male dollar, Esquire apes Maxim, but even by lad standards the cheesecake is aloof and joyless. As for the articles, I'm afraid the last one I remember was the notorious "Cocktail Culture" by Randall Rothenberg, which offered (according to Eye Magazine) the most ridiculous opening sentence in the publishing history of American magazines.

I'm not sure I can point the way to a cure for this ailing magazine, but I do wish they'd reinstate the summer fiction issue. My hunch is if Esquire had been sharp enough to recognize the appeal of genre fiction before McSweeney's did, their newly reinstated summer fiction issue would have killed. Imagine a collection of fiction from established greats like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, alongside young Turks like Dennis Lehane and George P. Pelecanos!

Hmm. I seem to be pounding the genre-fiction pulpit these days. I don't mind reading the stuff on-line, but I have to admit: it's way more fun in print.

No comments: