Details is a magazine that has gone through numerous makeovers during the past decade (what one editor characterized as “the long, horrific struggle”) in an effort to create a sexy, stylish, provocative, culturally important, and profitable magazine for men. None of these efforts was successful enough not to be thrown out and started all over again. Six months ago, after the failure of its last makeover, an attempt to imitate the British beer-and-babes import Maxim (known in the trade as a “lad” magazine), Details was shut down and its staff fired or transferred within Condé Nast, its parent company. Still, with an uncharacteristic corporate stubbornness, the company did not allow the magazine to die. Rather, its corpus was moved from Condé Nast to Fairchild, the recently acquired Condé Nast sister company, where, it was shortly announced, the process would recommence. The sixth editor in ten years was named and charged with creating a magazine – on sale this week – that will once again try to define male sensibility and aspirations, that certain upwardly mobile kind of masculinity.
Which prompts such questions as, Why would a company, a company principally devoted to women’s magazines at that, continue to compound its repeated failures to create such a men’s magazine? Why such insistence? Why this pursuit? This quixoticness? What is to be gained? Or proved?
It is unlikely that such Sisyphean efforts can just be about making money. Indeed, it is most likely that ever more money will be lost. Also, the accepted moneymaking formula – evident not just in Maxim but in the British lad magazine FHM, which recently launched here, and in the most successful of the British lad titles, Loaded – was distasteful enough for Condé Nast that after Details’ brief flirtation with this lower end of men’s-magazine sensibility, the company decided to junk everything but the magazine’s name.
I think it’s a pride thing. Much of Condé Nast’s management has been personally involved, after all, in trying to get Details to succeed. But perhaps even more nagging, if you are a man in the magazine business, then at one time or another you have most likely thought, possibly obsessively, certainly enviously, about making your own men’s magazine – of having that kind of influence, that kind of cultural meaning. It’s hard to give up on this, hard to give up on wanting to get it right.
If you are indeed a man and a magazine professional, you should be able to make a magazine as meaningful and as influential as the magazines you grew up on – Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and, indubitably, Mad. Si Newhouse may run the world’s most influential women’s magazines, but he did not grow up reading them.
The advent of a new generation of men’s magazines, the gross and obvious kind, as well as the one-note men’s magazines, makes the reinvention of the smart and influential (sexy and snobby and funny and stylish and literate) kind all the more pressing an issue.
Men’s magazines are not like women’s magazines (I remember when women used to ask, Why isn’t there an Esquire for women?). They command a different kind of loyalty: We (at least we in the magazine business) don’t seem to outgrow them; they, the magazines in memory, remain more sophisticated than we’ll ever be.
I know editors who have built collections – guarding them jealously – of the large-format Esquires from the sixties. In Los Angeles, at the Democratic Convention, the magazine writer Eric Alterman was describing to a group of (male) journalists the party he’d attended at the Playboy Mansion, which, shortly, became a tell-us-tell-us discussion about the famous Playboy Mansion Grotto, which, I think, stands not so much for a certain order of hedonistic life as for a certain sort of idealized magazine life – when you might have met all sorts of writers swimming in Hef’s pool. There is about the men’s magazine, or the myth of the men’s magazine, a nostalgic affection for writing. Writing as a manly activity.
Which is not, of course, to underestimate the sex thing. For the kind of man who might be interested in creating a men’s magazine, there is nothing more erotic than sex in a magazine. Video or Internet sex doesn’t compare.
I have known many men who have attempted to rejuvenate existing men’s magazines or who have attempted to start new ones. They have all been, in greater or lesser ways, frustrated or wounded by the experience. It is not just, I think, because creating a men’s magazine involves an unattainable and conflicted view of masculinity (although we should not underestimate this either) but, even more complexly, because it involves an unattainably perfect ideal of magazines – profitable and literary.
Now the advent of a new generation of men’s magazines, the gross and obvious kind (Maxim has a circulation of near 2 million), as well as the one-note men’s magazines, the health books or fitness titles or adventure or fashion guides, makes the reinvention of the smart and influential (sexy and snobby and funny and stylish and literate) kind all the more pressing an issue. What would it take to do this right?
Ten years ago, I was having the discussion about American men’s magazines with Michael VerMeulen, the defining editor of British GQ, possibly the closest living equivalent to this mythic men’s magazine (British GQ bears very little resemblance to American GQ). Although many British journalists of my acquaintance verge on the dissolute – sloppy drunks trying to cadge a free meal – Michael, an American who was shortly to become an English legend, outdid them all. Wearing a loud rumpled shirt (he seemed to choose for himself American or British character traits depending on which was the most obnoxious or extreme), not thin but not nearly as fat as he was about to become, his hands shaking from a previous long night on the town, he was then just a features editor at British GQ – at that time a not-very-successful imitator of the fashion and male-grooming aspects of its American cousin.
VerMeulen was steeped in the lore of a prior generation of American magazines. He claimed in fact to have had a kind of sixties-style journalist’s career in the U.S. (although this was 1990 and he was 33), to have even, he said, passed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan for Rolling Stone (this was hard even for the English to believe). But it was Esquire-in-the-sixties, a magazine that he was not old enough to pretend to have written for, that most of all was the focus of his obsession. His was a deeply romanticized notion of not only what magazines could be but what a person working on such a magazine should be. A men’s magazine should not be a reflection of what we think men want to read but should be, he said with high romanticism, a reflection of the life the editor leads. The life. If it was an interesting life, then the magazine would be interesting.
I found this all to be expat-ish and quaint. Indeed, he was in London, he said, because all the best talent in England had been exported to New York, giving him, he figured, a better chance there than here (just at this moment, James Truman, the British journalist, was revamping Details in New York).
Still, I was surprised when, in fact, in 1992, he got the chance to take over British GQ. How did the Brits fall for this? I wondered.
But all of a sudden, there on international newsstands, was something close to one’s mind’s-eye idea of a men’s magazine. It was rude and serious, flip and earnest, left-wing and acquisitive, drunk and sober, of high and low disposition, respectable and kinky, with a rigorous discipline of providing what VerMeulen characterized as “neat shit to buy.” He also put all the good writers he knew to work. And it was dirty – funny dirty, teasy dirty. Sex as an editorial act.
It was, the Brits said admiringly, very American. On the other hand, it was also the Groucho Club – that very English establishment of journalists and alcohol and, as they say in London, “lovely ladies,” where Michael spent a large part of every day – come to life.
It was high energy. Manic. It was Michael’s life.
Almost overnight, it was a success. VerMeulen became an English sensation. He reversed Tina Brown.
Peter Preston theorized in the Guardian that VerMeulen’s instinct was to turn on its ear the notion that journalism was “a pseudo-posh, stolidly respectable profession.” It was for VerMeulen, says Preston, “very rough trade.”
Fat, alcoholic, loud, louche, drug-addicted, a connoisseur of English prostitutes (I declined to accompany him one night), he became the model man for the next generation of men’s magazines. He was, with just a little critical interpretation, if you took away the snarkiness and the snobbishness and the anarcho tendencies, if you ignored the fact that he was also a good editor who was fond of good writers, a maximum lad.
Still, no matter his personal idiosyncrasies, what he did worked so well that the scuttlebutt had him returning to America to become the editor of American GQ. Except then, five years ago just the other day, he died.
You can partly blame this on men’s magazines. Or on the life needed to inspire a men’s magazine.
I was talking about men’s magazines last week with Randy Rothenberg, who did a painful stint trying to revive Esquire. Had celebrity journalism, we wondered, and all that fawning, undermined the authority of the men’s magazines (we blamed this on the Brits, who used celebs to impose a class pecking order)? Was it the leveling or absorption of urban Jewish culture (so you could no longer have that interesting juxtaposition of Jewish writing and Waspy furnishings) that had taken the edge away from men’s magazines (frat boys as well as urban Jewish kids could now feel perfectly comfortable picking up Maxim)? Did it have to do with the dominance of the fashion advertisers and their dictates? Was it the lack of irony or rebelliousness inherent in the entrepreneurialism of the age?
But what seemed most true was a notion Randy had about the Volkswagen Beetle and the effect of unrequited nostalgia. When the original Beetle was discontinued, he recounted, the company went into a terrible decline. Nothing would revive it. Anything the company did that was not the Beetle itself was tainted. Neither the company nor the marketplace could get the idea of the Beetle out of its head. There was no going forward. That wouldn’t and couldn’t happen until virtually all the people in the company and in the marketplace who remembered the Beetle had died. Only then could VW reinvent it.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts for the new guys at Details. Good luck, and congratulations.