Farewell, Esquire?

On a layover in Toronto en route to Phoenix several weeks ago, I purchased the latest issue of Esquire magazine at a news shop before boarding my plane and shuffling past crowds of people in the middle of the aisle. My seat was beside a well-dressed man in a navy blue suit who gave a polite smile, looked at the magazine beneath my arm, and said “It’s gotten better hasn’t it? Their issues over the past year or so.”

The kindest response I could give in turn, whilst still maintaining some honesty, was a groan. Not a rude one, but certainly one that conveyed my disenchantment. Deciding to elaborate for the sake of being cordial, I told the stranger that up until its most recent December/January issue, I had continued to buy Esquire every month because I was still holding out some hope that the magazine would make a comeback from its nearly year-and-a-half-long slump into the pop-culture pigpen. After all, that’s what loyal readers of periodicals do, right? They stick with their publications in good times and in bad; sort of like a spouse, except when it comes to a magazine, you get newer better-looking ones every month and you don’t deserve to be arrested if you throw one across the room. At this, the stranger chuckled a bit and shrugged. But as I thumbed through my copy of Esquire during the flight, I realized that I’d finally had enough. The breaking point had been hit. If the relationship of reader and publication was like that of a marriage, I wanted a damn divorce.

53 out of the Esquire issue’s 136 pages were ads, not including “articles” that were also meant to promote fashion brands. If we count promotional articles as advertisements (and I do), then the total came to 66 pages. This means that out of the $6 a reader paid for an issue of Esquire this month, they only received approximately $4 worth of legitimate content.

And let’s talk about the content.

***

In October 1966, Esquire printed a cover and an article that changed America’s perception of the Vietnam War: “Oh my god, we hit a little girl.” The piece, written by war correspondent John Sack, would become a classic of combat journalism. Following an infantry company from their time in basic training to deployment, Sack revealed the grisly details of everyday life in America’s most unpopular conflict, ranging from Viet Cong ambushes to the burning of Vietnamese villages. When the article ended with the unintended killing of a small child, Esquire readers were forced to ask themselves an uncomfortable question: When we send our soldiers to sacrifice on our behalf, do we fully understand what the weight and seriousness of that sacrifice is?

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This wasn’t the magazine’s first venture into literary legend territory. Hemingway published his “Snows Of Kilimanjaro” in the August 1936 issue, and famous writers like Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Tom Wolfe, and Saul Bellow were frequent contributors for Esquire in the 1950s and early-60s. Issues of more recent decades were no less captivating. Gay Talese’s “Boxing Fidel” chronicled a meeting between legendary boxer Muhammed Ali and then-Cuban president Fidel Castro (1996); C.J. Chivers’ “The School” gave us a vivid view of a hostage situation in Beslan, Russia where 1100 men, women, and children feared for their lives in a gymnasium controlled by jihadists (2007); and John Richardson’s “The Abortion Ministry Of Dr. Willie Parker” told the story of a physician flying from his home in Chicago twice a month to operate the only women’s clinic left in the state of Mississippi (2014).

I started reading Esquire in 2006. I was 15-years-old, and going through that rebellious teenage phase where I wanted to hear a fatherly voice but not my dad’s voice. Seeing George Clooney on the cover sporting a classic black suit/black tie and a tranquil grin, I decided he would do just fine as the Virgil to my Dante, guiding me through this interesting cosmopolitan publication where men conversed with the reader on subjects like cooking, music, politics, books, sex, and the world in general, as if you were their trusted confidant.

The editor-in-chief at the time was David Granger, who — from 1997 to 2016 — wrote introductory letters every issue that exuded modesty and professionalism, never flamboyance or pomp. This was a fitting (and refreshing) attitude, given Granger’s compassionate upbringing and humble career start: His father was a social worker, his mother worked with animals, and he himself began writing by doing freelance sports journalism. In fact I would argue that Granger was the best editor Esquire had since Harold T.P. Hayes precisely because of the down-to-earth, straight-to-the-point, brass tacks-yet-gentle style he adopted earlier in his life. One of my favorite regular writers from the Granger era was Tom Chiarella, whose lyrical essays not only were existential how-tos for the bright-eyed and pimple-plagued, but were also — in a sense — a eulogy of what the “American man” used to be (as a freshman in college new to adulthood, I recall being particularly impacted by his 2010 piece “How Do I Know If I’m In Love?”).

Esquire — in my teenage years, in my early-20s, and for decades preceding my existence and my father’s existence and even my grandfather’s existence — was a bible for young men who wanted to impress, charm, improve (however marginally), and, most importantly, engage with society bearing an identity other than the expected TV show-stooge or meatheaded fratboy. In short, it was a magazine for young men who wanted to emerge, not slouch. And how could a magazine like that ever die?

But 2016 was the year of “All good things coming to an end.” While you might be tempted to think I’m speaking of the American presidency, for Esquire readers the news of November 9th was only half as bad as the news given to us by the New York Post nearly four months prior:

“Granger, who was known as a ‘writer’s editor,’ stepped down after Hearst brass decided it wanted someone with more fashion focus who would carry the flag at the red carpet events and develop more digital projects.”

Translation: “We’re looking for someone who cares less about short literature, interviews, journalism, and life advice, and who is instead more open to ads, adverticles, and more ads.” After all, you can’t have fashion without fashion companies, and “digital project” in today’s writing and journalism world is often a flowery way of announcing more publication/brand collaborations and more online content (read: clickbait) intended to generate revenue through… well… clicks.

A visit to the Esquire website today shows the effect Hearst’s new direction has had over the past eighteen months; two minutes of surfing reveal Buzzfeed-esque listicles (“The 50 Coolest Sneakers In 2017The 21 Best Subscription Box Services For Men”), attempts at promoting male “body positivity” beneath images of a shirtless David Beckham (“How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love My Bushy Eyebrows”), and a pinch of social justice (“How To Make Feminist Cocktails” informed me that “Bars should be used for activism,” and that “Bars are community spaces… It’s not all fun and merrymaking to go out and drink.” Well, be that as it may, “I’ll have a Luce Irigaray on the rocks” doesn’t sound like a line that will catch on anytime soon.)

Seven months after the Post article announcing Granger’s resignation, the New York Times announced that Jay Fielden would be his replacement and Hearst’s choice for Esquire‘s “red carpet flag-carrier.” And the new puppet editor, in turn, wasted not a moment swiftly reemphasizing the corporation’s vision of fashion-over-substance:

“In a telling sign that Mr. Fielden plans to blow out fashion coverage, adding color and spectacle, the March issue features a model wearing a ‘cyberpunk meets Outward Bound’ foul-weather ensemble by Prada, including pink scuba sneakers and a raincoat with a print inspired by Google Earth, that might give Jared Leto pause.”

Because that’s what every American man secretly wants. To look like the Creature from the Estrogen Lagoon.

I don’t wish to come across as a person who compulsively hates change, because I don’t, but there really is wisdom in the old southern adage “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” And Esquire wasn’t broken under David Granger. The magazine had great writers. It had neat regular columns and sections — like “Funny Joke From A Beautiful Woman”, “Answer Fella”, and cultural commentary by Tom Junod — that have now been removed to make space for, you guessed it, more ads. The magazine was less about promoting “fashion” and more about teaching style (and lord, is there a difference!) More importantly, the magazine had a devoted readership that kept it afloat, even during the recession when other “staple” Hearst publications for men and women went under, including Cosmo Girl and Men’s Vogue; which is why the decision to increase advertising space and number of adverticles in recent issues of Esquire is so baffling. There is simply no reason, besides greed, to hollow-out Esquire into a mere shell of what it once was and fill the void with empty glam and vapid fluff. Men do not need an Elite Daily in print.

But the departure from what the men’s magazine traditionally has been, in favor of corporate bombardment, could not have been a desire made more clear by its new editor-in-chief:

“There’s no cigar smoke wafting through the pages,” Fielden told the New York Times, “And the obligatory three-Bs are gone too: brown liquor, boxing, and bullfighting.”

All replaced by Prada no doubt.

When asked about how his prior experience editing other magazines would impact the future of Esquire, Fielden replied, “I gave Town & Country some teeth.”

In a piece written by Gear Patrol’s Jeremy Berger on David Granger’s exit, we catch an revealing glimpse of what some of the magazine’s staff thought about the editor who replaced him:

“One Esquire writer called Fielden ‘the anti-Granger,’ pointing to his perceived lack of interest in stories with substance and the writers who pursue them. Whereas Granger is well known for disliking magazines that are ‘safe’ or ‘responsible’ — saying something is a ‘magazine story’ is one of his classic insults — Fielden is considered someone who is quite safe (Town & Country has never won a National Magazine Award; Esquire has received 17 under Granger). Another pulled up Fielden’s Twitter account and asked, rhetorically, whether he’d want to work for an editor who, during a recent Republican presidential debate, tweeted almost exclusively about the candidates’ choices of neckwear (‘One thing Trump and Reagan have in common — the half-Windsor knot. Look at those geriatric silk knots!’). Granger and his writers share a certain blue-collar quality — beyond their former jobs selling bags and shoes — that’s always relatable, even when it reaches intellectually. There is the sense, perhaps unfounded, that Fielden’s milieu is more fashion and celebrity, less journalism.”

Indeed.

“He [Granger] doesn’t complain about Carey’s [president of Hearst] decision to let him go, or run through scenarios of what he could have done differently to avoid it. Besides, like most things, the obvious answer is usually the correct one, and in this case it seems that his passion — richly reported stories — is inconsistent with Carey’s vision of growth for Esquire and Hearst, which will mainly happen through increased web traffic… Black [the former president of Hearst] hired Granger because she was looking for ‘blockbuster journalism.’ In interviews, Carey describes Hearst as ‘a content company, operating with a platform mentality.’ Granger doesn’t use the word content — ever. He talks about ‘stories,’ ‘ideas,’ and ‘writers.’ Carey talks about ‘content’ created by ‘content producers’ and ‘content teams.'”

I first realized I wanted to be a writer when I was 13. All of the boys at summer camp (including high school boys) would have me write their love letters to their camp crushes, after enough times of my telling them that their letters contained sloppy handwriting and poor wording. Notice, I didn’t say I realized I wanted to be a “content producer” at 13. I said I realized I wanted to be a writer. And two years later, Esquire began to play a large role in teaching me exactly how to be one.

Past writers of the magazine like Hemingway, Mailer, Wolfe, Cheever, and Bellow all would have punched you square in the face if you had called them “content producers” or had asked them to content-produce. Why? Because they were writers. Writing is a craft. A craft, admittedly, bestowed more by birth than by learning, but it’s a craft nonetheless. And crafts are foundations that legacies are built upon. A writer understands this. A writer understands that his or her life beyond his or her life will be judged and perceived by the quality of what they wrote. And therefore every page, every sentence, every word that emanates from their pen has to be, must be, writing that they are proud of. What the hell do “content producers” know, and what the hell is the value of the “content” they produce? Can someone tell me who the Gore Vidal of “content production” is? Can Jay Fielden tell me? Can Hearst tell me? Because I can’t help but shake the feeling that the “content production” replacing writing — in this magazine and other publications — is equivalent to handmade furniture being replaced by IKEA. Who will be the millennial Faulkner? Who will be the Talese of the 21st century? This question no doubt is bigger than the fate of a men’s magazine, but as I left the arrivals gate at Phoenix airport and threw the latest Esquire issue in the trash, I knew that it was time to bid the lad-mag farewell… well, actually, just goodbye.

4 comments

  1. After 15 years I sadly broke up with Harper’s because the identity politics articles/roundtables outnumbered the unique journalistic pieces I used to love it for. I’ll check back in with it in a few years and see if they’ve ditched the vapid social justice bullshit.

  2. Great piece, thanks! Too bad nothing as substantial as your article will run in the new Esquire. I had to give up Playboy (after subscribing for decades) for similar reasons. I’m currently in the middle of a similar break-up with WIRED. It used to be a smart, wide-ranging, philosophical magazine that celebrated tech and the people who create it. Now it’s become just another one of the endless voices of politically-correct, virtue-signalling rags that complain about silicon valley and capitalism (biting the hand that feeds it) while slavishly promoting identity politics. As if we don’t have enough media outlets on that bandwagon already. Whatever happened to celebrating technology? Sorry, WIRED, it was nice knowing you.

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