Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Talkin' New York

This week's issue of New York features a series of articles on the magazine's founder, Clay Felker, who passed away last week. One of them is written by Felker's first employee, Tom Wolfe. There are also comments from, among others, Felker's wife Gail Sheehy and former New York staffers Pete Hamill, Gore Vidal, and Gloria Steinem (Felker financed the first issue of Ms. magazine). Former New York editor Kurt Andersen also has an interesting piece.

I never really knew anything about Clay Felker before I read the Times' obit, but reading about him this week has been an eye-opening, fascinating crash course in how the magazine got started—how any magazine gets started—and how much New York has shaped magazine publishing since. Andersen writes that "Probably all outsiders (if they are, in [E.B.] White's genius phrase, 'willing to be lucky') mentally compile a New York City field guide and playbook when they're in their twenties and thirties, but Felker did so literally, and published it in weekly serial form." On the art direction tip, there's this little nugget from Milton Glaser, New York's founding design director: "We tried to design a magazine that you could understand completely in ten minutes just by flipping through the pages and using those overarching heads that we always had, and those subheads that sort of explained things."

I'm still kind of processing the whole thing, but it's ultra-inspiring and I recommend checking it out if you're obsessed with magazines, as I am. The whole thing is online, but do yourself a favor, head for the newsstand and pick it up as it was meant to be read.

P.S. On thinking a little more about Felker's approach—Andersen calls it a mix between the descriptive (i.e., about people) and the prescriptive (i.e., about what people should buy or see or experience)—it seems odd to me that no one mentions fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, (or even Vanity Fair, on some level) which had been publishing that mix themselves before New York. They were probably considered fluff, or with a more limited audience, though, and what Felker did was something like that approach, but mixing in "harder hitting" reportage and literary sensibilities, changing the fashion to status, and giving it some ritalin and locality.

Still processing...

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