Saturday, August 29, 2009

To be a writer in the good old days

I haven't become a fanatic of the show Mad Men yet, even though I have countless friends who provide breathless recaps each week and count down the hours until the next episode.

Mad Men's beloved for many reasons, and for some it leaves them feeling nostalgic for that era. Maybe they want to be allowed to smoke in the office or drink during lunch or admire women who weigh more than 98 pounds. Advertising people - men, anyway - in particular must feel an affection for the bygone era.

I had the same feelings of nostalgia when reading a pair of books that focus on two of the most influential magazines of the 1960s. "The Franchise" by Michael MacCambridge is the history of Sports Illustrated, while Carol Polsgrove's "It wasn't pretty, folks, but didn't we have fun?" tells Esquire magazine's tale. Today both magazines struggle like every other print publication, searching for ways to make money in an online world, where even Don Draper would struggle to sell magazine ads. Both still produce amazing journalism, whether it's S.L. Price's recent piece in SI on Marc Buoniconti or Tom Junod's 2007 Esquire story on a pathological liar who was somehow in charge of security at a nuclear power plant. These stories - and countless more just like them - rival anything produced by the two magazines during their heydays of the 1960s and '70s. Legends like Gay Talese, Dan Jenkins, Michael Herr, and Frank Deford penned magazine pieces that are still some of the best-known pieces of writing in publishing history. But writers like Price, Gary Smith, Junod, Chris Jones and Charlie Pierce produce stories that are as equally as powerful, if not as famous.

So the superb writing remains. What's changed is publishing. What's changed is the world of magazines, the entire world, not just those two publications. And that's what comes through in the pages of Polsgrove and MacCambridge's books. MacCambridge writes, "By 1966, when SI writers went on assignment, especially in college towns across the Midwest, it was big news Writers would arrive at hotels and find their names up on the marquee." Writers as superstars, bigger even than the games and people they covered.

Jenkins is quoted as saying, of late editor Andre Laguerre, "Laguerre told me three things when I started out. One, I couldn't receive too much hate mail to suit him. Two, I couldn't spend too much money on the road. Three, if any editor jacked with my copy, he would have him killed or fired, my choice."

In a world where the only competition in the written world was newspapers, both magazines could be the definitive sources on whatever subject they covered, whether it was the Super Bowl, Ali or Frank Sinatra. Today hundreds of thousands of words will be written on a game before Sports Illustrated delivers its take. And even if the story has a unique angle, a fresh insight or superior writing - which they usually do - it's easy for it to get lost in the online ocean. Not so back then.

The magazines printed money as efficiently as they did stories. Even as late as 1987, SI's ad revenues increased 23 percent. Today, many publications would be happy if ad revenues fell only 23 percent.

Yeah, it's easy to feel nostalgic for the way the publishing world was back then. For the profits and editorial freedom. But it's important not to get lost in the past, even while appreciating it. Writers today seem to have dwindling opportunities to show their work, but great work will always find a home, no matter the media landscape.

There's a post on the site that should be required reading for any writer, for any writer struggling or successful. Hell, it should be required reading for everyone.

It's the fourth from the bottom post and was written by a top nonfiction writer. It's about his first trip to Paris, when he was 50 years old.

"As it is for many of us, Paris was almost entirely a creation of my own imagination, a fantasy capital for the writers I most admired and the poets and artists of every generation."

After later visiting a room where an old friend once lived and wrote, the writer continues:

"I was overwhelmed by a wave of heartbreaking regret. I looked out the same window my friend had looked out of nearly half a century before and was reminded that I would never be a young novelist working and starving in a soft-focus, technicolor Paris. I had missed it. ... When we came home, I told my friend as much. To my surprise, he told me he'd spent his year there feeling much the same way. That whenever he turned a corner, or took a sidewalk table at the Deux Magots, he was overcome by a sick regret at having missed the Paris of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Stein. The Paris of nearly a half century before, of 1920, of the Lost Generation ... 'You can never have the Paris you imagined for yourself,' he said to me. 'You can only mourn it. You have to learn to love the Paris under your feet.'

Seems to me this is true of our careers as well, that we can never have things as we imagine them to have been for those who came before us. We can only ever have our own work in our own moment, however flawed and hard and colorless that present moment seems to be. To regret too much an age long gone, to miss simpler times that never were, to pine for the days of Rice or Heinz or Liebling, of Sherrod and Laguerre, of the Saturday Evening Post or the New York Herald-Tribune, is to disregard the Paris beneath our feet."

Learn to love the Paris under your feet. They're words to live by, for writers, and everyone else The're words to live by, even when books like The Franchise and shows like Mad Men leave you longing for a different time, and a different place.

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