Esquire's fall from literary grace

Those who are concerned about the quality of our magazines will find cold comfort in the contemporary Esquire, where -- with all due respect to Marshall McLuhan -- marketing is the message. Esquire was once among the best of our cultural magazines. Today, it is one of our best-marketed magazines and, much like supermarket produce bred for color, size, and other ``marketable'' traits, it is a fairly insipid product.

Esquire, founded in 1933, was guided for most of its life by Arnold Gingrich, whose wit and intelligence were reflected on its pages. Gingrich not only drew good authors, he drew good work from good authors. In the '30s, Esquire published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos. In the '60s, considered by some to be Esquire's best years, it published Steinbeck, Baldwin, Mailer.

But Esquire came apart in the '70s. Faced with the loss of Gingrich in 1976, beset by internal and external problems, the magazine was failing in 1979, when it was acquired by Christopher Whittle and Phillip Moffitt. These two young men had made their fortune with the 13-30 Corporation, publishing magazines customized to specific markets and sponsors. Having learned to target audiences for advertisers, they applied their marketing expertise to Esquire.

Few magazines have pursued yuppie readers more aggressively than Esquire, which devoted its entire December issue to the chase. Esquire's 1984 ``Register'' profiled nearly 300 young achievers, creating a kind of Fortune 500 of the baby boomers Esquire would like to call its own. The Register, promoted to advertisers as a ``print event,'' is the most recent in a series of Esquire special issues that included two for its 50th anniversary: ``How We Lived'' and ``Fifty Who Made the Difference.'' Heavily promoted, these specials have drawn advertising and circulation; but the Register, glowing with yuppie appeal, specifically targets upscale young consumers.

Whittle and Moffitt's marketing strategy is turning Esquire around. But the magazine, perhaps because it is aiming at the chic and young, is increasingly a sophomoric product, a publication where the trendy replaces the provocative. Such issues as ``A Celebration of the New American Woman,'' and such features as ``Men and Their Money: The Passion of the Eighties'' or ``Why Men Love War,'' while claiming to make large statements, lack the intellectual weight required for depth and the scope and irony required for sophistication. Banalities are offered as profundities: ``Our mistakes teach us caution, and caution is wisdom,'' reads an ``Ethics'' column headline. Gone are the old Esquire's wit and playfulness: Today's magazine is a self-serious publication where monthly editorials discuss the issue's less-than-weighty contents with an oddly misplaced sense of gravity.

In 1979, longtime Esquire editor Harold Hayes remarked that during the '60s Esquire was a writer's magazine. `` `But what's your game plan?' magazine brokers and market strategists always ask, `What's your market?' '' Hayes reminisced in The New Republic. ``The answer now seems even odder than it did then: just divvy up the space you have among the best writers you can find and give them interesting things to write about.''

As a writer's magazine, Esquire was intelligent, literate, witty, provocative. Would such a publication today be unable to find an audience? Or is the problem that it couldn't find a market? ``It's very easy for a magazine to maintain, no matter what, the standards of the past -- and to go under,'' said Hayes in 1981. Apparently, it's also quite easy for a magazine to abandon those standards and, if it is well-marketed, to thrive.

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