Clay Felker: Agonizing Ecstasies

California Monthly, April,2005

by Kerry Tremain

Berkeley biologist Daniel Koshland, who served for many years as the editor of Science, recently asked me what I enjoy most about being an editor. My spontaneous answer: I like working with writers. Although true, that answer soon didn’t seem quite adequate to me, and a glass of Pinot Grigio later, I revised my comment. What I really enjoy, I told Dan, is how the work feeds my curiosity. The longtime creative director for Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch, famously repeated to his staff his mantra—“Astonish me!”—until it was no surprise to hear it. Like him, I love to be astonished.

Of course, it’s both things: The joy of being an editor is to work with writers, but particularly those who have something revealing to say, and a fresh way of saying it. The greatest reward is to encourage the talented, and to see their work through to the printed page, even when getting there agonizes both editor and writer. Simple praise can be helpful, or the ticket to mediocrity. Yelling, crying, sulking, and begging are not unknown to occur. If done well, the reader never notices.

As the writers featured here attest, no one mastered the push-and-pull intensity of editing better than Clay Felker. Together with artist Milton Glaser, whose sketch of Felker graces our cover, he founded New York magazine in 1968, which under his leadership became not only a nucleus of great writing, but also the progenitor of an entire genre of writing that came to be known as the “New Journalism.” This genesis has been so obscured (and, sadly, sometimes degraded) by the many subsequent iterations of the form that its original genius can be overlooked. Inspired by influences as diverse as new psychological theories and the innovative films of the period, New Journalism was emotion ally charged and cinematic; its writers crafted dramatic, often socially portentous scenes for readers. They trash-canned what they regarded as the pseudo-objective third person of traditional journalism in favor of a deeply reported and boldly colored style of first-person writing. They took sides in the cultural conflicts of the time, and aimed squarely at the big social issues. No minimalism here.

Contemporary magazine features that employ fictional techniques of dialogue and description trace to this period, and especially to the writers that clustered around Felker’s magazine. Even the snarky meta-voice of blog culture owes a debt to the no-sacred-cows innovations pioneered by Tom Wolfe in works like Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and by Gloria Steinem, whose Ms. magazine (birthed with Felker’s assistance) popularized the idea that “the personal is political.”

As Nora Ephron here points out, New York magazine did more than that. By inspiring the growth of city magazines, it changed the way people lived. The community of readers and writers it created—and creating such a convergence is what great magazines do—brought a new criticality and aesthetic to what they ate, watched, listened to, consumed, and read.

In 1977, Felker moved to California, first to create New West magazine, and then, to our great fortune, founded the Felker Magazine Center at Northgate Hall. There, he has inspired and cajoled new generations of journalists to greatness. I’m sure that were he to comb through our lineup of articles on writing—which includes stories on the psychological treacheries and physical limitations of war reporting, on science fi ction, and (my favorite) recently translated essays on wartime Shanghai by Eileen Chang—he would trim this, blow up that, and add something ineffable, as he always has, to the magazine.
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—Kerry Tremain

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