Taming the Gorilla*
by Harold Hayes
On hiring, editing, and losing Norman Mailer.
Esquire’s September 1971 cover. Courtesy of George Lois.
Of current American magazines, only a few seem to have strong, discernible personalities: The New Yorker, Time, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, New York, The New York Review of Books, The Realist. Measure the personality of each by the singularity of their features. Magazines with weaker personalities run interchangeable articles. Ideally, an article in any one of these publications should not only be unique to the publication; it should be unsuitable for any other. Thus, the editor’s personality is the magazine’s. Force is gathered by the editor’s obtrusion of his preferences in every aspect of his editorial program. With “total staff” magazines, those edited and written on the premises, the opportunity for obtrusion is greatest, the task easier to perform. The articulation of his preferences becomes ceaseless; he expresses judgment over and over to the same people—his writers and editors, who are always at hand. In such working proximity, “yes” and “no” immediately suggests some obvious guidelines. If he is a strong editor, his preferences are difficult to ignore—simply because he is always there.
It is unlikely that The New Yorker “style” derived from Ross’s specific direction any more than this, nor was Time’s style any more articulated by Luce or Hadden’s (though the official literature suggests differently); rather it was more likely the result of strong editors expressing strongly, on a day-by-day basis, what they approved of and what they did not; the result being two magazines’ voices that are historically unique. This, together with sine qua non: the existence of certain kinds of talent and the editor’s perception to recognize it, hire and encourage it; the Thurbers, Whites, and Gibbs were essential to The New Yorker personality. But their own contributions were necessarily attuned to what they sensed their editor preferred.
There are few editors who sit down and codify their philosophy for the staff.
There simply isn’t time.
But how to construct a personality for a magazine that consists only of a small group of editors who must assign articles, photographs, and illustrations to a large anonymous international horde of freelance contributors? Among these contributors working conditions are dreadful. A self-employed writer accepting an assignment from the magazine must invest as much as six weeks to several months in the research and writing. If his piece is unacceptable, he may expect only a fraction of the amount offered. If acceptable, the piece may be purchased but scheduled for publishing, or in some cases not scheduled at all, at the whim of the editor. Though slightly more secure because their profession is better organized, photographers face similar hazards. Rates of purchase never seem adequate to the creative effort expended except in those very rare instances of “major properties” (the memoirs of Anthony Eden brought $300,000 from McCall’s; William Manchester’s book on Kennedy brought $600,000 from Look). But for most contributors, the magazine business turns out to be not so glamorous as they might have expected. And within such an atmosphere of desperation, choice, and expediency, it is very difficult for an editor to think in terms of building an esprit, a group of steadily improving contributors who would do absolutely anything to make a magazine great and unique, rich with its own original personality. Most contributors are inclined to ridicule the notion. They acknowledge the editor might be so inspired, but mainly because: (1) It’s his magazine; (2) He gets paid every month for what he does.
Beyond this resistance, there is also the problem of the competitive market. A new writer is given his first big chance by the editor. He has talent, looks promising, and very much worth the editor’s personal, Maxwell Perkins-like attention. No one else will take a chance on him. The editor mothers the writer, even in some ill-advised cases loans him money from his own resources. And then—his hunch pays off! “Overnight” the writer is acclaimed, becomes a personality in his own right, a new voice of the modern age. Instantly, and in many cases, he is offered more money. He moves on, of course, to other markets; and who can blame him?
The modern editor who would build a unique personality for his magazine must be unsentimentally aware of these and other hazards. The talent for his magazine comes and goes; those who stay loyal do not always stay happy or, worse, talented; and those few remaining—talented, happy, and loyal—seldom are able to sustain the betrayal an editor must occasionally commit by rejecting his work, whatever the circumstances. For the great body of freelance contributors—most of them interchangeable as it is, and of varying degrees of incompetence—there is little occasion for the editor to worry. They operate against his building of personality. But a writer with an original voice, a sense of his times, the will to work, strong drives, and the need for one magazine above all others to direct his work—such a writer becomes invaluable to the editor’s design. As the writer’s voice grows sure, so does the magazine’s.
There are innumerable examples of the difficulties of sustaining any but the most formal, commercial relations between such writers and a magazine editor. One of the strongest contributors to Esquire’s modern personality was Norman Mailer, and perhaps his history with that magazine, more complex than most, would indicate the character of such relationships today.
Several years before I arrived at Esquire, Norman Mailer had sold a short story to the magazine, the purchase made in the most routine and impersonal fashion through submission by his agent. This was only a few years after the appearance of The Naked and the Dead, when Mailer was still a rather conventional young writer and his eccentricities had not yet turned into public events. There was little held in common back then between the magazine and the author—certainly no sense of a common destiny, as might have been the case thirty years earlier between White and The New Yorker (or with some modification, between Hemingway and Esquire)—and each institution went its separate way until I called his lawyer-agent, Charles Rembar, in 1959 to see a part of his forthcoming book, Advertisements for Myself. As a young editor, I had felt Mailer was becoming a representative writer of our time, and that some of his material might coincide with our editorial intentions, perhaps strengthen our own attempts to broaden the scope of Esquire.
Read the rest of this article, including an introduction by Marc Weingarten, in the current issue.
*(originally titled “The Editor’s Implied Control”)