"Hollingsworth" by Ben Gately Williams
Is it pure trashiness for The Oxford American’s editor to bash another Southern magazine?
“Garden & Gun isn’t really about guns or gardens…both are metaphors for the Southern lifestyle: authentic, Old School, unapologetic.”
—CBS This Morning
“We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”
Lord, I have tried to keep this space clear of the vitriol I have been known to hurl, offsite, at an Oxford American competitor—the fancy “lifestyle”/Southern-culture magazine out of Charleston, South Carolina, called Garden & Gun. (GAG to its foes; G&G to its partisans.) Yes, invective has been uttered, here and there, but in print I have restrained myself—and I give praise unto that restraint because holding one’s caustic jabber in mixed company is a sure trait of manners, is it not?
About those other incidents: One time, seated at dinner next to a charming food writer/blogger, I said, “Garden & Gun looks like the South as directed by Robert Redford.” The foodie let out the cutest squeal of “Love that!” and started—click, click, click—to tweet my comment. She had already told the table she doted on G&G and, further, that she only tweeted happy lines so I realized there had been a misdiagnosis—and stopped her. I meant that as a dig, I said, not praise. (Robert Redford’s camera, see, would fetishize pretty surfaces—hot, sexy sunlight twinkling off the nickel in a mule’s harness; a moody shadow luxuriating on the backside of a crumbling barn.) I’m not sure if I can describe the tweeter’s expression at this twist.
Other such sniping by me in the great outdoors has caused some people in earshot to wonder why can’t I just shut my trap about G&G and rise above the fray in dignified silence? Why can’t I just allow our respective magazines to speak for themselves?
I get that the real supermen are those who turn their other cheeks, who rebuke through silence or a shift in posture or expression.
Well, for one, I am not super (or super quiet or especially mannered). For another, when it comes to magazines, and how well or poorly they engage this beloved South of ours, I do, in fact, have a dog in this fight. (You are holding him!)
I’m not even sure silence about a beloved one is always dignified. I.B. Singer wrote, “A morally neutral human being is a monster.” This comment has poked at me for years, and, of late, I’ve worried that my print-silence is nothing better than hypocrisy or cowardice.
It seems every time I’ve picked up a Garden & Gun (I’ve seen about half of their issues), I’ve had to suppress an urge to run amuck in this space. But I’ve held off—till now. The change began the other week when I was stopped by these words in The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence by Tom Peters:
I believe that the Mother of [Almost] All Innovation is…fury. Abiding anger at the way things are…. As far as I’m concerned there is one and only one “source of innovation”… “seriously pissed-off people.”
For a few days, I seemed to be walking around in debate with Peters. Fury, what fury? Don’t you know that people start things out of an excess of love, peace, warmth, and good fellowship?
This need to assure myself that, as a man of peace, only soothing and loving qualities flowed through me while I helped create this magazine—in another century, children—was clearly nagging at me.
To address the matter once and for all, I pulled out the very first issue of The OA (1992) and revisited my first editorial—which I had titled “Declaration of Intent,” so as, you know, to relay a perfectly pompous tone. A few lines from it:
People here are bored and disgusted with the sentimental and clichéd depictions of the South that are rerun in the so-called Southern magazines of record. Those periodicals rarely portray the real life that is around.
Suddenly, it all came back to me and I noticed the fury I had forgotten. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the only Southern magazines I recall seeing in Oxford, Miss., were Southern Living and Mississippi. Both magazines flaunted a South that seemed cordoned off for the private use and pleasure of wealthy white people. In those pages, I did not see the poorer, grittier, younger, and slightly more integrated South that I was coming to know. Nor did I encounter good writing. By then, I had fallen hard for Southern lit and the complete absence of intellectually adventurous writing in these and related publications repulsed me. I had been told—over and over—that to understand the South you had to understand how utterly committed natives are to toasting, if not imbibing, tradition. So how in the hell could anyone publish words from here while daring to ignore the South’s profound and penetrating literary heritage? (Answer: To make money.)
In 1992, just as now, I went on:
We will not publish pieces about family reunions, or recipes, or beauty contests, or picturesque porches, or local anchormen, or picnicking, or interior decorating, or lovely gardens, or Southern soap opera stars. We abandon these concerns to our narcissistic and stagnant competition. [We will not publish] articles about, or for, [our] richest subscribers.
Be careful, peeps, what you commit to print. Though we have not yet succumbed to the Southern-magazine porch fetish, I could’ve sworn I’ve spotted a recipe or two in our pages—and isn’t there a piece on gardens in this issue?
While my 1992 anti-list may have bombed as prediction, the larger truth, I hope, remained a fair, if acidic, challenge to the attitude and content of the Southern magazines then ruling.
The fact that many people like to read about food and gardens was not what rankled—nor does it. (I wish I had clarified that idea, come to think of it.) What rankled was, instead, the complacency in which those powerful Southern magazines existed and how they claimed to be about “The South” at the same time they excluded so much and so many from their perspectives—and pages.
The gist of my problem with Garden & Gun is that I perceive in it a similar exclusivity—a similar whitewashing of the South.
I am glad Garden & Gun exists. Its design and photographs can be exemplary—as can some of its writing. I also acknowledge that variety improves the cultural scene. And that Southern writers need paying outlets—more, in fact, than the two under discussion here. The more surviving Southern writers do, the more those who enjoy their work benefit—a group that includes the editors of competing magazines.
When it comes to their conception of the writing game, though, G&G can seem more “Yankee” than anything else—“Yankee” in the baseball/George Steinbrenner sense. Instead of crafting a winning team through the scouting and nurturing of young talent, the late Steinbrenner just used gobs and gobs of money to buy up veteran talent on the free-agent market.
Three G&G columnists are former or current OA columnists (Roy Blount, Jr., Julia Reed, and John T. Edge). Not that I ask you to weep for Conway, Ark. Some of us play better, not in the absence of competition, but when it’s fierce.
And yet I’ll confess to the blow we felt in losing Blount’s column to Garden & Gun (he still writes for us—see our previous issue—just not as frequently). Blount has long been a house fave—he made his first OA appearance in issue one and I am powerless to do anything but praise him. (From a G&G column on fishing: “Catch and release, to me, is playing with your food.” That’s genius!) I’m just thankful we were sporting enough ourselves to reel in mighty Jack Pendarvis to take over Roy’s spot. Jack’s example shows us that in the abundant South there is more than one whose humor always scores, whose acute sense of rhythm always pleases, whose phrasing is so out-and-out fresh as to be downright impudent!
The headliners to be found in G&G are reliable or stellar vets: Rick Bragg, Pat Conroy, Winston Groom, Clyde Edgerton, Rick Bass, and the like. But where is the burning in the deep of G&G’s gut, the fire that sparks their editors into action as more than snazzy repackagers? Where is the hard proof that G&G sweats or prays or battles to discover and groom new talent? Who are the language-besotted up-and-comers they believe in, the whizzes of incandescent prose and poetry, the brainy dare-devils?
Self-praise is not enough. (G&G on itself: “Garden & Gun’s soul is about great contemporary Southern writing”; “Garden & Gun is the first magazine in a long time to realize that the South is about more than sweet tea and pecan pie”; G&G keeps “pushing the boundaries of what a Southern magazine can do.”) Editors prove their keenness not by saying so—but by showing so…indelibly with grace and love; indomitably with guts and blood.1
The photographs are beautiful. That’s worth repeating. This was evident from their debut when the very aptly named Squire Fox was able to elevate an assignment of photographing outdoorsy rubber boots into all-encompassing escapism. Thanks to the dewy-looking models in those boots, and to Fox’s talent and ardent imagination, the Southern rural life suddenly looked like ground zero for a sexy weekend lark or a high-tone catalog—instead of farmland as necessity, it was farmland as fantasy; a coy, pseudo-European playhouse for the Beautiful and “well-heeled.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy, says one who fantasizes. But a lot? The lavish treatment of visuals is now a G&G trademark. Anything photographed has to look more fabulous than it ever has—be it a barbecue sandwich, a snifter of booze, a pecan pie, a fox or turkey or dove hunt, a private room in a private club, a canoe, or a beagle (“the Rolls-Royce of hunting dogs”). With this handling, all objects become objects of desire.
Some of what you find in their pages just doesn’t jibe. Remind me, please, how costly baubles from outside the region qualify as accoutrements of “the Southern lifestyle”? Examples: The $78,800 Patek Philippe wristwatch; the $1,200 Gucci riding boots; the $87,500 Fabbri Majestic (rifle); the $150,000 earrings by Buccellati; the $4,900 Nicholas Varney cufflinks; the “price upon request” Michael Kors dress. Even more, how do these geegaws, which pop up incessantly, represent the “Soul of the South” (the magazine’s cover-line motto)?
Do G&G editors think all they need to do is nestle insane luxury items in the vicinity of humbler and certifiably Southern-made items (like shelled peanuts, baskets, kindling, and cheese straws) for us to be fooled into thinking there is nothing wrong with this picture?
Are we fooled?
In an interview in its first issue, the Alabama super-chef Frank Stitt came close to inadvertently defending some of what transpires in G&G when, in an unrelated context, he explains Nietzsche’s ideas for living: “It’s about trying to do something honest and singularly good, and right, and beautiful. It’s about realizing that it’s okay to pursue beauty.”
It’s dispiriting that G&G itself hasn’t tried, out in the open, to articulate, to defend, to own the “lifestyle” it propagates. (Instead, they just praise its surface manifestations.) Of course, aping Chef Stitt’s argument is not enough because we’d reply that Nietzsche’s pursuit of beauty should not be dumbed down to the pursuit of $78,800 wristwatches (or that there is much that is “honest” in such wristwatches). But at least such a tussle would be more provocative than G&G’s current disengagement.
The danger here isn’t with people being rich or people dreaming about being rich. (Even if G&G is playing the “class” card, there’s no reason to overreact in the same way.) The problem is with the clean, clear equating of “the Southern lifestyle” or the “Soul of the South” with unthinking materialism.
There are also cracks in the specific G&G lifestyle that is so thunderously advocated. Add up all these gorgeous pictures of fox hunts, mint juleps, turkey hunts, polo matches, refurbished mansions, forest-sized gardens, pure-bred beagles, expensive fishing reels, silver flasks, artisanal knifes, engraved rifles, sexy riding crops, and what do you get but a near-replaying of The Old South Plantation Myth? Of course, the Myth is being updated so that it’s greener (“conservation” is a G&G catchphrase), sportier (everyone is an “avid sportsman”—phew—and not an actual plantation owner), hipper, younger, sexier, wittier—and on better terms with gender and race. But the New Myth still toys with much that is unspoken.2
There is nothing wrong with improving The Plantation Myth (or—do I really need to say it?—with hunting or fishing or polo), but the claim that this Myth universally embodies “the Southern lifestyle” needs to be analyzed. The lack of humility and awareness in not even being able to say “a Southern lifestyle” is perverse—and revealing.
In a recent segment on CBS This Morning, the current editor of Garden & Gun, David DiBenedetto, was asked if “any subjects [were] off-limits” to the magazine.
DiBenedetto: “Yeah. Politics, religion, and SEC football.”
This produced a chortle from the segment’s correspondent, Jeff Glor: “No way! No how!” You could tell Glor thought that the juxtaposing of SEC football with politics and religion was precious. (So precious, in fact, that it allowed him not to question what it means to ban politics and religion from a portrayal of a people and region.)
Later, there was this voiceover from Glor: “[Garden & Gun has] no preconceived notions about the South, thank you very much.”
The segment ends with Glor being quizzed about his assignment by the show’s hosts: Charlie Rose (of North Carolina), Gayle King, and Erica Hill.
Hill (pleased): “It’s interesting that they say ‘no agenda’ here, and they actually rejected an ad from the NRA.”
Glor (also pleased): “Yeah. The NRA wanted to place an ad in Garden & Gun and Garden & Gun said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Listen: No agendas, no politics, no religion, again, no SEC football.’”
Glor works from a pussycat-soft media environment in which opinion is treated as fact. In which talking heads are nodding heads and the appearance of journalism is valued more than the reality of journalism because it’s easier and cheaper—and who’s going to notice anyway?
I’m baffled by the weird lack of criticism that G&G somehow inspires. (A colleague and I Googled in vain for substantive disapproval of G&G. Zip. Maybe heated letters have been published in issues of theirs that I’ve missed. If so, I apologize for not knowing this.) The CBS gang’s warm-fuzzies over the “no agenda” baloney is just another example of the phenomenon.
No agenda? Really? It is no more preposterous to claim that G&G is agenda-free than it is to claim perfection and saintliness for it. Professionals of CBS This Morning, learn ye this: Every media outlet has an agenda—including CBS This Morning and The Oxford American—and even ones pretending not to have one have the agenda of pretending not to have one.
The CBS quartet may think it’s funny, quaint, or even praiseworthy of G&G to ban things from its coverage—that’s up to them—but a ban (by definition) is absolute proof of manipulation, of editing, of “agenda-izing.”
G&G falsifies the South it purports to cover, because a South without SEC football, politics, and religion is a false South. How can one miss this?
Speaking of misses, there is one more subject that seems just as off-limits in the pages of Garden & Gun as SEC football, politics, and religion, but it is not mentioned by G&G editors or noticed by media reporters.
I refer, of course, to race.
Sid Evans’s reign as chief editor at Garden & Gun began in 2008 and ended in 2011, making his the longest stretch to date. Evans is now “Group Editor” of Time Inc.’s “Lifestyle Division.” He is now chiefly responsible for a slew of big-dollar magazines, including Southern Living. In an October speech at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, Evans shared his “rules of successful Southern magazines.” Rule number one concerns how to “make people proud of where they’re from.” Said Evans:
When Southern Living was launched in 1966, the South was not exactly getting a good rap in the press. I mean, think about what was going on in 1966 in Birmingham and in Memphis. So when this magazine comes out that portrayed the South as this civilized, gracious place, it meant everything.
First question: Meant everything to whom? Oops, I’m interrupting. Let Sid continue:
This [Southern Living] was who they wanted to be, this was who the readers saw themselves as. It wasn’t just cheap boosterism; it was about their values; it was about their connection to the land; it was about their history; it was about their families. This was a magazine that validated their lifestyle.
Questions two and three: Who is “they”? Who does “their” belong to?
Anyone who has seen a 1966 issue of Southern Living—I have—can answer. It’s a white “they”; a white “their.”
The South’s progress since 1966 is what needs to be celebrated, not the fact that a native magazine ignored the historic issues and deep struggles of the era. The growth in consciousness wasn’t a pretty process—wasn’t pretty enough for the pages of Southern Living—and it wasn’t even a process that all wanted. But nothing, in the end, has made the South more “civilized” and “gracious” than that growth.
Sid Evans’s fourth rule “of successful Southern magazines” is an extension of his first: “Never underestimate the power of nostalgia…. Nostalgia is a very powerful weapon.”
Or as a newspaperman named Doug Larson once wrote: “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”
I’m no longer bothered by magazines that obsess over subjects I don’t, whether it’s food or gardens, poodles or football, pot or guns. I simply ask that they not make claims about representing the entirety of life in their pages if, in fact, they fail to do that.
Oh jeez, did I forget to mention that I am laughably biased when it comes to G&G? My bad! I owe penance if I fooled anyone into thinking I am impartial. Let me be explicit: I am very jealous of G&G for having six times more subscribers than The OA. If, in magazine-circulation terms, this is the equivalent of penis envy, I’ll even cop to that. Is that explicit enough?
That said, I am confident that intelligent readers can analyze my arguments solely on the basis of their content or merit—or lack thereof. (Many political commentators are biased, but bias by itself doesn’t prove that every argument of theirs is de facto false.)
When people ask me to explain the South, I usually don’t have an answer beyond saying it’s too big, complex, and varied to pin down easily—or at all. If I’m asked about our editorial mission, I say it is to “explore the South,” which is meant to convey a few things, including that we don’t expect or claim to know everything about the South. Who can know everything about it? The South keeps changing and surprising even as it’s studied.
We are hopeful that The Oxford American contributes to this discussion, to attempts to understand facets of the South. If it does, it does so by passing along “truthful glimpses”—or so I believe. If we do more at times, I’m glad. If we don’t, I’m not surprised. The effort of exploration, of trying to understand, is challenging and fascinating—and sufficiently rewarding.
If G&G partisans see this screed, my fear is not that they will chuck an equal measure of abuse back our way. What I fear most is that G&G editors will use some of these critiques to improve their magazine.3 I prefer less drastic change. If Garden & Gun just stuck to its, well, Pistils & Pistols, and merely revealed, with freshened-up accuracy, which elite group it is that they serve (versus claiming that they speak for all), even my snarkiness would dissipate. Such directness on their part wouldn’t even have to be costly—or sweeping. It could be achieved with a tweaking of the motto that appears on every G&G cover. This motto debuted in 2007 as “21st Century Southern America.” Then it was changed to: “Soul of the New South.” Then it was changed to: “Soul of the South.”
Change it one last time and the truth shall set us free. Change it to: “The Soul of the Old South.”
1. To see the difference between The OA and G&G in a nutshell, I suggest contrasting Natalie Elliott’s piece on Southern women in this issue (called “Belle de Jour,” page 126) with an essay by Allison Glock called “Southern Women” that appeared in G&G’s Aug/Sept 2011 issue. In Glock’s piece, there are lines like: “Southern women are willing to give, be it time, hugs, or advice about that layabout down the road. Southern women listen and we talk and we laugh without apology.” And: “Southern women love babies.” The Glock is currently available on G&G’s website.
2. An early G&G spread on Oak Alley Plantation of Vacherie, Louisiana, was titled “the Big House” and featured two photos: one of the plantation and one of a [white] “Oak Alley tour guide dressed in period costume.” Besides two photo captions (including the one just quoted), the totality of the text on this spread is as follows: “The plantation owner’s home was invariably called the Big House, accent falling heavily on big. It was wealth incarnate, containing the best materials and architecture as well as the most ambitious landscaping.”
3. In this scenario, I'm guessing they'd use these critiques without sending a thank-you note or a check for consultation.