Shortly after graduating from college, I came across a short story collection titled, “Great Esquire Fiction: The Finest Stories from the First Fifty Years.” The table of contests listed those one would expect to find on a Glenlivet-drinking New York editor’s bookshelf: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Carver, Malamud, O’Connor, O’Brien, and thirty-one other brilliant writers. The stories were fantastic and I started buying the magazine, mainly because of the fiction that appeared in every issue. My current complaint isn’t that the writers published in Esquire today are bad (although I don’t think that even the famous Steven King or James Lee Burke would crack the Fab 38), it’s that the fiction offerings are so infrequent. If there’s a short story in every other issue now, it’s a bonus. It can’t be because there aren’t any good writers out there.
Esquire does promote their fiction on their web site. They offer stories published in the magazine and others written for Esquire.com. Their current online feature is the Napkin Fiction project. Esquire sent cocktail napkins to 250 writers to pen sip-sized stories on said napkins. Courageously, not all the writers are known literary figures (I can’t believe they missed me), and some of the pieces do have the delicious sting and tingle of a tequila shot. However, trying to gain appreciation for a writer on a piece of ultra-flash fiction is like picking songs on I-Tunes based on the allotted 30 second snippet. What if the oohs and ahhs don’t come in until the chorus? I’m sure that at least one or two of the chosen authors could have developed something worthy of bumping an article on dress shirts and pocket squares.
Which brings us to what is in Esquire these days: clothing ads, cologne ads, luxury item ads, and self-referential, middle-aged-men-need-this-item features. And there are plenty of fashion tips. The former publisher of Ernest Hemingway is now an orgasm article away from becoming Cosmo-for-a-Man. I understand how the publishing business works. The ads pay so the content can play. Still, I find it hard to believe that people really need to see a fashion layout with Bob Dylan impersonators wearing two thousand dollar wool coats, five hundred dollar sweaters, and seven hundred dollar boots. The editors manage to slip in Dylan quotes among the clothes, apparently in hope of what? Irony?
(Richard Russo once said that he wished to remain the kind of guy who mowed his own lawn. It is a worthy goal. Should success strike me and I start purchasing four-figure jackets and three-figure shirts, I authorize any of my close friends to beat me about the head with a two-figure Louisville Slugger. Yet, my subscription remains active.)
In lieu of short fiction, the highlight of the present-day Esquire is the “What I’ve Learned” series. An Esquire writer interviews a notable person, asking them “What do you know?” and boils down the answers to a one-page list of clear and lucid declarative sentences. There is much to be gleaned there, especially in the January 2008 issue which celebrates the tenth anniversary of the feature.
Along with six new interviews, Esquire includes segments from the most notable of the past. For the current issue, Eric Clapton reveals, “One of the most beneficial things I’ve ever learned is how to keep my mouth shut.” Michael J. Fox shows insight thought impossible from someone who once portrayed Alex Keaton (Unfortunately, Fox does not address his anti-Elvisness). The back catalog reveals wisdom from among others, Ted Williams, Muhammad Ali, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Branson, Larry Flynt, and Julia Child. Evil Knievel states: “Anybody can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it.” Simple and sharp.
What makes the feature stand out in the current Esquire is that the writer stays the hell out of the way. In the usual Esquire profile, a reader invariably learns that the interviewer is fat, goateed, a smoker, a drinker, awed but then un-awed, and ultimately perceived as cool by the subject. With this tiresome perspective removed, the subject’s thoughts are actually shared with the reader. The tenth anniversary celebration of “What I’ve Learned” makes January 2008 a very worthwhile issue. Naturally, it is also one without a short story.
While a fiction hyperlink is given one of five spots on the Esquire.com header, the genre is often ignored when the magazine comes to print. By restoring short fiction to every issue, the editors would make it so much easier to flip through the glossy pages of tousle-haired male models. One would think that Esquire’s heritage demands it.