Clay Felker – Editing Legend – Dead at 82

Casey McKinney

02.07.08

PT 1. Clay Felker (take 1)

I recently ribbed Nick Sylvester in the blurb for his awesome last contribution—an excerpt from his forthcoming first novel—saying “it’s a blast to finally read (his) ‘real’ fiction.”

This was an inside joke, one we both decided best to get out of the way before the others (i.e. vampiric blogs like Gawker) beat us to the punch. Nick was once the perpetrator of at least one big journalistic “crime,” an old literary device of combining scenes, a traditional trope that many a fine writer has employed, but is not often used anymore in this paranoid post Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass era… an age of New Times and Murdoch gobbling, with writers pitted against one another playing someone else’s games of class warfare.

One would think the once spritely Gawker would be beyond it, since I thought their mission was to scandalize the undeservedly powerful. But there must of been some jealously over the power of Nick’s voice since they featured a gleefully morbid “Nick Sylvester Suicide Watch” as their headline on the site for over two weeks after his Village Voice cover piece boondoggle… as if there was nothing else to cover in the world those weeks, as if somehow the Britneys and Parises and MJs had all become unavailable for stunt work, and Gawker, being the torch bearers of journalistic integrity that they are… well, they couldn’t leave it alone. (Fanzine has yet to get into a war with those guys, even though we encouraged Nick to some jabs back here. Hell, maybe we’re too small fry. And for heavens sake, Gawker wouldn’t want to be petty about anything.)

I bring this up, because today I am thinking about loss, both general and specific. In general, the loss over integrity in journalism writing so that, in our own career paranoia, writers disparage the stylistic nuances and liberties taken by other writers whose heroes may be (or may be akin to) the original crafters of what was once termed and lauded as New Journalism1. Those heroes include people like Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem and so on, these and others who worked with, were pushed to new limits by, or otherwise influenced by visionary editor Clay Felker (the influenced by list runs from Joan Didion to Hunter S. Thompson and on down to the Susan Orleans of today).

Sadly, I just learned this afternoon that Felker, founder of New York magazine and editor of many others, has died at the age of 82.

It wasn’t unexpected. He’d been sick for many years with throat and mouth cancer. Mike Louie and I had the honor to take classes from Clay at UC Berkeley a few years back, which I believe were the last two years he taught. Using a voice box sometimes and an oxygen tank, he was still the liveliest (and/or most ornerous one in the room), ever excited, exactingly looking for the new story, and always encouraging his favored first person narrative style that combined elements of the best of fiction and non. Clay didn’t have silly hangups about journalism as some kind of holy shrine—writing was either good or bad, and if you missed the satire in someone’s style, well that was your own damn fault (or the editors for not fact checking).

I could go on. But this is a blog, written as these are in haste, yet I see no reason to rush my feelings to beat anyone to the punch with the news. Most of the obits were already written months ago that went up today—something also taught in journalism school—write ’em and file ’em in advance. I knew Clay had been sick for a long while, but the thought of doing some pre-eulogy was distasteful, since I felt then and still hope his spirit is revivified to live on in magazine journalism. I do see it in places now and then, more and more, little by little. Editors want to get those great fly on the wall Gay Talese or Lillian Ross type stories that take months to research, that require the necessary hanging around for the invaluable off the cuff remarks from their subjects (Ross’s drunken manic Hemmingway or the jealous DiMaggio for Talese), but these days the budget handlers cry for brevity, pointed and scandalous, while the PR people block access to all that isn’t awash in happy sans-acid Koolaid. It’s a different time. But we’ll keep trying.

Thinking back, we used to argue with Clay, quite a lot about content and design in our magazine writing classes. He tried to drill home the point that readership, people who bought print, were generally the well-to-do, and that catering to that class, with at least a portion of the magazine’s effort (he’d argue a large portion) geared in that direction, would bring the ad dollars to the table to fund the general mag. The bonus is you can then afford the experimental journalism (which hopefully Clay will be remembered most for sponsoring) and the socially varied reporting that is the great flipside of the deal. We’ve thought long and hard about what to do with Fanzine next. One thought was to make it a 501(c)3, but the idea of catering it to the whims of phantasm well-to-do benefactors seems bizarre. So I guess it’s for profit we go. I think. I vacillate. Any ideas? I am open to them.

In looking over Felker’s obit though, it was a real discovery to read that New York magazine lost $1.7 million its first year with only 50,000 subscribers. We can get by on Fanzine currently on a vastly miniscule fraction of a fraction of that loss (as I also currently gamble on the stock market and beg and scratch for funding). This has been working somewhat so far for the (well I like to think) excellent critical essays that writers have graciously offered us to this point. But to pay them better and to pay for the kind of wholly embedded reporting that Clay taught us, well that’ll be a bit more. So readers don’t get thrown off if you start seeing some styley fashion ads, etc. They’ll be pretty, and it’d make Clay proud. Gonna give it at least one more year full on and see what happens. One thing for sure, it’ll never be sold to Murdoch, that we promise to Clay on our own graves.

Well that’s the news today. Much love to a great man.2

-CM

For one of the real obits, see The Herald Tribune (so what if it was already written)

1. Tom Wolfe, edited by Clay Felker, coined the “New Journalism” term.
2. Mike (to your follow up) true I’m coming out of the woodwork too, and guilty as charged. Too many hospitals for me the past few years

PT. 2 – Clay Felker (take 2)

When old timers die, it’s usually the time for most people to come out and say what a great man or woman he or she was, everything laced with post-mortum sentiment and the unfairness of saying bad about the dead. But it’s okay to say bad about the living, which I’ll do now: I never went to see Clay when he was in the hospital way Uptown last year, though I often thought and talked about doing so, it never happened, and deep inside I knew this day would happen relatively soon and I’d have to make my apologies and excuses as they always come too late.

I can’t say Clay was the best professor I had at UC Berkeley, where I first met Fanzine editor Casey McKinney. Casey and I took a magazine writing class in our first semester, and to this day I will assert that, despite having the famous credentials of Clay’s onboard, the magazine writing department was probably the least heavily invested in in the Journalism school. And yet, we held on to these stodgy old ideas that magazines and long-form narrative in print were still somehow relevant in a rapidly changing news world, the same way Clay held on to his stodgy old ideas of formatting, design, and how a magazine should look. We often disagreed with his ideas in that respect, but in that semester produced a young-people’s relationships-based magazine probably best remembered for the article I wrote about masturbation and why men jerking off gets a bad rap. If it wasn’t remembered for that, it was remembered for the psychotic rapist-in-a-dark-alley illustrated cover we ended up with, which was Clay’s idea (i.e. removing barriers of communication between people… you kind of had to see it to understand its horrific aspect), but, granted, not his execution.

Clay’s strong point in the two years we knew him was his relationship with writers, his ability to work with and encourage unusual stories out of us. Although I think part of him was just too tired and sick from cancer to fight as strongly as an editor as he did when he was in his prime, letting some (what I considered, anyway) bad ideas slide in the spirit of classroom participation, he still backed me up with the aforementioned piece on onanism, which lots of people seemed to think sophomoric and unprofessional, and I personally worried the Dean would reconsider my status. He didn’t. And when I stopped thinking so selfishly about the thing, I remembered Clay had been almost personally responsible for reshaping magazine writing altogether; he was the harbinger of the New Journalism. He didn’t write the articles but he provided the forum, ushered it in, shaped it, and gave it a voice. Most of our favorite writers owe a large debt to Clay.

Clay was a pimp in his prime; there’s no other way to say it, really. He was a rebel in a news world, convinced of his beliefs in a new kind of writing, a new kind of magazine in a town that formed the central nexus of them. He brought it to power and made it what New York was, made it something where these stories and voices could be heard, which sounds a lot like the lofty ideas Casey and I had when we started Fanzine. I can only hope we can work as hard as he did at what he knew was right.

-mkl

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