When it was good ...

Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a San Francisco-based writer and critic.

ELEGIES for bygone cult magazines -- once blazingly hip, now defunct or compromised -- have come to make up their own genre. Even the finest examples (Gary Wolf on Wired, Marc Weingarten on the early days of New York and Rolling Stone) share a template. In the beginning was ardor: a handful of ambitious, attractive youths in a soundtracked montage of halcyon days and all-night editorial debauches. They toss Nerf footballs around a cavernous yet cluttered loft, back when Soho or SoMa space was practically rent-free. There are one or two broken computers, or these were the days before computers and they had to paste up their layouts on pizza boxes. The drinking has athletic intensity. Out to change the world and capture the zeitgeist, they quickly achieve the eclat for which they were destined. Then: hubris, greed. Sale to Conde Nast, regret. Principals move to Berkeley and enroll their kids in tony private schools. The magazine is either gone or corporately moribund. There will never be another one like it.

The latest such example is “Spy: The Funny Years,” a history-cum-anthology of the legendary satirical “serialized-nonfiction-novel-of-a-magazine.” Spy published in one form or another from 1986 through 1998, but this book concerns itself with the magazine in its era of unrivaled wit: the years under founding editors Graydon Carter (now editor of Vanity Fair) and Kurt Andersen (now a novelist, radio host and columnist), who had both jumped ship by 1993.

Under new and overbearing ownership, the later incarnations of Spy were husks. For those first seven years, however, Spy was exactly what it proposed to be: Trollope for yuppies. In a 1985 note outlining his vision of the magazine, Carter wrote that it will “ferret out and expose the fakes, the fakirs, the pompous and the poltroons.” These targets were the stuffed shirts of media, finance, politics and entertainment, the “mummified boulevardiers, socialite war criminals, beaver-faced moguls, tigress survivors, and, of course, short-fingered vulgarians.”

The history of this campaign is written here by New York Times deputy op-ed editor George Kalogerakis, one of Spy’s original editors, and has been annotated by Andersen and Carter. The history itself, based on extensive interviews of the writers and editors who claim to recall the era, is perfectly interesting as far as it goes. There were parties, luminaries were drunk, litigation loomed, etc. Goings-on around the magazine were just as fun, haphazard and demanding as even a casual Spy reader would have expected them to be. Andersen’s and Carter’s annotations, offered in the faux-decadent badinage that was the magazine’s editorial voice, are charming, and one wishes the main text were more frequently interrupted.


Yet what makes this volume indispensable is not this history but the interleaved anthology of Spy’s greatest hits. As Carter imagined it in 1985, a “hundred years from now, the graduate student sifting through the racks at the New-York Historical Society will, with relish, throw himself upon old copies of Spy to get a feeling for what it was to be young and smart and living in New York in the eighties.”

These pieces do have that artifactual value, especially for coroners of the greatest short-fingered vulgarians of all, Trump and Ovitz. But the best of these satires, which is to say most of them, have remained brilliant long after their putative marks have been cast aside. “Spy’s only reverence will be,” Carter promised, “to great, funny, insightful writing.” Because their anti-establishment rodomontade was ultimately in the service of such great writing, both the tenacious investigative journalism (which sometimes ran to 10,000 or 12,000 words) and the mocking essays prove no less funny or insightful 20 years later.

The stars of the volume are writers such as Bruce Handy (who followed Carter to Vanity Fair) and Paul Rudnick (now a screenwriter and playwright), whose raillery remains sharp and violently funny. There’s Handy on yuppie porn, or “the objectification of objects,” in December 1987: “Yeah, what’s wrong with having nice things? challenges a chorus of bobbed, bebowed, business-suited young women named Jennifer.” There’s Rudnick on why it’s OK to hate high culture (August 1987): “Why are poems composed, or perpetrated? To break up the page in The New Yorker. Without poetry Ann Beattie would smush into the cartoons, and the eight parts on ice-making would hurtle against the windbreaker ads.” There’s Handy -- the book’s, and probably the magazine’s, most talented contributor -- again, on the history of postmodernism (April 1988): “1964: Susan Sontag decides that if someone as smart as Susan Sontag is amused by pop culture dreck, it must be okay; publishes essay ‘Notes on Camp.’ ”

One is tempted to comment on certain ironies called up by this encomium to such an irreverent and fearless institution. How curious it is that Carter, the editor responsible for running an annotated version of a letter from Tina Brown (then the editor of Vanity Fair) to Ovitz in which she begs him to be the subject of a puff-piece profile (August 1990) has become the editor responsible for latter-day journalistic triumphs like Vanity Fair’s hard-hitting “Yes, Suri, She’s Our Baby” (October 2006). But such remarks have been, unsurprisingly, preempted by the book’s opening gambit. “We didn’t start Spy in order to become the sorts of people the magazine specialized in teasing and satirizing,” write Andersen and Carter, “but that’s pretty much the way it’s worked out.” Perhaps this book, a record of a formidable legacy, provides reason enough to forgive them. Presumably, Gawker will be the judge of that. *