Somewhere in the course of its exceedingly checkered history, Esquire magazine fashioned a mascot for itself. He was a jolly little cartoon chap in tweeds, sporting a bristly mustache and a slightly raffish look, and the magazine christened him Esky. As the bunny was for Playboy, Esky was meant to be the embodiment of all things Esquire: a gentleman of mature refinement and culture, with a bit of a British air, but also a fellow who knew how to knock a few back and to give the girls -- especially those drawn by Vargas -- a good time.
But the times have changed. Esky has been relegated to a nearly invisible corner of the magazine's contents page; if you weren't looking for him, you'd never find him. Esquire has gone on to newer if not perhaps better things, and a gent of middle years such as Esky does not fit into the magazine's scheme. Esquire has saved itself from extinction by crafting itself into the how-to magazine for the ambitious young, and in the universe of the yuppies there is no room for Esky, redolent as he is of times gone by.
"Man at His Best" is what Esquire calls itself now. Though it pays lip service to the memory of Arnold Gingrich and Ernest Hemingway and other Neanderthals who once haunted its pages, Esquire has moved on from aggressive masculinity to masculine "style." Its pages are now filled with advertisements for chic fashion designers (Alexander Julian, Perry Ellis, Giorgio Armani), audio-video equipment to purchase "when you've arrived," the usual run of overpriced liquors and liqueurs, the "privileges" of "membership" in American Express, auto sound systems, exercise clothing, and -- in prime position -- the obligatory BMW.
Among these advertisements for the accouterments of the discreetly ostentatious life is one touting the pleasures of Rose's Lime Juice, "the uncommon denominator." This photograph has appeared in other magazines, but it seems especially comfortable in Esquire, the August issue in particular. It shows Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at ease in your basic book-lined study, glass in hand, while standing atop the desk beside him, glass also in hand, is Tama Janowitz. "And so they met," the copy advises us, "the chronicler of the historical and the chronicler of the hysterical. And the word was Rose's. Splashed liberally in a vodka and tonic, and a diet cola."
The cynicism of all parties to that advertisement scarcely demands comment, but Esquire doesn't quit with that. March on a few pages and we arrive at "Esquire's Guide to the Literary Universe," an exercise in rankmanship that seems designed as a guide, for the culturally uninitiated but acquisitive, through what passes for contemporary American literature. It is a curious document, one that takes a view both wide-eyed and cynical of "the literary world," and that in the process manages to reduce that world to little more than a sordid place where money, publicity and notoriety are held dear while art and character are valueless.
"Who's Who in the Cosmos" is the headline across a three-page representation of "the literary universe," at the heart of which is something called "The Red-Hot Center." In it are listed 11 people who, according to the accompanying text, "are producing enormous amounts of heat." Appropriately enough, only five and a half of them are writers, for the literary world of Esquire is one in which editors and agents and hostesses have as much influence as processors of words.
"The Red-Hot Center," like the rest of Esquire's map, pays lip service to the American literary establishment (Bellow, Mailer, Updike) but is primarily occupied by the gurus of "new work," which translates as yuppie fiction of the sort that happens to be prominently featured in the pages of Esquire. Inasmuch as Esquire regards it as "positive" news that "there is hardly a university in the country that doesn't have a flourishing writing program," it can come as no surprise that its map of "the literary universe" is dominated by the alumni of these programs and the people who promote their work; it is no surprise, but it surely is a dolorous comment on the state of the "literary universe."
Not all of the people on this map are chroniclers of the young and privileged and self-obsessed; draw up a list of 200 or 300 people who write or publish and you are bound to rope in a few serious ones, as indeed Esquire has. But naming names is not, at least so far as this "literary universe" is concerned, what really matters. Though Esquire itself is infatuated with names -- ranking them, dropping them, flaunting them -- the names actually mean a lot less than what, in sum, they say.
Which is, quite simply, that contemporary American literature is precisely as shallow as the upper-middle-class American culture from which, in the main, it springs. What Esquire has drawn up is not so much a ranking of writers and publishers as one of hustlers and promoters. In part, needless to say, the fault and the explanation lie with Esquire itself, the editors of which choose to see writing and publishing in such cynical and frivolous terms; but those, alas, by and large are the terms in which writing and publishing -- of so-called "literary" fiction, that is -- are now practiced.
It is quite possible, of course, that the readers to whom this "Who's Who in the Cosmos" is directed will find Esquire's standards of literary importance and influence entirely congenial. People whose highest goals in life are the acquisition of products and "personal style" that advertise their status are unlikely to recognize that they are being offered nothing except a guide to the valueless, since they have no standards by which to measure true worth. But what a pity it is that the current editors of a magazine that from time to time has possessed something approximating taste can come up with an overview of contemporary American literature that is little more than a celebration of the shoddy and the evanescent.
No doubt it is churlish of me to write as I do, inasmuch as I have been allocated my own appropriately small satellite in Esquire's "literary universe." On the whole, though, this seems not among the highest of honors that life, in its infinite capriciousness, can bring. A few of my friends also have their own little satellites, so perhaps we can go off together and start afresh; as e.e. cummings once wrote, "listen:there's a hell/of a good universe next door;let's go." When we get there we will find no red-hot center, but a few quiet corners where people can go about the singularly unglamorous business of writing and publishing serious books. Perhaps we will find Esky there, too, a blond on his arm and a glass in his hand, dreaming dreams of Papa and toasting the days that were.