David Brock, meet Dave Itzkoff. Dave is a bit like you: he used to
be blind, but now he sees! Except he hasn’t changed his political
allegiance, he’s just quit his job at Maxim. And written a piece
for the New York Press excoriating his former employer.
I didn’t quite understand Itzkoff’s article, so I went out
and bought a copy of the magazine, to see if I could work out what he
was talking about. I hadn’t read it since its launch, when it was
basically recycled material from the UK version which didn’t really
work over here. Now, the US version is an excellent magazine in its
So, am I saying that Itzkoff, who ought to know what he’s talking
about, is wrong? Yes and no. I certainly hate the faux-naïveté
with which he writes that “I would also like to believe that someday,
someone is going to publish an intelligent men’s magazine that
speaks to today’s generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings without
pandering to them or making excessive use of the word "dude."”
Dave Itzkoff, meet Details.
The problem is that Maxim is a much better magazine than Details,
and for many of the reasons that Itzkoff glosses. His main complaint
is that Maxim is “one of the most slickly cynical products you’ll
find on a newsstand, a continued testament to the fact that good window-dressing
is all that’s needed to bring a customer into the shop, even if
there’s no merchandise to be found inside.”
He then develops this observation in excruciating detail, explaining
that Maxim doesn’t go in for standard magazine fare like long puffy
profiles, and rather sticks with a tried-and-tested formula which is
heavily reliant on spending a lot of effort on cover lines.
But actually he undersells his former self. The cover lines aren’t
all that: the top one on the June issue is “SEX at first sight!
Doltproof pickup tips women wish you knew” – which is a bit
of a syntactic mess, really, requiring a couple of readings to understand,
and in any case not likely to prompt mass buying of the magazine. Given
that the word “sex” has to appear on the cover somewhere,
that’s probably one of the less intelligent uses of the word: a
bit like using up your S in scrabble on an 18-pointer.
Meanwhile, the content of the magazine is actually excellent. The
front of the book rips along nicely, with fun, nugget-sized articles
and pictures which are enjoyable to read yet at the same time light
and fluffy enough that you’re happy reading on. (Advertisers in
the middle of the magazine don’t want you giving up at the beginning,
daunted by something large and worthy.)
There’s a lot of gratuitous babeage, of course: photos of underdressed
girls which barely even pretend to illustrate the articles. But I’m
not complaining, and neither are the 12 million other readers of the
magazine. Loaded, which started the lad mag industry, has as
its slogan “for men who should know better”, which nicely
encapsulates the combination of lewdness and irony which makes these
magazines work. The fact is that guys like being guys, and no one’s
ever been in any doubt as to what it is that guys want.
The thing is that Itzkoff isn’t even complaining about the objectification
of women. Hear him cry:
Time was when one of Maxim’s numerous detractors
would cut us down in the press, and my first instinct (after having
a good cry and contemplating graduate school) was always to dismiss
it as sour grapes–these people were just jealous that the magazine
had achieved so much so quickly. But now, belatedly, I understand the
dilemma its success has raised, one that cuts right to the heart of
this industry: Is a magazine supposed to engage, enlighten and edify
its readers, or is it only intended to distract them as they flip from
one advertisement to the next?
Dave Itzkoff, meet Planet Earth. You want Maxim – Maxim
– to “engage, enlighten and edify”? Those million people
who bought Maxim at the newsstand this month because of the cover lines
or perhaps the picture of that girl off the telly – you think they
want edification and enlightenment? Who do you think you are, Lord Reith?
Who do you think Felix Dennis is, a public servant dedicated to the
education of the American male? He’s a businessman, out to make
money, and he makes money by selling ads.
I was reading two magazines yesterday – Maxim and the New Yorker.
I was entertained by the former, and edified by the latter. But the
last thing I want is for Maxim to run 22,000-word articles on newspaper
editors, or, on the other hand, for the New Yorker to run cover stories
filled with juvenile double-entendres of the lowest order, such as “SAT
scores aren’t the only thing on the rise at fictitious Winslow
High”. Oh, wait, that cover story was by one Dave Itzkoff.
The point is that the magazine market is about filling niches. Maxim,
it turns out, fills a very big niche indeed (oo-er), and I’m completely
at a loss as to why Itzkoff considers this such a dreadful state of
What he wants, he says, is “a publication with content that’s
challenging, that people might want to read, and if it connects with
your audience, they’ll buy the magazine of their own volition,
without having to be tricked into it.” (His emphasis.) What he
doesn’t seem to realise is that Maxim fulfills two of his three
criteria: people want to read it, and they buy it of their own volition.
You can’t trick a million people into buying a magazine, and if
you do, and if they’re disappointed, then they’re not going
to buy it again. Maxim’s newsstand sales, however, continue to
Itzkoff seems to think that Maxim’s readers are looking for “issue-oriented
news features or authoritative first-person narratives,” and must
therefore be disappointed every time they buy the magazine: the fact
that such things aren’t found in Maxim is proof enough for him
that they were tricked into buying it. After all, who would knowingly
buy a magazine without an authoritative first-person narrative?
Well, I would, Mr Itzkoff, and I’ll do it again. I like a mixture
of high and low in my life: I’m happy putting down a heavy political
biography in order to watch Britney Spears Live from Las Vegas. What
I don’t want is Britney suddenly putting on a sober suit and lecturing
me on international geopolitics.
What would be the purpose of running longer features in Maxim? Could
Maxim do them better than anybody else? Maxim is, at the moment, the
best magazine at what it does in America. If you don’t like doing
that thing, then, fine, quit to join Spin instead. But don’t try
to spin your own preference in magazines as an industry-threatening