My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like any good book, Terry McDonell’s “The Accidental Life” kept me riveted from the get-go, laughing out loud, admiring occasional turns of prose, angered on his behalf and unwilling to turn to the last page.
I even cried at the end.
If that’s unusual behavior for reading a memoir – and a memoir about journalism, writing and editing, of all things – well, McDonell’s is an unusual book. For one thing, it’s not written in the classic, clichéd “And then I …” succession of chapters. (Not that McDonell wouldn’t have had an excuse: the guy was the editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Us Weekly and Sports Illustrated, among others, and even blow-by-blow accounts of his adventures would have been quite entertaining.) Instead, McDonell wrote the book as a series of vignettes, some as short as a sidebar, others worthy of an SI bonus piece. He even offers word counts and “ENDIT”s.
For another, McDonell spends little time blowing his own horn. Oh, you can tell he’s proud of his work – proud of increasing profits and raising circulation, proud of succeeding at the weekly or monthly grind of the magazine business. But what he’s really proud of is giving writers an opportunity. Some are well-known figures he sought out, such as Thomas McGuane or George Plimpton; others are people he helps to elevate to new, and deserved, heights, such as Tim Cahill, who got the job of a lifetime when McDonell made him a go-to correspondent for Outside.
And he loves writers. McDonell is no slouch himself; his prose is diamond-hard, free of the kind of windiness that someone like (well) me would indulge in. (You can see he learned his wire-service lessons well.) But he often breaks to quote from one of the many people he edited or knew, passages that obviously have great emotional meaning to him. He defers. He quotes Liz Tilberis, a fellow editor (she was at Harper’s Bazaar), when she was confronting her death. Or James Salter on his free-spirited days in London. Or Tom Wolfe on LSD.
I’m reminded of generations past, when people were taught to memorize poetry and could quote a verse when grasping for invention. (Witness Robert Kennedy informing a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had died.) It’s a sign of both knowledge and humility, of deep feeling. It’s also a vanishing talent, if “talent” is the right word. McDonell would probably gently offer a better one.
He offers capsule profiles of a number of figures, perhaps most notably McGuane, Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Warren Hinckle. (Hinckle, who edited the seminal ‘60s journal Ramparts, gave Thompson his break as a gonzo journalist.) He’s fair to all, celebrating their strengths and lamenting their flaws. If he has some axes to grind, he’s remarkably dispassionate about them.
Late in the book, he has a chapter on SI’s Rick Reilly, who’d become the magazine’s star with his humor-filled back-page columns. Reilly had become smug about his fame – McDonell describes him as “a cocky teenager” – and when he finally left for ESPN, McDonell wrote an editor’s letter focusing on the future, not the past. Reilly was pissed and wrote McDonell a furious email that ended, “Screw you sideways.” McDonell says that Reilly was right in his fury. I don’t think I would have been so generous. But then again, Reilly had been getting on my nerves for years. (I will give him credit for one of the funniest jokes I ever read in any magazine, that “La Quinta is Spanish for ‘next door to Denny’s,’ ” but that doesn’t make up for years of overpraised casuals. Steve Rushin may have been too heavy on the puns, but I got the feeling the guy’s heart was genuine.)
None of this is to downplay McDonell’s own story, especially if – like me – you’re fascinated by an era when many editors were household names and Time Inc. offered generous expense accounts. He built some magazines from nothing, others into something new, and was fearless about pursuing name writers, even if most of his readers wouldn’t recognize the names.
And when it all comes crashing down after the fat-and-happy ‘90s, McDonell gives the digital world his best shot but, to mix metaphors, he was tilting against a rising tide.
“When we did talk about our journalism, the naïve thinking among most of the editors was that we just needed our resources back,” he writes. “We should have been thinking about content-management systems to deliver what we had.”
It’s revealing that SI came up with a particularly good digital model, but couldn’t make it work in Apple’s iPad platform because Steve Jobs wanted the subscriber data, including credit card numbers. Jobs was thinking about his own model, of course – that’s why Facebook and Google are so powerful – but it ends up killing the eggs, if not the goose. Which is where we stand today, with magazine circulations down even as everything is slapped up on the web, free for the taking.
I have to strain to find failings in “The Accidental Life.” I wish McDonell had offered more about HIS accidental life – the private side, that is. He’s apparently at least once-divorced and, given some anecdotes, unafraid of adventure, but there’s little internal probing. The book is about writing and writers, and for the most part he stays in that lane — when it comes to others, at least.
Still, there’s plenty of soul, even if you have to read between the lines to find it. And much to learn, especially in this age of soulless algorithms.
“When bad editors talk about mix, they mean formula: how much service, how much news, how much celebrity and, most recently perhaps, how many top ten lists of ways to serve kale,” McDonell writes. “They should think about eccentricity: what is the most surprising piece they can run without leaving readers scratching their heads, or alienated and angry.”
It’s no wonder I enjoyed Terry McDonell’s magazines, and it’s no wonder I loved his book. Thanks for the surprises, Terry.