Starring: Tucker Carlson, Charles Bowden, Gerald Posner, Eddie Dean, Patrick Demarchelier, Mimi Swartz, Michael Korda, Lucinda Franks, Tony Dajer, Tom Stoppard, Richard Butler, Jonathan Mahler, Mark Ross, Martin Amis.
Featuring: Angelina Jolie, Carolyn Murphy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, Rupert Everett, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton.
The most talked-about element of Talk, the new magazine from Tina Brown, may well turn out to be the paper it’s printed on. What’s this? Tina Brown, fabled resurrectress of the glossy Vanity Fair and more recently the editor of the New Yorker, whose silky pages are the magazine equivalent of Pratesi sheets, sending out her new monthly on this rough-hewn, easily soiled stock, promising oily thumbprints on those expensive Gucci ads? Say it isn’t so!
In fact, the scruffy paper — somewhere between Parade and the New York Times Magazine — and the busy, slightly downmarket Euro-mag layout (see Paris Match) are canny (and necessary) attributes that the mag’s backers presumably hope will set Talk apart from its glossier brethren.
Brown and her partners, Miramax and Hearst, face the uncomfortable task of competing with a pair of magazines that continue to bear the unmistakable stamp of Brown’s editorial style, although they are now under new leaders.
And indeed Talk’s self-consciously declasse maquillage is one of the few genuinely surprising elements in a debut issue that largely delivers the trademarked Tina mix: celebrity shine, side by side with solid journalism (on subjects that tend toward the topical and sensational), gussied up with some edifying culture and plenty of big-name bylines.
The other chief surprise is the sheer density of the text: Somewhere well past page 200 appears a brief review (sorta) of James Gleick’s book “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything”; alas it takes six hours or so of reading to get there (forsaking the occasional jump, I confess).
The mag, Brown suggests in an endpage editor’s note, is meant to be “rolled up and stuffed into a gym bag rather than placed on a coffee table,” but it would take a good hour or so of schvitzing on the treadmill to make a noticeable dent in it.
Few magazines are read cover to cover, of course, and in the abundance of Talk’s debut issue there is plenty that fails to captivate. Rather endearingly, the magazine begins with its silly low point, a pseudo fashion spread featuring “budding actress Carolyn Murphy” — aka model Carolyn Murphy — preening with the combatants and observers at a Vegas prizefight, while tediously hip text rolls down the side of the page. (Mixing in enough glitter to please the fashionistas is going to be a tough job: The whimsical “Pocket Fashion” illustrations are also gimmicky and annoying.)
“The Conversation,” as the front-of-the-book section is designated, too often idles, with a sprinkling of big-gun names offering subpar, give-me-something-for-my-debut-issue items. It’s to be hoped that opera specialist and prized stylist Manuela Hoelterhoff, New York magazine book guy Walter Kirn and James Atlas will come up with more arresting squibs than what’s on offer here. And is there anything more unhip these days than a “Hip List”?
But Talk improves impressively in the feature well. Tucker Carlson’s profile of Presidential contender George W. Bush is a first-rate piece of journalism, giving a sly, subtle and multifaceted look at a man who has largely been given a free ride by the mainstream media. (The Hillary piece is hagiography by comparison.) Charles Bowden’s dispatch from Juarez is well-written and quietly harrowing (although a variation on it ran in Harper’s years ago).
Finest of all is Tom Stoppard’s beautifully restrained memoir about his family history, an examination in exquisite prose of a legacy of secrecy and exile that movingly evokes the benumbed silence that still surrounds the Holocaust in some families.
At the opposite end of the sensation spectrum are Gerald Posner’s not-so-revealing revisiting of the Princess Di accident (sigh) and a first-person account of the killing of tourists in Uganda earlier this year that , while soberly written by an eyewitness, still comes dangerously close to being the literary equivalent of those Fox TV shows that offer up grisly video vistas (“World’s Scariest Police Chases”!) for our prurient delectation.
The movie-star coverage is thankfully image-oriented: no earnest 2,000-word profiles of unfamiliar starlets (Gretchen who?) to be had here. Drew Barrymore, Rupert Everett and cover girl Gwyneth Paltrow are featured in image-tweaking layouts, Angelina Jolie gets a mini-profile, and that’s about it.
Most commendable of all may be the healthy attention to books, with a good dozen pages devoted to reviews and features. Along with Stoppard’s memoir, the best piece of writing in the issue is Martin Amis’ delicious evisceration of Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal,” a literary hatchet job, as it were, that’s well overdue.
Talk itself will of course be facing more than its share of sharpened knives in the famously waspish publishing community — and, with the participation of Miramax, in the not much less waspish movie community.
The debut issue betrays a certain hard-driving intent to satisfy all possible readers that verges on overkill. It will necessarily be refined and defined in the upcoming months as the editorial well comes down to sane proportions (one hopes).
In fact the debut issue is a lot like a good movie that goes on too long; maybe it’s time for Harvey Weinstein, famed for his behind-the-scenes editing on his pictures, to get out those famous scissors.