Press Box

My Favorite Magazine

Stop Smiling.

Once upon a time my night table groaned from the weight of the magazines I piled onto it: weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, and one-offs; U.S. and international; men’s magazines, political rags, the newsweeklies, and all the various city, computer, sports, car, and music titles. Paris Review. Science. The Nose. National Lampoon. Outside. Mondo 2000. Stereo Review. Fortune. Sight & Sound. Raygun.

My magazine ocean refused no river, including fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, which I had come to appreciate through the interpretive lens of a junior-high school classmate, with whom I routinely served detention-hall sentences. We did our time in the home-economics classroom, which was well-stocked with fashion magazines, and it was under his tutelage that I learned to appreciate the fashion spreads and lingerie advertisements as a kind of subversive, highly stimulating pornography.

But some time in the late 1990s, I lost my magazine jones. I still bought magazines but didn’t consume them the way I once did. Had they become too formulaic, or had my familiarity with the magazine template inured me to being impressed anymore? Or had the Web replaced my magazine habit?

I got rejonesed about magazines last year, when the editors of Stop Smilingput me on their press list. After a couple of issues of the five-or-six times a year Chicago-based arts and culture magazine, I found myself looking forward to the next, something I can’t say about any other periodical. Stop Smiling is smart. It’s idiosyncratic. It’s a little like Dave Eggers’ old magazine Might in that it’s beautiful to look at, only it’s irony-free. And it brims with the romanticism for magazines that Harold Hayes applied to Esquire, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter squeezed into Spy, and Louis Rosetto drenched Wired with.

By calling Stop Smiling my favorite magazine, I don’t intend to cripple it with praise. It’s not ready to be cast in bronze and join the magazine pantheon of Esquire, Spy, Wired, the late-1960s Playboy, and Andre Laguerre’s Sports Illustrated. Yet no other magazine in print commands my cover-to-cover attention the way Stop Smiling does. And the miracle of the magazine is that it does most of its magic with interviews!

I’ve always disdained the long magazine interview, regarding it as the low-budget way to pad an issue with copy. Real magazines hire reporters to write real articles. The exception to this rule has been Playboy, which once put as much energy into interviews as other magazines do to features.

Stop Smiling pinches a little of its interview philosophy from the Charlie Rose program and a tad from the Paris Review. Like the Rose show, it surrenders to its subject a platform for their views. Like the Paris Review, it doesn’t interrogate as much as it encourages subjects to talk about their work, their methods, and their muses. So the interviews of Ralph Steadman, Jim Jarmusch, Philip Gourevitch, Stuart Dybek, Lewis Lapham, Robert Wyatt, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Johnson, Hugh Hefner, Norman Mailer (interviewed by his son), George Lois, Bruce Robinson, et al., end up belonging to the subjects more than they belong to Stop Smiling. This sounds like a prescription for a flaccid, indulgent magazine, but it doesn’t work out that way. By picking interesting people to talk to and allowing them to say what’s on their minds, the editors produce beguiling copy. Stop Smiling’s oral history of Hunter S. Thompson bested Rolling Stone’s similarly constructed special issue about the Doctor in every way.

As romantics of a bygone era, Stop Smiling’seditors can’t resist republishing old A.J. Liebling and Mike Royko or resuscitating unpublished Terry Southern. The magazine’s two top editors are old men trapped in young men’s bodies—editor in chief and founder, JC Gabel, is 30, and Managing Editor James Hughes is 27—and their cultural compasses point to the past.

Sure there are interviews with Dave Eggers, Ricky Gervais, and Vince Vaughn, and pieces about Sufjan Stevens and Laura Dawn, but old guys and dead guys are the magazine’s main event. Gabel writes about New Yorker founder Harold Ross. An essay about the Grove Press calls its history “the secret playbook for the birth of everything cool.” Stanley Kubrick’s archivist tells all. Saul Bellow is eulogized. Harriet Monroe is remembered. Kenneth Patchen, George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, Orson Welles, William S. Burroughs, City Lights Book Store—practically anything gray or rotting can provide Stop Smiling with editorial sustenance.

Viewing culture through a rearview mirror can be disastrous for a magazine, especially one staffed by young people who don’t know as much as older people. But I’ve yet to read a Stop Smiling’s cultural retrospective and not learn a lot. Each issue of Stop Smiling boasts a theme—”the Boxing Issue”; “the Chicago Issue”; “the Rebels + Outlaws Issue”; “the Downfall of American Publishing”; and “the U.K. Issue,” to name a few. I find myself imagining future issues I hope the magazine gets around to doing—the art of drugs, war and peace, gangsters, the West, and H.L. Mencken.

Stop Smiling isn’t everybody’s magazine of choice. Earlier this year when the magazine published its love poem to the city of Chicago, the Chicago Reader(PDF) rightly accused it of boosterism. “When you cuddle up with your subjects, are you serving your readers?” the Reader asked less than rhetorically.

I guess it depends on who you’re cuddling, and who your readers are. I’m as ready for Abu Ghraib-style interviews of novelists, filmmakers, poets, and painters as anybody, but I’m not sure what purpose it would serve. But I could be wrong. Every journalistic spine I’ve ever cracked could have benefited from a little more starch.

Stop Smiling brings analogue pleasures to a digital world. I salute it for its lack of pretension (something that being in Chicago, rather than New York, may account for), its intellectual legibility, and its graphic soundness. Thanks to it, my night table groans once more.


Disclosure: Last year, Stop Smiling’s Internet tendency interviewed me. What does the name Stop Smiling mean? The editors say it means nothing. Send your speculations on what it signifies to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Shafer’s hand-built RSS feed.