each month from January 1847 to July 1848, William Makepeace Thackery published
an installment of a vast, sprawling novel. The work contained, in the words
of its author, "scenes of high life, and some very middling indeed."
Many of Thackery’s contemporaries charged that the novel was a hodge-podge.
Responding to his critics, Thackery likened his book to a carnival, or fair, where the full range of available experience was not only the nature of the beast, but its essential attraction. He wrote that "some people consider fairs immoral altogether." But persons who think otherwise, Thackery wrote, may choose to take a peek, and they will find a world where "satire and sentiment can visit arm-in-arm together; where you may be gentle and pathetic and savage and cynical with perfect propriety."
Is there a better description for Vanity Fair, the glossy monthly consumer magazine, than that offered by the author of its namesake a century and a half ago? The magazine, originally founded in 1913 by Condé Nast, is the epitome of the successful general interest magazine. And it is a study in just the sort of contrasts that Thackery explored in his novel.
Its earlier incarnation having survived only until 1926, Vanity Fair was reborn in 1983. After a brief and unspectacular run as a high-brow literary magazine, Vanity Fair and editor Tina Brown found each other. With a formula that has been described as 60 percent Hollywood, 10 percent Ethiopia (the remaining 30 percent, presumably, is advertising), Brown gave the magazine buzz, hype and a sense of cultural centrality. Yet it has been current editor Graydon Carter who has perfected the formula. Carter, former editor of The New York Observer and co-founder of the now-defunct Spy magazine, took over the editorship of Vanity Fair from Brown when she moved on to The New Yorker in 1992.
Carter professes his belief that "good writing is by its very nature conversational," and this opinion seems to inform most of the magazine — even the deeply-reported investigative pieces strive for a certain witty ease. To flip through the magazine is to wander through a cocktail party filled with the chatty banter of stylish folk who seem to know a hell of a lot. Columns by the society sleuth Dominick Dunne, the acerbic James Wolcott and the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens — who begins a recent report from Havana with a dissertation on the relative merits of the mojito versus the cuba libre — all read like inside dish from a smart, hip, rich old pal.
When the magazine is good, it is very, very good. Vanity Fair’s journalistic reputation rests on what Carter calls "home runs," articles such as Marie Brenner’s 1996 story on tobacco-company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand [see "From Magazines to Movies," page 39]. Carter calls such pieces "the franchise."
At its worst, though, the magazine can seem pandering and confusing. "I put a celebrity on the cover to move magazines," Carter recently told a room full of journalism students, noting proudly that Vanity Fair is the "only glossy monthly to go around the world with one cover." He went on to say that he "would never do two celebrity profiles in the same issue," apparently for
getting that the magazine’s February issue — still available on newsstands at the time — has two fluffy, trite celebrity profiles (of Keanu Reeves and Lara Flynn Boyle).
These two prevailing moods — stylish seriousness and glittery emptiness — maintain an uneasy, fascinating alliance throughout the magazine. A striking, characteristic juxtaposition occurs in the August 2000 issue. A powerful Sebastian Junger article on the brutal diamond trade in Sierra Leone accompanies a Teun Voeten photo essay of that war-ravaged West African country. Stark black-and-white images depict young men with angry eyes holding assault rifles, and a three-year-old girl whose right arm has been hacked off by rebels. As Junger’s text explains, "they did their work with rusty machetes and axes…there were stories of hands being taken away in blood-soaked grain bags, of hands being hung in trees, of hands being eaten." A reader in the middle of this article turns the page — literally one page — and faces a two-page color spread by the fashion photographer Herb Ritts of Bo Derek sprawling naked on a beach.
It is impossible not to notice such a striking clash of images and ideas, not to see each in relation to the other. Both the Ritts and the Junger/Voeten images are artful in their distinctive ways, and there is nothing objectively wrong with either. It is the cumulative effect that is tasteless and dissonant. The brain simply objects to being asked to hold two such irreconcilable worldviews simultaneously.
Even so, Brown’s formula (celebrity glitz + stylish writing + hip sensibility = $$$) and Carter’s stewardship have managed to make the magazine a tremendous commercial and critical success. It is widely regarded as a repository of good ideas and quality journalism, its distinctive style summed up by Carter’s expressed intention to "treat the serious lightly, and the light serious."
But Thackery’s view from 150 years ago is perhaps worth noting. "Vanity Fair," he wrote, "not a moral place
certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy."