I first met Alex Belth almost a decade ago. There was no way I couldn’t like him instantly: He was calling to express his appreciation for the kind of work I’ve been doing for over forty years, narrative journalism.
Also known as The New Journalism, creative nonfiction, and, more recently, longform journalism, we’re talking here about the kind of literary newswriting that started with folks like Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff), Joan Didion (Slouching Toward Bethlehem), Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and Truman Capote (In Cold Blood).
Simply put, narrative journalists are people who tell true stories in an artful way, using the elements of scene, setting, character, action, dialogue, and point of view, all of it assembled in a distinctive literary style.
Seen another way, narrative journalists make movies on a page. Their cast and crew are limited to 26 roman letters and a bunch of punctuation marks. And every word has to be true—that’s the game: to work with the elements you are given by people and events that actually lived and occurred. As anyone knows, there is nothing stranger than truth. And no substitute.
So it should be no surprise that magazine stories have inspired some of the greatest films of our modern times, including In Cold Blood, Saturday Night Fever, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men, The Killing Fields, Almost Famous, The Fast and the Furious, Adaptation, Into the Wild, Argo, Spotlight, Hustlers, and Boogie Nights, which was based on a piece I wrote for Rolling Stone called “The Devil and John Holmes.”
Among his many talents and proclivities, Belth has become, over the years, a leading curator of the golden era of magazines, a time when publications like Esquire, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and many others—including regional magazines (New York and Los Angeles) and local “alternative weeklies,” (The Village Voice and Creative Loafing)—fostered, encouraged, and paid generous fees and expenses to narrative writers to do their job. Over the past seven or eight decades, an incredibly rich library of work has been created. Some of it you can Google or find behind pay walls. Some of it you can find in anthologies of writers’ works. But most of it exists only on paper, in copies of old magazines.
Here’s where Belth comes in. He’s kind of like a paleontologist of narrative journalism. He has a collection of nearly 3000 magazines on shelves in his loft, overtop a Main Street storefront in small town New England. Along with all his stacks of glossy paper, the presence of which is tolerated with grace by his long time partner, Belth has also become a collector of magazine writers.
I guess it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that all writers share at least one trait in common: a great appreciation for being appreciated. I have never met a writer who didn’t stand and offer Mr. Belth a chair when they saw him enter a room.
Alex gets narrative writing. Check out his website, The Stacks Reader. He’s had literally hundreds of meetings, calls, and interviews with writers who ply the craft. He’s read absolutely everything—the stories people are talking about today as well as obscure gems he has found in the dust bin of the past. Over the years, his keen interest, agreeable persona, and encyclopaedic memory have aggregated into a bona fide expertise. The keeper of the flame, he is the storyteller of the storytellers. Maybe he’s the only one who cares this much but writers like myself are damn lucky to have him doing his thing.
So it was, when John Schoenfelder from NeoText first wrote and asked to work together with The Sager Group to help build a catalog of narrative nonfiction—a combination of great stories old and new—Belth came immediately to mind. Since our inception over a decade ago, The Sager Group has been dedicated to preserving the art I have loved so well, narrative journalism. Along the way we’ve published a number of anthologies featuring great literary reportage, including the world’s only three-volume collection of stories by and interviews with great women journalists of the past half century.
Now, with the sponsorship of NeoText, and with the help of Alex Belth as imprint editor, we’re proud to introduce The Stacks Reader Series, highlighting classic literary non-fiction and short fiction by great journalists that would otherwise be lost to history—a living archive of memorable storytelling by notable authors.
Editor & Publisher
The Sager Group
Mike Sager: So what attracted you to magazines and magazine journalism in the first place?
Alex Belth: I’m a Gen X-er born in the early 1970s, so magazines were always a sort of essential part of how I understood and interpreted culture. For me as a kid it started with Mad, of course. Then Sports Illustrated and sports magazines. Then I got into Creem and Musician and Rolling Stone, rock ’n’ roll magazines. I wasn’t seeking out journalism so much as pursuing my interests. So magazines would sort of come my way like when I was 13 and really into David Bowie, and I would find a copy The Face downtown in the Village. I was aware of Esquire and other more literary magazines—my grandparents got The New Yorker and Newsweek— but though I came from a really bookish family I wasn’t a huge reader as a kid.
Most of my early magazine years were spent more focused on the visuals—pictures, layouts, illustrations. I loved comic books—Daredevil, X-Men, The Teen Titans, but also because my mother is Belgian I grew up reading Tintin, Asterix, Gaston LaGaffe, Luky Luke, and a ton of those great French comic books. Also, when I was a teenager and in college, I felt magazines were meant to be torn, cut up and put up on your wall. Sure, I read Didion and Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe in high school and college but I didn’t really get into journalism, or magazines as an interest until my early to mid-thirties after I got into blogging.
MS : So just briefly, what was your career arc from like your twenties to that point?
AB: Oh, I had childhood aspirations to be the next Martin Scorsese. I was a movie fiend. I started working as a messenger in the Brill Building in 1988, when I was 17 years old. The Brill Building was the last refuge of Tin Pan Alley, famous for housing music industry offices and studios where some of the most popular American songs were written. Paul Simon still had his offices when I arrived but most of the building was rented out to Sound One, the largest post-production facility on the east coast. Scorsese had his offices there and he was mixing the sound for The Last Temptation of Christ. John Sayles was finishing Eight Men Out, Jonathan Demme wrapping up Married to the Mob, David Cronenberg was editing Dead Ringers. I was still in high school but was hooked. I went away to college for four years, and then came back and worked my way up the old-fashioned way from unpaid intern to apprentice to assistant film editor. I lived the freelance life of an assistant editor until the fall of 2001 at which point those childhood aspirations of wanting to be the next Scorsese had been duly drained out of my system.
My dad worked in show business, in TV production, and although I did something very different, I was really chasing his shadow in that industry. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I ended up just getting a temp job at Time Inc., in the finance department of all places, which is really funny when you think that I just have no aptitude for math. The gig became permanent after a couple of months and there I was Bartelby Belth the Scrivener. This was in 2002. One day, the guy who I was working for said, “Hey man, they just started these things called blogs.” The idea really appealed to me, I figured it would be a good way to practice writing, so in the fall of 2002, I started one of the first New York Yankee blogs, Alex Belth’s Bronx Banter. I lived in the Bronx, grew up enjoying Roger Angell’s fan-in-the-stands reportage for the New Yorker and figured that was a good model. I covered the Yankees, culture, sports. The things that appealed to me, I guess.
MS: And that’s what started your second career, as a writer.
AB: About a year later, I got a contract to write a Young Adult non-fiction book on an athlete, and I chose Curt Flood, who was a civil rights pioneer in baseball. And doing the research for that book sent me to the New York Public Library, where I had to go find old articles on microfilm. And I wouldn’t say it was exactly a eureka moment, but being in that library, among all that historical stuff—well, that’s just my element. I’d be looking for one article and I’d run across three more that I was really interested in. I’d write with those clunky Microfiche machines, making xerox copies for a quarter. When I got home I’d scan and make PDFs and send them to friends.
Eventually I realized that writers were a lot easier to get access to than athletes, and maybe even more interesting. I started to run Paris Review-style long interviews with writers. First, I started with a couple of “names” I knew from the movie business. The first interview I did was with Ken Burns because my first job out of college was working as an intern on his baseball documentary. I’d also worked for the Coen brothers for a year on The Big Lebowski. So I interviewed Ethan Coen. Then Buck O’Neil and Marvin Miller. But the first writer I interviewed was Buster Olney, who was writing about baseball for the Times then. I love reading lengthy interviews with writers and enjoyed conducting them, too.
I enlisted other writers and had a terrific bullpen of talent contributing to the site. But after a half dozen years, Bronx Banter became more of a New York City lifestyle blog with a heavy emphasis on the Yankees. When the site turned 10 years old, I reprinted 30 old magazine stories by great writers that previously hadn’t existed online. It was that series that caught the attention of Tommy Craggs, who was running Deadspin, Gawker’s sports site that helped change the face of news and the Internet. Tommy loved a Peter Richmond piece I’d run on Bill Murray and so began a good collaboration.
MS: And so The Stacks Reader was born.
AB: Craggs asked me if I’d like to do some reprints of great narrative stories for him at Deadspin. This was the spring of 2013. We called it The Stacks, which is the traditional name of the room or rooms in libraries where books that are not in general circulation are kept. Soon after, the Daily Beast was wanting more of the same for their weekend section. At the end of 2015, I was hired by Esquire to run Esquire Classic, which is a complete archive of their entire collection going back more than 85 years to their origins. Along the way, I created my own site, The Stacks Reader, to house all the reprints I’d facilitated at various other sites. To date we have over 500 great narrative articles that had previously not appeared online. In this way we preserve the great stories of the past. As long as my server is up and running, a lifetime of stories is alive.
MS : Along the way, you sought out and spoke with as many of the authors you could. Who were some of the early writers you reached out to?
AB: Some of the first writers I spoke with were Allen Barra—a funny, smart critic and also a baseball writer for The Village Voice for years— and Glenn Stout, the longtime series editor of Best American Sports Writing. Pat Jordan was another one, a veteran contributor to GQ, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Playboy, the ultimate freelance writer. When he was young in the late 1950s, Jordan was a baseball prospect of considerable note. He never made the majors, but he wrote a classic book about it called A False Spring, which is kind of like The Last Picture Show of minor league life. I got to know Patty and I ended up editing The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. That was my first deep dive into one writer’s career.
There have been dozens. Some of my favorites have been Luc Sante, Pete Dexter, Marilyn Johnson, Jenny Allen, John Edgar Wideman, Lili Anolik, Mark Jacobson, Will Blythe, Jean Marie Laskas, Tom Junod, Charlie Pierce, Joan Juliet Buck. Bruce Handy, for sure. Fred Schruers! Ivan and Paul Solotaroff. And of course you, Sager. I’ve also interviewed a lot of editors, the people who find the writers and assign the stories and make them great. I find editors fascinating creative people. Jay Lovinger stands out. John Walsh. Biz Mitchell. Peter Griffin. Not to mention the families, the daughters, sons, and wives, I’ve met of writers who are no longer with us. I’ve become friends with a lot of the folks that I’ve met—John Schulian is family, so is Hilma Wolitzer and John Ed Bradley, ditto Scott Raab. When it becomes a personal relationship, it’s not just me asking a bunch of questions but something deeper. Also, I am genuinely curious and want to be a custodian, want to be helpful and useful, and I think people respond to that.
MS: How many magazines would you say you have?
AB: It’s up to about 2,500 or 3,000 magazines, something like that. But it’s a very particular kind of collection, I would say. I’m not a white glove curator or archivist with everything carefully preserved in acid-free protector slips. I’m more of a literary paleontologist. I’m sifting through magazines to find the gems of stories past. I’m digitizing. I’m preserving stories that would otherwise be lost to time. I’m more like Steve Martin at the end of The Jerk, unable to leave anything behind. When Richard Ben Cramer’s wife called me and asked if I wanted Richard’s collection of sports books I didn’t think, I have no space for it, I thought: Yes! Of course, I want it. Just on principle, you know? Ha!
MS: What are some of the titles you’ve collected?
AB: American Film, Film Comment, Premiere Magazine. I still have some hip hop magazines from the ‘90s such as Ego Trip, Rap Pages, URB, and Fat Lace. I have a bunch of Esquire, of course, but also GQ and Vanity Fair, New York, SI. Have a few plump issues of Philadelphia that I acquired—along with many other treats—from Eliot Kaplan, a great dude who had editorial stints at GQ and Philly mag. I have the first couple of years of Inside Sports, a bunch of old issues of Sport, too. Then a random assortment of ‘80s magazines like New York Woman, Spy, Manhattan Inc., The Movies, which only lasted for five issues, and Adam Moss’s 7 Days. I love the magazines that only lasted a few issues like Comedy. Some of them would maybe be considered oddities or collectors’ items. Like this one travel magazine called Trips. There was only one issue. It was meant to be Banana Republic’s answer to National Geographic —a hip, literary version, kind of like Esquire does National Geographic. It was edited by the Carolyn White, late of Rolling Stone, who was married to Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ben Cramer (What it Takes, What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now). There was a time when White and Cramer were the literary “it” couple in Manhattan. Maybe a younger version of Nan and Gay Talese, and a lot more fun, given the era, the 1980s. The issue has writing by Mark Jacobson, Richard Ford, Gerri Hershey. It’s a gem.
MS: How far back do you think your oldest issue might be?
AB: Probably the forties or fifties. A friend of mine sent me two Family Circle issues from the late thirties, but my focus is really on the 1960s to the present. One thing that I also have that’s sort of cool is three bound additions of New York when it was still the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. The paper was dying which is what gave editor Clay Felker the freedom to try anything that worked. It was the ideal stage for the burgeoning “New Journalism” to take off. Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe were the stars but Richard Goldstein and Doon Arbus and a bunch of other young writers did interesting work there as well. Today, we call it longform, then it was the “New Journalism” and it was a fascinating moment in time. Those old New Yorks had great covers, as well as kick-ass illustrations, particularly by a guy named Robert Weaver who applied the New Journalism to illustration. Those were exciting days and to have a record of something so perishable is something I cherish.
MS : Nice segue to the reason we’re here. When NeoText asked me to help build a narrative presence online—commissioning new narrative journalism but also reclaiming and re-presenting classic works by great journalists that would otherwise be lost to history— the first person I turned to was you, Alex. Together, with the support of John Schoenfelder at NeoText, we’ve created a new imprint at my indie publishing brand, The Sager Group. We’ve called it, appropriately, The Stacks Reader Series. Can you explain to our readers why we think they should be as enthusiastic as we are?
AB: First of all, I think magazine journalists are an interesting genre of creative species. They tend to be smart, whether they are intellectual like Marcelle Clements and Ron Rosenbaum, or just smart people like Gary Smith and Elizabeth Kaye. You sometimes get a sense that a great magazine writer could have been a professor—or a bum. Magazine writers are fun company, for the most part, though. They like to talk because they are used to doing the interviewing. They’ve traveled, they’ve met a lot of people. They have stories. Some are egotists and real type A personalities, others are withdrawn, shy, although strangely charismatic.
The thing about this particular genre, magazine stories, is there is a kind of a higher mission going on, this desire to create, if not a new sort of art form, then a story that conveys the truth just like a newspaper story would, only written in a stylistic, literary fashion that you couldn’t do in newspapers. I’m dating myself. Of course, over time, newspapers have adopted longform storytelling as well, but that was always the thing about magazines—there was an aspiration, or pretention, depending on how you see it, to make something great within the commercial limitations of the form. And there is a sweet spot in a good magazine piece—it’s longer than a conventional news story, but way shorter than a book. The distinguishing feature of this form is the use of the conventions of a movie or novel—scene, setting, dialogue, character development, sense of place, a point of view. There is a combination of talents at work: gumshoe reporting meets artistic sensibility. And that’s exactly what drew me to the first stories we’re presenting, “The Cheerleader,” by E. Jean. Carroll, and” “An American Family,” by Daniel Voll.
“The Cheerleaders” and “An American Family” are perfect examples of what we’re talking about here, because in magazine stories, you’re seeing the art of compression. The author is taking a complex story and telling it artfully and entertainingly within the space of 7,000 to 15,000 words. Magazine stories are necessarily different than books, which can typically run 100,000 words or more. And whether the author you’re reading has an understated, unflashy style, like Lillian Ross or Pamela Colloff, or an exaggerated, flashy like Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson—you get the feeling that this form, this length, is ideally suited to the story they are telling.
I think particularly in the case of Daniel’s piece, you see, I don’t want to say constraints, but the rules of the genre make it really the perfect expression for that story. Daniel’s story could have been a fictional story, in which case he never would have had to step back as the reporter and say, “Hey, listen. Hey folks, we’re talking about incest here and taboo,” and we need to sort of address that in this evenhanded journalistic way, and then get back into the intimacy of the story of these two people and the drama that unfolds.
With Carroll, she’s somebody who’s more in the vein of Hunter Thompson. She’s style driven. She’s got tons of voice, she’s a breeze. She’s like Bill Zehme and Taffy Ackner. They just have a lot of personal style in the way they tell a story. As a reporter, Carroll’s effusively empathetic with her subjects. The fact that she has a real sense of humor, doesn’t trivialize the sort of real tragic severity of that story, but the wonderful use of voice does help undercut just how heavy that story is. In the middle of all the carnage we find her humor, like the perfect yin and yang. She finds ways to empathize the compassionate elements of the story as opposed to exploiting them. You know what I mean?
MS : Man, I know exactly what you mean. That’s why we’re here.