I Spy

A Teenage Book Critic, Spy Magazine, and the 1980s

You are not the kind of kid who would be at a place like this. Because look at where you start from, and what you pass along the way. 

You’re sixteen. Take the bike from your house, which is behind the quarry and across the street from the carpet warehouse, which is next to the beer distributorship, which is next to the kitchen-utensil warehouse where your mom works. Head south, past the cold-storage warehouse, then cross the four-lane past the chemical plant. Enter McCook, Illinois (pop. 250), where on early mornings the shadow of the water tower stretches across the highway to the aluminum plant. Parallel to the highway is an abandoned railroad track–a row of jet-black tanker cars have been abandoned there for as long as you can remember. If you keep going you’ll connect with what used to be Route 66, which passes another quarry and then the General Motors locomotive plant, where your dad works.

But you’re not going that far. Turn right on your bike just past the tanker cars, then left past the few residential houses in town. Another left and you’re at the McCook Public Library. Again. It’s practically brand-new. And because on summer days there’s hardly anybody besides you inside it, when you walk inside it makes you feel brand-new as well.

You’re a reader, but because you’re sixteen you’re not really sure what kind of reader you are. When your mother insists you accompany her on grocery trips, you plant yourself at the magazine and book racks, where you cycle first through Rolling Stone and Spin, because you consume MTV in great gulps every day. Then you read the men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ because there are clues in there about all sorts of things—about writing, politics, girls, what a sophisticated joke is. Sometimes there’s also Spy magazine, which seems designed to make fun of everything else on the rack—Jann Wenner’s boomer sensibility, Esquire putting Jay McInerney on its cover. It’s dishy and ironic and exclamatory and it has had it with certain people and you don’t understand half of it.

Spy is all the more confusing because you like Jay McInerney. Or you think you do. The McCook Public Library doesn’t have a lot of books (pop. 250), but many of its new fiction titles are Vintage Contemporaries—paperback novels and short-story collections by (usually) living and (usually) American writers. The covers are candy-colored with a consistent design sensibility, collectable; they convey the feeling that just by looking at them you’re on top of things. You liked one Vintage Contemporary, McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City; you liked another, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From a lot. In school it’s easy to figure out what’s “great”—you trust what you’re assigned. But in an industrial suburb in the Midwest, with nobody else who reads like you do, as far as you can tell, you’re at a loss to figure out what’s good and what’s bad, and by what standard to judge it.

In school, you think of yourself as above needing Cliffs Notes. But you need Cliffs Notes for all this. And you’re in luck, kid. Somebody wrote them.

Thirty years ago, Spy magazine published Spy Notes, a peculiar feat of literary skewering. It’s in-jokes stuffed into subcultural critique tucked into parody, a lit-crit turducken. A satire of Cliffs Notes that imitated the cheat sheets’ size, structure, and familiar black-and-yellow covers, the book targeted, as the cover explains, Bright Lights, Big City, Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, “and all those other hip urban novels of the 1980s.” All three of those authors—and high-dollar Manhattan literary culture writ large—had been a favorite target of Spy magazine for half a decade, and Spy Notes was a final, snarky cry of “enough with these people”—an attempt to close the book on what it deemed a costume-jewelry moment in literary history.

There were good reasons, in 1989, to think that Spy was on the right side of history. Bright Lights and Less Than Zero had each sold close to half a million copies—Spy Notes fastidiously charts sales and advance figures for six of the titles it coversand made the authors household-ish names, though that was thanks more to the splashy film versions of the novels. But a sophomore slump soon set in for both writers, sales-wise and critically, and Spy seized on it. One of the recurring jokes in Spy Notes is in its biographical sketches, which repeatedly note the “uniformly negative reviews” these authors’ follow-ups received, quoting copiously from the stack of bad press. James Wolcott busily labored as the butcher of SoHo in this regard, dismissing McInerney’s Story of My Life as “all talk, no texture” and savaging Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction by writing that “a condom as big as a dirigible couldn’t contain the faucet drip of Ellis’s non-stop prose.”

For sixteen-year-old me, this was all valuable intelligence—Spy was sending word that it was a badge of honor of sorts not to mindlessly praise whatever the marketplace was selling as quality contemporary literature. You could be critical, even openly dismissive, with books in the same way you could with hair-metal acts on MTV. I was a little less clear, though, on what the problem with the books were. Spy Notes pilloried Ellis, et. al., for writing about the fundamentally adolescent concerns of being young and hating parents. But Salinger did the same thing in The Catcher in the Rye, didn’t he? As an assertion of standards, Spy Notes could be a bit lacking. Its lead writer, Paul Simms—who’d later create the hit sitcom NewsRadio after stints on Letterman and The Larry Sanders Show—leans heavily on a handful of gags throughout the book, and one of them is to set his targets up against storied classics. For instance:

Like Charles Dickens and George Orwell, Janowitz writes frankly about the dark underside of urban life. The detailed descriptive passage about varieties of the human penis (page 1 in the paperback edition) may be of particular interest to some readers.

Like Shakespeare’s character King Lear, Clay uses the word “nothing” repeatedly in his short monologue.

The Rules of Attraction, like Melville’s Moby-Dick and Nabokov’s Lolita, was widely misunderstood when it was first published.

Like John Barth and William Gaddis, Bret Easton Ellis writes “difficult” fiction.

As with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the reader is unsure whether the action is meant to be funny or horrifying, and the author provides few clues. It’s probably supposed to be funny, though.

And so on. In retrospect, this reads like an egregiously petty form of criticism, as if my doctor decided to demonstrate how out of shape I am by prescribing a footrace against Usain Bolt. But Simms and his co-authors doubled down. A list of “further reading” on Janowitz consists almost entirely of Page Six items. Among the “suggested theme topics” is “Contrast any one of the books in the genre with a well-written twentieth-century novel of your own choice.” A map of the various character relationships in Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction is an overcomplicated spoke-and-hub map. 

I laughed; well, sixteen-year-old me laughed. But you could make an equally ridiculous map from a Faulkner novel, couldn’t you? And it’s not as if Papa Hemingway was publicity-shy. Spy Notes made the books it covers look absurd by delivering deadpan plot summaries, but that approach will kill any novel from Don Quixote onward. 

So, the entire enterprise both energized and confused me. Spy Notes introduced me to authors I’d heard about but hadn’t read, as well as writers like Barth and Gaddis, whom I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced until college. And for a while, I internalized a lot of Spy Notes’scritical logic—that anybody who appeared to be on a pedestal should be knocked off of it, that a good joke could substitute for a critique. Spy Notes validated my feelings not so much on a literary level but on a class level, mainly by stoking a lower-middle-class kid’s eat-the-rich sensibility. (Around the same time, I’d discovered Paul Fussell’s brash, funny disquisition on the American status system, Class.) I wasn’t aware enough to see it as such, but the supermarket magazine rack had helped me at least sense the divide between me, a bookish son of immigrants in an industrial Midwest suburb, and the places where smart people made decisions about who ought to be pushed off their perches. Lacking better options, Spy Notes seemed like it might ferry me across. 

Spy Notes was against all these authors it had lined up for its turkey shoot. But what was it for? Time has made that a little clearer.

A funny thing happened in the thirty years since Spy endeavored to put the nail in the coffin of 80s fiction. The novelists lasted; Spy didn’t.

McInerney shifted from Carver-esque dirty-hipster realism and became, if not the kind of author you put on magazine covers anymore, a respectable purveyor of niche Manhattan social novels. Bret Easton Ellis followed up The Rules of Attraction with a legitimate modern classic, American Psycho, and a mixed career since then as a novelist, screenwriter, and podcaster; his latest book, White, is a collection of likable personal essays about his adolescence and early literary career, topped off with some excrescent alt-right-adjacent whimperings. The remainder of the novelists that Spy Notes satirized—Janowitz, Lisa Grunwald, Peter J. Smith, Mark Lindquist, Peter Farrelly, Kristin McCloy, Lisa Pliscou—hardly seemed worth the ammunition at the time, and since then became moderately successful midlist novelists. Farrelly is the most famous of that batch, now, mainly as a screenwriter and director; when he won an Oscar this year for Green Book, which he wrote and directed, the intelligentsia abandoned him but he gained a vocal advocate in … Bret Easton Ellis. If only Spy were still around to crack wise about that.

But if the hip-novelist set of the 1980s isn’t exactly lionized now, it hasn’t vaporized either. It’s even proven to be a meaningful pivot point in the history of American literature, embodying the messy handoff from the boomers’ Updikean politesse to the Xers, who’d started off as Carveresque minimalists but would break free in multiple directions in the 90s. Earlier this year Lili Anolik delivered a lengthy oral history for Esquire of the tribe of writers who attended Bennington College in the 80s, including Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Donna Tartt. There’s nary a glint of Spy-ish snark in it. Nobody questioned whether such a thorough accounting was worth the trouble, and the overall mood of the piece is approvingly reminiscing. 

Anolik’s piece made me wonder: If Spy Notes had held off a few years, what would it have made of Tartt’s fine 1992 debut, The Secret History? Its critical acclaim and the sheer force of its prose might have prompted Spy to hold fire; it might even have torpedoed its thesis that this was a generation with nothing to say. But I suspect it would have pressed on. The Secret History, after all,had all the things that inspired the satire: An attractive young author, a tale of moody college kids, a hefty advance ($450,000, reportedly), and power agent Amanda “Binky” Urban. Spy Notes wasn’t about what was good and bad so much as naming and shaming the allegedly undeserving, and Tartt would’ve qualified under the magazine’s calculus. 

Still, Spy Notes did stand for something in fiction, but you have to hunt for the evidence. The tell is tucked toward the end. The back matter of Spy Notes includes a few quick gags: charts of the books’ sales and advances; a fake interview with the authors constructed of cherry-picked quotes meant to conjure a look-at-these-dummies vibe; and a faux timeline of the path of hipster-lit failure. (“Go to exclusive northeastern college. Develop reputation as best fiction writer on campus. It’s easier than you think.”) Just before all that, though, is a brief but revealing listing of “Other Novels of the Genre.” Spy approves of Mary-Ann T. Smith’s The Book of Phoebe, though in a backhanded way: It is “well conceived” but “at 41, she is too old.” David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System is tut-tutted for its “supposedly Pynchonesque complexity.” And lastly, Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has characters who are “not glamorous-but-unhappy urbanites, and the novel’s strong, compelling plot appeals to the vulgar interests of readers who prefer diversion and entertainment rather than being confronted with the hollow malaise of life in the 1980s chronicled in the many novels which do define the genre.”

A sixteen-year-old could get the message. Ultimately, Spy Notes wasn’t advocating for good literature so much as the old guard—the established writers, the not-young, the diverting, the not-provocative. No kids allowed; no Pynchonesque weirdos admitted. Spy was a reliably liberal counterweight to the Reagan 80s, and it gloried in pillorying its more ossified ambassadors. But there’s nothing Spy hated more than an arriviste. (Among the targets in a random issue—October 1985—were Donald Trump, new nightclub owners, and, yeesh, Keith Haring. Trump was a reliable punching bag for the magazine’s entire run; indeed, Trump was effectively its mascot.) People who were newly rich, newly established, and prone to foot-in-mouth syndrome, especially in publishing, were Spy’s red meat—such people were beneath the contempt of the magazine’s minders, and their enthusiasm for the older, more correct way of doing things made it, weirdly, at once hip and retrograde. It was no surprise that Spy cofounder Graydon Carter ultimately jumped to Vanity Fair, and that he turned it into an establishment bible the moment he’d landed.

So you think those 1980s novelists had weak premises? Check out Spy’s: It thought that American society at large was deeply invested in threading this needle, that everybody was eager to snark off at the Madonnas and Trumps and McInerneys while preserving some esteem for Cheeveresque postwar America. Aspiring for wider reach, in 1990 and 1992 the magazine produced a pair of TV specials, How to Be Famous (cowritten by Simms) and The Hit List, sending up “annoying and alarming people and events” and the media culture that elevated them: Arsenio Hall, Monica Seles, Oprah Winfrey, and so on. Making fun of celebrities but still getting on network television can be a tricky business, one Spy sorted out by hiring as hosts Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis Dreyfus. The moment was perfect for them: Before Seinfeld exploded in popularity, they were Spy’s kind of anti-hip, familiar but not nearly famous enough to be targeted. A few years later they would have been under Spy’s bus, not driving it.

With Spy Notes, the magazine made a similarly absurd bet about how much we wanted this kind of go-away-a-little-closer brand of pop-culture critique. Bantam Doubleday Dell printed a whopping 150,000 copies of the book, according to the New York Times. Did Spy figure that a substantial proportion of people who bought Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero would also want to read something that made fun of their reading choices? Did they figure there was a market for people who just wanted to chortle at these books in an exceedingly convoluted way? Who were they hoping would read this sort of thing?

Well, obviously: A bookish teenager riding his bike to the McCook Public Library on a regular basis in 1989, a kid intelligent enough to get most of the references but who hadn’t quite figured out that its attack on cultural hollowness was hollow itself. Spy Notes is one of the books that made me want to be a critic—if nothing else, it made me feel like it was a way to be in the thick of things, doing something I already liked doing. But I needed to spend a lot of time unwinding its lessons. The literary culture at large has been forced to do the same, I think. The chattering classes in publishing still love a story about a bright young thing arriving on the scene with a big advance, and Twitter has effectively replaced Spy as a repository of snark designed to take you down a peg. (We all had a good time with the saga of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding when it was related in, of course, Vanity Fair.) But overall, literary culture wants to be approving and inclusive, now, not judgey—The Believer launched in 2003 with a pointed assault on snark and the “bonbons of malice” delivered by the New York media. A decade and half on, Spy’s brand of NOKD culture-sifting is moot and meaningless: In an era of mergers and belt-tightening, the age of the outsize advance for a bright young thing has all but vaporized; that big advance is more likely to go to a refugee of the Trump administration. Spy vs. Binky has turned into MFA vs. NYC, but both sides of that battle now recognize how much smaller the stakes are. A full-time career as a novelist, good or bad, is now its own kind of joke.

Today, the legacy of Spy Notes has more to do with the courts than literary culture. Shortly before Spy Notes was slated for release, Cliffs Notes sued Bantam Doubleday Dell for copyright infringement, winning an injunction against its publication. For a time, all of those copies of Spy Notes sat in a warehouse in Des Plaines, Illinois, about twenty miles from my childhood home. A Federal appeals court lifted the injunction in September 1989, concluding that an “ordinary prudent person” wouldn’t be confused about the difference between Spy Notes and Cliffs Notes, and the book was freed from a month and a half in limbo.

To think I’d almost missed it. I’m glad Spy Notes got released and that I found it—for all its silliness and retrograde attitudes about what a writer was supposed to be, it introduced me to a world that I wanted to know better. But rereading it gave me a bittersweet feeling. It’s a relic of a world that’s become unrecognizable to the Spy Notes sensibility in the thirty years since it was published. It’s a reminder of how American literary culture had to learn everything all over again. 

Mark Athitakis