And the Winner Is . . .

Writers who have never been nominated for a National Magazine Award like to gripe that only the worst stories win. But just wait until the tide turns, as it did for writer John Colapinto last year, when his Rolling Stone story about "John/Joan," a man who had a botched circumcision, was nominated for a Reporting award.

In a few weeks, Colapinto says, he went from "working in my little hovel, not caring about the award, to climbing toward this ziggurat of the exquisite tension of the moment" when the awards are announced.

He recalls arriving at the glitzy luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he saw Lewis Lapham and Si Newhouse, "all those bigwigs milling around." The tension built, and upon hearing that he had won, "My instinct was to jump up and grab my Oscar and start crying like Gwyneth Paltrow," Colapinto jokes now.

Alas, it's the editor in chief, not the writer, who gets to accept the award. Which makes sense. After all, it is editors who deliberately assign a certain kind of story in hopes of winning, and editors whose careers may hinge on the number of awards they have won. Last year, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner was so hot to win that one wag dubbed him the Harvey Weinstein of the magazine awards.

This year's breakout is Esquire, which landed three nominations, after years of not getting any. By contrast, GQ got only one. After the finalists were announced March 17, Esquire editor in chief David Granger was so delighted he took some staffers out for drinks, while GQ editor in chief Art Cooper walked around in a funk.

Look for signs of the Esquire-GQ feud at this year's luncheon on April 28. After all, it's been simmering since 1997, when Granger, then executive editor at GQ, defected to Esquire, taking with him GQ senior editor Scott Omelianuk and several writers. Perhaps the worst loss for Cooper was writer Tom Junod, a two-time National Magazine Award­winner who wrote two of the stories for which GQ was nominated in 1997. Junod is now a writer at large for Esquire.

Insiders say Cooper has taken the awards very seriously since he arrived at GQ in the mid 1980s. In the years before he won any, one writer remembers, Cooper wondered aloud why he bothered to buy a table at the luncheon, while publicly calling the awards "the only game in town." But by the mid 1990s, Cooper was on a roll, taking home awards two years in a row and celebrating his winning writers.

The turning point came in 1997, when GQ got nominated six times, but did not win a single award. Returning from the luncheon that year, a rival claims, Cooper yelled at the woman who runs the newsstand in the lobby of 350 Madison to take down the magazines that had won awards. This year, he is said to have congratulated the one writer whose work was nominated by sending her an e-mail. (Cooper and Granger declined to comment.)

Meanwhile, theories abound as to what kind of story gets nominated in the sought-after categories of Feature Writing, Reporting, and Essays & Criticism. "There's a certain kind of overwrought New Journalism" that appeals to the judges, says one magazine editor. One writer says the awards favor weighty themes, such as "Death" or "The American Identity." Another thinks the judges prefer protagonists with mental or physical defects.

Indeed, a survey of past awards reveals a recurring theme: the "Damaged Man" story, in which the protagonist overcomes an insurmountable obstacle to prove his manhood. In 1989, Chip Brown won for an Esquire story about a white man who spent years in prison as a black revolutionary. In 1995, Tom Junod won for a sympathetic portrayal in GQ of a child rapist seeking rehabilitation. In 1997, Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith showcased yet another sexual offender (this one wanted to play college hoops), and Colapinto's hero endured the greatest possible insult to man: growing up in a woman's body.

Two formulas have surfaced this year: the stories either pump a man up, by introducing him to heroes, or bring him down, by reminding him that he's a mere mortal. Esquire demonstrates both in its Essays & Criticism finalists, Michael Paterniti's "The American Hero in Four Acts" and Ramsey Flynn's "You Haven't Lived Until You've Died." The former depicts four raging supermen, such as a Vietnam vet who burned down a crackhouse. In the latter, the author narrates his own heart attack.

Is the American male an übermensch or a fragile chassis? The theme is reprised in this year's Feature Writing category, which pits "Old," an Esquire piece by Mike Sager, against a story by Elizabeth Gilbert for GQ.

Gilbert's hero is Eustace Conway, who lives on "1,000 acres of pristine wilderness," makes his own buckskin clothing, "eats possum and wipes his butt with leaves." Not only is he the hero of the "American masculine narrative," but he is "unstoppable. And we are also unstoppable. We have always been unstoppable on this continent."

By contrast, Mike Sager's 92-year-old protagonist is the vehicle for a Man's Guide to Aging: "You gain weight, you lose weight, your hair falls out. Your skin slackens, your voice thins, your bones become brittle. . . . Your prostate and a piece of your colon are removed."

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