As part of our Ten Years of Nerve retrospective, we bring you a series of interviews with the people who made, and continue to make, the publication happen. Today, current Babble editor Gwynne Watkins talks with co-founder Genevieve Field, who is now an editor at Glamour.
Can you give me the Readers’ Digest condensed version of how Nerve came about?
Rufus and I were working together at a small book packager called Cader Books. We fell in love and moved in with each other. As soon as we became a couple, we started talking about Nerve. It was something Rufus had been dreaming about doing for a few years. But his original idea was to do a magazine about sex and death. Luckily that idea got sort of thrown by the wayside. I can’t say that I’m the only one who took credit for talking him out of it. If you can imagine anything sort of less commercial than Nerve, that would have been it. So we decided to just go with a smart magazine about sex. We called it “literate smut” at first. That was sort of a coined phrase. Although we found that a lot of people didn’t get it.
They thought we really meant it was smut. And why did we need to say that it was literate? Wasn’t it obviously literature?
What happened then?
Rufus quit his job first. And I moved on to another publishing house. He was always great about finding us money. After he’d found us some seed capital, I quit my job at Melcher Media, and we spent a few months working with Joey Cavella, designing it. Rufus and I wrote letters to every author whose book we’d ever read and loved, telling them what we were doing, and asking them if they’d be interested. The response we got was kind of amazing. It was the perfect moment in time for that kind of response. We were so early into the web that people were curious about it and very into it. Rick Moody. Norman Mailer gave us something at the very beginning.
It was different from what it evolved into. It read like a couple of recent college graduates doing the magazine. The articles were extremely long-winded and, in some cases, probably too long for the web. It took us a while to figure out that people weren’t interested in reading more than 500 words or so. I think Nerve actually still needs to figure that out, to be honest.
It was very literary, and a lot of people made fun of us for taking ourselves too seriously. Even though a lot of the stuff was funny-literary, it was still fairly highbrow. We liked it that way, and that gave us some credibility.
The process for the photography was the same. Richard Kern was sort of our poster boy, but we also had Ralph Gibson and Sylvia Plachy, and people who were very established in the fine-art community. As the photo editor, that was the direction I wanted to go. After I left, the site got a lot sexier, I noticed. [laughs] I really like the photography now. It’s just a different direction.
What about the launch?
Rufus went on CNN the same day we launched, which was timed conveniently by us. The Communications Decency Act was overruled by the Supreme Court. If this bill had not been struck down, we would not have been able to publish our site at all, and the months of preparation would have been for naught. We were immediately picked up as poster children for the new wave of content on the web, and how a sexual site could be deemed literary instead of just straight porn. Rufus went on The Charlie Rose Show a couple of days after we launched, and we just started getting an incredible amount of attention and traffic.
It was the three of us working: Joey was in his apartment at home in his house, and Rufus and I were in our apartment. We just worked like dogs, all the time. The big joke was that we were supposed to be a young, sexy couple starting this sex magazine, but we never had time to have sex.
What was it like working out of your apartment?
I remember feeling like we were a real family. Rufus and I lived there, but eventually there were people working there at all hours. It was everyone’s house, not just our house, so I had to learn to live with, uh, no privacy at all. That was fun, and hard. Those first few years, everything was back-burnered for Nerve. I think that’s what happens when you start a business.
Did you have an obligation to make it appealing to women?
That was definitely my first priority. At every turn or new development I would ask, is this for the female audience or not? I think I appealed to women as the face of Nerve, because I seemed to be a regular person. When people would meet me, they would say, “Oh, I thought you were going to be in head-to-toe leather!” or “I thought you were going to have tattoos.” Or be, you know, basically, much cooler than I really was. The same thing with Rufus. We were kind of this regular couple.
What were some moments you remember?
Launching the print magazine was a huge moment. I was heavily involved in the photography at the time, so all of a sudden all the photographers wanted to shoot for us. I’d been sort of begging and pleading for people to contribute their photography, but the web was still not considered a legitimate place to show your work. But print magazines were where it was at. So all of a sudden all of the photographers that I’d been hounding for years wanted to publish in a Nerve print magazine. So that was really fun. But more than that, it was great to finally have something to hold in my hand and show my family and shock them. It was a very exciting time.
What about the HBO party?
I think that might have been a turning point. Until then, we had been just this scrappy little company. We would throw great parties that got talked about. HBO heard about the great Nerve parties, and they wanted to help us throw one, so they could film. It was part of a pilot for a show that didn’t end up working out. And that was where we went from being just this scrappy little shop to, I felt, something too commercial. The space was lit by 1,000 strobe lights. It was not the intimate, cool, dark atmosphere anymore. There were professional models walking around serving drinks, and professional dancers. It was like someone else’s vision of what we were.
We had all been given these outfits to wear, and none of us wore the outfits, so HBO was really mad at us for not wearing the clothes we were told to wear. I think they were mad at us the whole night because we weren’t performing — we weren’t acting like the people that they had envisioned for their show. And I was just trying to come to grips with the fact that it was too bright. They took the mike off me at one point. They lost interest, and they told me to go do my own thing. That was an interesting moment.
What were some challenges of being a Nerve editor that you haven’t had at any other editorial job?
I find it’s the same challenges that I’ve had as an editor at any job. I’m always trying to get writers to be more honest and be more personal. I think what’s made me successful as an editor — I have a really good bullshit detector. So if someone’s trying to sort of gloss over a really painful or emotional truth in their life, I’m good at teasing those truths out.I thought I was going to be a book or magazine editor, which I did end up becoming, but I thought I would be at Doubleday or Mademoiselle magazine. And here I was editing this sex site. But I had so much fun. Every minute. I couldn’t imagine a job that would be more exciting.
Are there any pieces you’re especially proud of publishing?
One piece that I remember loving was by Stacey D’Erasmo, about gay teenagers. We got out of one person’s head and looked at how sex was playing into the big picture.
Tell me about the print magazine folding.
It was a bummer. It was probably inevitable. None of us were incredibly shocked by it. It’s so hard for print magazines to make a go of it. To compete, you have to have really deep pockets, and we had very tiny pockets, so we couldn’t sustain it for more than a year. But I’m so glad we did it. I feel like it’s this relic of the time.
The print magazine market is even worse now.
Print magazines are just tough, no matter what. I think it’s just so damn cool that Nerve still exists. None of our friends from that era are still out there, they’ve moved on, their magazines have changed, but Nerve is still there. It’s so awesome.
What did you took away from it?
It was great for my career. It was great for my confidence. It helped me meet a lot of the writers I still work with today. I think it’s opened a lot of doors for me. I’m proud to have done something that was pretty revolutionary for its time.