rob gilley

Claiming Dr. No

| posted on February 13, 2013

Bold behind his desk, just as brazen in the water. Matt Warshaw, Mavericks. Photo: Gilley

In truth, our nickname for him in the photo department was actually, “Dr. Neg”. In retrospect, however, Dr. No would have been more appropriate—not just for the 007 word play, but for the simple fact that Matt Warshaw was the first SURFER Magazine editor to give the full-on Heisman, the proud and loud Gong Show clang, the Animal Thumper elbow, the obnoxious Family Feud buzzer, the Nancy Reagan Just-Say-No to bad surf literature.

I know something about this because I submitted a few essays to Matt myself, and among some lukewarm written critique, also received this spoken advice: “You’ll never be a writer, so you might as well stop now.”

My literary ego felt like a Thor-crushed aluminum can.

As it happens, I found these essays recently and realized that Matt was actually being kind. Florid, verbose piffle filled the pages. Pretentious, fancy words sat in the place of where simpler words should have stood (kind of like the sentence I just wrote).

I wasn’t alone, though, not by a long shot—Matt rejected so many writers and stories in the late eighties that it would have made Rogie Vachon jealous.

But it was all for a good cause. Matt was the O.G. (with a tip of the hat to Paul Holmes for making inroads and for hiring Matt) who finally put a stop to the good old boy/surf bro/semi-illiterate pro surfer system and put a literary meritocracy in its place. Gone were the days of throwing gratuitous bones to dudes and printing their weak-ass stories—if the prose didn’t cut it, it didn’t run. Period.

As the surf industry and magazine pages expanded, however, Matt ran into a problem. There weren’t enough writers capable of the level he wanted for Surfer. The pool was too small. So young Matt went on a quest and found two scribes from outside the known realm, Ben Marcus and Steve Barilotti, and made them associate editors. Then he found a kindred spirit in Derek Hynd, and POOF, just like that, the grand SURFER literary tradition had begun.

It wasn’t like decent writing and editing in SURFER hadn’t existed in the past. Drew Kampion and Phil Jarratt in particular had laid down some brilliant work. But sometime after that, SURFER veered into a mediocre, mail-it-in, only-worth-the-photos kind of literary existence. Matt was the one who established a culture of excellence, and it bore fruit: other talented writers became attracted to SURFER.

So if you like reading material penned by writers like Lewis Samuels, Steve Hawk, Dan Duane, Steve Barilotti, Ben Marcus, Derek Hynd, Dave Parmenter, Tim Baker, and Sean Doherty, in a strong sense you have Matt Warshaw to thank.

And I have to thank him too, because after crushing me with his “never be a writer” line, he walked back into the photo department later and qualified his comment: “I take it back. You can be a writer, Rob—you just need to find your voice.”

And after 25 years of embedded surf study, I need to send him a signal that I finally found it by pointing a middle finger in his direction, grabbing my crotch, and saying:

“I got your voice right here, bro.”

  • jdubbs29

    I picked up SURFER the other day in the airport, and was impressed with the level of writing and photos. It approached surfer journal type standards.

  • SUP Rules

    “the grand SURFER literary tradition”??? LOL, yeah I must have missed that issue Gilley. Your editor was right, you suck.

  • DH

    I’m 58 years old.
    Started surfing when I was 12.
    It’s been years since I could read Surfer.
    It’s written for kids.
    I still look at the pictures though.

  • i hope at least

    i think this is satire hahahahaha

  • John

    If Matt Warshaw, “put a stop to the good old boy/surf bro/semi-illiterate pro surfer system and put a literary meritocracy in its place”, how do you explain Evan Slater?

  • Mik

    comments by SUPers are less than nothing.

    right on Rob, write on .

  • Ben

    I agree that Warshaw is one of the best and only, though Samuels has probably now established himself as the best surf writer ever. “Caught Inside” by Dan Duane was also an excellent read.

  • Dave

    Piffle. My new favorite surf term.

  • Jimmy the Saint

    I buy Surfer because of the articles, though the photos are great. I recently bought ‘the perfect day’ a Surfer Magazine retrospective, and I was quite amazed by how terrible a lot of the writing was from back in the 60s and 70s. One article by Wayne Lynch was unintelligible! Anyways its great that Surfer do such great articles, keep up the good work guys, But I have to say that William Finnegan’s ‘Playing Doc’s Games’ is still the greatest article I have read on surfing. Tom Wolfe’s ‘Pump House Gang’ was probably one of the worst……. (though ‘the right stuff’ is brilliant)

  • Jimmy the Saint

    Oh yeah, in terms of surf fiction, nothing comes close to breath by Tim Winton in my opinion

  • BVB

    You omitted one amazingly talented writer, Jay Caspian Kang and his tour de force: THE DEAD DO NOT IMPROVE where he uses the character of BVB and then has him shot at the end of the book. He claims BVB is a fictional person, made up, and urban legend…

  • The Kneeboarder Tom Waits

    The content in SURFER is better than it’s been in years. But man, is it short. I can usually read the entire issue on the 35 minute bus ride to work.

  • Aaron

    If nothing else you got us thinking Rob.
    Good job.

  • jojo

    Yep, steve hawk wrote some pretty damn good editorials, from what i remember of the magazine at the time. The 90’s seemed SURFER’s golden years of editorial non-mediocrity. All downhill in the new millenium, unfortunately. (However, at least you guys never hired Chas Smith, so you thank you for that).

  • scott johnson

    the national guard? really?

  • peter

    The current pieces in SURFER are WAY better than they have been in years. As an 80’s baby I grew up reading Steve Hawk. Far and away my favorite on your powerhouse list. If my memory serves me Evan Slater was also an editor for ER before moving to ING. Another great writer. Too bad after he left ING it went down the toilet.

  • Jason Smith

    Don’t forget Wasrshaw’s listing among SURFER’S Hot 100 long before he picked up a pen.

  • Peter Thomas

    The articles in Surfer are not all that hot though way better than the garbo in Surfing.Lewis Samuels writing I find to be pretty annoying.The best thing in the mag are the photos.The last issue was pretty thin on any content of value .To me the mag is going downhill and backwards too.Sad.

  • Tom Mortimer

    Beyond being a great surfer and writer, Matt was the driving force behind the “405s”–a fun surf punk/rock band before he left the South Bay.

  • Sean

    For those that read books, read Dan Duane’s book, Caught Inside. Well worth it.

  • Sam George


    Strange how in your list of notable SURFER writers you forgot the other Matt, who penned some of the most memorable, controversial and generally unforgettable SURFER features in the mid-1980s to early ’90s, including the best profiles ever with guys like Cheyne Horan, Tom Curren, Occy, Dave Parmenter and Kelly Slater, not to mention quirky characters like Santa Cruz’s Harbor Bill and Dale Webster. Then again maybe he didn’t make the list because, having also shot so many classic portraits of not only the aforementioned surfers but more modern stars like Rob Machado, Christian Fletcher and Bethany Hamilton, along with award-winning images like his Dorney Park Wave Pool spread, he doesn’t necessarily qualify as simply a “writer.” Nevertheless a backward glance at features like “Cheyne Horan’s Rainbow Bridge” or “Full Metal Racket” or “The Great Wall” just might have you amending your list.

  • Derek Hynd

    Nicely written Rob Gilley. It’s possible that you had your voice back then but not the subject matter that as a photographer was staring you in the face. Paul Holmes gave me work at SURFER in 1984 via the JBay event and things went from there. I recall Matt Warshaw having a punt as a writer for Breakout which was a relatively great leap forward for him after a mild pro career. One very determined individual. I didn’t come across the negative side of him but then again wasn’t in the office too often. Perhaps you should address a retrospective on photogs from perspective of the hey day of retainers, travel, and expenses. There’s more material in that group of lensmen and photo editors from both mags than in any group of linear pro surfers. Just on the writers, I went back over some of the 80’s issues and re-read Matt George’s Rainbow Bridge. I’m with Sam on that one. Hell of a piece in going for the heart of subject matter.