Claiming Dr. No

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.”