Ode to the Long Form

I ain't kiddin'.
The basic format of every breaking news story, ever.

In contrast to my subject matter, I will try to be brief: I don’t have any long range studies to back this up, but I think communication is getting, in general, faster and briefer. I have anecdotal evidence galore; the text message has replaced email which replaced phone conversation which replaced the handwritten letter. Newspaper articles have been overtaken by blurbs on a blog (which may be soon sunsetted by tweets). I have a bit of empirical evidence too, like how in nightly news stories, sound bites from U.S. Presidential candidates have gone from an average of 40 seconds in length in the late-1960’s to something close to 7 seconds today. But I think, at least for the purpose of this blog post, we should all agree that the way we consume information is speeding up, and the bits of info we take in are getting smaller and smaller.

I am no Luddite, I’m not lamenting this, but what upsets me is the corollary to the above that, as we progress, we must cast off old forms. One form that I particularly love, but I fear for, is long form non-fiction, especially in-depth reportage. Sometimes it can fall into noodling or cultural voyeurism (I’m looking at you, every “men’s” magazine ever) but when it works, it works better than almost anything at exploring and explaining a subject, especially those that don’t get the attention they deserve.

I am not speaking of what could be called “breaking news” journalism. That kind of writing (the front-page type of stories) are actually designed to be abandoned partway through. They usually begin with the dreaded “inverted pyramid” where a whole mess of information is presented upfront, and as the article goes on it presents more specific and fine grained details. The news business assumes that, due to interruption or boredom, readers will quit partway through. Long form non-fiction gets to ignore all of that, because the assumption is that the reader is in for the long haul. Don’t misunderstand, blogging and/or tweeting has its advantages in speed; authors can post fast responses to breaking events, and the format is more amenable than print to stories that only require a couple paragraphs, or even a wry sentence or two, tweeted to the world. (In fact, one of my criticisms of Slate, or National Review’s “The Corner”, for example, is that they both will let their writers offer up hundreds of words on a news story when just a few dozen would do. Although it should be noted that Slate also has a wonderful collection of links to great long form pieces.) But good long form work is like a pact: If you (the reader) give me (the writer) some room, I can tell you a great story that is all the more amazing because it’s true, but it’s complicated, so you’ll have to follow closely …

I’ve been re-reading the non-fiction of David Foster Wallace lately, and I am continually amazed how, in contrast to his fiction, his non-fiction takes the greatest pains to be as honest and straightforward as possible: He calls out his own shortcomings and biases. He explains, and then explains his explanations. He places his subject matter in ever larger and more illuminating contexts. In his essay “Authority and American Usage”, which is ostensibly just a review of a new dictionary of language usage, he spends pages and pages explaining the history of modern dictionaries, the conflict between descriptivists vs. prescriptivists, and how it is basically impossible to remove politics from the study of language. His essay on the Maine Lobster Festival also functions as a quick but well-researched primer on lobster physiology. This may seem quite overwrought or unnecessary, but I find the whole thing rather bracing, refreshingly down-to-earth. The issue, which I tend to come back to when writing about the whole megillah of modern media and its issues, is that long form non-fiction (hell, long form writing in general) is unbelievably difficult (especially with writers like Wallace, with all his footnotes*) to do online.

The difficulty of the long form on the web is that most people don’t go online for long bouts of reading. Funny cat pictures, sure, but who wants to spend a couple of hours staring not just at a computer screen, but dull walls of text on a computer screen. For example, when I read this piece in Rolling Stone on the labyrinthine maze of secrecy and police corruption surrounding the death of the rapper Biggie Smalls, I first tried reading it online, grew uncomfortable, copied and downloaded it into a Word document, still didn’t like it, and eventually just printed the damn thing up. (You should read it too, the story is outrageous: there’s an bow-tied assassin from the Nation of Islam, a corrupt cop who builds shrines to Tupac Shakur – it’s more than worth your time.) Things like iPads and Kindles are in some ways accommodations of this problem, a more comfortable way to read off a screen, but you’re still reading off a screen.

Which is not to say that technology won’t get there. (The more recently developed e-readers have a sort of soft glow that imitates the feel of eyes on paper.) The point being, the fears I articulated at the beginning are somewhat unfounded. I don’t think the long form will disappear, but there’s always a foreboding shiver when something you love isn’t appreciated the way it should be, and I hope I won’t reach the day when a writer taking the time to dissect and explicate a subject or intrigue or wonder is as unfamiliar as printed newspapers will soon surely be.

-Aaron Weiner, Nonfiction Editor

*An exception to this, and quite the innovative workaround, is his essay “Host,” about a right-wing radio talker. The article has a small browser window pop-up when clicking on a footnote (which themselves sometimes have their own browser windows and their own footnotes) with the footnote’s text. It’s a bit awkward, but much better than scrolling all the way down to the bottom of a webpage.

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One thought on “Ode to the Long Form”

  1. Sean, I am amazed at the Memorial Tree Garden and your coemntmmit and dedication to this wonderful project. As a member of Hays Hills, I want to say thank you for all your hard work and tell you how much I appreciate having such a beautiful place to go to for prayer, reflection, and meditation. May God be praised and my His blessings be upon you.Tim Snowden

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