The Life and Death and Life of Magazines
Introduction to the Best American Magazine Writing 2015
(In anticipation of the 2016 National Magazine Awards ceremony, below is a lightly adapted reproduction of my introduction to The Best American Magazine Writing 2015, published in December 2015)
Before you delve into what will no doubt be the final edition of The Best American Magazine Writing,let us all pause to memorialize the demise of the great magazine story. Indeed, you may be deciding to purchase this volume as a kind of collectors’ edition, one to pull down from the shelf one day and regale your kids with tales of a time when quality magazines thrived. Perhaps you hope to later pawn it off on eBay to some Brooklyn hotel proprietor, seeking a touch of classy nostalgia for the lobby.
It’s been a good run for magazine writing—at least 150 years, by most calculations. But I’ve been reading up on the state of the business and I can report back that the future is dire. The enemy, it turns out, is you and I. Or rather, it is what the demon Internet has done to us, through the Web and the smartphones upon which it is consumed. Always in the pocket, always bleeping its siren call of apps and games, Twitter and Snapchat, and every other flashing distraction—or, as us magazine-lovers might say, affliction. Always conspiring to eliminate our desire for prose longer than a brunch photo caption.
So we’ve been told, at least, in countless articles built on the indelible strength of anecdotal reflections. A few years ago, on that same Web, I chanced upon an infographic which purported to capture the stark nature of this decline:
I don’t think data gets clearer than that! There we were in the late 19th century, massive attention spans primed for serialized Dickens. And now, as it stands, by the year 2020 our attention will hold to little more than five single-syllable words in a sitting. Farewell Best American Magazine Writing, greetings Best American Sequences of Five Monosyllabic Words.
It may comfort you to know, however, that we are not the first generation to witness the death of great magazine writing. That bell began tolling, some would say, as far back as 1911, when a run of unprofitability forced Samuel S. McClure to sell off McClure’s—founded in 1893, and the birthplace of the muckracking narrative journalism of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens—to creditors who slowly bled it to death. Sure, the 19th century also produced long-running magazines like National Geographic, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. But as avid readers watched the likes of Munsey’s and The Century follow McClure’s down the hole, the stench of death was already upon us.
The 1920’s brought some hope, with the advent of Time and The New Yorker, which alongside The New Republic, Fortune, and Esquire were harbingers of a great century ahead. But when Vanity Fair came (in 1913) and went (in 1936), it was only a hint of the carnage that the era of radio would bring. We lost the titanic trio of Scribner’s, Forum, and Liberty—you remember them, of course—not to mention Living Age. When the Delineator went from over two million subscribers in 1929 to suddenly ceasing publication in 1937, the writing was on the wall.
Wait, you say, what of the famed New Journalism of mid-century? Wonderful, inventive work it was, its novelistic style and immersive reporting coursing through the likes of Esquire, Rolling Stone, and New York. But the 1950s and 60s also cost us Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post Magazine, and in the 70s so went the agenda-setting Life and Look. The legendary Ramparts threw bombs for just thirteen years. New Journalism swashbuckler Scanlan’s lasted only one.
By 1985, then-Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham acknowledged the approaching end of great magazine writing, in a Christian Science Monitor story delineating how television had finally replaced “the durable word as the lingua franca of American thought.” “You’ve got to work with what you’ve got,” Lapham said of America’s remaining readers; and what we had, he observed, was a generation raised on “MTV and ‘The A-Team.’ ” It had come time, the Monitor concluded, “to kiss long-form journalism goodbye.” (And yet: The 1980s and 90s saw the return of Vanity Fair and the launch of both Wired and Spy, the magazine-lover’s magazine, which burned as brightly as any publication ever has, before being extinguished in 1998.)
Now, of course, the Internet has decimated the tattered remains of our attention span. Worse, we’re told that it has paradoxically fostered a new scourge for great magazine writing: more of it. In just the last five years, web sites and magazines new and old—from Nautilus to BuzzFeed to Matter to The Atavist Magazine, which I edit—have added to an ambitious resurgence in long, serious magazine writing. While this might seem like a sign of life, critics have explained that in fact such efforts are diminishing this great craft. Terms like “longform” and #hashtags like #longreads—through which readers recommend work they appreciate to other potential readers—only serve to dilute what was once the purview of discriminating enthusiasts alone. “The problem,” Jonathan Mahler wrote in the New York Times in 2014, “is that long-form stories are too often celebrated simply because they exist.” It was bad enough when our capacity to produce and read great stories collapsed. Now it seems we’ve turned around and loved magazine writing to death.
I don’t mean to make light of the real financial and even existential conundrums facing magazines today, of course. Believe me, I know them firsthand! And enough outlets have come and gone in just the last ten years to make the point. I only mean to observe that these troubles have existed as long as magazines themselves. (Except that last one; complaints about too much magazine writing, and what we label it, seem to be this century’s peculiar, philistines-in-the-country-club anxiety.) In truth, I have my share of worries about the future of serious longform journalism—who wouldn’t, knowing its history? But when it comes to lamentations, I’m partial to one from the great Ian Frazier. It appeared in a 2002 essay introducing The Fish’s Eye, a collection of his writing on fishing, with pieces dating back to the 1970s. In those days, Frazier wrote:
Frazier’s speculation—that perhaps the role of writers changes in relation to how often a chaotic world forces itself onto editors’ desks—strikes me as more believable than most. I would argue that the trend is not linear, however, but cyclical. Just as great magazines have always come and gone, so too have the periods where editors were more or less willing and able to assign ambitious stories.
Great magazine pieces, after all, grow out of a simple transaction: an editor saying yes to an idea and, in turn, to a writer. Yes to investing in a writer who will risk her time and even safety to venture into the world and return with a story that makes sense of it. Yes to a writer brave enough to lay bare her own personal past as a window into an important issue. Yes to a writer who imparts her intellect and humor in a fresh perspective on art or culture. (Of course, great magazine writing involves more than just saying yes. It involves the editor eventually saying no: no to lazy phrasing, no to shaky facts, no to reporting shortcuts. When longform writing fails—as it did dangerously in widely-discussed incidents in Grantland and Rolling Stone not long ago, it is not because of the names we give it, the hashtags we apply to it, or its word-count ambitions. It fails because an editor declined to say no to facts that weren’t checked, or to a piece whose ambition had overstepped its humanity.)
Therein lies the explanation for the latest volume of Best American Magazine Writing, filled with work that stands in defiance of the latest doomsaying. What distinguishes the stories in this collection is not just their dedication to in-depth reporting and stylish storytelling. It is the decision of the editors behind them to assume the best of not just their writers but of their readers, in whatever medium those readers would encounter them. Indeed, anyone who takes the time to look at what’s behind the online thumbs-upping and recommending finds an audience craving depth and context precisely because they are awash in information, an audience begging to be moved because of the ocean of garbage content we bathe in daily.
This collection too reflects a time when America has, in Frazier’s words, “recently and unexpectedly come unglued.” A country still blinded to its failure to grapple with its history of racism and oppression requires a writer like Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Case for Reparations.” The pitch to his editor at The Atlantic, Coates told me on the Longform Podcast last year, was simple: an argument could be made for reparations not through statistics and 19th century history, but through the narrative of those still suffering today, from redlining in Chicago. “We really don’t even have to go back to slavery,” Coates said. “This wouldn’t have to be this old, musty thing.” An editor trusted him and said yes. And when Coates handed that editor a draft of some 13,000 words, “they came back to me and said: We need more.”
Similarly, the cauldron of hate for women that so easily erupts on the Internet requires a writer like Amanda Hess, deftly weaving together her personal experience with searing reporting in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” A culture seamlessly blending politics and celebrity is an occasion for Monica Lewinsky to tell her own, forgotten story, in Vanity Fair. A generation of college students confronting the issue of rape on campus needs the thoughtful reflection of Emily Yoffe in Slate.
Fourteen years of perpetual war in Afghanistan calls for James Verini’s “Love and Ruin,” a story examining decades of interventions into that country’s history through the story of one woman. A nation celebrating its Olympic medal hoard while ignoring the host country’s homophobic laws requires the work of a reporter like Jeff Sharlet, who ventured to Moscow and St. Petersburg for GQ and returned with a deeply human portrait of the targets of those laws.
America’s tendency to ignore and discard its elderly—even as it faces a wave of aging baby boomers—demands Tiffany Stanley’s wrenching story, “Jackie’s Goodbye,” of caring for her aunt with Alzheimer’s. And it can do no better than the magical prose of New Yorker legend Roger Angell, laying bare the comedy and tragedy of aging, alongside the joy of a life well lived, in “This Old Man.”
It’s a reality that all of these stories, and the institutions behind them—whether renowned ones like The New Yorker or upstarts like Pacific Standard—must now compete in a world saturated with information and distraction. It’s true that even the definition of a magazine has been stretched and twisted by a digital world that blows apart tables of contents and deposits them, story by story, on screens the size of a pack of cigarettes. With apologies to the collectors out there, however, this won’t be the final edition of The Best American Magazine writing. Great writers will keep finding the wherewithal to chase these ideas, and great editors will keep finding ways to say yes.
Even better, the next era of magazine work can be one that is more diverse, in the character of its writers and in the form of its work. It can be one in which ambitious experimentation is celebrated alongside tradition, one which encompasses the live shows of Pop Up Magazine, the evolving tradition of National Geographic, the design serenity of Nautilus, the raucous reporting of Vice. Perhaps magazines have to die every once in a while so that they may be born again for a new age. “I know people who say they don’t have a television,” Roger Angell told an interviewer, a few years back. “You better belong to the times you’re in.”