What Does “Longform” Journalism Really Mean?
On Love and Ruin, Terminology, and the Anxiety of Limits
Writers are preoccupied with limits: temporal and physical and metaphysical, the divisions between self and other, the mind’s inability to reconstruct the subject of its fascination. Borges envisioned “a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.” Moby-Dick’s Ishmael claimed that “true places” resisted the attempts of mapmakers. Stories often assume the shape of their limitations. In 2006, the same year that Twitter launched, Robert Olen Butler published Severance, a story collection that employed what one reviewer called “a new—and unlikely to be replicated—art form, the vignette of the severed head told in exactly 240 words.”
For journalists, tasked with something like verisimilitude, these limits are always existential. Joe Gould claimed to be writing an oral history whose purview was the knowable world. Joseph Mitchell, who first profiled Gould for The New Yorker in 1942, came to doubt the history’s existence, and said as much after Gould’s death. Gould’s history was never published. Another New Yorker staff writer, Jill Lepore, suspects Gould’s compulsive writing was hypergraphia. “This is an illness, a mania,” she wrote, “but seems more like something a writer might envy.” Perhaps Mitchell did; after his final piece on Gould, Mitchell never published another word. Like Gould’s productivity, Mitchell’s silence was storied but impossible to verify. Lepore wrote about both men in “Joe Gould’s Teeth,” a feature article whose word count grew into a book-length manuscript.
“Writers tumble into this story,” wrote Lepore, “and then they plummet.” The boundaries of the observable world push inward and outward; we are fathomless, the universe immeasurable. Where, then, should a story begin and end?
In the past decade, as declining ad revenue constricted editorial space in print publications, online publishing offered journalists freedom from some of their limits. A story could be as complicated as its subject required, and as long as necessary, though the ancient caveat still applied: your readers might not stick with you until the end. Websites such as BuzzFeed, whose content seemed to assume a newly attention-deficient readership, occasionally published pieces of narrative nonfiction whose word counts reached into the thousands. Online publishers began to label such stories “longform.”
Journalists and their readers have an uneasy history with such labels. “I have no idea who coined the term ‘the New Journalism’ or when it was coined,” wrote Tom Wolfe in a 1972 feature article in New York. “I have never even liked the term.” Neither did Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote to Wolfe and threatened to “have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting.” (Wolfe still included Thompson in his 1973 anthology, The New Journalism.) “Creative nonfiction” still enjoys wide usage, and a magazine exists by the same name. Its editor, Lee Gutkind, writes that Creative Nonfiction “defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as ‘true stories well told.’” These labels amount to a shaggy taxonomy; journalists that share certain aesthetics are grouped together, and then those groups are differentiated from each other, to the presumed benefit of readers.
Such labels sometimes reward the writer, who becomes associated with a popular movement. They sometimes reward the reader, who has a new word for what she seeks. Most often, they reward the publisher. But a publisher’s loyalties can shift with the market. Medium, a publishing platform that developed an early reputation for longform journalism, distanced itself from the label. (“It was not our intention… to create a platform just for ‘long-form’ content,” said Ev Williams, Medium CEO and a co-founder of Twitter.) BuzzFeed, on the other hand, hired a “longform editor” in 2013 to oversee a section of the site devoted to such stories. The longform editor described his section as “BuzzFeed for people who are afraid of BuzzFeed.”
Whether labels like “longform” reward a story is another matter. “Length is hardly the quality that most meaningfully classifies these stories,” wrote James Bennet in The Atlantic. “Yet there’s a real conundrum here: If ‘long-form’ doesn’t fit, what term is elastic enough to encompass the varied journalism it has come to represent, from narrative to essay, profile to criticism?” The term “journalism” is, somehow, insufficient.
Taxonomy presents one conundrum; popularity makes for another. The “longform” label offers readers and writers a new way to self-identify, and a new hashtag by which they may find, distinguish and promote stories. An attendant risk is that a story’s appeal as a “longform” product could short-circuit editorial judgment and damage a writer or his subject before a large audience.
In 2014, Grantland published “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a 7,000-word profile of an inventor and transgender woman whose gender transition was revealed in the story—before she had revealed it to people in her life. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention,” author Chris Hannan wrote, “had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.” Hannan reveals in his final paragraphs that his subject committed suicide, and wrote, “Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience.” In the New York Times, Jonathan Mahler cautioned readers and writers again “fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function.”
“Longform” springs from journalism’s anxiety over limitations—mainly, its online audience’s attention span. During the longform decade, software developers created programs that translate word counts into estimated reading times. Both Longreads.com and Longform.org use the program, as does Medium. For their first assignment, students of the late New York Times media critic David Carr wrote stories with estimated reading times of fewer than five minutes.
In 2011, The Atavist Magazine began to publish longform stories—“one blockbuster nonfiction story a month, generally between 5,000 and 30,000 words.” Since its inception, The Atavist’s stories have been nominated for eight National Magazine Awards; the magazine’s first win, for 2015’s “Love and Ruin,” was also the first time the coveted “feature writing” award went to a digital magazine. While the magazine’s founder, Evan Ratliff, employs the “longform” label to describe The Atavist’s work, he doesn’t fret about his audience’s attention span.
“The people who are making decisions based on that, I don’t think they’re doing it based on actual research, either,” he told Columbia Journalism Review a few months after The Atavist Magazine published its first story. “I think they’re all doing it based on anecdotal experience.” Ratliff concluded, “I don’t really care if attention spans are going down in the world overall or not.” And the universe—the unknowable curator of all the components of our stories—doesn’t care either.
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Love and Ruin is a new anthology of stories culled from The Atavist’s first five years. If labels like “longform” mean anything, then Love and Ruin is also the first collection of stories that typify a new genre, a successor to titles like Wolfe’s The New Journalism and Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism.
“‘Longform’ written storytelling . . . was, it was said, going the way of the black rhino,” Ratliff writes in his foreword. “Our magazine is built on questioning that wisdom.” Still, Ratliff doesn’t dwell on the word; if length can be considered a characteristic of each story in Love and Ruin, then it’s the one that interests him least.
Each story in Love and Ruin first appeared online, via the magazine’s proprietary platform, along with interview excerpts, original photography, embedded videos, and optional audiobook downloads. Most also came with an estimated reading time. The shortest story in Love and Ruin—Brooke Jarvis’ 10,000-word account of the year she spent working with leprosy patients in Kalaupapa, Hawaii, as the community and its last inhabitants dwindled—is classified online as a “44 minute read.” The longest stories clear 20,000 words, which means a time commitment equivalent to watching a feature film.
The ten stories in Love and Ruin fall comfortably within the word counts that The Atavist sets for its nonfiction, a range that contemporary readers expect from “longform.” But word counts and reading times are poor distinguishing features for a genre, a lackluster explanation for why these stories should appear together, and a useless tool for evaluating the rewards of the book.
The stories in Love and Ruin don’t share many sensibilities. Ratliff writes in his foreword that there is no “house style”—a suggestion that each Atavist story is told in something closer to each writer’s authentic voice. In her introduction, New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean takes on journalism’s taxonomy problem, sets aside a few genre labels (“new journalism,” “creative nonfiction,” “longform”), and then classifies the stories in Love and Ruin as “magpie journalism.” It’s a laudatory phrase, but at a second glance it doesn’t distinguish the stories in Love and Ruin from plenty of others.
If the stories in Love and Ruin are bound by something other than glue, then it’s a sort of thematic unity, born from the same anxieties that gave us “longform.” Each story in Love and Ruin depicts its author’s struggle with the limits of investigation, representation, or understanding. “The Fort of Young Saplings” follows Vanessa Veselka’s tangential connection to a native Alaskan tribe back to the moment when that tribe’s history was overwritten. Jarvis’ story, “When We Are Called to Part,” approaches the same critical moment, when a community becomes a collection of stories, told selectively and bracketed by time. In “Mother, Stranger,” Cris Beam navigates the fog of her abusive mother’s mental illness and her own traumatic upbringing. “I didn’t have a language for my mother,” writes Beam, “probably because she didn’t have a cohesive language for herself.” The black boxes in Love and Ruin are figurative and sometimes literal; Adam Higginbotham’s “1,000 Pounds of Dynamite,” an anatomy of a failed extortion plot, features both.
Underpinned by limits and all their attendant complications, the narratives that arise from Love and Ruin are fundamentally strange and unwieldy, and as long as they need to be. Leslie Jamison’s “52 Blue” provides Love and Ruin with its most luminous prose. But the story—about a solitary whale that sings at a unique and isolating frequency, and the people drawn to the whale’s story—also offers the anthology’s best consideration of the boundaries that shape stories and their telling.
“52 Blue suggests not just one single whale as a metaphor for loneliness, but metaphor itself as a salve for loneliness,” Jamison writes. “What if we grant the whale his whaleness, grant him furlough from our metaphoric employ, but still grant the contours of his second self—the one we’ve made—and admit what he’s done for us?”
Jamison does not reach her best ideas in few words. But without the words she uses, those ideas may not be otherwise reachable. A story’s word count can sometimes be a proxy for complexity; that’s the appeal of a label like “longform” for the readers that claim to love it. But complicated stories also refute “longform.” They leave their readers with a feeling that the story and its shape are an inevitable match. How else could it have been told?
Here, then, is The Atavist’s chief achievement with Love and Ruin: In collecting its finest “longform” nonfiction, The Atavist created an anthology that undermines its own flimsy label—and, hopefully, refutes some of our anxiety about time and attention, and the other limits that govern our lives.
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The anxiety of limitation—the dread of meaning lost, to time and to space—is recurrent. “Before there were even screens in our living rooms, the same worries reared their heads,” writes Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future, and Here’s How it Works. “There was a time in the 1920s when cultural critics feared Americans were losing their ability to swallow a long, thoughtful novel or even a detailed magazine piece. The evil culprit: Reader’s Digest.”
But the condensed and excerpted stories in Reader’s Digest didn’t bring about the end of attention, or of complicated storytelling. “Reader’s weren’t abandoning long stories for short ones,” writes Bilton. “The appeal of Reader’s Digest was in the overall experience.”
In 2001, David Foster Wallace—who died in the early years of the “longform” decade and whose nonfiction posthumously bears that label—reviewed a collection of prose poems. “These putatively ‘transgressive’ forms depend heavily on received ideas of genre, category, and formal conventions,” wrote Wallace, “since without such an established context there’s nothing much to transgress against.” Do away with some of those conventions and received ideas, and a genre seems more accommodating. Labels like “longform” and “prose poem” are unnecessary limitations; they may evoke a certain shape, but they also constrain it.
A few years ago, for his introduction to The Best American Magazine Writing, James Bennet wrote a short essay that later appeared online at The Atlantic, under the headline “Against ‘Long-Form Journalism.’” Bennet argues that the label is insubstantial and misleading, and then suggests “another perfectly good, honorable name for this kind of work—the one on the cover of this anthology. You might just call it all magazine writing.” But that’s like distinguishing between “book fiction” and “movie fiction,” and besides, “magazine journalism” conflates a story with a product. A medium like print may help to shape a story, but that medium is always just a tool in the service of a narrative, and media change. There will come a time when Best American Magazine Writing needs a new title.
All the stories we tell are products of limits. Time shatters histories and then hides a few pieces. Writers construct narratives and, inevitably, omit some details. Addressing the same issue in photography, Errol Morris asked, “Isn’t there always a possible elephant lurking just at the edge of the frame?” Perhaps the elephant is unimportant to the story. And yet, there he is.
Here’s the trade-off: Narratives require that we surrender our conceptions of time and space, that we readjust our ideas of what can be known and what might be said. They can be fallible by design but still leave understanding in their wake. A story, of any length, moves readers through the world without fracturing meaning. The world fractures meaning on its own.
So perhaps we can unburden ourselves of labels like “longform.” The Atavist has already begun to do just that; in 2014, the site stopped translating word counts into estimated reading times. And perhaps we can task ourselves with something more: that we read and write closer to those circumstances that bracket our lives, and simply take the time and space we need.