An Interview with Diana Sheets: What in the World is Longform Journalism and Why is Everyone Talking About it?

Jun 20, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Diana, you recently participated in a weeklong workshop on long-form journalism facilitated by Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief at “Tablet Magazine”, at The Norman Mailer Writers Colony. First of all, please define for me and our readers exactly what you mean by long-form journalism.

Long-form journalism or longform journalism is a complex journalistic story that is more than breaking news. It’s an expose with the potential to have more than one character and more than a single narrative; in other words it’s a layered story that ideally provides insight, not just facts. If a newspaper article in a national paper may run as long as 1,200 words, longform might run 2,000-3,500 words or in a special feature article in “The New York Times” even as much as 5,000 words.

In magazines—“Harper’s”, “The New Yorker”, “Esquire” come to mind—these might run between 4,000 and 10,000 words. Some Internet publications and the new “Kindle Singles” could run longer, possibly as much as 30,000 words. With journalism migrating to the Internet, the longform essay may become the preferred stylistic format for enticing the savvy nonfiction readers on the Web who increasingly prefer articles to books.

New Journalism or Narrative Journalism or Literary Journalism or Creative Nonfiction, different names for the same method that became the basis for longform journalism, was pioneered in the early sixties by the likes of Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion.

In Tom Wolfe’s anthology, “The New Journalism” (1973), he highlights the methods that were borrowed from fiction: scene-by-scene construction (showing, not telling), vivid dialogue, changing points of view, the interior thoughts of these characters, and presenting the story within a broad social context to make journalistic reportage vibrantly exciting (see Tom Wolfe’s “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” published in November of 1989 in “Harper’s”, as well as my article “Tom Wolfe Got It Right” posted on my website, Literary Gulag, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/4).

More recently Lawrence Weschler (“Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”, 1995), Jonathan Harr (“A Civil Action”, 1995), and Jon Krakauer (“Into the Wild”, 1996) and especially Michael Lewis (“The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story”, 1999, and “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”, 2003) have followed in the footsteps of the writers of New Journalism. Read the work of these readers and others you may admire. Figure out what works and what doesn’t, and then consider how you might improve on their methods, style, and content.

For a current example of longform journalism consider Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher’s article “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” published in “The New York Times” in January 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/apple-america-and-a-squeezed-middle-class.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all. It presents the story of how Apple, “one of the best-known, most admired and most imitated companies on earth” migrated its manufacturing operations overseas and, by implication, demonstrates the cost in terms of jobs, incomes, and lives.

Here’s a longform article, of approximately 5,000 words, that has a cast of characters—including Steve Jobs, President Obama, the Chinese workers at Foxconn, and Eric Saragoza, one American worker—as well as several plot threads in order to illustrate the painful impact the loss of manufacturing has had on Americans.

2) Now, who exactly is Alana Newhouse, and what is “Tablet Magazine”, and what is its focus?

Alana Newhouse is a graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She worked as a political consultant for David Garth who helped elect four out of the last six mayors of New York City (John Lindsay, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg) who have run the city for 38 of the last 46 years. For six years Newhouse worked at “The Forward”, a Jewish-American daily she has referred to as the “king of ethnic newspapers.” For much of that time Newhouse was its Arts and Culture Editor. She has published “A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).

Since 2009 Newhouse has been the editor-in-chief for “Tablet Magazine”, an online magazine devoted to Jewish life, culture, and ideas. “Tablet” is a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award. Its columnists have included Adam Kirsch, Daphne Merkin, Judith Miller, David Samuels, and Lee Smith. It represents the “New New Journalism” of the Internet Age. “Tablet” combines journalistic essays embedded in a website featuring aggregating news content that is framed by a cultural and social milieu steeped in Jewish identity. As Marshall McLuhan prophesized “the medium is the message” and in our digitalized era of the Net, the New New Journalism floats beyond the bounds of the page in its electronic format, its virtual presence, and its tentacles that reach toward the social networks of our real and imagined communities by means of pixels and bits.

For anyone who wants to read a marvelous example of longform journalism, I invite you to read Newhouse’s “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac,” published in “The New York Times Magazine” on April 1, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/magazine/04shtetl-t.html?pagewanted=all. Her story provides a major reassessment of the photography of Roman Vishniac who as Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for “The New Republic”, has suggested became “the official mortuary photographer of Eastern European Jewry”. Vishniac’s photography greatly influenced the cinematic approach to “Schindler’s List”.

For many in the Jewish community his images of “shtetl” life became the visual narrative by which many came to view their cultural ancestry. However Newhouse’s story, a detective story of sorts, shatters our perceptions of the shtetl and the lives of Eastern European Jews in the years preceding the Holocaust. We learn of the path-breaking investigative efforts of photographic curator Maya Benton and her discovery of the true significance and implications of the Vishniac Archive, which is now part of the International Center of Photography.

3) How good, in your opinion, is the Internet for a beginning author to start his or her career?

In the early years of the Internet there was this sense that it was the “Wild, Wild West”, that anyone writing with something to say might be heard. Today, it’s harder to be noticed. Every day there are thousands of new websites, each with its own message. But that said, anyone can set up his or her website and begin writing or blogging and if the website gets noticed that might provide a pathway toward publication. Christopher Heng has information about what you can do to set up your own website, http://www.thesitewizard.com/webdesign/online-site-builders-vs-web-editors.shtml.

Amazon’s “Kindle Singles”, a publishing platform that emphasizes longform since it allows for up to 30,000 word submissions, invites both known and unknown writers to submit their stories, http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000700491. In addition to nonfiction and journalistic reporting, the news aggregation sites often have a political slant. Consider Matt Drudge’s conservative leaning “Drudge Report”, http://www.drudgereportarchive.com/drudge-report-on-date/2012/06/15/June, the progressive “Raw Story”, http://www.rawstory.com/, and the nominally nonpartisan “Politico”, http://www.politico.com/. These are sites to explore what works and what doesn’t in the area of online political journalism.

For better or worse today credentials have become increasingly important, so having an undergraduate degree in journalism or writing, experience as a reporter, and, increasingly, an advanced degree in journalism (the University of Missouri’s Missouri School of Journalism and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism are two of the best programs) gives you valuable skills and contacts. But there are also websites that will consider your submissions based on the quality of your story and your writing regardless of credentials.

4) Is there any good information, guidance for beginning authors on the Net?

Write well, know your subject matter, have a website that has a defining point of view that offers innovative content. Get strategic advice on how to attract “eyeballs” to your website. Submit nonfiction pitches to magazines (online and print) about proposed articles. Before making a pitch make sure that you can demonstrate expertise in your subject matter, that you have the basis for a path-breaking story, that you have done the necessary preliminary investigation—both research and interviews—that will lend credibility and impact to your story.

5) People insist on sending me e-books, and I have to inform them, that I still like a nice thick book, that I can underline write in, and scribble in the margins and dog ear the pages. Am I a dinosaur or set in my ways?

It would seem so. Since April 1, 2011 when Amazon announced that its e-books were outselling hardcover and paperbacks, the trend has been clear. This month “Time” announced it will be offering twenty of its magazines on Apple’s newsstand. Arguably the Internet is the ideal venue for longform journalism, which has been demonstrated by the popular iPhone “app” Instapaper that allows you to download articles from the Web for subsequent off-line reading.

Given the popularity of the tablets, ultrabooks, and smart phones, I think it’s possible that newspapers and periodicals will migrate entirely to the Web. Will the reader have the skills, time, and desire to read entire books, particularly those that place demands—as measured by the complexity of content and style—upon the reader? It’s looking less and less likely.

6) Now, what is this “loss of an authoritative culture” all about?

My essay “The Loss of an Authoritative Culture in America and Its Impact on the Aspirational Middlebrow Reader” is now posted on Literary Gulag, http://www.literarygulag.com. It asks the following: What happens when a civilization loses its heritage? It reassesses the importance of the middlebrow reader. Today, no one likes the term “middlebrow” or “highbrow” or “lowbrow.” They have too many associations with class and class snobbery. But consider the issue from another angle. How might a society advance when its citizens are no longer aspirational, that is, when they no longer defer gratification to strive for excellence? Can we compete in an increasingly competitive world without understanding our history, our culture, our science, and our technology? Could it be that the middlebrow reader, hungering for social and cultural enrichment, was critical to America’s success?

If so, what happens to our society when “I want to know” is replaced by “I want to have.” These are some of the issues my essay explores. Next month Part III of the essay will provide some answers.

7) Now, switching to lecture mode—Matei Calinescu’s “Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism”. Who is this guy Matei, where is he from, what has he written, and why should I know about these five faces?

Matei Calinescu died in 2009. He was Romanian, a distinguished scholar of comparative literature who published more than fourteen books of literary criticism. He taught for many years at Indiana University. His book “Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism” (1987) is essential reading if you want to understand the crisis of Western Civilization with its ultimate rejection of Judeo-Christian belief and the sacred eternal in favor of a secular relativistic universe that lives perpetually in the now.

For Calinescu the later stages of development in our society lead inexorably from modernism to the avant-garde and from there to decadence, kitsch, and, finally, postmodernism. This decline began with Romanticism, with its embrace, in the words of Baudelaire, of “the present in its ‘presentness’”. Since Romanticism, suggested Calinescu, the “aesthetics of imagination” has been “opposed to any kind of realism”. Residing in an amoral Godless universe, the Romantic became hedonistic. Modernity, for Calinescu, is a rejection of Christianity in favor of irreversible time and in the process became saturated in decadence and postmodern relativism. Whether or not you agree with his analysis is beside the point.

Calinescu has presented a profound and moving analysis of the trajectory of our decline. Rarely does one encounter an intellectual with this breath of knowledge who can convey with erudition and conviction the arc of our descent. By the 1990s this kind of authoritative analysis in the humanities had all but died and with it a deep understanding of who we were and what we are becoming. How should Calinescu’s scholarship be characterized? Profound, beautiful, and steeped in the sacred foundations of Western Civilization.

8) I visit the library quite frequently. I visit book stores occasionally. If I hold the opinion that we are in a state of Decadence, what would Matei say to me over coffee (my treat).

He would share your pain. Together the two of you might grieve for that which has been lost. Better that than the ephemeral void of narcissistic “presentness”.

9) Sum up for me and the readers what they need to know about your trip to The Norman Mailer Writers Colony (you may want to provide a brief review of Norman Mailer for those readers under 30).

The Norman Mailer Writers Colony, associated with The Norman Mailer Center in New York City, offers fellowships, workshops, writers retreats, and other associated author events, http://www.nmcenter.org/pages/view/2/overview. Both students and writers may apply, although acceptance is based on merit (and writing samples). There is an administrative fee for participants, although the workshop residency is free.

What was exciting about Alana Newhouse’s week-long workshop was that she brought in a number of experts in longform journalism. One was Evan Ratliff, a contributing editor at “Wired” magazine who is one of the founders of “The Atavist”, an award-winning longform magazine and e-singles publication that features downloadable and original nonfiction content that appeals to today’s digital-savvy readers. These stories are available for the iPad, iPhone, iPod, Amazon’s “Kindle Singles”, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Kobo, a web viewer. Another expert was Max Linsky.

His Longform.org showcases both new and classic nonfiction, “curated” essays from across the Web. These may be downloaded and read later via Readability, Instapaper, Pocket, and the Kindle e-reader. Longform now offers an iPad “app” subscription that showcases many of the best longform essays from influential literary magazines. Then, there was Anna Holmes who created “Jezebel”, a lifestyle and news aggregation weblog geared for women that is owned by Gawker Media. She has been a columnist for “The Washington Post”, an Op-Ed Contributor for “The New York Times”, and her “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games” appeared in “The New Yorker’s” online edition on March 30, 2012. David Samuels was also among the featured speakers. He is a master of longform journalism, a contributing editor for “Harper’s”, and a frequent contributor to several prestigious literary magazines including “The New Yorker” and “The Atlantic”. His essay “Wild Things: Animal Nature, Human Racism, and the Future of Zoos” is available in the June, 2012 issue of “Harper’s”.

Norman Mailer, who won the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once, was one of America’s greatest writers in the post-World War II era. He cofounded “The Village Voice”. He ran for mayor of New York City. He was a filmmaker. He instigated literary rows, stabbed one of his six wives, and had many children. But it was his creative nonfictional stories whether covering the Vietnam War (“The Armies of the Night”, 1968) or his analysis of America’s landing on the moon (“Of a Fire on the Moon”, 1970) and, especially, his novelistic portrayal of the murderer Gary Gilmore (“The Executioner’s Song”, 1979) that demonstrated his extraordinary gifts as a writer of creative nonfiction (see my three-part essay posted on Literary Gulag, the first portion of which is hyperlinked here, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/15).

10) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and providing some intellectual stimulation in what some consider a wasteland.

Always a pleasure, Mike.

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