Here is an excerpt from an article written by William Zinsser for his series “Zinsser on Friday,” a weekly posting about writing, the arts, and popular culture by the author of On Writing Well, based on a favorite quotation or comment. The series is featured by the website of The American Scholar. To read the complete article, check out other resources, and sign up for email updates, please click here.
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I’ve been reading about a new app, called The Atavist, that will provide an online home for “long-form journalism”–articles that run more than 6,000 words and explore their subject in unusual depth. Now a dying species in the shrunken universe of print, those extended magazine pieces were once a bright ornament on the American literary landscape.
The godfather of the form, Joseph Mitchell, was a huge influence on journalists of my generation. I would study his seemingly effortless New Yorker pieces about old-timers on the New York waterfront to figure out how such mosaic work was done. What I figured out was that only Joseph Mitchell could do it.
In the subsequent postwar era a new breed of buccaneering editors would blow Mitchell’s tidy model wide open, creating a form called “the new journalism,” in which writers often became actors in their own narrative and tended to mingle events that happened with events they thought might have happened.
At Harper’s, Willie Morris ran at full length Norman Mailer’s picaresque Armies of the Night, which featured, most conspicuously, Norman Mailer. At Esquire, Harold Hayes and Clay Felker turned Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe loose on vertiginous high-wire acts that are still remembered. Fifty years later, Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” are firmly lodged in college textbooks.
But since that golden age, with a few exceptions–notably including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone – long-form journalists have seen their market wither and have begun to look for a new home the Web. It is for those orphans that the founders of The Atavistn – three young guys in Brooklyn – have developed their new site. Their purpose is to enable writers to not only publish their articles at any length but to “enhance” them with videos, photographs, audio tapes, musical selections, and other digital supplements that will “deepen the reading experience.” The three guys call it a “content-management system.”
Content management. Isn’t that what we used to call “writing”? I’ve been in the content-management business all my life. I look for content that interests or amuses me and then I manage it into a narrative. It’s what all writers do if they want to keep paying the bills. Dickens did it very well. So does every good crime writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler. Elmore Leonard was once asked how he keeps his novels moving so fast. He said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” That’s content management.
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FYI: “The American Scholar is the venerable but lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932. In recent years the magazine has won four National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and many of its essays and articles have been selected for the yearly Best American anthologies.
“In 2006, The American Scholar began to publish fiction by such writers as Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, Steven Millhauser, Dennis McFarland, Louis Begley, and David Leavitt. Essays, articles, criticism, and poetry have been mainstays of the magazine for 75 years.
“Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous speech, ‘The American Scholar,’ delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College in 1837, the magazine aspires to Emerson’s ideals of independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to the affairs of the world as well as to books, history, and science.”