The <i>Maxim</i> Way

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“Does Size Matter?” by Michael Scherer and
“The Curse of Tom Wolfe”
by Michael Shapiro, in
class="text56">Columbia Journalism Review (Nov.–Dec.
2002), 200 Alton Pl., Marion, Ohio 43302.


In our breakneck jet-set age, long-form magazine
articles have shrunk so much that in some places they’ve
class="text18">poof! disappeared entirely,
leaving only contrails of photos, captions, and ads. What remains is the
class="text18">Maxim model, bite-sized
advice pieces, space-devouring illustrations, and grab ‘n’ go
anecdotes, perfect for the “chronically over-stimulated.” The
day of the high-impact narrative that gets people thinking and
talking—and maybe even changes the world—is done.


Slow down a minute, writes Scherer, an assistant
editor at
Columbia Journalism Review class="text59">. Lengthy, elaborate pieces are flourishing. Even class="text18">Maxim, the successful sex
‘n’ sports “lad mag” whose editor sneers at such
behemoths, regularly runs 4,000- to 5,000-word pieces.


The conventional wisdom has it that serious magazine
journalism is a victim of time-pressured readers, especially young readers
who have their eyes glued to the TV. That’s not all wrong. Surveys
show, for example, that younger readers spend about 29 minutes reading each
issue of
The Atlantic Monthly "text59"> and The New Yorker "text59">, down from 43 a dozen years ago. Yet researchers at the
University of Maryland report that Americans actually have more free time
than ever before, and that younger folk—single, childless, and often
still in school—have tons of leisure time. Reading remains as popular
as ever. And while magazine sales have been flat for 10 years, the number
of magazines has jumped 40 percent.


Therein lies a clue to what really ails the long
magazine article, Scherer believes: People have far more choices than ever
before, not only in magazines but in all media. In some ways, this has
fostered illusions about the decline of serious writing. Long articles
often do look shorter and sweeter now, but often only because they’ve
been fitted with pull-quotes, graphs, and other “access points” by editors desperate to claim readers’ attention. New niche-market
magazines such as the shopping-obsessed, paragraph-phobic
class="text18">Lucky have been born, but
there’s no evidence that they’ve stolen readers from what
former
New Yorker editor
Tina Brown once quaintly called “text-based” magazines.


Shapiro, an assistant professor of journalism at
Columbia University, doesn’t think long articles are a dead form,
either. They’re just not much fun to read, he says. Most now follow
the same rubric: “anecdote; set-up graph; scene, digression, scene,
quote from Harvard sociologist”—leading to “a numbing
predictability.”


Of course, magazine journalism has come a long way
since the 1950s. The New Jour­nalism, that gritty, involved,
first-person form popularized in the 1960s by Tom Wolfe, Hunter S.
Thompson, and Joan Didion, was every English composition teacher’s
dream: New Journalism showed and did not tell, and varied in form while
making a point. But along the way, style dethroned the story, Shapiro
claims. As Wolfe wrote in 1973, “The proof of one’s technical
mastery as a writer becomes paramount and the demonstration of moral points
becomes secondary.”


A great magazine story can still make people take
notice. A recent example: William Lange­wiesche’s 70,000-word
serialized re­port on the recovery of the World Trade Center site in
class="text57">The Atlantic Monthly. The biggest
threat to the long-form article, Scherer suggests, isn’t pea-brained
readers, but editors who believe their own condescending blather about what
readers want.