Write Now: The long and short of it

Write Now: The long and short of it

By Luiza 20/01/11

Today's media is short, sharp and quick – a contrast to the mid 20th century, when long, immersive journalism ruled the roost. This week, our deputy editor Luiza Sauma pays homage to the glory days of "long-form" journalism...

We become journalists because we want to be writers – and then we find out that, nowadays, journalism isn’t about writing. Not really, anyway.

Isn’t that what happens? I became a journalist because I loved the great non-fiction writers of the mid-20th century: Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and Hunter S Thompson – the “New Journalism” gods of long-form. They wrote about anything – Hollywood film stars, politics, hippies, death and madness – but with none of the sycophancy and identikit flatness that is so popular today.

When Truman Capote wrote about celebrities, he didn’t fawn over their perfect lives, but noted their narcissism, eccentricity and how Marilyn Monroe (allegedly) called the Queen “that c**t”.

The New Journalists – as they were dubbed – placed themselves there, right in the middle of the story: a real person, rather than a cipher chained to a typewriter. And their articles were long – really long: more like novellas than articles. Gay Taleses’s near-legendary Esquire interview with Frank Sinatra in 1965 ran to over 15,000 words – five times the length of a long feature today.

That was a long time ago; journalism has moved on, and so have we. News can be told in 140 neat characters – and why the hell not? – but something more substantial has been lost along the way: the writer themselves.

Today’s features are, on the whole, aspirational rather than thoughtful, while writers are interchangeable – perhaps because they’ve all learnt how to write the same way at journalism school.

Six years ago, in an interview for such a course (which I didn’t end up taking), I was asked why I wanted to become a journalist.

“Because I want to be a writer,” I said. God, I was green.

“Then do a creative writing course,” snapped the interviewer. “Journalism isn’t about writing.”

She was quite right, of course; the style of journalism that made me want to write is almost extinct – and knowing how to write a witty headline, an informative profile, a concise report, a melodramatic real-life story and a glowing (or catty) interview are the skills most in demand.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can scrape away at your soul, when you’re the person charged with doing it. No wonder, then, that we’re all turning to the internet, where a shred of humanity and oddness is still lurking, because it can.

Long-form is still pretty big in the US (the country that spawned it in the first place), even in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker (the holy grail of long-form) and, occasionally, Vanity Fair.

Online is where it’s at, though. There are blogs, such as The Essayist and Long Form, that collate the great and good of long-form, both old and new; Twitter’s If You Only and Longreads (which also has an archive) tweet the best article of the day. New York’s The Awl often offers up fresh, new examples of the genre (along with shorter pieces), on subjects such as hipsters and bad journalism jobs.

So long-form isn’t dead, but it isn’t going to bring you fame, fortune, or much of a readership beyond a few thousand disgruntled, underpaid copy-slaves who can engage with an article for more than 10 seconds (between tweeting, emailing and Facebooking), and who dream of a distant time when journalism mattered.

But it’s alive, and that’s what counts.


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