Greeting Card Quarterly
By Tom Waters
Nov 1 2002
Recently, one of my editors threw me for a loop with a back handed remark about the publicís attention span. I had submitted a piece which she was currently taking a wrecking ball to, and when questioned, she gave me this pat response: ďPeople who read magazines these days generally read the first three paragraphs of an article and then move on to something else.Ē What?! Iím all for editors. They provide a much needed service for writers like me. I abhor editing, and if I had it my way, Iíd never look at, market, or edit a piece after the first draft was written. And I am long winded; I fly off on tangents some times that have nothing to do with the theme of a piece. I realize that. But thatís the sort of comment that warrants a pimp slap, and let me tell you why.
Letís suppose that itís true. Letís assume that the world at large only reads the first three paragraphs of a particular article. Am I supposed to enable that sort of behavior? Should I write three paragraph essays for the rest of my life because thatís all that Johnny Newsweekly is going to read? Hell no. This country and our culture are dumbing down at the speed of light, and I wonít help them. Catering to this sort of behavior may be important to an alternative free weekly paper, but it isnít to me. I canít stand those sort of articles, and in many cases, I wonít even read the first three paragraphs of something that stupid. Iíll just move on.
Itís not my fault that key demographics have no attention span.
Magazines like FHM, Maxim, and Stuff have destroyed legitimate magazine empires in the last two years with their blurb filled magazines and Ritalin-slanted features. Those sort of publications drive me nuts because they have no substance. Iím all for rocking the boat, shaking the tree, and messing around with accepted norms (especially in the literary world), but this is a rotten trend. Freelancing for dumbasses who canít keep their eyes focused on one page for more than five minutes unless thereís a greased German model/actress filling up three quarters of it. Supporting this sort of blurb writing, itís a signal flare for the death of the written word.
Itís been established that Iím not normal, but I always thought that my reading habits were. One more neurosis to throw on the pile. Weíre into the fourth paragraph here, so Iíll assume that youíve stopped reading this and surfed, browsed, or ruffled your way onto shorter or greener pastures. Now the real article can begin since no one is reading it anymore. Anyway, my reading habits: I buy two or three magazines a month. GQ, Esquire, and occasionally a trendy magazine. I buy the first two because they are institutions of excellence. They donít buckle under the pressure of fickle magazine fads; they endure, and while they may nod at trends and current popular culture, theyíve kept the same format for decades. In my opinion, these magazines have a winning formula that transcends buckshot publishing. I donít want to look at eighteen different top ten lists, four question interviews, or in-your face-captions that pop up all over the page. That sort of shit gives me a headache. If I read an article, it is because it holds my interest, and it has nothing to do with length.
I buy these magazines every month because they have great features and because I read them (for the most part) from cover to cover. The food reviews, the style questions, the letters to the editor, everything. If the writing is exceptional, length should not be an issue. And this isnít a case of bruised ego. Iím not arguing my case, Iím arguing the world-wide pandering to a society that channel surfs through their entire lives. Letís round up the (ugh) usual suspects.
Music video. Sure, they started it. If you can tease, excite, and sell something within five minutes, itís going to do something to a teenagers attention span. Not only that, but Iíve noticed that songs have gotten progressively shorter over the last thirty or forty years. In the fifties, songs were very short. Then the sixties gave birth to political ballads and acid-based introspections. After that, folk music ran about an hour and a half a song, with Don McLean and John Denver spewing whatever the poster issue was for that week. The eighties were beautiful. Songs were around five or six minutes. It was fluff, yes, but it was ambitious, well paced fluff. These days, if you clock some bubblegum group of earring-sporting, parachute-pantalooned fags in their early teens (with visors, of course), their songs average around three to four minutes. We lost two minutes somewhere! Where did they go?!
Iíll tell you where they went. Commercial time. I donít watch MTV that often because it seems like their Ďprogramsí run fifteen minutes while their commercial breaks fit the other end of the bill. Video killed the magazine star. And yet music television has been around for a very long time, so they canít be the prime suspect. There were others. This is a conspiracy of Manson-like proportions (and for chrissakes, I donít mean Marilyn!).
There are five million cable news networks on the tube today, and they can be blamed as well. \Trying to pay attention to one object on the screen during a newscast is an exercise in futility, what with tag lines full of global news at the bottom, an empty headed anchor person in the middle, and cheesy self important media boxes in the top right or left hand corner. I cannot stand those ticker tape lines at the bottom. If itís that important, let the shellac headed corpse whoís reading the news get around to it. I donít need a news enema. Just give me one item at a time, and take your time. Each station is so paranoid about ratings points that they dump an avalanche of late breaking factoids into your brain as they receive them out of terror that another station will grab it first. This just in, I went to the fridge to make a sandwich and if itís on that line of journalistic diarrhea on the bottom of the screen I missed it anyway.
The internet doesnít help, either. A multitude of information streams and their all very brief because advertisement banners take up the majority of your computer screen. I suppose that if any form of media were to blame for the recent drop in attention span that the Internet would be at the top of the heap. It is the most recent addition in information ingestion, and itís wreaking havoc with newspapers and magazines at large. Once again, net surfers will pay attention to a three or four page featured article as long as a naked twelve year old is pictured next to the article.
Come to think of it, though, culture is the culprit, and the aforementioned are all ingredients for the chicken gumbo that is our generationís complete lack of a short term memory. If things keep moving in this direction, every new book will look like a James Patterson novel. He has an irritating style of writing that showcases four paragraph chapters which lead to three thousand chapter books of talentless tripe. I think weíre tapping into what radio talk show host Art Bell likes to call ďThe Quickening.Ē Societyís habit of speeding up. Our civilization is moving faster and faster. We prioritize, we time manage, and we cram as much work and play into each week as we possibly can. Nuclear families work multiple jobs. People go home and read the paper, check the web, watch a few hours of television, read a few pages of a book, spend some quality time with the family, eat some dinner, do the laundry, go over their bills, throw one into the wife and go to sleep. Itís maddening!
In an effort to fit so much into our lives itís taken a toll on our attention spans. Club drugs donít really help, either. There has to be a happy medium between carpet bombing your social planner with infotainment and banning yourself from ingesting any media. So the world speed scans through papers, magazines, and web pages. This is the problem Iíve always had with journalism. Itís not that interesting, itís only topical for a brief period of time, and itís too brief. Screw me for trying to write things that someone will want to read years from now, as well as today.
The blurbs, pull quotes and wacky captions of this week will be dust in the wind centuries from now. I say screw the key demographic. If we (as writers) donít counter act this movement to play along with this mentality, we wonít have a job anymore. If I wanted to write quick, punchy paragraphs, Iíd get a job with Post and whip up some interesting copy for the back of the latest bran cereal box or write goddamned greeting cards. Somebody somewhere has to put their foot down and start smartening up the world. Laziness perpetuates laziness, and before long, magazines will run two sentence Ďarticlesí as the standard. Iím not about to buy into that.
Publishing for illiterates and scatter brains is a mistake. In my experience, if the writing is interesting, Iíll read anything. GQ has a food critic that I follow religiously. I donít care about gourmet food that much and it doesnít shape or change the way that I go out to restaurants, but his adventures are interesting to me. I read all of his articles from start to finish, even if I do have to flip to the back of the magazine for the tail end of his piece. Once upon a time magazines had something to do with educating and entertaining people instead of subscribing to their inherent stupidity. Maybe we should get back to that. If that doesnít work, Iíll write articles with three monstrous paragraphs.
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