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
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.