Long Live the Long Essay

I’m thrilled that places like Byliner and Atavist are trying to bring back the long essay, and here’s a head’s up that you will be hearing more about this in the near future. I and a fellow contributor to The Quarterly Conversation will soon be publishing the first of what I hope to be a series of long essays on important literary critical questions.

Although I think it’s interesting just what we now consider too long to print in a magazine. I was just reading U & I, an approximately 40,000-word essay that was originally slated to run in The Atlantic (in 1990, I think) in a heavily trimmed version. Per Baker, the trimmed version would have been about 13,000 words, long but certainly not beyond the pale at the time. (As Baker notes in U & I, The New Yorker had not too long before dedicated an entire issue to a work by Donald Barthelme.)

And now I read this in a New York Observer article on the revival of the long essay:

Mr. Dobbs, who has written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired and National Geographic, usually writes about science, so the piece was a bit of a departure. The magazines he approached turned him down. He suspected at the time that the scale of the story was one problem—it was a complicated tale, hard to fit in a magazine, even at 6,000 or 8,000 words. Dedicated to his story despite the rejections, Mr. Dobbs started talking to Evan Ratliff, editor and co-founder of the online startup The Atavist, a self-described “boutique publishing house” that produces non-fiction articles for e-readers and smart phones. Initially one selling point was the possibility of writing a longer story: The Atavist publishes “nonfiction stories that are longer than magazine articles but shorter than books,” ranging in length from 10,000 to 20,000 words.

The article doesn’t say which magazines turned Dobbs down, but it’s telling that no one would take him at a length that would have been completely acceptable in a lot of venues 20 years ago.

There’s another interesting angle here: Dobbs’ resultant ebook, “My Mother’s Lover” has sold in the five figures and has earned him far more than he ever would have been paid by any magazine. Now obviously very few ebook-long-essays are going to sell as this one did, but it’s interesting to see the shifting economics at work: even if this story had sold 5,000 copies, at $1/download (which Dobbs says was his take) that will be worth a lot of freelancers’ time. If places like Byliner can stay in business offering their clients this kind of take, then this will be a huge opportunity for talented journalists to publish items that have all but been thrown out of the magazine market.

But most of all, I just like the idea of this format. There are way too many books on the market right now that are essentially 5,000- to 10,000-word magazine articles padded out to 250 pages. In addition to being unfit for a book length, these are just wasteful: these are the kinds of books that people will read at most once and then get rid of. It makes a lot more sense to publish them in ebook long essay format, where they can be the correct length and reach their audience without all the unnecessary production and marketing costs of a full-on book.


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