Long stories, short attention spans

Just about 20 minutes ago, I finished reading Tom Junod’s short – but fascinating and fantastic – article “The Dominance of Loooooong in the Age of Short” in this month’s Esquire.  The persistence of long-form journalism in an age of instant gratification and prolonged storytelling in a society that values pace is a subject that has long dominated my thinking.  It is an article, in short, that I wish I had written.

Junod writes, “our attention spans have become shorter because there are more and more claims upon them – more information, more complexity; more stories, more stuff; more.”  We are an increasingly smaller world.  I’ve argued that, while newspaper readership and the numbers of people who call themselves “readers” is down, media consumption is soaring.  And that’s because we consume information – mostly – 140 character at a time.  However, and Junod agrees, many of those are links to articles of greater length.  Again, that conundrum: a lot of information associated with just a few words.

The deeper meaning, though, is that even in the shorter content, the context connects us all to something larger, the greater picture that we sense lurking behind every snippet of information we consume on a daily basis.  Junod calls this, “evidence that humans, as a race, are at last learning how to take our own complexity into account.”  He goes on to mention shows like Breaking Bad and Homeland to illustrate how television storytelling had evolved to do what movies stopped doing: teaching us a bit about ourselves.

And, I think, that might be the handle in all of this.  Long-form narratives on television, in books, in journalism inform us about the world we inhabit, but also our role within those boundaries.  The flattening of the world feeds us more information, but also promotes the ideal that these stories all matter to us because we all belong to a larger piece of the proverbial puzzle.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, et al., are successful for many reasons, but perhaps the greatest reason is that the characters of these stories are so flawed, so human.  Even the protagonists are committing crimes and adultery.  In a world as complex as ours, we identify with these characters because we see within them the complexity within ourselves.

“…The human preference for story is aligned with the human tendency for error; and that only through dislocations of scale – the scale of sample size and of time – will truth emerge,” Junod writes.  We tell stories, said Joan Didion, in order to live, but I think we listen to stories to identify with a collective whole.  The subject of a story hardly matters, so long as we can see ourselves as part of something larger within these stories.  This is how storytelling succeeds.

It is true that there are different demands for our time in our society, the height of information elevating each hour.  But, still, we find time to listen to stories, whether they’re on TV or in our minds as we read from left to right, top to bottom of a book or an article.  The availability longer, more elastic stories (both in word count and multimedia supplements) have given us more freedom to consume at a higher rate, but also at our own convenience, which is why we binge-watch shows on Netflix or read entire magazines, some three months old, on cross-country flights.

Recently, I read a Vanity Fair article called “From Coast to Toast,” on a flight, one of the pieces of long-form journalism that I read from time-to-time that makes me think, “Shit, I remember why I loved journalism so much.”  The point I’m making is that it wasn’t about the erosion on the coasts of Malibu and Nantucket (though the story itself was heart-wrenching, alarming, and gripping) as much as the process of reading – and my reaction to – the story.  I don’t mean that in a solipsistic way, either.  We live in a world where everything seems to boil down to ourselves – how we feel, our thoughts – but good storytelling does something poignant: it involves us, it makes us think individually and as part of a collective dynamic.

“We will never run out of stories,” Junod ends his editorial.  The entirety of the statement aside, what I found most important is the pronoun that he used: We.

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