|Magazines no longer fertile field
might be considered the best of times and the worst of times
The best if you're the next Martha Stewart clone or want to
start up a periodical peddling Beanie Babies, Harry Potter or
Pokemon trading cards.
The worst if you're Lawrence Weschler, a writer drawn to
eccentric subjects such as the Parkinsonian furniture maker
about whom Weschler has submitted a 12,000-word profile for an
upcoming issue of The New Yorker, where he has been a staff
writer since 1981.
"It's an old-fashioned yarn,'' Weschler said. "I've been
told to condense it to 9,000 words.''
Weschler teaches a course at Columbia University called
"The Fiction of Nonfiction'' and he prefaces his first class
with this bleak welcome: "Nothing about this course is of the
slightest practical value and there are no jobs out there for
He is not alone in his assessment that -- despite boom
times for start-ups and ad revenue -- today's magazine
journalism is an increasingly oxymoronic pursuit that has
yielded to a prepackaged, celebrity-saturated product that
gives synergy a bad name.
"Everything is peg-driven, niche-slotted and
attention-squeezed,'' Weschler said. "The writing addresses me
either as a consumer or a salivating dog. There's a crisis
about this Pavlovian culture.''
Weschler will be joined today in Albany by three other
veterans of the magazine wars for a panel discussion titled
"Nonfiction: The State of the Art.'' Donald Faulkner,
associate director of the New York State Writers Institute,
will moderate the panel at 8 p.m. in the Performing Arts
Center's Recital Hall on the University at Albany's uptown
The writers will read a brief selection from their works
and discuss their methods of writing the pieces. They'll also
field questions from the audience. "Getting these writers
going isn't going to be much of an issue, but getting them
reined in might be,'' Faulkner said.
Although they don't all share the darkness of Weschler's
viewpoint, there is consensus among the panelists that these
aren't sunny days on the magazine landscape -- even if they
still frequently manage to turn their magazine pieces into
lucrative book contracts.
"We're not in the great days of the magazine anymore.
Magazines as a rule have slipped,'' said JoAnn Wypijewski,
senior editor at The Nation. She recently published long
pieces in Harper's on the beating death of gay college student
Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and on Nushawn Williams, the
HIV-positive young man from Jamestown who infected more than a
dozen young women with the virus in rural Chautauqua County.
After her story on Shepard was rejected by another
publication, Wypijewski took it to Lewis H. Lapham, longtime
editor of Harper's -- an oasis of cutting-edge journalism and
a perennial money loser with a circulation of 215,000.
"I turned in the Shepard piece at 12,000 words and Lewis
had me add 2,000 words,'' Wypijewski said. "That's never
happened to me before in my life.''
Wypijewski -- a Buffalo native who lives in New York City
and visits relatives in Latham often -- said she feels
fortunate that a regular paycheck from The Nation has provided
her with journalistic freedom.
"I don't need to hustle and sell myself every day like some
free-lancers,'' Wypijewski said. "I've been very fortunate to
write just for me and my imagined reader. Everything I've
written is partly to tell a story, but partly to say to this
imagined object of my affection, 'Love me. Love me.'
Finding outlets for her favorite topics -- left-leaning
stories about the labor movement and class politics -- is
becoming increasingly difficult. That's true of her own
employer, once considered a bastion of leftist writing and
: Trying to adapt
"The Nation is struggling to find its identity at a time
when there is no great big left movement and the right is
fairly powerful,'' Wypijewski said, noting that their
readership has been down during the Clinton Administration as
part of a typical dip when a liberal Democrat occupies the
Susan Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992,
has watched the magazine market struggle to adapt to shifting
consumer habits. "Magazines have to compete harder for
readers' attention, and the opportunity to be imaginative or
eccentric is looked at askance,'' she said. "I have a real
concern that people don't have the time or attention to read
things that aren't necessary or immediately sexy.''
But Orlean, who has a weekend cottage in Columbia County
where she writes, has found a comfortable and stimulating home
at The New Yorker. She produces about six pieces for the
magazine each year, including an article that will be
published in an upcoming issue about a neighborhood in
Bangkok, Thailand, popular with American backpackers.
"I'm one of the lucky few magazine writers with a lot of
freedom, but there is a rising tide against the
less-than-obvious subject at a less-than-obvious length,''
Orlean described a generational division among New Yorker
staff writers, which breaks generally along the lines of
devotees of legendary editor William Shawn vs. past editor
Tina Brown and their wildly divergent views on the magazine's
"Younger staff members like me weren't raised on the gospel
of long, and I think The New Yorker ran a lot of pieces in the
past that were too long for its own good,'' Orlean said. "What
matters is quality. Being offbeat just for the sake of offbeat
is pointless, too.''
Said Weschler: "I wrote about J.S.G. Boggs 10 years ago
when nobody heard about him and it ran as a 45,000-word piece
in two parts in The New Yorker. It was a great story that a
lot of people talked about. That would not get published in
the magazine today.''
Weschler expanded his piece on the eccentric artist who
draws astonishingly accurate currency and barters it for goods
and services into a book, "Boggs: A Comedy of Values,''
published this year.
Weschler conceded that current New Yorker editor David
Remnick, the successor to Brown (who recently launched her new
magazine Talk), is a fine writer himself who fights the good
fight for literary standards. "David Remnick keeps the faith,
although he's saddled with Tina's demographics,'' Weschler
As for the fourth panelist, Washington Post staff writer
Joel Achenbach, he's just trying to keep up with the newspaper
treadmill. "Everything is faster, cheaper and dumber,'' said
Achenbach, whose spot on the paper's A-1 features story team
has given way to a thrice-weekly column he writes for the
Post's online version.
"Why write a deliberate, thoughtful and carefully
constructed A-1 news feature when you can pound out
off-the-cuff riffs on the news of the day and put it on the
Internet instantaneously?'' Achenbach asked. "It's a very
uncertain and difficult moment for newspapers because reading
habits are changing almost month to month.''
Achenbach has collected his newspaper column into three
books, "Why Things Are & Why Things Aren't.'' This month,
Achenbach's new book, "Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life
and Truth in a Very Large Universe,'' will arrive in
Although some magazine writers may consider themselves on
the endangered species list, they're not extinct yet.
"Everyone is expecting magazines to become the dodo bird of
the media and it doesn't seem to be happening,'' Orlean said.
"The key for serious writers selling to magazines is to learn
the formula and then slowly turn it inside out. That's hard to
Writers Joel Achenbach, Susan Orlean, Lawrence Weschler and
JoAnn Wypijewski will read from their work and participate in
a panel discussion, "Nonfiction: The State of the Art.''
Donald Faulkner, Writers Institute associate director, will
moderate. Today at 8 p.m. Recital Hall. Performing Arts
Center. UAlbany uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. 442-5620
for more information.
Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y. The
information you receive online from Times Union is protected by the
copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any
copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any