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By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Thursday, October 21, 1999
Magazines no longer fertile field

These might be considered the best of times and the worst of times for magazines.

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 you anyway.''

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 campus.

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 politics.

: 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 White House.

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 said.

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 content.

"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 said.

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 bookstores.

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 do.''

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.

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Nonfiction: The State of the Art