Long con

Deadspin brings us the story of a ridiculous “longform” piece from something called SB Nation defending that one rapist cop (you know, that one cop who saw his job as an opportunity to fulfill his pathetic male power fantasies) on the grounds that, uh, he used to play football, I guess. The point is that this is identified not as an individual failure, but as a fundamental problem with the concept of longform writing:

“There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.”

Obviously, the problem with the “longform” concept is right there in the name: “long” is not a format. It’s a one-dimensional quantity that imparts no further information. Length does not imply complexity, incisiveness, or insight; nor does it necessitate ponderous meandering. But the fact that the concept exists at all means it has to refer to something. In particular, there are websites that aggregate longform articles regardless of subject matter. Someone who sits down to browse one of these sites is not thinking “I feel like reading something long today.” So what are they actually looking for?

It’s clear what role the longform concept fills in the ecosystem of the internet. It’s a countertrend against the bite-sized “content” delivery of tweets, listicles, and slideshows. In other words, longform pieces are supposed to be substantive. But substance comes in many forms; again, length is not antonymous with vapidity. So what longform pieces actually are is a fantasy: the fantasy that you can avoid being mislead by prejudice and trendiness if you put in the effort to read allllll about something and get the “complete” picture. They’re nuanced, where “nuance” is an internet buzzword for “look at how objective and reasonable I’m being.” The temptation of the internet’s infinite information illusion is that it makes it seem like you can get all the facts, that one perfect story can explain everything. The longform concept insists that there is such a story to be told for every subject. This is not the case.

Hilariously, Deadspin itself falls into this exact trap with their longform piece explaining why longform pieces are fundamentally flawed. The essay aggregates plenty of data about the SB Nation piece, but despite aspiring to figure out “how it happened,” none of it is actually explanatory. For example, word count enforcement is cited as a mechanism for padding non-stories into vectors for insight:

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories—not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones. One freelancer said that per the terms of his contract, the story had to be at least 4,000 words long.”

Obviously having a strict word count like this is a dumb idea, but it doesn’t actually apply to the piece in question, which was 12,000 words – three times the “required” length. So the issue was not that the author was inflating irrelevant details to make word count; rather, they clearly felt that they had a hell of a lot to say. Similarly, Deadspin claims that “this story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important,” as anyone familiar with the dynamics of rape culture would surely have put the brakes on it. But in fact, that exact thing actually happened. The one black woman involved in the process raised hell about it, and was casually overruled. So the story is actually an example of why “diversity” doesn’t fucking matter as long as the same old power dynamics are still in play.

The actual issue here has nothing to do with the mechanics of longform – at least not the explicit ones. The issue isn’t the particular format in which the story was told, it’s the fact that it was told at all. As Jezebel points out, there was fundamentally no story here:

“The question, of course, is why Arnold felt Holtzclaw deserved a more rounded portrait in the first place. By most accounts, Holtzclaw is an unexceptional man who has been found guilty of serial rape. The difference between Holtzclaw and other men who sexually assault women is that his position as a police officer allowed him a unique opportunity to brutalize his victims while keeping them silent. The other difference, of course, is that Holtzclaw actually got caught and will pay for his crimes.”

In other words, any story proceeding from this angle – regardless of length or process or who was writing it – was going to be worthless. The actual direct fist-to-the-face cause of this debacle was that everyone involved in it, excluding the lone ignored objector, thought it would be a good idea to write a sympathetic story about a serial rapist. And this – the idea that there must be a story to be told from the rapist’s perspective, that there must be some mitigating factor to “explain” the situation in the moral sense – is in fact one of the pillars of rape culture.

It’s commonly understood, I hope, that any kind of real understanding of basically anything requires multiple stories from multiple perspectives. But the one thing that stories need to be is true, not merely factually but in the fullest sense: they need to be the right stories. The seemingly-free publishing space of the internet makes it too easy to respond to everything with more words, with an explanation of why someone else’s explanation of an explanation is wrong (which is obviously what I’m doing right now). What’s needed to cut through the fog of confusion is not the ponderous weight of nuance, but the thin, bright blade of discernment. Truth does not result from the aggregate of all lies; it must be carved out. Lines must be drawn. That’s why sometimes, even often, the right story is no story.

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