We live in the age of the short attention span. In this piece in Esquire, Tom Junod reconciles our appreciation for the long form, and argues that long forms of media (television shows, longreads, books) are not contradictory phenomena but rather connected elements:
It is one of the paradoxes of our age: We complain that we don’t have any time. Our storytellers proceed as if we have nothing but. Our directors seem incapable of making a movie less than two and a half hours long, our novelists of writing a book less than 400 pages. And Stephen King, who was once our Brothers Grimm, is now our Dumas, asking if books 1,000 pages long can still properly be called potboilers. In journalism, what used to be characterized as “narrative” or “literary” or “new” journalism is now described simply as “long form,” as if length were the trait that supersedes all others. The magazine article, always a supremely elastic form, has at once shrunk into the “listicle” and expanded into the “Kindle Single” or the “Byliner Original” or the “interactive” multimedia extravaganza designed not to be read but rather experienced in a variety of ways, depending on how much time we have and how much we are willing to give — with time, indeed, the constraining variable instead of simply length.
There is some inflation here, to be sure — nobody has ever watched a superhero movie wishing it were longer, and rare is the journalist who hasn’t faced the challenge of the digital era by thinking that at least he no longer has to face the challenge of compression. But taken as a trend, the persistence of long form at a time when it’s been declared dead is a hopeful thing, not a trend at all but evidence that humans, as a race, are at last learning how to take our own complexity into account as we stumble into infinity, digital and otherwise. And nowhere is the appreciation of our own complexity better demonstrated than in the vast and vastly ambitious story cycles that have come to dominate television. Breaking Bad, Homeland, Game of Thrones, et al.: These, like the bottom-scraping reality shows that provide their counterpoint, show how the collapse of one business model (network television) and the rise of another (cable) inevitably change the way stories are told, for better and for worse. The plight of a genius driven to fashion a story that not only imitated but also replicated the rhythms of real life made for, in Synecdoche, New York, a terrible movie; but something like the same ambition — or the same opportunity — has made for historically great television… television, indeed, that does what movies no longer deign to do, which is tell us something essential about ourselves.