Carr ♥ Graydon Carter. Carter has just poached Cullen Murphy and
William Langewiesche from the Atlantic; they’re only the latest in a long list
of big-name journalists at Vanity Fair, from Christopher Hitchens to Todd Purdum.
Beneath Vanity Fair’s louche exterior lies the beating heart of a well-financed,
well-edited enterprise that has managed to break news as a monthly at a time
when the news cycle is frequently measured in minutes.
Wonderful amalgam or cognitive dissonance? However you view the current cultural
conversation, some of the blame can be traced to Vanity Fair. We are either
a vacuous people who can occasionally be seduced by a big narrative about
the Asian flu or we are a serious people who occasionally need to read about
what Gwyneth really thinks. Either way, Mr. Carter is editing a magazine for
both sides of the brain.
What Carr doesn’t mention is that VF is actually a very bad home for serious
journalism. Carter can run 20,000-word articles on the run-up to the Iraq war
all he likes, but serious journalists will never dream of having their work
published by Vanity Fair in the way they dream of being published by the New
Yorker. Instead, their dream is much more prosaic: simply being paid
by Vanity Fair, with its legendary budgets and expense accounts and contracts.
Carr hints at this:
[Carter’s] magazine, the top earner at Condé Nast, spends like a pirate,
madly assigning and killing stories and buying up contracts of every writer
it fancies — an impunity that seems quite retro in a threadbare age.
In other words, Carter behaves a bit like the artist Francis Bacon, who used
first-growth Bordeaux as cooking wines. The long pieces of journalism in Vanity
Fair might pay very well indeed, but they’re still a lot cheaper than the cost
of commissioning a photographic portfolio of minor European royals. And they
never get any respect within the magazine.
While the New Yorker or the Atlantic will lead with a long, well-reported story,
Vanity Fair always leads with celebrity fluff. More to the point, VF has never
bothered to work out how to make long-form journalism readable. The New Yorker
is much smaller and lighter than VF; that makes it physically much easier to
hold and to read. And long stories in the New Yorker never do what long stories
in Vanity Fair always do, which is jump all around the magazine. A story will
be "continued on page 227"; once you’ve found page 227, which isn’t
always easy, because most of the pages don’t have numbers on them, it might
have two or three different stories on it, making it that much harder to work
out which one you’re in the middle of. By the time you’ve managed that, you’re
pretty much guaranteed to have lost the train of thought leading up to the sentence
you’re putatively in the middle of. And this can be repeated 8 or 9 times or
even more: jumping around reading one column on one page and then the next column
on a page 20 pages further back.
Vanity Fair also refuses to put any of its journalism online, where it can
be read by news consumers around the world.
In other words, Vanity Fair doesn’t seem to care about the readers
of the long-form journalism for which it pays so handsomely. It cares about
the writers, whom it looks after very well. And it cares about the prestige
they bring. But my impression of Vanity Fair is not that it’s a magazine which
wants to serve me with great journalism, so much as that it’s a magazine with
so much money it can run great journalism just by throwing its checkbook around.
When VF starts discovering promising new voices and giving them space, when
it runs fascinating articles about non-important subjects that you never thought
you might be interested in, when it stops introducing every article by telling
us how important and wonderful it is – then I’ll start taking
it seriously as a journalistic enterprise.