Why would a successful venture in online publishing revert to print to extol its virtues? Perhaps because it is called the Atavist.
The development of e-publications was intended to attract readers to purchase electronic books as well as what is now called long-form writing — pieces that are shorter than books and occasionally meatier than old-fashioned print articles. But not everyone was satisfied with the result; reading at length online can be a challenge.
Enter Evan Ratliff, Jefferson Rabb and Nicholas Thompson, who created a multimedia publishing platform in 2009 to “work out aspects of lengthy journalism people have trouble with” online, according to designer Rabb. Features such as timelines would help keep things straight, and video and interactive graphics would liven them up.
Two years later, the Atavist Magazine separated from the for-pay publishing platform to produce more than 50 of what it calls “the finest examples of a new kind of nonfiction storytelling,” eight of which have been nominated for National Magazine Awards. (One of them won.)
Although business ties with Amazon and others do not permit disclosure of what writers earn from each $2.99 click, some, such as David Dobbs, have reportedly done quite well. Stories can run from 6,000 to 30,000 words.
So, why republish as “Love and Ruin” 10 “tales of obsession, danger and heartbreak” when these pieces have already been “consumed on your computer, your tablet or your phone”? Editor Ratliff sees no contradiction, saying print was the medium “that originally inspired us to create them.”
Several, such as “American Hippopotamus” — reportedly optioned for a film — could have benefited from the online feature meant to keep things clear because the “deep” reporting can lead to distracting rabbit holes. At least half the stories place the author perilously near the center, and nearly all contain a plethora of factoids such as Sitka “is the largest incorporated city borough in the United States.”
And despite being hailed as a new kind of storytelling, straightforward pieces such as Dobbs’ “My Mother’s Lover” could just as well have been done years ago when long-form, character-driven narrative nonfiction had not yet become the way to describe good reporting and writing.
The Atavist Magazine puts out one piece at a time, so this $16.95 paperback is a bargain — if you want to read all the pieces. But as with all anthologies, quality and the appeal vary. So perhaps this throwback is simply intended to lure the still hesitant and tech-averse into the brave new world.
Susan Linnee is a Minneapolis-based journalist who worked for the Associated Press in Latin America, Europe and West and East Africa.
Love and Ruin
Edited by: Evan Ratliff.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 411 pages, $16.95.