Who is James Pogue? James Pogue is a journalist and essayist who has written for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, The New Republic, and Vice, among many others. I am a recipient of support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and was once called a “brilliant young southern writer” by Oxford American.
James Pogue, a Cincinnati native, is a contributor to n +1, Vice, Granta, and the New Yorker. His book on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stand out, Chosen Country, is forthcoming from Henry Holt.
James Pogue is a writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. His book Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West is out now from Henry Holt.
They made a movie out of it
In early 2018, I spent a warm West Hollywood Sunday night on the balcony of a young film development director, drinking a beer and hoping for an early night. I had planned to sleep on his couch, but when I suggested we sign up, he said, “No, just take my bed, I’m probably not sleeping tonight.” I asked why not and he looked for a moment surprised as if it was strange I was not aware of the impending event that had a small but important segment of the film and publishing industry alive with anticipation at the two ends of it Great book-to-movie pipeline connects agents, assistants, movie execs, and book scouts through endless emails and group chats. “The new David Grann story falls at midnight,” he said.
I expressed mild shock at this, saying it was sadistic for an agent to send messages to otherwise self-respecting adults urging them to stay up to read and compose notes on a magazine story instead of trying to sleep before a working day. Surely they would still be expected, as is the custom in the recently large company to turn books and magazine pieces into films, to send the regular weekly note on the latest publications their peers and bosses may find interesting enough to read, or perhaps to offer on, and to be mindful and cunning in the regular meetings on reading that everyone did over the weekend. The expectation is now to mine, on a bulk scale, to write that manufacturers might want to buy. In this case, the goal was to acquire a story from a staff writer at The New Yorker that I personally do not consider one of his generation’s great talents, even though living in Los Angeles in a time of book-to-film has given me reason to marvel at the sharpness of my taste in literature. My friend gave me a slightly condescending look, implying that he did not, at the time, need to hear opinions about the great David Grann from a younger writer whose work emphatically does not keep execs and agents awake late on a Sunday night waiting to draw million-dollar triggers. Rather than living like a curmudgeon, I would do better to learn from this moment and start producing books and articles that would get me off his couch and into some serious money. He knew, I knew how to do, because he had told me how, many times.
A Grann story may not be an event for the casual reader of American nonfiction, but it’s a big deal in Hollywood. Imperative Entertainment, the producer of films such as All the Money in the World – an appropriate title for the amount invested in Grann – is already developing a film based on his massive bestselling book Killers of the Flower Moon, in partnership with Paramount. Leonardo DiCaprio is to star and Martin Scorsese to direct, and Imperative had to pay $ 5 million for that privilege. The publication of this latest piece – a fairy tale yarn about a guy who dies trying to walk across Antarctic bread no news and had no pretensions to social or literary value. But it still set off a quiet acquisitive madness familiar to certain history-driven works of mid-frontier prose in the style that Grann has come to master. Getting a sneak peek at a draft of a Grann story is a point of pride in Hollywood – in this case a shaggy forty-page .docx that could serve as a soap opera for a film that makes hundreds of millions. There was more at stake in writing and editing Grann’s history than a magazine editorial process is built to handle. But, of course, The New Yorker’s readership was not the ultimate intended audience, and it would not be its control that mattered most to Grann. So who did he write for?
We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories—and not for the better. The power of this force is hard to quantify because intellectual property is now being bought in Hollywood in such unprecedented volume and diversity of source material. Almost all written works that achieve prominence today (and many more that don’t) will be optioned, and increasingly it is becoming rare for film and television projects to move forward without intellectual property attached. America’s higher echelon of long-form journalists can now expect to make more money from Hollywood than they do from the publications that print their stories. The emergence of streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and even Walmart has driven a demand for writing on a bulk commodity scale at a time when the business of publishing—especially but not only in the world of magazines—has largely abdicated its responsibility for paying writers an amount that would secure a decent life.
This new money stream can seem a godsent benediction for a writer looking to buy a home or start a family. When the rights to Nathaniel Rich’s interminably long “Losing Earth,” written for The New York Times Magazine, sold to Apple for at least $300,000 last year, according to one underbidder, it was a less an indication of the way the world is headed than it was a confirmation of a shift that has already taken place. That particular magazine—which stands with The New Yorker in a class of two as by far our most prominent outlets for long periodical writing—generally starts contributors out at the same two dollars per word that most big magazines pay, meaning that for a standard feature a writer can hope for a contract totaling $9,000 or so. This can end up breaking down to a pitifully low hourly wage. But even a smallish Hollywood option would more than double that payday instantly, and all the magazines in New York combined would be at a loss to assemble $300,000 to pay for a single story.
The paymaster for Rich’s story was a tech giant, as is so often the case now, and it was not at all a coincidence that his epic about climate change unfolded not as a polemic but as a narrative human drama. Nor was it a coincidence that Rich’s essay curiously lacked a critique of capital’s sway over American politics or the power of our entrenched oligarchy and the central role these forces played in our Losing Earth. This is because the book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing. It’s impossible to say whether Rich had these considerations at the top of his mind as he shaped the piece, but it doesn’t matter. The power of book-to-film in American writing is in how it sits at the edge of the consciousness of every writer, editor, and podcast producer, a dark energy of the entertainment market that drives wealth and reward. You just have to tell a gripping story and leave the powers-that-be unnamed.
A case of IPs
In January, long before I got the idea to write this piece, I went to a meeting with Dan Fierman, the then editor-in-chief of Epic Magazine, a company that has become the poster child of this new order. My purpose was not to get information about a jeremiad against tech and Hollywood’s baleful impact on American writing. It was to try to get paid. But the meeting made me think.
Epic’s business model is in part to commission and place pieces designed to feed the new rapacity of tech and media companies for buyable IP. They offer a remarkable full-service product: they assign stories with an eye to how valuable they will seem to Hollywood buyers, and they negotiate magazine placement and sale rights in advance. The author and Epic share the profits. From an author’s perspective, this money allows for the voracious level of focus and commitment that once seemed like a normal requirement to produce important non-fiction, but which is now difficult for anyone who does not have wealthy parents to convene while they working for the subdued salary that even big business like The New York Times Magazine offers today. Epic then edits the pieces in-house and delivers them in more or less final form to a magazine like GQ.
The publications get a fully formed piece and in some cases do not need to do any more work before publication than applying a fact-check and copy edit, a fact that anyone who has worked a lot in magazines could see as a dramatic illustration of enervation of American journalism in the last few decades. Until recently, one of the few endearing qualities of many corporate magazine editors was the intensity they brought to shape a piece, in the belief that in a few cases it was fair that only their unique vision could bring a story to a level of quality that made it the best possible exponent of what a publication and an author hoped to show to the world. This feeling still exists in patches — again, largely in the refined areas of publications like The New Yorker and Times Mag, which are still able to regularly produce much-read feats of storytelling and reporting. The lower class of publications – basically all others – have mostly given up the pretext that they are actors able to regularly produce major work without outside help, and even when streaming services do not subsidize the writing they publish, they often turn to to nonprofits funded by generous donors such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Economic Distress Reporting Project, or Type Studies (formerly the Nation Investigative Fund) to pay for the work. Not so long ago, Epic’s pitch would have seemed wildly offensive to the pride of most magazine editors. Today, it represents an uncontroversial and welcome offer to businesses that cannot pretend to have other options.
But there is a wrinkle: almost none of these stories are made into movies or TV shows. IP is being bought and then it disappears into the huge vaults of literature vacuumed up in a short time since the advent of streaming services sent the market into hyperdrive. Of all the stories Epic has placed since its inception in 2013, only one – purchased, again by Apple – has been filmed. It would be reasonable to wonder what someone is making money on this business and the short answer is that they are not; Epic is just another publishing vehicle that can not make money by actually publishing. The company’s real money comes from presenting itself as a curator of elite content, which it offers to brands like Ford and Google in the form of long-form reporting: “Epic story hunters travel the world in search of true stories that reflect the spirit of a brand and ethos, “their company description read until recently, when Vox Media completed an acquisition of the company for an unknown amount. “Epic transforms stories into documentaries, magazines, books, video games, photo essays, live events, and speeches that express a brand’s values.” This, of course, is the logic at the moment that what you might have once thought of as a literary publishing company is, when you get down to it, just high status corporate content generation.
This can extend all the way to commodifying your own personal existence. “You have a look and a story,” one producer once told me when I told him I felt uncomfortable tailoring my writing to the needs of tech and media companies. “Maybe the IP you need to sell is you.” And what’s wrong with shadow content a bit against the needs of a production company looking for neo-westerns, or for “brand values” of Ford and Google if they are willing to pay money for what a publisher does not want? Fierman was very clear-eyed about all of this, and I rather enjoyed talking to him, as so much of being a writer these days (and to be fair it has always been so) involves sitting around talking about where hard it is to make money being a writer. It would be unfortunate to quote him here, but he had a cold-blooded focus on getting people paid and an honest will to say that the whole model of how writers get paid is broken that I appreciated. I left with a spring in my crotch already turning over three or four ideas that I thought were sure-fire option bait.
The format is the message
But what kind of writing does this machine want? This is where it gets difficult. Epic has a decent description of it right there on their website, and presumably they know what pleases Hollywood, as they only assign stories that get optioned. “As funny as fiction, but full of facts,” it begins.
“You know the feeling you get when a good true-to-life story grabs you right from the start? You can not stop turning the page – because you realize that incredible things are happening to real people – and it’s hard to believe what you read is nonfiction.It’s the kind of story we like to tell.Epic writers travel the world searching for encounters with the unknown.Wartime romance, unlikely savants, mind-boggling detectives, gentlemen thieves, and love-stricken killers: stories that fit into the suspense of being alive. “
This is more or less how most editors I know describe what they want these days. One-clear in hopes of landing stories that would get bought for movies when he was hardly offering enough money to make writing a feature for him the opposite- recently sent me a call asking for “rip yarn, stories about true crime, of lovers lost and won. Rivalry in sports, technology and entertainment. Chronicles of dreams realized and broken. We want to take readers on enchanting adventures, introduce them to powerful jerks they do not know (or do not know enough about) , weirdos, eccentrics, and people in search of redemption.
This email almost made me throw my laptop from my balcony. We all know this kind of storytelling, although we do not exactly have a name for it. It’s your non-friend’s favorite true-crime podcast. It’s the magazine’s story that the documentary you just saw was based on, and it’s the novel that was based on the real event that even better magazine piece described, and which will soon be a TV show. These are the books that now dominate bestselling lists of authors like Grann or Patrick Radden Keefe or Gillian Flynn, all of whom have been pre-manipulated to read as movie thrillers long before anyone even sat down to start on the script.
We think less about what this kind of writing is not. These editors ask you to rip the yarn never talk about politics beyond a possible desultory nod to wanting stories from authors of “different backgrounds.” They are not talking about voice or literary style. They do not ask for excavations of an inner life or the forces of history or any of the things that would once have made a work of writing lasting. A writer may find clever ways to worm these things in, but in the end, they are accessory goods. Desire is always for work that puts narrative before all other considerations, and it is the kind of writing that now dominates our literature: it describes the world without having a worldview. Which is a useful definition of the kind of writing most easily converted to IP.
This circumstance did not arise because a handful of tech companies suddenly began competing to buy all the stories that American writers can produce. Anyone with an interest in the history of American letters already knows how in the 1950s the rise of the MFA workshop system produced a necessity toward a show-don’t-tell, narrative-first formula for fiction writing. This was in large part because the first prominent director of the first prominent workshop program wanted to cultivate a kind of writing that supported American political orthodoxy — a detail that has important echoes for today. Work that places history before political or moral considerations had the convenient feature of being unthreatening to power, and it was this kind of writing that the program managed to do in the undisputed standard of quality in American fiction. More than half of the MFA programs that emerged in the wake of Iowa’s rise — funded by CIA donations and by U.S. mid-century corporate patricians — were founded by graduates of this program. Over time, many readers and critics came to see workshop-style writing as the standard for quality fiction, and many still do — a fact that writers are aware of, surrounding, or otherwise. Writing has always involved some degree of welcoming power and public taste.
Like any young American writer, I understood this implicitly right after I graduated college in 2010, at a time after the financial crisis, when American magazines were shutting down almost faster than it was possible to keep track of. There was a general panic in New York that the reading public no longer actually wanted to read, and this produced a hectic search for new forms and delivery mechanisms for American literature. Life was faster, the world was becoming more serious, and non-fiction reporting delivered express, to new entities, writing that would help readers understand the swirling chaos around them.
We are now in the mature phase of a book-to-movie boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories, and not for the better.
This was also the moment that Amazon explicitly set out to destroy the system by which books were published and sold in this country, and when Facebook and Google began their colonization of the business of American journalism. In short, these companies became the windows through which almost all writing is delivered to readers, leading to a situation where nearly 70 percent of internet advertising dollars go to Google, Facebook and Amazon, while the portion that goes to the businesses that producing the work is “hardly a rounding mistake,” as Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery wrote recently in Mother Jones. We live in a time where our writing finds its audience not through publishers and journalistic business that the commission writes, but through a handful of unregulated monopolies, siphoning off most of the revenue that this work produces, and which is almost completely in control of its delivery to its potential readers. For years as a young writer working in magazines, I was amazed at the new economy, trying to figure out why even publications that had survived the crash and stabilized their readership still could not afford to pay writers what they earned before the Great Recession, or how all the companies that had been explicitly manipulated to succeed in the new media world could not seem to do so either. It turned out that people still wanted to read books, and they even wanted to read them in print. So why had book advances not been recovered? Many new forces in this era, like Vice, were happy to have an excuse for not paying decent wages as they treated their writers like a cadre of interchangeable hustling losers, lucky to write at all. But for the most part, the answer was even more banal: Facebook, Amazon and Google all took the money.
It should be a lasting sign of shame for most publishers and editors working in the post-collapse era that they were active collaborators in the emergence of this situation, pretending that the publishing crisis was created not by a clique of profit-seeking asylum seekers, but by a shift in the desires of American readers. The result has been a dramatic impoverishment both of the quality of our literature and of the lives of those writers who still bother to try to write it.
What we got, instead of resistance, was a lot of criticism and a publishing system servile to the influence of technology capitalism. The iPad-ready long form essay was suddenly celebrated as America’s major new literary contribution, and magazines, publishers, and business people involved in publishing these brutally cut the rates that writers could expect to earn, even as they presented themselves as a part of a noble crusade to save American writing. Twitter-averse fogeys like Jonathan Franzen and the idea of the ambitious novel were the subject of intense mockery from a body of young commentators, often long-form non-fiction writers themselves, who assumed they were realists about the new tech-driven order. Almost no writing from this aluminum age of essays and long form reportage survives as an important literary document. What has lasted instead is the fetish for story-driven writing; and a wave of new vehicles designed by bro-ish entrepreneurs rose up to deliver it at a time when it resembled the entire superstructure that encouraged people to make literature in this country may be about to collapse. Content newsreaders and online-only magazines sprang up, curating or publishing long, rich narrative pieces that had concise, web-ready hooks. All of this was designed to drive reader engagement, to generate clicks and shares – today’s true determinants of the value of a piece of writing. At a very small distance from the publishing world, programs like This American Life were perfecting a formula for the sonic delivery of a story in an easily digested narrative capsule — becoming the model for an entire ecosystem of podcast companies like Gimlet to churn it out on an industrial scale .
It turned out that the people who were still publishing American writing did not want literature, at least not in the picturesque sense that we could have understood it a few decades ago. They wanted divisible writing in forms that were easy for publishers to reproduce and easy to absorb. Books and magazine pieces first and foremost had to be simple to describe and package online, otherwise no one would click on them. The New Yorker, who already had an ugly stiff house style and was in theory financially isolated from the crisis of Newhouse money, moved on in this way. All New Yorker stories are now edited to be largely voiceless and precise formal documents, and every time I have a reason to pull a piece from the archives, I am shocked at how strange and outrageous the older pieces read-less like work from a magazine other than documents from a foreign community as they actually are.
Other magazines perfected their own function formulas. When the film Argo – based on a wired play by Epic co-founder Joshua Bearman, and awarded and edited in the platonic ideal of the new story-first journalism by Atavist co-founder Nicholas Thompson – won Best Picture in 2013, every journalist and producer in America woke up to the fact that this new long form writing could be turned into real money if you crafted it to suit the needs of Oscar-bait movies. The demand for writing driven by formula-driven narrative techniques that did not challenge too many interests buyers became a significant economic force. Only a few years before, voice-driven and structurally straight essays had been briefly held up as a major new American form of writing, but these were discarded from the pages of American magazines almost overnight. Magazines did not begin to pay anything like pre-crash money for this newly prominent form of writing, and many media companies such as Vice and Condé Nast began to take the sinister step of insisting on their ownership of film rights to work by the authors they published. , take advantage of the new order, even as they stole money from the writers who produced the work. But better established writers were able to redline these contract clauses and set out to make money. The other winners of the big Oscars the same year— Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi — were all book-to-film projects, too, and the company was still barely in its infancy at the time. Production companies in LA began hiring refugees from release faster than they could pack their things and leave Brooklyn. Bookish, young English corporations who might once have hoped to spend their careers publishing literary fiction became dead-eyed hunters of writing that could easily be turned into a product, obsessively seeking out snipers of drafts from magazine bros like David Kushner or genre writers as Don Winslow, whose work the new system is best rewarded. Young writers, meanwhile, had figured out that it was still possible to get paid. You just had to produce IP.
It is imperative to create convertible IP is now ubiquitous. This can be hard to see from the outside the now synonymous worlds of publishing and film people have, after all, turned books into films as long as films have existed. And it can be hidden from within; For many younger writers this appears to be just the way things are. “Elections are not even that big of a deal!” a very successful book scout texted me recently. “Avg is like $ 25k for a magazine story.” I later wondered if she knows many writers for whom twenty-five thousand dollars does not represent a big deal.
These economic forces are now working on decisions made by every author I know. You can still do important political reporting or literary writing that expresses a distinctive voice and sensibility, especially if you were born rich enough to be able to do so as a hobby. But anyone who did not have to think about the market, which above all rewards safe and simple narratives. “It reminds me of when I was at Harvard,” a friend who is one of the best and most passionate magazine journalists I know said about this recently. “It was not that people suddenly leave the humanities or write so they could get a job in finance. It was that everyone knew that working in finance offered the greatest rewards, and that the most talented people just naturally gravitated that way. “It was an unseen move.”
It is precisely descriptive of the situation. It may be that in the average case, Hollywood options do not pay wild sums. But often they offer a payday that makes writing worth it, and no one I know is stupid enough not to have taken note. Hollywood and big tech have not yet completely merged, and there are interesting and original producers, screenwriters, and directors doing a good job in the film system. But it’s true that in the last ten years, Hollywood has begun to morph into a company designed to develop content that easily fits into delivery systems designed by Amazon, Netflix, Apple and Google, and that it was their entry into the market. for IP who started book-to-movie buying madness. They run the market, and from my desk, it looks like these are the same people who ruined American writing — by colonizing ad dollars, by seizing control of how books are delivered, by deliberately designing highly addictive devices, and streaming services that drew our attention away from writing and towards phones and forgettable, mass-produced Netflix shows — whose taste and desire for tasty content I now get to know my writing should serve.
We have a really good word for the kind of writing and reporting all this encourages: trash.
At least some of my peers are now handing over their working lives to produce cynical content that is rigged to suit the desires of streaming services that, when you think about it, are a little tragedy for a world as fucked up as our . Most of the good writers are not. But how could you not at least think about those demands when a strange new fusion of Hollywood and tech offers the biggest rewards for a hit second novel, and when magazines pay below rates that were standard three decades ago? Almost all remarkable book-length non-fiction written in this country turns out to be an extension of work first published by a magazine, so- whether they admit it or not, magazines are incubators for non-fiction writers describing our world. But these businesses in general do not make the slightest pretense of trying to pay writers enough to build a life. Instead, editors at prestige businesses increasingly see writing as germinal IP.
We have a really good word for the kind of writing and reporting all this encourages: trash. Trash is how we once thought of work designed above all to fit commercial requirements and generic narrative forms. The imperative need to produce it is not to go away soon. But I do not think we need to accept that. For one, we (especially me) should all stop writing for magazines. Everyone (especially me) should have stopped writing magazines years ago. With few exceptions, these sites have become formula-driven content dumpsters willing to outsource the obligation to pay their writers to companies in LA. The problem, as in any bad relationship, is that I still love them.
And we can name the trash this system encourages to what it is. It’s not that we lack writers who can write well- just like many trash novels written to fit the demands of the market in the fifties hold up well today. Writers have always had to work with and against a marketplace designed by the rich and powerful. But I personally can not help but feel disturbed and furious at the ways writers are now driven by incentives to fill the needs of creative leaders working in Amazon’s film studio. It feels wildly discouraging to see how much my friends and I casually accept the idea that we must craft our work to fit a commercial necessity — the entire system of our writing and reporting is now market-tested and data-driven and robbed by financial forces. of a large part of its lasting value. There is a part of me that wants to grab all the rewards that come from this system, but that’s the part of me good writing is meant to kill.
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