Lawrence Weschler – Prospectus for Omnivore
Prospectus for a New Magazine
|Discuss this with Lawrence Weschler.|
- About Lawrence Weschler
Pillow of Air. That’s the name some of us actually wanted to use for this magazine. Well, a few of us anyway. Others of us emphatically did not. “It sounds like the name for some soft-core porn digest,” they said. To which those others of us groused, “So what would you rather call the thing? ‘Stick in the Mud?’” “No,” the hold-outs replied, “that sounds pornographic, too.” Shows you what they had on their minds. But anyway, so we didn’t.
Still, “Pillow of Air,”perfectly describes the reigning aesthetic of the enterprise — even the holdouts agree on this — in that it invokes those moments of hushed astonishment or absorption when a pillow of air seems to lodge itself in your mouth and you suddenly notice that you haven’t taken a breath in a good half minute. The sort of experience where you get lost to yourself and given over to the marvel of all creation (indeed, to everything but yourself).
The sort of moment, that is, that has proven increasingly fugitive in the temporal frenzy that has come to characterize the increasingly peg-driven, niche-slotted, attention-squeezed, sound-bit media environment of recent years. An environment wherein, as a friend of ours recently parsed matters, “the funnels and the piping, the ducts and the belts, the overall design strategies used to convey capital efficiently from the ‘consumer’ to all the correct bank accounts — all of it has become ever more frighteningly efficient.” And the method is almost everywhere the same: “A short, sharp whiff of stimulation,” as our friend put it, “ followed rapidly by a hand in your back pocket. In short: crack.”
What our friend likens to a sort of drug-pushing, we sometimes prefer to think of in terms of neo-Pavlovian conditioning: jolt, salivate, spend — move on. In either case, we are speaking of a kind of death of the soul — or, at any rate, the successive parching of the staging ground for any sort of idiosyncratic readerly-writerly communion of souls.
And we don’t like it. We don’t like being treated that way and we don’t want to have to treat others that way, either. People tell us: “Tough luck, that’s just the way the world is going nowadays, nobody has time or patience for any other way of being, get used to it. “ Well, we just don’t buy that, and we’re betting it’s not true.
Indeed, that’s the defining wager of our entire enterprise.
For instance, consider the fate of long-form pieces of narrative reportage in American magazines over the past several years. The tradition of Liebling and Hersey and Mitchell and Capote and Baldwin and (more recently) McPhee and Sheehan and Kramer and Malcolm and Frazier and all the rest at the New Yorker — but not just there. The tradition of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone and Mailer at Esquire, Clay Felker’s crew at New York and Willie Morris’s at Harper’s, and all of those. The sorts of pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject, and through the sheer narrative energy of the writing, you’d find yourself becoming caught and then held, completely immersed, lost to the world for hours at a time, desperately eager for Part Two and Part Three — and secure, furthermore, in the knowledge that, come the weekend dinner, you’d be encountering others like yourself who’d been similarly transported and similarly surprised.
A distinctly American innovation, that — the extended, writerly, not-necessarily-immediately-topical piece of nonfiction reportage, intended for and exposed to a general-interest-magazine readership — and indeed one of the greatest contributions of American culture to world literature in the twentieth century… and now virtually obliterated, famished where not already completely effaced, especially here in America. Hardly any of the legendary masterpieces of those aforementioned masters or any of their ilk could find a home in any of their old venues, as currently constituted, or anywhere else, for that matter, in the reigning mainstream magazine environment today.
People just don’t have that sort of attention span anymore, they’re all too busy, the magazine editors will all plead in their own defense — and it is true: they don’t seem to, they themselves all are way too busy.
But is that true of everyone else as well? People sure seem to be reading more books than ever. And in other venues — radio, especially (at This American Life, for example, or among the folks at Sound Portraits or our friends over at www.transom.org) — a felt hankering seems to be being sensed and lavishly addressed.
Hankering: that, too, might have made a nice name for this magazine. Or: Hush.
Stop rushing us. Give us time to tend to the world.
And not just in terms of writing. In terms of the visual world, as well. Don’t keep pushing and jostling us like that. Slow down, give us leave just to look and to see and to admire and to be amazed, and then to rest for a few moments, to lounge in all that splendor.
Here, in these precincts, we promise to be devoted to duration and not embarrassed by devotion.
Pebble. That was another name we’d considered. Partly on account of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s lyric of the same name, a poem we’ve in any case managed to work into this prototype issue (as prelude to Michael Benson’s Asteroids pictorialsee page 103). A Pebble constituting, in Herbert’s conception, “a perfect creature / equal to itself / mindful of its limits / filled exactly / with a pebbly meaning.” We liked that, and also how Herbert notes the way that “Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye.”
But on account, as well, of a passage from Herbert’s marvelous contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz, from the latter’s Treatise on Poetry, in which he notes that though you know that history is but an avalanche, still you want to be the pebble that changes the course of the flood.
That’s pretty much exactly where we hope to pitch this magazine, somewhere between the cascading megalomania of the Milosz and the abiding humility of the Herbert.
In the end though, “Pebble” struck us as a little—what?—a little fey, a little recherché? — and we settled instead upon Omnivore.
Because, finally, that’s us: we want it all, there’s nothing we won’t pause to consider, there’s nothing we won’t tarry to absorb.
So: Come. Join us. The banquet is served.
A further note on this specific issue,
the one you hold in your hands. As we say, consider it a prototype. Which means, among other things, that it was printed in an especially limited edition, not intended for sale or general distribution, but rather to be passed about to potentially interested parties, colleagues, foundations, possible investors or other kinds of potential partner: a token of the kind of thing we’d like to be able to continue producing if we can garner sufficient support.
We could have done things in the more conventional manner: held focus groups and t hen worked up a statement of intent and accompanying business plan, nailed down our legal footing, lobbied potential sponsors and advertisers, secured the requisite distribution channels, strategized the mass-mailing campaign, hired on the necessary staff, and then, at length, launched out with an official inaugural issue, accompanied by a big party and all that razzmatazz.
But in the end we chose not to. For one thing, every time we broached the conventional way stations, we were being advised not even to bother: The whole thing was hopeless. The economy. The general media environment. Yada yada yada.
But then we recalled the example of the Polish oppositionists back in the mid-seventies, mired in the midst of the general Brezhnevian soft-totalitarian miasma. People like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron who likewise kept being advised not to bother, that resistance was futile. Then they hit upon a novel formula. If you want to have free speech, they took to asserting, just start talking freely. If you want a free trade union, form one. If you want to have a free press, just start printing something. They did. And look what they ended up accomplishing.
Not that we’re likening our situation (or the risks we face) to anything as miserable and dauntingly oppressive as theirs. Of course not — though there is something softly totalizing and conventionalizing and strangulating about the corporate hegemony currently holding sway over most of our own media environment. It’s just that their response inspires us: If you want something, don’t keep planning and theorizing and testing and strategizing — just start doing it.
We did, and so here we are.
All of which is to say, again, that this is a prototype, a provisional first stab at things. For example, we haven’t fact-checked all the articles. None of the contributors got paid. (We raised just enough money to send the thing to the printers for our extremely limited first run—and to those donors, our angels, we are especially grateful.) We haven’t yet nailed down all the things we intend to should we be able to convert this issue into an actual inaugural first issue (at which point, for example, contributors will get paid).
But we hope to be able to. And soon.
And, oh yeah, our working slogan:
Hopelessly utopian. Desperately needed.