"I used to read magazines when I sat on the toilet," a friend of mine said recently, "but now I read my iPhone." If there's a clearer illustration of the way electronic media has supplanted the magazine industry as the go-to source for quick bursts of writing about current events, I haven't found it. Despite a series of angry ads paid for by once-mighty media titans like Condé Nast, Hearst, and Wenner Media that announce the (imaginary) continued dominance of magazines, you have only to stand in front of a newsstand to see how slim the pickings have gotten. Except for a few holdouts—the New Yorker, the Believer, N+1, A Public Space, Bitch, and a handful more—magazines feel old and outdated the minute they're published. Those that continue to thrive make a virtue of the magazine's inherent lag time, offering reflection and summation in place of new information. Once, magazines led the public discussion, but now they trail behind, desperately trying to prove their relevance.
If the smart phone is the new magazine, content providers really need to work on their long-form writing. Blogs are good for quick bursts, but the longer essay has yet to find a comfortable home in the electronic arena. That's where Amazon.com's new line of mini e-books comes in. Amazon describes the Kindle Single as "a compelling idea—well researched, well argued, and well illustrated—expressed at its natural length." Each Single varies from 5,000 to 25,000 words and ranges in price from $1 to $4.
If the first crop of Singles were bound together in one magazine, it would have to be referred to as a general-interest publication, with a mix of fiction, memoir, hard reportage, and character sketches. The pressure on an author to produce a whole book's worth of material can often murder a good topic with narrative flab and pointless wheel-spinning; the open-ended nature of Singles allows them to relieve the author of that pressure.
"Imagine never knowing if your child is alive or dead, if you'll see him again someday or not. Just try it: You'll see, the mind won't accept it," Jonathan Littell writes in The Invisible Enemy ($1.99). "Now," he continues, "imagine the same thing happening to a good number of your neighbors: in your street, one family out of ten, or out of six; in the neighborhood, one out of twenty. Hundreds per county or city. Thousands per state. In the Congo, it has been like that for two years." He investigates the rash of kidnappings and brutal crimes—children with "their skulls smashed in with cudgels... so as to spare ammunition"—that have taken place in the Congo to the notice of absolutely no one in the United States. Littell's incisive storytelling deserves to stand on its own, but the situation is so raw, so fluid, that it would be impossible to commit an entire book to paper before the situation changed again; the long essay is the perfect medium for this story.
Some Singles are more lighthearted. Rich Cohen's The Real Lebowski: The Third Act of Movie Director John Milius ($2.99) reads like an Esquire profile writ large, for good and ill. The subject of the sketch, John Milius, is the controversial screenwriter who created popular conservative-leaning films like Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian, and Dirty Harry (for which he was paid $300,000 and a gun; he spent an afternoon staring at the firearm and then wrote the screenplay, which Cohen calls "a mash note to the gun," in three weeks). Everything about Milius is fascinating—he is the basis for the character of Walter in The Big Lebowski, spawning the (unfortunately inexact) title of the book—but Cohen writes himself into the narrative like a, well, self-indulgent magazine feature writer, wondering if he's spending too much time dwelling on minor side characters, and trying to make himself out to be charismatic when he should step back and leave the spotlight to the great character he's uncovered.
Which is not to say that great things don't come out of making oneself the center of a story. Darin Strauss's Long Island Shaolin ($1.99) is a brief memoir of the author's teenage foray into the world of kung fu. It begins, as most high school stories do, with alienation, and it ends with two grown men in pajamas getting into a fight in the middle of a busy street. Shaolin emphasizes the Singles' mission statement of knowing when to quit; there is exactly enough story here to tell the kind of story that needs to be told, which is a rare gift in a book. Another nonfiction outing, Lifted by Evan Ratliff ($1.99), should have copied Strauss's economy. Lifted tells the story of an extremely well-choreographed heist in Sweden that embarrassed the police and helped paint the nation as a master criminal's paradise. Ratliff has all the facts, but he fails to make the story as compelling as it should be; what could have been a slick caper narrative instead clunks about in dour journalism when it should be charming the reader. A little pulpy true-crime panache would have gone a long way.
Christopher R. Howard's Darkstar ($1.99) is one of Kindle Singles' rare forays into fiction to date. The story of a juvenile delinquent named Sailor who falls hopelessly in love with a woman he barely knows, Darkstar is a Cormac McCarthy–esque literary crime thriller. The ambiguity will leave genre traditionalists pouting, but it's an ambitious debut for the Singles' fiction line. (Of course, Amazon knows when to play it safe, too: Its other major fiction release is a collection of three short stories by schlocky ripped-from-the-headlines weepmaster Jodi Picoult. That one is already on the Kindle best-seller charts.) Howard's novella is one of the best Single outings.
As Amazon expands the line, it should take some notes from smaller publishers. Brand-new press Solid Objects recently published a 51-page fiction titled Master of Miniatures by Jim Shepard ($12) about the making of the first Godzilla film as a response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It combines the best elements of journalism, biography, and fiction, delving into the controversies of the film's creation (Toho executives were nervous about the believability of simply putting a man in a rubber suit to play their monster), the emotional state of Japan at the time (the entire nation was trying to shake off a violent shock, as though staggering from a car wreck), and the sheer weirdness of the plan: "He came up with the idea of an entire 1/25 scale miniature set of the capital, detailed inside as well as out in order to be convincing when trampled. Breakaway walls would reveal entire floors with all of their furnishings when the monster sheared away the outside surfaces."
Bison Books, too, recently released a translation of French novelist René Belletto's novella Coda ($13.95) that would have made a perfect Single. At less than 80 pages (including the introduction by Seattle literary treasure—and Stranger Genius of Literature—Stacey Levine), Coda cuts a wide berth in the reader's mind, beginning with a mysterious package of frozen clams appearing in the narrator's freezer and expanding to include perpetual motion machines, a fancy party, an alluring woman, and murder. Belletto's cockeyed mystery evokes the very best aspects of Haruki Murakami, and the slenderness of the narrative provides a marvelous introduction to a promising talent in a pleasant, unintimidating fashion. Amazon has lately been a great supporter of works in translation—last year, it launched AmazonCrossing, a translation-only imprint, and donated $10,000 to the Best Translated Book Awards—and using the Singles program to introduce a tiny, accessible portion of the mass of quality newly translated work to America seems like a natural fit.
Kindle Singles aren't going to solve the problem of disappearing long-form-essay writing and novella-length fiction on their own. Their editors could learn a thing or two from the old pros—the Scientology exposé published in the New Yorker last month makes all these Singles look weak in comparison, with the way it guilefully leads the reader down a weird, dark path and sprawls everywhere at once (at 25,000 words, it's about half the length of The Great Gatsby) while still being meticulously fact-checked. But they're a welcome addition to the mix, another way to transform your phone into a dense, personalized magazine that stays with you wherever you go. Or sit.