On Tuesday, February 19, I spearheaded the release of the fourth issue of CARTEL, the e-magazine I started in the spring of 2012. This issue, which is easily the best I’ve helped produce, features 66 pages of all-new writing by serious pros: Neal Pollack, who’s written no fewer than seven books, including Alternadad and The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature; Justin Halpern, whose first book, Sh*t My Dad Says, rocketed to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list; Ibi Kaslik, whose own debut, Skinny, also spent some time on that list; and Jonathan Eig, who has had no fewer than three books land there.
In all, the creation of CARTEL IV involved nine writers, two illustrators, one photographer, and one graphic designer. We also employed a freelance web designer for help on the magazine’s web page.
As I write the first draft of what you’re reading now, it is Friday, February 22. It has been three days since CARTEL IV’s release. In that time, the writers and collaborators have Tweeted aggressively to an audience that comprises approximately 60,000 followers (Halpern and another CARTEL contributor, Renee Paquette, each have 20,000 followers), they’ve painted the walls of Facebook with all manner of posts, including pictures, links, and guilt-trips, and they’ve sent emails to friends, family, and long-lost high school English teachers.
It is possible that you read the above number and thought, Eh, that’s not so bad.
You’d be wrong.
That number is bad. Awful, terrible, abysmal. There are 13 of us involved with CARTEL IV. That number means that each of us has been responsible for slightly more than three (3!) buys.
We exhausted ourselves creating a product that is almost inarguably “good” and, according to our understanding of economics, worth paying for. (A subscription to CARTEL costs $13. One issue is $4.99.)
We’ve learned that our potential audience does not agree with our assertion that CARTEL is worth the cost of a Big Mac Meal, likely because our potential audience knows that it can get plenty of content on the Internet for free. It doesn’t care how that content came into being, or whether that content is marginally worse than content up for sale.
And this could be the harbinger of doom for all of human culture.
I’m being hyperbolic, you say? Perhaps. But read on.
As I write what you’re reading, this “piece” on Buzzfeed is circulating the Internet. In it, the “author” aggregates 38 “Maps You Never Knew You Needed.”
If you examine the list carefully, you’ll notice that number 20 was concocted by my brother, Matt. If I hadn’t told you this, the only way you would know that Matt made the map was if you read the small notation that Matt, wisely, threw onto the map itself. Otherwise, the Buzzfeed post gives no credit to my brother and, in fact, links to the wrong site (the map originally appeared here, on FlipCollective).
I would estimate that the “author” of the Buzzfeed piece – whose name is Tanner Ringerud and who, I’m sure, is a better human than his choice of employer would indicate – spent around two hours searching “cool+maps” before he burgled a bunch of content and posted that content to Buzzfeed.
Contrast this with CARTEL IV, on which I, alone, spent, oh, 200 hours: communicating with writers, arranging editing schedules, haranguing writers, helping with web design, cajoling writers, overseeing photo shoots, coercing writers, and, well, writing myself. (I wrote about how post-Born In The USA-Bruce Springsteen is terrible.)
And that’s just me. Every contributor to CARTEL worked tirelessly to build something they could be proud of.
The Buzzfeed post: 536,000 Total Views.
CARTEL IV: 46 buys.
Obviously, I’m comparing apples with crab apples. The Buzzfeed page is free, and CARTEL is not.
More important, there’s an obvious response to all my bellyaching:
“How about you get with the times, bro?”
Because, yeah, it’s pretty clear that the wave of the future is the visual and the quick-hitting; that web users want content that’s easy to look at and easier to process. In fact, if you survey this very page, you’ll notice that the most popular posts are not entirely dissimilar to the Buzzfeed post; they’re collections of pictures to which that same brother of mine added captions. (I do believe, though, that one could argue that the real art in those posts is in those captions, but that’s not the point of this argument.)
CARTEL is not quick-hitting. Nor is it all that easy to process. It is thoughtful and funny and it is jam-packed with heartfelt pieces of writing that were edited and perseverated upon and generally worried to death for about six weeks, which is exactly what anything worth a shit ought to be.
It is also, by today’s standards, hard: it involves reading real words, and thinking about whether Neal Pollack is right about hipster bacon being no different from the bacon at Subway, or it involves empathizing with Ibi Kaslik, whose father’s life is being devastated by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or it involves considering the validity of Jenny Bahn’s hypothesis that social media is killing us all.
And so, probably, that oh-so-reductive response – that I need to get with the times – is correct.
Unless it’s not.
Five times a week, I eat a spinach salad for breakfast. I rather like the spinach salads I make, which often feature auxiliary items like blackberries, Feta cheese, and almonds. I do not, however, like these salads as much as I like Skittles. But I do not eat Skittles for breakfast because I know that eating Skittles for breakfast would result, probably, in type II diabetes, and, certainly, some cock-eyed looks from my girlfriend.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. You wouldn’t tell your favorite vegetable farmer that he should “get with the times, bro.” You, like me, have probably realized that you need to eat a leafy green once in a while. This might go against your basest desires, but at some point you realized that, whoa, I feel a helluvalot better all day because I ate that spinach or that kale or that Romaine lettuce, which means that what I gave up in immediate satisfaction I more than made up in long-term happiness.
Reading is a little like this, too. Sure, it’s easy to look at lists and memes and cartoons and Bests Of. And sure, they’re fun, for a little while, and in moderation – there’s nothing wrong with a package of Skittles, when you’re at the movies or as a reward for a long hike.
But if your diet is Skittles, and Skittles only, well, good luck with feeling like you got hit by a garbage truck every day.
Our collective cultural descent, away from the long and thoughtful and toward the brief and thoughtless, is not a positive development. Humans need art, and they need that art to be worthwhile. Worthwhile art stimulates our brains, it draws us closer to one another, it makes this cosmic tilt-a-whirl we call life a little more bearable than it otherwise would be, because we come to realize that others have struggled with that with which we grapple, because we understand ourselves a little better, because we recall that humans can produce great beauty.
And the only way to encourage the further development of that worthwhile art is to pay its creators, just like the only way to make sure a vegetable farmer keeps producing spinach is to buy spinach from him.
That doesn’t mean that if you don’t buy CARTEL*, human culture is doomed.
It does mean that if your only source of “reading” material is aggregating sinkholes like Buzzfeed whose only real contribution to cultural progress is that they are becoming really, really good at taking the work of others and passing it off as their own, we could be in trouble.
*Or, as it has been renamed: “9 Pieces of Writing You Never Knew You Needed to Read.”
In the off chance that you’d like to support the salvation of humanity here’s a tease of CARTEL IV. (You can buy a single issue or subscribe to the magazine here.)
If you enjoyed this piece, support FlipCollective by subscribing to C A R T E L, which features all-new writing by folks like Neal Pollack, Justin Halpern, and Paul Shirley.
For more from Paul…