This Stack is off schedule—only the shortest of my forthcoming pieces is out, and I intended to wait until at least two of the longer ones were published before Stacking again—but I felt too much of a burning desire to write (on Substack, no less!) about how much I hate Substack to wait patiently. You’ll have to bear with me as this irregular newsletter becomes more and more regular and less and less of a newsletter—that is, as it transmutes more and more into a forum for ranting about things I’m not especially qualified to rant about. (More on how this is the essence of Substack momentarily.)
My single new piece is a 500-word (so, very short) review of Lauren Oyler’s novel, Fake Accounts: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/savage-aper-us-fake-accounts-by-lauren-oyler-reviewed
I’m sorry to say it didn’t entirely land for me. Writing and publishing this made me nervous—rationally? I can’t say—in part because I so often agree with Oyler (Rooney: bad; “Cat Person”: bad; Weather: overrated) that I wondered whether it was sporting it to critique someone I think is so often on “the right side.” I am very charmed by everything in this interview, for instance. But I felt it was in the spirit of what I like about Oyler’s criticism to be honest about her novel. My review is quite short, so I’d recommend reading some of the longer pieces about it also. Two excellent essays I especially enjoyed: this one in The Nation, and this one in the New Left Review. (This isn’t to say I agree with both of them: they aren’t consistent with one another, so I could scarcely agree with everything in each.)
Now, on to hating Substack. While procrastinating and clicking around online today, as one does, I happened to glimpse a dispute about the value of journalism/writing on Substack. One party to the dispute thinks Substack is eroding the traditional norms of journalism and that this is a bad thing; the other thinks that the traditional norms of journalism weren’t worth much anyway and that Substack and other platforms like it are a possible solution.
I agree that many of the norms of traditional journalism/prestige media are bad. In particular, I agree that prestige media is ideologically and socio-economically homogenous, much to its detriment. The widespread dismissal of attempts to communicate with those beyond bounds of the clerisy is disgraceful. (I especially hate the term “bothsidesism,” with its patronizing implication that the accuser can be so certain her own side is right that she doesn’t needn’t even make any effort to understand or speak the language of the other side.) The same might be said of academia, which continues its death spiral into total insularity.
But I also think the other party to the dispute has a point: for all their flaws, magazines with money have editors and fact-checkers, both of which prevent people from spewing nonsense online the way I’m doing right now. I’ve been shocked by how many of my non-writer acquaintances seem to misunderstand how serious and rigorous the fact-checking process is at most major outlets. Of course, fact-checking will not eliminate ideological biases that drive a magazine to cover one topic and not another (“how could the magazine support X thing I do not support in the op ed pages if it had good fact-checkers?” the acquaintances cry), nor will it affect the content of an op ed (obviously), nor will it always succeed in exposing reporters who are particularly ingenious at deceit (like the ones who bribe sources to lie). But it will avert a lot of errors a lot of the time. I’ve worked as a fact-checker, and, though my bookish pieces do not contain as many facts as more heavily reported pieces, I have been fact-checked—and I can tell you that fact-checking basically involves re-reporting a story and has saved even my relatively fact-less pieces from falling into grave errors many times. (Something I wish were more widely known among non-writers is this: Most books are not fact-checked, and if they are fact-checked, it’s often at the expense of the author but not the publishing house! In general, a piece in The New Yorker is much more reliable than a journalistic book put out by a major publisher.)
But more importantly, what a lot of people engaged in arguments about media don’t say—and what I find it very perplexing that a lot of leftist vigilante Greenwald types omit when they retreat to the wilds of Substack—is that Substack is the problem. That is: the problem is that there are not robust employment protections for people working as writers. So, okay, it’s not quite right to say “Substack is the problem”; it’s right to say that Substack is symptomatic of a prior problem that it in turn perpetuates.
One of the reasons that media is ideologically homogenous is that there are no employment protections for writers! (Obviously, the fact that writing pays so poorly also means that, as a general rule, only people from a certain class can afford to weather the profession’s pecuniary humiliations.) It wouldn’t matter if the elitist blue check crowd made fun of you for having an outré opinion if you couldn’t get fired because of it. (Well, maybe it would matter to some extent: cyberbullying/harassment are bad and have real psychological effects, and cyberbullies/harassers are making an intellectual and moral mistake that also eats away at the “intellectual climate.” But it wouldn’t matter nearly as much, is the point.) The de facto dictatorship of the bosses is bad for many reasons, but, as Elizabeth Anderson has argued, it’s bad in part because it poses a threat to freedom of speech. I recognize that a speech is never (and should never be) wholly free: even the most open-minded venues will justifiably penalize writers for speech of certain kinds, among them aesthetically impoverished speech or flagrantly offensive speech. I’m not advocating for unregulated speech, and I know as well as anyone else who’s read a book about political philosophy that no one is entitled to write for a magazine: magazines routinely reject writers they think are offensive or bad at writing, and this is as it should be. But you certainly are entitled to know in advance what counts as a fireable offense in your workplace, and you are probably also entitled to say some range of things that piss people off on the internet while remaining employed. And if your contract specified what counted as restricted speech in your workplace, “a Twitter mob reacted badly to that thing you said but that you could not have reasonably predicted would incite ire and/or are entitled to express regardless of the ire it ends up inciting” would not pass for just cause.
Admittedly, Substack is not really the reason there are poor employment protections for writers (and everyone). But the more writers who take to Substack, the more and more the industry is gig-if-ied, Uber-ized, Door-Dashified, etc, etc. Which is why the solution is not fleeing to Substack: it is either holding existing institutions to account, or getting serious about creating better counter-institutions. (Or, less practically, the solution is instantiating the kind of society in which it’s not a virtual death sentence if you lose your job. I hate to be one of these socialism-is-the-answer-to-every-question people but socialism is definitely the answer to this question. I quite like Oscar Wilde’s discussion of the importance of socialism for artistic freedom here.) If you have a problem with the way legacy media works now—and there are plenty of problems to have—the solution is not to abolish it and give everyone a Substack (she writes on Substack) but to fix it. Obviously, I’m not blaming individual people for having Substacks (she writes on Substack), since doing so is a matter of financial necessity for many and self-promotion is all but unavoidable in the grim and gutted literary economy as it stands. I suppose I am sort of blaming big names/writerly celebrity types who are in a position to demand more of their institutions for slinking off to Substack instead. The rest of us would be best served by working towards institutional reform/reinvention, which involves acknowledging that Substack and other platforms like it are not a viable solution.
On that note, and in the interest of “creating space” (ghastly locution) for intellectual life outside of the usual institutions: I wondered if anyone would be interested in some kind of reading group/book discussion group. (I hate the term “book club” too much to employ it here, though it isn’t not what I mean.) I’m inspired in this by the Man Without Qualities Slack that a couple of people I admire started up recently, but I’m intimidated by the hugeness of that group. (I’m comfortable sending my thoughts to 500+ people on Substack but not to 150 in a Slack? In a word, yes, because the former is more like writing and the latter is more like talking, and as everyone knows, talking is a paralyzing ordeal.) I’d likely cap a reading group, if anyone is interested in one, at 10-15. I’d be open to reading plenty of things—super long books that might be hard to finish alone (A Dance to the Music of Time is one I’ve wanted to attempt for a while), difficult ones (Bottom’s Dream?), classics we want to re-visit, or even works of theory or philosophy. If this is of any interest, let me know!
And if you have any good ideas about how one would go about establishing formidable intellectual counter-institutions, please also let me know! (Justin Smith has a great post about this on—hahahahaha—his Substack, although his is more specifically about the decline of academic humanities. He gets to these topics in the last section, but the post is very worth reading in full: https://justinehsmith.substack.com/p/what-are-the-humanities.)