Everything Gawker Existed to Satirize Has Been Destroyed
there is no there there to make fun of anymore
Frequently readers want me to skewer somebody or something, and while I occasionally oblige they usually come away disappointed. You have to be organically motivated to write in anger or the whole thing seems contrived. A couple people have expected me to have some sort of withering thing to say about New Gawker, but I really don’t. Any new digital media publication is essentially a make-work job for people with too little discipline about oversharing and too much student loan debt, and if New Gawker gives people one more outlet to barely make a living by I’m for it. I want people to have the ability to get paid doing this. If Bryan Goldberg wants to subsidize the life of some more people who are willing to make not-very-much money for a lot of work, good. I’m not going to read it, but I’m pretty sure I’m not their target audience, anyway. Is there a feeling of “Freddie Prinze Jr. in the Punky Brewster Reboot” to the whole thing? Sure. But that’s no crime. No digital publication, including this one, has any inherent reason for being.
I imagine that the people who write for New Gawker will be the first to tell you that the Gawker moment is gone and can’t be recaptured. There was a time when a whole caste of young aspiring wannabes saw doing shitty blow in Nick Denton’s bathroom with other cool people as the pinnacle of what they wanted. Writing has always appealed as a career to those with outsized social aspirations, especially to a certain kind of bookish sort who wasn’t exactly unpopular in high school but was definitely relegated to the background. Such people often view college as a coming out party, and the post-collegiate life of a sexy young vaguely-literary professional in New York City seems profoundly romantic, particularly before you have to start paying the rent. I don’t find it particularly damning to suggest that such people had far greater social ambitions than professional or artistic ones. Well, it’s not just that Nick Denton is doing the aging NYC married gay guy Buddha thing now. (Which, let me tell you, seems like a lovely life.) Nor that Goldberg is so existentially doofy that I can’t imagine any social group coalescing around him for anything more wild than a night of Settlers of Cataan. It’s that I can’t name anyone who could credibly take Denton’s place. Writers and editors and publishers still socialize, but even prior to Covid it seems that the concept of a scene had gradually disintegrated as people in the same industry drifted out into so many little circles that there was no more center of gravity.
The thing is that New York City media isn’t just in New York City anymore. I have no idea if the New Gawker crew is required/will be required to be in house, but in the industry in which it is being reborn there’s almost no mandates against working remotely at all. How could these publications tell people they have to be in-office anymore, after the past year and change? The basic economics of digital media have not improved, to say the least, in the past five years. And though I have no data to prove this, I suspect the median age of people trying to make it by writing for digital outlets has trended up over time; perhaps the young striving types have finally been scared off by Brooklyn rents and a hundred thinkpieces about how writers can’t make a living the days. Many of those who have remained are now firmly in the writing-tweets-about-changing-diapers stage of their lives, and quite a few of them have decamped for Little Rock or Columbus OH or wherever else they can talk themselves into, places where the $55K/year seasoned writers can earn in the biz stretches a little further. (I will follow them in the next year or two, inshallah.) So in a basic sense I think there’s simply hasn’t been the same density of media people socializing for there to be the kind of scene that was so essential to what Gawker was. I suppose some people will object to my focusing on this element but I find it really hard to deny that Gawker was not just a publication but also a group of people who frequently got together to get drunk and make fun of you, yes you personally.
Besides, testing your coke for fentanyl before you snort it probably takes some of that magic away.
But the broader thing is that New Gawker couldn’t do what old Gawker did because everything old Gawker hated is gone. Gawker was, gleefully and often brilliantly, an anti-ideology. It was what it hated. And what Gawker hated is mostly all gone. Principal among them is glamorous, elite magazine and newspaper culture. It’s difficult to even remember this now, but Gawker’s original edge, back in the Elizabeth Spiers era, came from resentment at the money and privilege and (minor) celebrity that could be found in publishing and media - Tina Brown and Conde Nast and Graydon Carter and celebrity profiles and cushy gigs and expense accounts. Similarly, the publishing world which was intermingled with the media one had big-shot publishers and breathless profiles of hot young authors and three-martini lunches at Nobu. Spiers and those that followed her made great hay from mocking the people involved because those people really were enjoying immense material and social reward for having ascended in that world.
And in the most basic and direct terms, this world simply does not exist anymore. There are still overpaid people at Conde Nast, there are those who are lucky enough to get expense accounts (although I promise they’re not just handed a black card anymore), there’s excess and a few inflated advances in publishing, sure. But as it did in music, the internet opened a big fat hole in those industries:
Those might not look that bad as they are more or less flat, but of course inflation exists, overhead costs go up, personnel costs go up. In light of that these numbers go from anemic to downright ugly. The failure of digital publishing revenues to replace what has been lost in print has been the same old story for 15 years. (As many have pointed out, the effectively-infinite supply of digital ad space inevitably drives the value of that space further and further down.) And trade presses growing by .4% in five years should send a shiver up your spine if your intention is to one day make your living as a writer of books. Here are two numbers that I have shared before, and which I insist that you young folk take very seriously: advances for books have dropped 40% in ten years, and in 2020, 98% of books sold less than 5,000 copies. The median advance is barely more than $6,000 now, and you are unlikely to earn out even that amount. So you’re going to labor for years over a book that you probably can’t sell and if you do sell it you probably won’t get paid much more than three months rent and it probably won’t earn out even that meager advance. Any way you slice it, if you write a book and get it professionally published you are almost certainly making a small fraction of federal minimum wage. Are you sure you want to do this?
I was thrilled to get a $75,000 advance for my first book in 2018. I thought that was a huge number, and in some sense it still is. I’m certainly very grateful for it. But in 1973 a then-unknown Stephen King’s novel Carrie earned a $400,000 advance for the paperback rights, which represented almost $2.5 million in today’s dollars. The number of people receiving such payouts now is tiny, and the number of them who are authors first and not preexisting celebrities is itself a tiny portion of that tiny number. The media that once covered the literati is essentially gone, the loose money in the industry has dried up, the magazines where authors could slum it by writing 1,200 words for five-figure payouts now employ 22-year-olds for poverty wages instead…. A conventional take on what Gawker represented was “the rage of the creative underclass.” But that rage has to be inspired by a creative overclass. In the last half-decade or so of Gawker’s existence, people would point out that Gawker had itself become the creative overclass. Now, there simply is no such overclass.
There’s still literary pretension. But, as I said recently, generations of writers who came up in the culture that spawned Gawker have been trained to see literary ambition as inherently ridiculous, and spend most of their books mocking the fact that they were so arrogant as to write one.
Gawker became more and more of a generalist publication in its last years. It had to; there was no way Denton could match the scale of his ambitions, or even maintain the size of the operation he had grown, without getting into the same clickfarming game as anyone else. But even then, Gawker posed itself as existentially distinct from the broader culture. It’s whole reason for being was oppositional, after all. And to me this is the bigger point, aside from the laughable financial state of media and publishing: there is no center of culture anymore, and thus few attractive targets for such an inherently mean publication.
Take the hipster. Gawker emerged in the early/mid 2000s, the height of hipsterdom. And while they never spent nearly as much time as Vice did in mocking hipsters, there was still very much a sense in which Gawker was operating in the shadow of a “counterculture” that many people saw as self-parodic and absurd. What few of us realized then was that the hipster was not just a sad turn in the history of the American counterculture, but its last gasp, at least for now. The internet has distributed culture so broadly and in such rapidly-specializing places that there is no sense of normal against which one can position themselves. People still nominate places like Ridgewood as “the new Williamsburg,” but nobody honestly thinks they’re the same thing. And so a publication like Gawker, which existed not only to denounce the elite but also to mock all of the attempts people made to live in defiance of that elite, would seem not to have a clear locus of where to make fun of. You can disappear into the internet’s various rabbit holes and mock, like, people on a Discord devoted to the podcast Call Her Daddy. But is anyone going to mistake that for a worthy adversary? Who carries such cultural force and monetary privilege in today’s culture that they are worthy of being mocked by a publication that was the singular obsession of our media class for a decade? All of that has been distributed now. The energy that went into the things Gawker used to make fun of is in, like, Tik Tok. And such networks are so immensely distributed, trying to make out single targets in them is like trying to swat a single bee in a swarm.
Somebody asked me if I was worried that New Gawker would make fun of me. I said no. I don’t really see that I’m widely read enough/important enough that they would bother. This just isn’t a very high-profile newsletter. Old Gawker made fun of me, but it was literally on a list of 50 writers and I’m guessing they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. I do think though that this is the bigger issue, right - who is a big enough deal to make fun of? Who occupies the kind of position that old Gawker once made such hay of ridiculing? Julia Allison and Luke Russert weren’t objectively big deals back when Gawker obsessed about them, but they were symbols of larger worlds that, to my lights, no longer really exist. The distributed media landscape of today means that there are fewer places worth keeping an eye on and thus fewer avatars of the mediocrity and pretense that old Gawker took so personally. I guess if you work for the New York Times you should be ready to get made fun of. I’m sure they’ll come for Chapo Trap House and Buzzfeed. But really, when you look out at this world were in, with all of these tiny fiefdoms like mine, increasingly paid for by committed but small audiences, where people do occasionally write about each other’s stuff but where the wars are fought on Twitter, it’s hard not to wonder… is any of it worthy of mocking?
But I do wish them well. Because eventually even Bryan Goldberg’s well will run dry.
You know, if you don't like the topic of a post I write, just wait one day! and there will be an entirely different topic.
I do have some comments on being a writer that have relevance here. I do understand what you are talking about, none of it is inaccurate. it is just incomplete. I have wanted to be a writer since i was a teenager (50 years ago). luckily, by the time i was 21 i realized i had nothing to say and decided to wait awhile. i began to write in earnest when i was 38 and yes, most of it was terrible. nevertheless my first book came out in january 1996; it still earns me around $3000 a year. few of my 23 books have gone out of print or failed to earn back their advance. Only three of them in fact. I decided at the beginning that i wanted to make my living as a writer. to do that i realized i would have to publish a book a year for ten years. There are a great many people clamoring for attention, most of them want to write a book. it takes sustained effort to gain any attention when there are so many voices trying to get it.
Like far too many writers, esp of my era, i was enamored of the NY literary world. But as one world class editor told me long ago, there is no NY in NY any longer. it is just a corporate jungle; they could be selling toilets or tobacco, they don't really care; they just want the money. Yes, you can get large advances (and yes i went there once and got 50k for a two book deal, worst experience of my life) but except for the huge sellers or the prestige market, they don't care about their writers. Midlist writers, which most writers are, are not welcome. they don't make enough money for them. (They are the world of the blockbuster, not books that matter.) The magazine market is even worse. the competition is fierce for far too little money. I realized that long ago and took my ball and went home. They call me every so often and offer a thousand dollars or so for a piece and i generally say yes. but i never ask them.
Further, too much experience has shown me that editors at magazines are the worst editors in the world to work with. they pretty much have to urinate in every writer's work and stir it around with their pencil before they like the smell enough to print it. Usually this means removing every particle of my unique voice and style. Truthfully, i generally had to do more editing work on a 3000 word magazine piece than a 100,000 word book. it really isn't worth it. So, i took my work to the large, independent, small presses. THAT is where writers should go. They are the equivalent of the pulp magazines of the early to mid part of the twentieth century. it is where you get paid for learning your craft. There are a million words of bullshit in every writer, the only way to get them out (and out of the way) is to write them out. Out of quantity comes quality, eventually. I have had, to date, three best sellers (over 100,000 copies) and many award winners. By my sixth book i was making a living from my royalties.
The trick to it was: find a niche that is undeveloped, write the shit out of it, have something unique and essential to say (that is, don't copy all the other writers), keep saying it more elegantly with each book while at the same time never repeating what you have previously done, have all the books connected to an overarching theme, travel all over the place giving talks and workshops on the books (this does NOT mean bookstore signings, they are a waste of time), and write write write. After awhile i gave up asking for any advances. by doing so i got the money from sales nearly immediately and the publishers loved doing it that way. in the beginning, at the moment of greatest excitement on the publishers part (that is, right before the book came out) i sent them another proposal, which they always accepted. Publishers and editors are always seeking breakthrough books, they hunger for it. this can be leveraged as any hunger can. and for sure, always, always treat the profession like a business. The publishers and editors are not your friends, they are in business and they like you as long as you treat it as a business and make them money.
My work has primarily been nonfiction; with one caveat it is the easiest to sell to both publishers and the public. There are very few nonfiction books that contain luminous prose, so that is the kind of writing i used and the kind i love anyway. it offered something that most nonfiction books don't have. Into that form i included by poetry and memoir stories and fictional pieces as well. I make a very good living at it. But I didn't get here by going through NY. Their final determination was that my work would never sell, no one cared. I think about that every time i deposit a 40k royalty check from one of my publishers. (I have 6 I have worked with; they all still pay me, twice a year, each and every year.)
The one caveat for fiction writers? Amazon. Many of the best sellers on amazon have not gone through NY but have self published. They make a LOT of money. hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The truth is, the publishing world has changed. NY is dead for most writers but people still want to read and they want to read, for the most part, something other than the NPR voice, manhattan literary style of writing. Most people hate it and the snotty voice that goes with it. They just want to read a good story, to be entertained, to be talked to like a human being. Anyone who does this and really focused on it can make a good living at it. you just have to be outside the old box.
The world does not need any more MFA graduates who sound like all the other MFA graduates. As Elif Batuman once put it, never have so many books been written so well that no one in their right mind would want to read. Or as judy garland put it, be yourself, all the other positions are already taken.