Making the Sausage
My piece about the 1990s was a great success - tons of views, a new personal record for likes, hundreds of comments, almost 900 new mailing list signups, tweeted dozens of times, and shared all over the place, including by Substack. Most importantly, the people who liked it tended to love it, which is always the goal. It was a piece I really enjoyed writing and I’m thrilled that it connected with so many. I’d like to talk a little bit about its reception and what it says about my process. I warn you in advance that this is quite meta and pretentious.
Naturally, some people didn’t like the post. That’s inevitable and healthy, and after fifteen years of writing for a public audience, I’m used to it. I will say upfront that there was a segment of critics who were just wrong. People who think that I only lionized the 1990s because that was a good period for me personally are incorrect. In fact, the 90s was a period of emotional and familial devastation for me, from the beginning to the end, and I would not wish what I experienced then on anyone. What I enjoyed in the 1990s I enjoyed despite the conditions of my life, not because of them.
Otherwise, I’m a little annoyed that much of the negative feedback misunderstood what I was attempting, but that’s also my fault, a product of the choices I made. The typical negative response seems to be some version of “the 90s weren’t better, now is better, this is cringe, he’s looking at this with nostalgia and rose-colored glasses.” And, yes, yes I was. But I wasn’t only or uncomplicatedly doing that. Personally, I think that I embedded enough indicators in the piece to demonstrate that I was aware that I was romanticizing the period, including the title of the piece, to indicate that my perspective was more conflicted than at face value. I suspect that some of these people simply didn’t read more than a paragraph or two, which is common. Still, you can’t publish an essay like the one I did and expect everyone to come along for the ride. Many or most readers grokked that I was attempting, which was simultaneously to permit myself an exercise in romantic nostalgia while knowing that things weren’t as good as all that, and anyway, that all good things must end. But when you put “the 90s were just better” in the first line, you have to live with people assuming that your project is just that simple.
I accept that. I just can’t be trapped by tedious literalism in my writing. I’m a human being. None of my thoughts on anything are settled. Certainly not about the past. I reserve the right to feel two ways about anything and everything. The piece is unrestrained in its nostalgia but also, if you look for it, ambivalent; it romanticizes but acknowledges it’s doing so. You may not find that interesting or worthwhile, and you may not think I pulled it off, but I assure you that my perspective is not simplistic or unconflicted. If you’d like the ponderous, artless, reductive version of the piece that would not have resulted in anyone’s confusion:
I believe that there were many ways in which the 1990s was a more socially healthy and psychically satisfying time, and I’d like to list some here. However, I do acknowledge that I necessarily see that period through rose-tinted glasses, especially given my youth. There are certainly myriad ways in which the present day is better than the 1990s. However, I do strongly believe that the lack of smartphones, constant online connectivity, and social media were better for mental health and social fulfillment, particularly for developing adolescent minds. There are also many aspects of that time period that I prefer for subjective aesthetic reasons. I want to inspire others to think about ways that society may have been better back then, without ignoring the ways things are better now. I want to count the costs of modernity.
You think that one gets to 100,000 views?
A little confusion is a small price to pay to achieve my goals for a given piece. To be specific about things, I’m trying to cultivate negative capability in my work - “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats put it. You could call that pretentious, and you might be right; you could say I fail to inspire that status in my readers, and you may be right. You might also say that the cost to mutual understanding and basic sense for the average reader is too high, that the right place for expressing both a point of view and its opposite is in poetry or fiction or various other kinds of writing, but not in what most people view as an ordinary argumentative nonfiction newsletter. And maybe so. But having done this for more than a third of my life now, I have had to expand my own definition of what this project is and is for. The only way for me to continue to churn it out week after week is to have targets that I want to hit, goals that interest me beyond the typical dictates of explanation and persuasion. I’ve freelanced a lot in my life - this list is maybe a quarter of my total output - and after all that time in the #content salt mines, I can’t just apply my political lens to current events to produce persuasive essays anymore. I can’t do it. The thought of sweating out a conventional take makes me feel exhausted these days. There has to be an angle.
Of course, that political lens matters. There’s no doubt that a big part of what I’m selling here is my perspective. I have a niche, a narrow one but big enough for me - a leftist who maintains a commitment to civil liberties and procedural fairness, and who has serious criticisms of social justice politics, who’s nonetheless not willing to follow many “anti-woke” writers down a rabbit hole that leads inevitably to social conservatism. People want critical analysis of social justice politics that’s fair and accurate and which doesn’t presume a rejection of the basic left project of equality and shared prosperity, and that’s what I (intend to) provide. The financial viability of this newsletter depends in part on filling that particular role for people. Many of you will have already noticed that this is an increasingly unhappy position for me, an overly tight shoe, but it’s my reality.
That said, I feel that the only value proposition I really offer is my writing, the writing itself. The fact of the matter is that anybody could come along and offer the exact same political perspective; it’s a weird lane, but one that could certainly be replicated. What’s not so easily replicated is my writing ability. I have worked very, very hard on my prose for a long time. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. I became a fairly good guitar player, as a young man, but never good enough; I’m bad at almost all athletics and almost preternaturally shitty at team sports; I’m a disaster at most video games; I cook and cook and cook and never get any better; it takes me approximately seven hours to learn any given boardgame; my drawings and handwriting are genuinely indistinguishable from those of a 7-year-old; in the extremely unlikely event that you can get me to dance, kind witnesses will likely ask me if there’s someone they can call to come help me. I’m terribly clumsy even when I’m not on meds, and meds make it even worse. My bike was my primary means of transportation for four years and I still can’t look to my left or right while biking without turning in that direction. And after I got fired from Brooklyn College in 2020 nine months of applications in all kinds of fields got me nothing but a single offer for a $15/hour job. This is all I’ve got.
Luckily, there’s an audience who likes what I do. And they like it, I’m sure, less because of what I express and more because of how I express it. I’m confident that a majority of those who enjoyed the 90s piece didn’t give a second thought to whether the proposition that the 90s were better was true, or think of the piece in political terms at all. They just liked the ride. The second half of the piece has no purpose other than to make people feel a particular way; persuasion has nothing to do with it. People want to be moved by what they read. This is what I’m always telling young writers. You wouldn’t think “if you want to be a writer, be good at writing” would be eye-opening advice, but there’s an allergy to talking about craft in the business that trains aspiring writers to minimize the task itself. I get it; managing personal relationships is so central to career success in this field, it’s hard to think of anything else. But if you can make something beautiful, people will pay you. In an incredibly crowded field and an industry where success is governed by all the worst habits of patronage and popularity, you can put in the work to make something beautiful. This is neither necessary nor sufficient to secure a living - people who can’t write a lick are at the top of the profession, while people with exquisite ability struggle - but people will pay something for beauty, for the expression of craft.
One of the weird things about this business is that it’s filled to the brim with caustic leftist politics, with people who believe that the economy and labor market are not just and that success is largely a matter of privilege and luck. And yet, at the same time, there’s a deeply ingrained sense of grievance about who succeeds and who doesn’t. People are perpetually enraged that Glenn Greenwald or Bari Weiss or whoever else is financially successful; “why is Person I Like struggling while Person I Don’t Like raking it in?” But such questions are a rejection of those very anti-capitalist politics. If you believe that capitalism is a hellscape and that economic reward does not accrue to virtue, then you should stop demanding that your own industry produce a perfect alignment between who you admire and who is rewarded. When I was published by the New York Times again awhile back, a lot of people rent their garments; when my second book is published this fall, I expect the same. But you said it yourself about capitalism - it’s Chinatown. If you can’t separate your perception of who’s good at this from who you like in a personal sense, at least accept that career success has little to do with deserves. A publishing house came to the conclusion that they can make money selling a book I wrote, and they will be proven right or wrong by the market.
For me, the question is to what degree I can continue to pursue my idiosyncratic interests while still sufficiently satisfying the expectations of my readers. I think the balance I have right now is pretty good. It’s eminently clear that I could make significantly more money if I really dove into culture war full-time, but I make a comfortable living and I have no interest in doing so. For now I hope that I can still entertain people with, say, writing about losing my virginity or a post-apocalyptic tale about my cat while holding down enough of the conventional politics and culture writing to stay relevant to others. And I hope I keep getting better. In the long run, who knows. Maybe someday I’ll just write books. But the privilege to be able to do that is a long way away for now.
Of course, everyone gets to vote with their feet, and a lot of people don’t like my writing. Which is cool, and also they can go to hell.