The problem with platform

You're probably getting too many newsletters. Here's why. I'm sorry to send you another one.

This past February, I was a guest on the CBC show Tapestry, which I’ve appeared on before. The CBC is Canada’s equivalent of NPR, and Tapestry is their weekly show about faith and religion (NPR, for the record, doesn’t have an equivalent show; On Being, which some NPR stations syndicate, is not produced by NPR). They reached out to me because of an essay I wrote for America magazine about Julian of Norwich and mysticism in the pandemic. Mary Hynes is a great interviewer, and we had a great conversation. A few days later a producer reached out to me and we recorded a little additional background info. I used to do a fair amount of public speaking before the pandemic, but I still have problems with nervousness and stage fright doing podcast and radio appearances. However, Mary and the producers made it a really enjoyable experience. I did it, figured it went fine, and moved on.

When the show aired, I got some lovely emails from listeners. One of the things I talked about was the fact that Julian’s work resonates for me as a person who dealt with a chronic illness for a long time, since she writes about suffering and redemption and pain, and since we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, many people are sharing the same experiences of pain and isolation those of us with chronic illnesses have also dealt with.

In spite of the fact that I’m an essayist and nonfiction writer, I don’t talk or write a lot about my health, mental or physical. I see writers sharing about these issues on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and in essays and memoirs, but part of me is just very protective of some things about my life, including family, friends, and body/mind stuff. Nonetheless, I do write about women and body/mind issues in my forthcoming book, so I opened up a bit more than usual on the show, which gave me what I’ve heard referred to as a “vulnerability hangover." But several listeners reassured me that my story helped them better understand Julian and how they were also feeling in the pandemic, so I figured it was worth it.

Then an email arrived from a listener who noted that throughout the interview, I had mispronounced Norwich, the city where Julian lived. This listener also informed me that if I wanted “to put myself out there as an expert” on Julian, I shouldn’t do so until I had spent time in Norwich, not only because I had mispronounced it (in my nervous jitters I said NorWich and it is pronounced NorRich, but nobody corrected me on the show because they are Canadian and very polite), but because I had misdescribed its physical size. This listener also told me that until I visited England, I could never really understand English mysticism.

So. I have never been to England. I went to Europe once in high school for a study abroad month (Spain) which my parents had to borrow from my grandparents to send me on. After that, I didn’t go back to Europe for two decades (Italy), until I was 40, at which point I also had to borrow money to fund that trip. As a nontenured lecturer, my salary isn’t very high, the Bay Area is phenomenally expensive, and freelance writing averages me only a few thousand dollars a year in additional income, if that. The idea that I could only understand Julian’s life if I went to England puzzles me as well, since I would in fact have to travel to Medieval England, and even Elon Musk can’t do that.

I am a person of limited financial means. My parents weren’t poor, but we certainly were lower-middle or middle class; we had years when we got food stamps, all of my clothes were hand-me-downs, and scholarships put me through college and grad school. Today, I don’t own my home, and only finished paying off student loans in my 40s. But I’m still better off than most writers because I teach full time and get benefits, so it’s never felt like a comfortable thing to start a Patreon or ask you to pay for this very sporadic newsletter. Part of my moral and ethical framework for life in general is that nobody really needs to be rich, and if you have more money than you need, you should probably give it away to someone who doesn’t.

The problem is, with regard to writing, resources are very scarce. The pandemic has only exacerbated what was already a very tight freelance market. There are almost no staff jobs left at newspapers or magazines due to shrinking revenue. It’s hard to get a literary agent if you want to sell a book (shout out to my agent who is an absolute angel), and if you do sell a book, advances have been shrinking for a while. So you don’t make a living from writing unless you’re in the upper echelons of best-sellers and, these days, that includes a lot people with big social media platforms.

So these newsletters you keep getting? They’re a workaround. You can get paid without having to pitch or work with an editor. Some people are making quite a lot of money from them. According to this article, Substack is offering some people with big platforms between 100 and 400K to write newsletters. Unlike a magazine or newspaper, these newsletters do not have editors, fact-checkers, proofreaders. They are mostly ways for us to share whatever we’re thinking about. Some of them are researched and some are data driven (I’ve really appreciated Robin Lloyd’s excellent Covid newsletter, for example). Some are more like blogs. And some of those newsletters are making their creators a good chunk of money. But they’re all in competition with one another for a sliver of your battered attention span.

In the past, writing had the same meritocratic mythology that America was built on. Work hard, and you’ll eventually find success, right? Except that you had to get into the right MFA programs, work with the right teachers, and if you had any hope of an internship at a magazine, it wouldn’t hurt to have attended an Ivy League school (just Google the editors at The New Yorker or The Atlantic sometime). You might be the hardest working writer, the most self-sacrificing, the most altruistic, and even the most talented, but this is not a guarantee of anything.

Hustle is something I have always associated with the Bay Area’s hip hop culture, where rappers might scramble to put a demo tape together and then sell it out of the trunks of their cars at the flea market. That’s the same DIY spirit that fueled the punk movement, another huge influence on my ethics of creativity. You make things because you want to share with people, and you do whatever you can to share those things. But when resources get scarce, you get pitted against other people, and that’s when creative communities go sour, and people start thinking mostly about themselves.

These days, being a successful writer is not necessarily about talent or craft. It’s about hustle and about platform. You’ve got to be constantly pitching, constantly building relationships with editors (who are constantly getting laid off), and constantly performing a writer self on social media: talking up your work, linking to it, talking about linking to it. It’s exhausting, demoralizing, and poorly remunerated. And the people who build the biggest platforms, the ones that enable them to get those fat Substack deals are great at social media, usually: not shy about self-revelation, often willing to say things loudly, to be outrageous and to always have a take ready to go.

Growing up without a lot of money leaves you with a pretty big chip on your shoulder, which is probably pretty clear by now. In my ideal version of how these things work, writers would just get to write, and not have to perform and hustle. But you can’t do that without money. Woolf’s room of her own was in reach for Woolf because she was upper middle class. It is not in reach to women writers who have to single parent, work full-time, take care of their elders, or who didn’t have the grades to get into the kind of schools that gave them a leg up. And platform isn’t in reach to most of us either. Nor do all of us want to constantly be revealing ourselves. Not all of us can spend all day online. Not all of us even want to do those things, and when we do them, we can be left feeling hollowed out and morally compromised.

I was depressed about that email calling me out on mispronouncing Norwich for a disproportionate amount of time. When I decided to be a writer, or when it was revealed I sucked at almost everything else, I never imagined that it would mean I’d put myself out there to share my work and be slapped back down again, back into my proper place on the echelon as someone who can’t afford European vacations very often. Women are told we need to be more ambitious, to put ourselves out there, and when we do, we get told to stop doing it every single time.

But if I don’t have a newsletter or Twitter or Instagram, publishers won’t want to work with me. So you see the bind. The Substack idea should be about democracy, about writers breaking out of the horrible freelance market and into an independent model of conversation with readers. What happened instead is that money got involved like it always does, and it became a platform for the few, rather than the many. So I don’t use it much, because like you, I have more than enough to read.

But maybe you needed some context for what it’s like to be a writer right now. We need your attention, and money, and time. And maybe there is somewhere out there a better, more collaborative model for this, one that is a truly equitable platform. Until it emerges, however, I do encourage you to seek out lesser known, lesser platformed, lesser privileged voices whenever you can. They always have something interesting to say.

Also, don’t send shitty emails to writers.

And I will never charge for a newsletter or Patreon, but, you know, buy my forthcoming book (cringe face).