To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
– T S Eliot, ‘East Coker’
In the last few months, in one of my vain attempts to use the internet better, I tried signing up to some of those newsletters, the ones where an individual writer sends their articles direct to your inbox. The idea was that I would read more and spend less time scrolling through social media.
I do not read them. Whether it is a cause or an effect, I have never paid for any of the ‘extra’ content. I do not think this is because of my attention span, either. The ones I sign up for, thinking I will get something out of, are often very long and wordy, and I find reading anything long on a laptop or a phone difficult: we are in the realm of distraction. Something else is just a click away. .
Then there is the fact that the kind of thing I keep signing up for, writing about culture or ideas or whatever, really does, it turns out, need an editor. This is a sad thing to learn for someone writing a blog, but one person’s interests, especially on anything vaguely complex, are not enough – and, to be frank, should not be enough – to sustain the attention of an audience of other individuals, even if they find that person particularly interesting.1
It is not just the quantity. When anything first gets written, and especially about something complex, the first draft is effectively the writer talking to themselves. You leave all kinds of things unsaid and assume knowledge on the reader’s part you shouldn’t. This is inevitable: the reader is a little repressive dictator (“why are you saying this, why aren’t you saying that”) and you have to think about them as little as possible just to get the thing out.
Without editors as intermediaries all writing risks being a kind of droning on, all talk and no ears. I think this is why a lot of people who could write, don’t. Not because they are afraid, or uninterested: they just do not want to be bores. They are probably right.
Blogs (I hope) are a bit different, and there are some very good newsletters which are effectively blogs, like Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Imperfectionist’. They do not tend to be very long. They are more informal, so an editor would defeat the point, whereas the phenomenon I am griping about is marketed by the author as the sort of thing you might find in a magazine or from a book. A blog also sits there waiting its turn, which is, frankly, better manners.
The problem is that the writing which comes into my inbox is a bit like being rung up and talked at by the same few strangers every week. I could pick out a particular time of the month to get through them, but just makes clear how much the whole ‘substack’ phenomenon has in common with another way in which our current digital habits are so depressing – under the illusion of control and personalization, you lose variety, choice, and, ultimately, community.
1 Naming no names, but the most common problem a magazine faces is an extension of this: always commissioning the same people, who always write the same thing.