Why are famous writers suddenly terrible when they write on Substack?
Some sure seem pretty bad when it’s just them
There’s a mystery I’ve been struggling with: when famous writers migrate to Substack, there’s often a huge differential between their officially published work and what they write here. I’m talking both in terms of elegance and interestingness, but also at a literal sentence level. In some cases, the drop-off is enough to indulge in tin hat levels of conspiracy: if this whiny rambling Livejournaling is how they write without an editor, publisher, or MFA workshop, who the hell really wrote their books? Does the publishing industry somehow just excrete books accidentally, like how individual bees trying to move in circles rend a honeycomb into precise hexagons?
For, unknown to most, there is an entire pipeline behind traditional publication. Manuscripts are workshopped, agents contribute, editors contribute, etc. Almost everything in The New Yorker is good, and it all sounds the same, and that’s because it’s pretty much the voice of the editors, not the writer. That sort of uniformity doesn’t happen by accident. My sneaking suspicion is that, due to institutional support, it’s actually pretty easy to write one amazing essay every six months for The New Yorker. It’s a lot harder to do something even close to as good every six days, which is what’s required here on Substack. Writing online is just a much more honest signal, since these are, compared to industry standard, essentially first drafts—even if they are returned to and edited, they are fundamentally more intimate and singular. And despite the higher likelihood of mistakes, I think people often prefer this as an aesthetic.
To back up: on Substack there are now the Big Fish, e.g., real writers. Whatever a “real” writer even is. You know what I mean. You’ve probably heard of them, although you may not have read them. Their books sold like, at least tens of thousands of copies (you would be shocked at how low the sales are for even household names). How are these writers doing on Substack? I’m happy to report some are doing great! Really amazing. But others, not so much.