"and know the place for the first time"
I started writing blogs in 2008, back when the blogosphere was still a thing. Things felt easier back then. You didn’t have to think so hard about attracting people to your blog - it was easier for them to stumble across you, mostly because there was just less content out there.
Some of that is the context, of course - as this terrific article from The Ringer suggests, what I miss isn’t so much the blogosphere as it is “university” - but whatever. The fact remains that I started writing on the internet before you needed a clear strategy to do so, when you could work it out as you went along.
Since then I’ve tried on several occasions to restart a regular blog, and every time it has felt like a Herculanean effort. The closest I got was with a project called The Independent Literary Fiction blog, which was just starting to gain some real momentum when the sheer pressure of reviewing so many books rolled over me and crushed me.
For a short while running that blog was kind of intoxicating - as well as, you know, suffocating - because I got to be an authority on something, to have a thing on the internet, to be somebody’s ‘go-to’ resource. People knew how to find me, approached me to be part of some aggregate newsletters.
But the work, man, it was enormous. I spent my every waking moment outside of work reading books, or writing about them, with absolutely no prospect of respite. It was quite the wake-up call.
Not long after I shuttered that blog, I signed up for an online course that promised to teach you a sustainable routine for writing on the internet. As it turned out, David Perell, the course’s facilitator, had put together a programme that was completely focussed on the creator economy - those people who want to be known for something, to be a personal brand, like Tyler Cowen or Nat Eliason.
For a while, I thought I was one of them. But I’m not. I don’t have a niche, and I don’t want one. In fact, I hate the idea of having a niche. In the past week I’ve been reading about how the division of labour between co-habiting couples has changed in the past century, about how the digital economy has broken our concept of time, and about how the Christian concept of sanctification has got tied up with American ideas of self-help. I can’t roll those things together into a niche, but I find them all fascinating.
And the current creator economy makes it really difficult to find a space to discuss those things, or share them, in any meaningful fashion.
Which brings me to this newsletter, which was the product of that online course, and a fairly blatant attempt to build a niche.
I read a lot, I figured, so why not write about why reading can improve your life?
But I didn’t have that answer, and honestly I wasn’t that interested in digging it up. Doing so would have involved a lot of scientific papers, and life is short.
So I switched to, why not talk about what I’ve learned from my reading?
Except not every book I’ve read taught me something, and thinking about books like that sucked all the joy out of them - reduced them to pithy insights, ‘gobbets’ of wisdom that some executive or techbro could repurpose for their presentations.
And so finally it became, I read a lot, so why not talk about what I’ve been reading?
And now - well, now I’m wondering what the point of it all is.
You’ve probably heard that the root of the word amateur is amator, the Latin word for “lover” - which is to say, an amateur is someone who does what they do out of love. And to some extent, that’s what this newsletter is. I love reading, and talking to people about books, so I write these weekly essays - though they take time and effort - because doing so is satisfying.
But then lately I came across this article by Venkatesh Rao, in which he says, an activity becomes work “if there is a customer other than yourself” - or to put it more explicitly, “if it will impact something that will be evaluated by others, and if their reactions will have consequences for you that you care about.”
By that measure, writing this newsletter is work. I’m forever conscious of self-censoring, of pitching and publicising my reviews in such a way that attracts people, and ensuring what I write is in line with my brand and goals.
I hate thinking that way.
What I’m trying to do here is figure out what this newsletter should be in future - whether there’s some way to harness the eclectic energy of the blogosphere without tying myself to this single, exhausting niche, and whether it’s possible to maintain this little community of people who like discussing what they’re reading without running myself into the ground in doing so.
Here’s what I propose:
A monthly newsletter in which I share very brief details of the best things I’ve read lately (both novels and articles), along with a round-up of any news about my published novels and links to any essays from the past month.
Occasional emails about topics of interest, mostly connected to a book or an article, with no particular schedule - these are likely to be slightly less polished, but they’ll give you insight into my thought process.
A weekly discussion thread on just two questions: what are you reading, and how is it?
Hopefully that will allow the community around this newsletter to continue, but also stop me getting buried by the pressure of writing a fully weekly essay.
I’ll be honest, I’m on the fence about this. There are so many people out there who are writing about the things that interest me better than I can - be that Anne Helen Petersen, or Venkatesh Rao, or L. M. Sacasas, or Ann Friedman. The world doesn’t need any more content.
And this also isn’t what you signed up for - so if you find it an absolutely unappealing prospect, and if what you wanted is weekly book recommendations and not this hodge-podge of thoughts, then feel free to opt out now. I won’t be offended.
In short, I’ve got to think about living sustainably, and what I’m doing at the moment is not sustainable, especially with a family, a full-time job, and a novel to edit. I hope you understand, and I hope you’ll stay involved - but I understand if you don’t.
Until next time,