Our day’s writing economy creates a competition between one necessary component to being a good writer—cultivating what you might call the writerly virtues (on which more later)—and another necessary component to being a good writer—being compensated enough for your work that you can dedicate adequate time to the task.
The writer’s work is further complicated by the simple fact that most writing jobs are now in major coastal cities. For those of us committed to our homes and to small places (and writers who wish to be useful in a world like ours must be committed to home and place) this means that finding a way into a writing career is challenging. Indeed, the only way to get enough attention to compete for jobs in many cases is to behave badly by misrepresenting opponents, inciting outrage, and making oneself into an object of discussion and debate.
The result of all this is that writers are incentivized by economic factors to write in ways that draw attention, provoke, or trigger. They are also incentivized to spend large amounts of time on social media which would be better spent reading, learning a new skill, or repeatedly slamming one’s hand inside a car door.
Is it any wonder, then, that so much of the writing currently being produced is ephemeral, superficial, and ordered more toward eliciting a strong emotional response than it is to actually teaching or informing someone about what is true, good, and beautiful?
I’m writing this newsletter because I want to push back against these dangerous trends. And to do that I need more than just good intentions; I need a different model for reaching readers.
Newsletters provide writers with a chance to reach and build an audience that they control. What’s more it allows them to work in a space that is shaped according to their interests rather than shaping their work to align with the algorithms of various social networks and search engines and to anger their political opposites.
Such projects are perhaps a final attempt to take back the internet and to restore some measure of sanity to the writer’s calling.
I have my doubts that such a project is possible. I rather suspect the tech giants are too large to overthrow, our public square too degraded, and our government too corrupt.
But I want to make an attempt at it anyway.
This newsletter is my trying.
But, more positively, it is also my attempt to cultivate a quiet life in which it is still possible to write patiently, to take the time to observe the place around me, to attend to its needs, and to talk about that work with others in hopes that it can serve the life of my home place and be a means for loving my neighbor.
So for now I’ll leave you with this, an old toast given by J. R. R. Tolkien at a party he attended in Rotterdam in the 1950s with readers of his works:
To the hobbits! And may they outlast all the wizards!