The Importance of Substack
Why Substack Matters (Especially in 2023)
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I’ve been reading—and have almost finished—the novel Sentimental Education (1869) by the French author Gustave Flaubert. I’ll probably write a book review of sorts when I’m done and have absorbed it all. (And there is a lot to absorb.)
There’s a line in the novel that made me strangely think of Substack and which I love: “It was like a Stock Exchange of aesthetics.” The line was a reference to one of the character’s notions of starting, post February 1848 Paris revolution, a sort of Arts Commune for the working artists wherein Art would be valued as much or as or even more than (at least spiritually) commerce.
I stopped at that line, a Stock Exchange of aesthetics. I dragged my pen and highlighter out—this is how I read—and underlined/highlighted the line, adding little thick blue arrows with my pen to demonstrate the importance, to me, of the clause. And then of course I snapped a photo of the line with my iPhone. (And finally added to my special folder for this particular novel.) This is my weird, specific, meticulous method of reading and absorbing great literature.
The line made me think of Substack, as I said. If you go back to ancient times, say 2015, you’ll recall that, pre-Trump—that raging lunatic who plunged the nation into wild extremes on both sides—we more or less (most of us) basically trusted the major news organizations and papers. For the most part we trusted that when the New York Times said fill-in-the-blank, it actually happened more or less the way it was described in the paper. Fox News we knew exaggerated things and was a bit theatrical and sometimes more or less made things up…but that was fine as long as we didn’t have to be indoctrinated ourselves.
Then Trump and 2016 happened and everything changed.
Suddenly the Right was more ridiculous and the Left became more extreme and mired in social justice identity politics. A nasty cultural tug-of-war, which unfortunately sidelined reality, truth and decency on both sides, ensued. Old-school debates and arguments and differences of opinion were flung out for all-out war; it was Realpolitik hardcore.
For the first time in contemporary memory, both sides became suspect, and in many ways deservedly so. Censorship seemed to be on the rise, either regarding articles directly or in the sense of self-censoring in order to get published in the first place, or else from the angle that small but powerful activist groups pressured publishers to drop writers before they even reached audiences, or shortly after. Sometimes the activists succeeded, sometimes they failed. But either way it was censorship. (And they’re still doing it.)
This occurred not only with news, of course, but with fiction, memoir, personal essay, journalistic essays, etc. The scope of what one could fairly or honestly write about—once quite wide—had narrowed, to the point of becoming quite sadly myopic and, to use another golden overused 2023 ditty: Narcissistic. The boring, Orwellian moniker “inclusivity” actually in practice meant exclusivity. The phrase “cultural appropriation” meant you had to “stay in your lane,” whether it be essay, news or fiction; no longer could serious writers (to the extent any of these types were left) use their imagination in a deep, meaningful, open, risky, vulnerable way.
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