One year of envy, lies, and greed
All subscribers will become my slaves in the afterlife
Numb at the Lodge turned one year old last month. I won’t pretend I didn’t have hopes for this thing. Nothing extravagant. All I wanted, literally the only thing I asked for, was to have 12,000 free and 1,000 paid subscribers by the end of my first year. I had nasty little dreams about it, falling blissfully into all those nested zeroes. Money! A medium amount of money! Champagne! Diamonds! Earning slightly more than the UK average wage! Sadly, I failed—or, more accurately, you failed me. Look at it. Look at what you people have done, simply by being yourselves instead of another, slightly larger group of people. I kept telling you miserable cowards to like, share, and subscribe—but you didn’t do it, not enough of you, and now this is the result. Gaze on the wreckage of my dreams:
But in fact, while I obviously didn’t hit my stupid self-imposed target, this really isn’t bad. Substack is, like almost everything, arranged along a power law distribution. A very small number of people have, thanks to this platform, become awful gaudy millionaires. Most of them achieved this by endlessly yammering on about their tedious political opinions, which is something that you, the reading public, you frenzied, subliterate mass of feral swine, apparently can’t get enough of. Meanwhile, the vast, vast majority of Substack writers may as well be composing their posts on toilet paper and instantly flushing it away. Nobody will ever read what they have to say. Nobody will ever care.
I have not become an awful gaudy millionaire. But I am not in the latter group either. If I had to guess, I’d say my just-slightly-more-than-10,000 subscribers have put me somewhere in the top 2% of publications on this platform. Which is very strange, because I really ought to be doing much, much worse. Here’s why.
I write too much
I have published 43 pieces since I started this thing, which is not really all that much. Less than one a week. In fact, it’s dangerously low. There are people on this platform who will hack little gobs of thought at you every day, even multiple times a day. A lot of them seem to be very successful, if also worryingly unmedicated. The people who operate this platform told me that for a regular newsletter, once a week ought to be the minimum. Anything less, and people might start to think that I had nothing but contempt for them, or possibly that I’d died in the night. This shouldn’t be hard, but I guess I just can’t be bothered.
But when I do write something, it’s forbiddingly long. Over those 43 pieces, Numb at the Lodge now runs to 191,006 words. That’s roughly two full-length books, in a single year. For the Numb in China series, I wrote nearly 45,000 words while I was on holiday. (It’s not like I spent that holiday lazing around on a beach: I wrote most of it on my phone, frantically tapping away whenever I had ten minutes free.) My longest piece thus far is a grotesquely bloated 9,285 words, while my shortest still clocks in at 1,800, roughly twice the length of an ordinary opinion column. (I used to write ordinary opinion columns. I am capable of expressing myself in under a thousand words. I just choose not to.) The average length is 4,442, which means that very nearly every week I have been crapping an entire feature-length article into your inbox, and then expecting you to read it. Unlike me, you people have jobs. Who could possibly have the time?
It’s not like I don’t know how it feels to start reading something, notice just how unnecessarily long and overwrought it is, skim a few paragraphs in search of the point, and then give up. I do it myself. I also know that most of you are reading this stuff on your phones. These words aren’t in a proper book, or even a nice print magazine, something you can get cosy with when it’s raining outside and all your houseplants are dead. At any moment, you can just click away and look at something else. The internet is full of bright lights and flashing colours for you to dab your hands at like the easily distracted infant you are. Everyone knows that the best way to ensure a wide audience is to keep things casual and brief. But I refuse to take even the most basic steps to make my huge ponderous essays more readable. I rarely break them up into little sections with their own little headings. I don’t even try to keep a lid on my paragraphs. The optimal paragraph is supposed to be about 300 words long, containing no more than five sentences. My longest paragraph here is over two thousand. My sentences run long too. Apparently, readers will understand 90% of a text if all sentences are under 15 words. (That last sentence was 15 words. I hope you understood it.) If a sentence extends to 43 words, comprehension falls to 10%. People will not spend long reading something that’s difficult to understand. But the longest sentence I have written here keeps going for 229 words. Obviously that one’s a bit of a stunt, but the same post has ten more sentences over fifty words. Overall, 5% of all my sentences are in the 10% comprehension zone. I seem intent on dropping you in a hot, unpleasant soup of words.
What’s weird, though, is that you perverts seem to like this. I ran the numbers. My top five most-read posts here are on average 4,534 words long, nearly 100 words over the average. When you limit to posts for free subscribers only, which are for obvious reasons more widely read, the difference is even starker: 4,617 for my best-performing posts, against an average of 3,959. My five worst performing free posts, meanwhile, average 3,418 words. I’m not sure if everyone’s advice is wrong, or if I’ve attracted an audience of dedicated masochists, but the lesson is clear. If I want more readers in the years to come, I need to make everything much longer, more impenetrable, and more self-indulgent.
I am actively unpleasant to read
I would be nothing without my readers. You have all been incredibly kind to me, but I have not been kind in return. In this post alone, I’ve called you ‘miserable cowards,’ ‘perverts,’ ‘easily distracted infants,’ and a ‘frenzied, subliterate mass of feral swine.’ Elsewhere, I’ve heaped even more abuse on the people who choose to read me. I have repaid you with insults: you are ‘demented perverts,’ ‘maniacs,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘hogs,’ ‘rubberneckers,’ ‘annoying and unpleasant,’ ‘the lowest creatures imaginable,’ ‘grass-eating mental ungulates,’ ‘tedious fuckers,’ and ‘sick perverted freaks.’ I have told you that your intracranial fluid is leaking down your neck, that you are a demon in Hell, and that you are responsible for youth suicide. Without any evidence at all, I have accused you, the reader, of being a fascist. There is probably more.
Most writers don’t insult their readers like this. For a long time, essayists have all seemed to adopt the same ideal: reading an essay ought to be like having a chat with a friend. It should be inviting, conversational. Serious, maybe, sometimes, but never actually unfriendly. Go back and read your Montaigne: he set the tone. Always wonderfully warm and personable; he practically beckons you into his nice light-filled study to sit down and puzzle things over. Lovely use of the first person. Very often he starts by insisting that he has no special knowledge, just some books and some thoughts. ‘There is not a man living whom it would so little become to speak on memory as myself, for I have scarcely any at all, and do not think that the world has another so marvellously treacherous as mine.’ All our greatest living essayists attempt the same humble, approachable vibe, because they are sensible and they want people to like them. But I’m an idiot, and I actively try to put you off.
I could tell you that there is, in fact, a good reason for doing this. It’s one thing to adopt a personable tone in sixteenth-century France, but this is the internet, and online the same approach is dangerous. The internet is not a machine for communication between people, but for simulating the experience of being among people, so much so that even broadly well-adjusted types spend more time interfacing with simulations on a screen than actually experiencing the world in and through the company of others. In this context, friendly writing isn’t just friendly writing, it’s writing that simulates friendship. Obviously, five-thousand-word blocks of prose simulate human contact at a fairly low resolution; it’s hard to produce the same ugly parasocial effects as podcasts or video or those creepy livestreams in which women stare at the camera without blinking and describe emojis. But I don’t want to be part of the simulation, on any level. I don’t want people to subsist off ersatz. I don’t want you to feel less alone instead of actually being less alone. And I hope that the outright hostility, even if it’s a bit juvenile and silly, is an effective way of warding off the bullshit.
Anyway, I could tell you all that, but I’d be lying. The fact is that I just see the cheerful, cuddly mode that’s become the default in online writing, and it makes me sick. ‘Hi! My name’s Evan and I’m into videogames and socialism!’ Hey, fuck you, Evan! There are people on this platform who call their readers bestie. There are people who sign off with a kiss. It’s gross! It all seems like a minor species of whatever lunacy has smoothie cartons and tubs of yoghurt and adverts on the public transport all talking to me like we’ve known each other since childhood. The deathly friendliness of mere things. I do not think a colloid of oat gloop and vegetable oils ought to be chatting with a conscious living being. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t rank much more highly than the oat gloop. I can pretend I’m concerned for your mental wellbeing, but really I just want to avoid you getting on my skin.
I am annoying
About a decade ago, every ‘interesting’ new literary publication would announce that it was interested in weird, uncategorisable hybrid writing that sat at the intersection between theory and fiction. And then they would just publish a bunch of perfectly ordinary essays, because absolutely nobody wants to actually read the weird, uncategorisable hybrid writing that sits at the intersection between theory and fiction. People want to read one of two things: simple, clear, informative writing that contains facts they already know, or simple, clear, polemical writing that expresses opinions they already hold. They want to read facts they already know so they can reassure themselves that they already have a pretty good grasp on things and the world does not contain any potentially frightening secrets. They want to read opinions they already hold because while they keep frothing about them they have no actual grounds for those opinions, so they need constant reinforcement to keep the opinions in place, or else what’s left of their brains will just dribble onto the floor and wobble down the path of least resistance until they reach the sea. This is why their absolute favourite thing is to read someone who says that they’re an independent and idiosyncratic truth-teller beholden to neither side, and who then reliably regurgitates all the opinions they already hold. It’s like peekaboo for adults. They’ll be gurgling all day.
I am not an independent and idiosyncratic truth-teller beholden to neither side. I’m on the left. I call myself a Marxist, in the sense that the broad strokes of Marx’s analysis of history and society strike me as obviously correct, even though on all the big culture-war issues I have the exact same opinions as every major corporation. But I am also annoying. Instead of straghtforwardly delivering up those opinions so that people who already agree can bark in approval, I act coy. Sometimes I’ll say things I do actually believe, but with a kind of schizo vehemence that’s so obviously over the top that it makes you think I’m being ironic, even though I’m actually not. Sometimes I’ll say things that resemble what I believe, but only barely, and the more I go on the sketchier the resemblance becomes, until by the end I’m presenting a ghastly caricature and still defending it to the teeth. Sometimes I’ll argue very sincerely for positions I don’t even slightly agree with, just because everyone else seems to have arrived at my actual conclusion already and have therefore made it boring. On the rare occasion that I do straightforwardly state my mind, it’s only after I’ve spent several hundred words talking about something entirely unrelated for no good reason at all. And worst of all, I’ve sunk to messing around on the intersection between theory and fiction.
People like essays. They will tolerate fiction. They definitely do not like things that slither about inbetween. But I keep on doing it. In the past year, I have published thirty pieces that are wholly essayistic, and three that are unambiguous and undiluted works of fiction. This means that nearly a quarter of everything I’ve put out here has been something else. Works of fiction that take the form of essays, essays whose content happens to be fictional. A few are mostly one or the other, but have a few inappropriate paragraphs jutting in from the wrong genre. Sometimes, I’ll try to illustrate an apparently serious point I want to make by telling a story that plainly isn’t true. All of this seems calculated to make you, the reader, as annoyed as possible. A systematic refusal to get to the point. Even my topics are annoying. Everyone knows that the most boring thing to have to listen to is someone talking about their dreams. So I publish an ongoing series of incredibly long pieces—31,592 words thus far—in which people talk about their dreams. It’s also notoriously boring when people go on and on about what they did on holiday, so I’ve obviously spent the last two months here doing precisely that. Together, dreams and holidays account for two-fifths of my total word count here. If it sounds like I’m deliberately trying to scare people away, that’s because I am. I do not trust this technology, and I do not trust myself with it. Substack is a machine that directly ties your financial prospects to your degree of audience-optimisation. If you write for traditional print publications, you can build your entire career on a few editors who think you’re interesting. With the paid subscription model, you’re trapped in a nightmare Skinner box, unconsciously manipulated by an egregore of everyone who likes you, endlessly deforming yourself into something worse in your dying efforts to please. It’s very easy to sell out when the only person you’re selling out to is yourself. So I put up guardrails. The refusal to say what I really mean. The segues and digressions. The forbidding lengths. The dreams. The hostility. The lies.
I am a rank hypocrite
But it’s very easy for me to sit here congratulating myself on how interesting and weird I am. There are ways of actually measuring this. One year ago, I wrote a sort of schema for what I wanted to do here. ‘I’m interested in the forms of writing that were here long before the internet, and which will be here long after it’s gone. Not thinkpieces or blogs, but the essay, the manifesto, the satyr, and the screed. Ludibria, pseudepigrapha, quodlibets. Or folktales. Prophecy. Dreams.’ Have I actually done this? Not really, no.
In the last year, I have written precisely zero manifestoes, which is about the normal rate these days but strikingly low for someone who has 1) actually written a few manifestoes in the past and 2) quite prominently promised to deliver more. I’ve done slightly better on pseudepigrapha: I’ve written one, which happens to be nested inside one of my two ludibria. Satyrs? There’s one post with some straightforward pastiche, plus a few more that are sort of satirical, I guess. Prophecies? One. Folktales? One. I think the discourse on eggs comes close to a quodlibet, and maybe the one on masks too, but I’ve not exactly been churning them out. Dreams? I’ve written a lot about dreams. Anything actually dreamlike? Hard to say.
You know what else I’ve written in that year, though? An essay about wokeness. Sure, it begins with some rambling about John Dee and Aztec mirrors, and then insults the reader for daring to click on it, but this is all just throat-clearing: what follows is a fairly straightforward explanation of what I mean by wokeness and how I feel about it. Pathetic, predictable, bottom-feeding behaviour! Elsewhere, I’ve written about the question of free speech, the politics of pronouns, and Israel. I did a predictably contrarian take about the coronation of King Charles, and a basically meaningless take about Prigozhin’s abortive coup in Russia. The only thing that prevented me from dishing out some tedious crap about Barbie was the fact that I was in China when it came out, and now I’m about to do it in a footnote anyway.1 I’m currently working on two pieces for this space, and both of them involve me looking at essays that other people have written in other publications and outlining why I think they’re wrong. Not exactly avant-garde stuff.
I have no excuses here. For obvious reasons, I can’t really blame my audience for not giving me the right kind of feedback-response: rewarding me when I write about wokeness by making the number on the screen go up, punishing me when I write something weird by making the number on the screen go down. Instead, all I can do is promise to learn and grow and do better in the future. That means setting transparent standards to which I can hold myself accountable going forwards. By this time next year, I promise to produce at least one manifesto, at least three pseudepigrapha, and at least four ludibria. I promise that less than half of what I publish over the next twelve months will even slightly resemble a take. I promise to make less sense. I promise to ignore your preferences. I promise to waste your time.
You should not give me any money
Did you know that when you sign up as a paid subscriber here, I can literally see your address? Sounds crazy, but it’s completely true. Obviously there’s no way of proving this without needlessly and possibly illegally publishing the personal details of one of my subscribers, so let’s do that. Hi, Andrew! You have a Mastercard with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia ending in 5371, and it’s registered to 38 Basking Ave, Clemton Park, NSW, 2206, Australia.
Look: I am not to be trusted. You should not click on the little button below, and not just because I might capriciously decide to splatter your address all over the internet. For some stupid reason I’ve decided that you are my enemy, and I am not going to stop being really weird about this. I am actively trying to frustrate you. Every time you enjoy something I write, I will count that as a failure. It is genuinely painful to all my higher faculties when anything I produce reaches a mass audience, and I am very sincerely begging you not to click the button and add to my suffering:
But for some reason, you keep clicking it. It’s genuinely baffling to me that I have the audience I do; that there are ten thousand people interested in reading thousands of words of insults, nonsense and lies nearly every week. One thing about my audience that’s been impossible to ignore is how diverse you all are. You are weirdos of genuinely every stripe: STEM nerds dipping a hesitant toe into the unprovable and unreal, revolutionary leftists still soldiering on through every defeat, pouty art teens that intimidate me every time I walk near Central St Martins, theory-addled academic schizos, esoteric witchy types holding orgies in the woods, literary scenesters, journos, astrology girlies, political freaks, and way more Christians than I’d ever expected. Everything else feels siloed along tedious cultural and political lines; you people are not. A bunch of you have political opinions that I don’t just disagree with, but consider to be the symptoms of a profound spiritual and psychological sickness. Some people might find this very concerning; I think it’s an unalloyed good. It’s not, I hope, because I’ve been pandering to the spiritually and psychologically sick. Instead, I hope, it might be a product of all the things I do to sabotage myself and scare people off. The fabulisms, the lies. Lacan said that there is no sexual relation, we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, and we can only communicate through mediating fantasies. Maybe, I hope, if I get weird enough, we might finally learn how to speak.
Mostly, I just couldn’t work out who Barbie was supposed to be for. Unlike the previous stable of Barbie movies, which all had names like Barbie: Fairytopia and Barbie: The Princess and the Popstar, this thing is very obviously not for kids. But I found it very hard to imagine that any self-respecting adult woman would be capable of walking out the cinema thinking yes: this film is for me, this speaks to my life and concerns. So who? I got my answer soon afterwards: my phone kept insisting that I’d want to wath a video titled ‘Ben Shapiro DESTROYS The Barbie Movie For 43 Minutes.’ Suddenly it all made sense. This film is for Ben Shapiro, and only Ben Shapiro. It’s not in any sense a piece of actual cinema; it’s a pure discourse-entity: every single frame is calculated solely to upset Ben Shapiro, to force him to DESTROY it for 43 minutes, which then forces the rest of us, who can’t stand that little rat-faced freak, to go and see the stupid thing because it’s being talked about and we don’t want to be left out of the big debate. This is an incredibly cynical tactic, but since I did end up watching Barbie I guess it worked.
Anyway, it actually makes sense that Barbie would ultimately be for men, because this bright pink film based on a doll is pretty much exclusively about men too. You still can’t make a film about girls without making it a film about gender, and that means dragging in this extra element, this dangling object, this unbearable surplus that haunts your fuchsia feminine utopia… The problem of men, the impossibility of men, the inescapability of men; Gerwig has given us a two-hour deep dive into the crisis of masculinity. Sorry ladies, but the boys win again! Barbie is basically a nonentity in her own story. Everything about her is exogenous, all her crises, all her depth. One day, this doll suddenly starts worrying about death and walking on the heels of her feet: she’s not upset, but her human owner in the real world is; all her problems are actually just the problems of an entirely separate character, who’s sketched in with such broad strokes (Tired Hardworking Latina Mom!) that she barely exists either. When she tries to express what’s wrong, it’s just a series of vague complaints about the situation of women in the abstract. ‘You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas. You're supposed to love being a mother, but don't talk about your kids all the damn time.’ Bad writing! Very rote! Very worthy and bland! Ken’s problems, meanwhile—superfluity, anomie, disappearance—are all dramatised within the film. He is an actual character. He is violently in love with someone who doesn’t need him, and he doesn’t know who he is outside of his obsessive relation to the other. That’s real! He also gets Gerwig’s best line. ‘I only exist,’ he tells Barbie, ‘within the warmth of your gaze.’ Those nine words express far more about the impossibility of being a man than America Ferrera’s tedious speech says about the impossibility of being a woman. Notice that when Ken sets up his patriarchy in Barbieland, the system has absolutely nothing to do with strictly limiting women’s autonomy as a means of ensuring paternity, since reproduction doesn’t exist in Barbieland; instead, like all the ugly new masculinisms teenage boys keep picking up from the internet, it’s ultimately a desperate attempt to monopolise women’s attention. He wants to play his guitar at you. Nothing here is even remotely about male supremacy: men are the ornamental sex now, and Ken just wants to be a good ornament. Of course he does. He’s a doll.
I don’t know if this is what Ben Shapiro pointed out when he DESTROYED the film for 43 minutes, because obviously I got nauseous after about ten and had to turn it off. As far as I can tell, Ben’s complaint is firstly, that despite being pink, which is a colour for young girls, Barbie contains sexual humour unsuitable for children, and secondly, that the film is insufficiently nice to and respectful of men. As it happens, Ben Shapiro is also one of those people who believes that masculinity is dying, and there’s a deliberate effort by the woke left to feminise a generation of boys. Quick question, Ben, since I happen to know you’re reading this: where does that leave you, and your high-pitched tantrum over a piece of media that failed to respectfully portray your chosen identity-group?