George Saunders knows why we started Substack
As usual, these are quick thoughts, unedited, and probably not particularly profound. This subtitle is long, but that's how I like it
George Saunders, a genuine literary hero, launched on Substack today and I’ve been dying to tweet about all the things he has said about why he’s doing it, but I’m not on Twitter anymore, and – look! – that means now I’m going to write on my substack. Abstinence works.
Just look at this beautiful paragraph from Saunders’ launch post:
At present, we seem to be suffering from a widespread failure of literary imagination. We have become worse at imagining the experiences of other people, less inclined to credit these experiences as being as valid and real as our own. Why is this? In part, I think, because of the methods by, and pace at which, we acquire our stories. After all, everything is a story: every thought, every belief, every memory (every love, every bias). And every story is constructed by a certain projective quality of the mind. How do we know things about the world? The mind makes scale models, and we test them out. So, the quality of our scale-model-maker determines the relative accuracy of the resulting model which, in turn, determines how close to the truth we end up living. That is: how we tell and receive stories is central to how we think, which, in turn, determines how well (how lovingly, how fully) we live.
That is the most beautiful articulation of the problem we’re trying to solve that I have ever read.
Somehow, on social media, we have got to a place where so much of discourse starts with bad-faith assumptions: I’m going to show you why you’re wrong and stupid and maybe even evil; in fact, I’m going to show everyone else, all my people, why you’re wrong and stupid and maybe even evil. When those are the terms of engagement, there is no hope for productive discussion, there is no mode where we seek understanding, where we enter into a conversation with a humble mind, where we seek to build trust, where we try to get as close as possible to the truth.
With Substack, we’re trying to build an alternative universe where the rules are different. On Substack, writers are rewarded for respecting a reader’s attention and intelligence, for building trust with them over the course of a relationship, not for getting maximum juice out of a perfect smackdown (“Just watch me gorge on these glorious internet points! You will stand in fear of my Likes and Retweets!”). On Substack, the temperature is turned down. You read in a quiet environment, removed from the thrust and flux of a social media news feed, and where a writer is encouraged to defend or explain their position at length, and where you are more willing to forgive imperfections, understanding that the discussion can play out at a slower place, that the argument is not a momentary spectacle but part of a journey.
Social media is an othering machine – it pushes discourse into binary, it generates the them versus us – but Substack is built for understanding: it celebrates complication and the multivariate. At least, that’s the ideal we’re reaching for. We are in the business of, to borrow Saunders’ words, helping everyone get better at imagining the experiences of other people.
May we always be held to that standard.
Other notable words from Saunders
From The Bookseller:
The author, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury), said he was drawn to Substack's "writing community that was less agitated and fraught than social media".
From the Substack Blog:
He describes Substack, in comparison, as “social media purified by conscience” and feels that it’s the right place for an endeavor like Story Club, “because [here] we’re all self-selected. This is a club based on mutual respect… I think the danger of social media is that you’re always feeling the pressure to say something right now. And with Substack, if I get organized enough (which I'm going to), it means that I can be starting something now, and when it’s ready, when it really has something to say, then I can release it to this self-selected community… The idea of being in some kind of real-time, quasi-personal touch with my readers is really exciting to me.”
From Saunders’ launch post:
Substack, I’m hoping, will offer me the best parts of social media (engagement with readers, a place to work through ideas) without the quick opining/anonymity-related snark that tends to plague Twitter, et al.