How should a correspondence like this begin? Kicking off his series of Rambler essays, which would be published twice a week from 1750 to 1752, Samuel Johnson opened with:
The difficulty of the first address on any new occasion, is felt by every man in his transactions with the world [...]
Johnson then explains the various pitfalls – trying too hard to impress the reader (“the too ardent desire of pleasing”); putting them off by self-deprecation and pointless apologies; overpromising; underpromising – before concluding that it doesn’t really matter, since the reader will soon judge for themselves whether it’s worth their time.
That is the sideways approach. For a more direct alternative, see the opening sentence of Tina Brown’s first Times column in 2002:
At lunch with Steve Florio, the president of US Condé Nast, in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons Restaurant just off Park Avenue, I contemplate the dwindling band of CEOs still in a position to get a table.
I’m sadly unable to regale Pineapple readers with equally glamorous tales of metropolitan high life, due to the pandemic.
Maybe the deftest opening is George Orwell’s first “As I Please” column for Tribune, which brings the writer on stage as both an intrepid social critic and an ordinary bloke:
Scene in a tobacconist’s shop. Two American soldiers sprawling across the counter, one of them just sober enough to make unwanted love to the two young women who run the shop, the other at the stage known as “fighting drunk”. Enter Orwell in search of matches. The pugnacious one makes an effort and stands upright.
Soldier: “Wharrishay is, perfijious Albion. You heard that? Perfijious Albion. Never trust a Britisher. You can’t trust the British.”
Orwell: “Can’t trust them with what?”
Soldier: “Wharrishay is, down with Britain. Down with the British. You wanna do anything about that? Then you can – well do it.” (Sticks his face out like a tomcat on a garden wall.)
Tobacconist: “He’ll knock your block off if you don’t shut up.”
Then there’s Citizen Kane, who in the film puts his fateful statement entitled “MY DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES” on the front page of his first issue. I won’t be making that mistake, but I can outline what this newsletter will offer in the near future.
At least a couple of times a month, I’ll write about interesting stuff from elsewhere – fresh reporting, commentary worth reading, and so on – in a letter called “Pineapple Slices”.
At least once a month, I’ll write something between a letter and an essay on a single theme. For this first edition, my topic is, well, the rise of the newsletter. Right now, starting a newsletter – and, perhaps, subscribing to one – is a definite act of bandwagon-jumping. Substack, which began in 2017, now hosts countless newsletters on every subject, with a combined total of more than 100,000 paying subscribers. Writers like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald have left their high-profile publications to become full-time Substackers. Some of the most interesting bloggers out there – Eve Tushnet, Scott Alexander – have switched from the blogosphere to this platform. “Its sudden prominence may be a portent of significant changes in our media,” says the Guardian; according to Wired, “Newsletters could be the next (and only) hope to save the media.”
The most obvious cause (but not the deepest) for Substack’s rise is the Thing, or wokeness or the successor ideology or whatever you want to call it. Andrew Sullivan left New York magazine to start a newsletter because, he claimed, his colleagues seemed “to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.” Bari Weiss began her newsletter after leaving the New York Times, where “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.” For these writers, Substack offered shelter from the storm.
But they are only the most high-profile examples. The more important cause of the newsletter boom is economic: it holds out the promise of a sensible financial model for journalism. Freelancing has become, for most, no more viable than the rest of the gig economy; and the number of full-time journalism jobs has gone into rapid decline. Is it possible that the industry just needs a more efficient system? That rather than the producer-consumer relationship being mediated by big, complex institutions with cunning marketing strategies, it could simply be that if a writer can find an appreciative audience, they can make a living? That is the hope Substack represents. It may, of course, turn out that – as with so much of the digital economy – Substack instead creates a few jackpot winners, a small handful who do OK, and a long tail of stragglers whose worthy efforts go unrewarded. We’ll find out in the next few years.
Finally, newsletters might provide a better way for writers to relate to readers. On the internet, you write for everybody and nobody. It’s a wonderful thing, of course, to know that an article could reach someone on the other side of the world who comes across it by accident; but it also means you have only a vague idea who you’re addressing, and if you’re not careful that can lead to a kind of flat, risk-free, lowest-common-denominator prose. A newsletter can be its own world where readers and writers know what to expect from each other. Especially if you get in touch – please do, at email@example.com. I can’t promise to reply to your message, but I will read it. Let me know what you’d like to see in The Pineapple.
In the latest issue of First Things, I have a piece about Graham Greene’s life and works. I’m also on the letters page, rashly debating the Council of Clarendon with the great Thomas Becket scholar Anne Duggan.
Last month I wrote for the New York Post about Joe Biden’s professed ambition of building a coalition of democracies to challenge Beijing, and what such a strategy might look like.
The Living Wage Foundation have just published a significant report on low pay during the pandemic. It’s sobering reading – but also highlights some positive stories. “Earning the Living Wage means I can spend more time with my daughter doing the things together we enjoy,” one cleaner is quoted as saying. “I can be the dad I want to be.”
Is the composer Ludovico Einaudi a genius, or just the world’s most successful cheese merchant? This new podcast might help you make your mind up either way: though its reverent tone starts to grate, it interviews a good range of Einaudi listeners who speak about the impact of his music on their lives.
“Perhaps the greatest principle in politics is that people love to be frightened.”
(Michael Oakeshott, Notebooks)
Image: Flickr/Joanna Bourne (Creative Commons)