If 2018 was the year of the personal newsletter, it would explain why 2019 is the year of inboxes crammed with newsletters we just don’t have time to read and can’t bring ourselves to unsubscribe to. Sure, 2018 arguably perpetrated worse crimes against human sanity — children trolled for not wanting to be shot at school, families separated at the border, wildfires soundtracked by further denial of the climate emergency — but still, I’m reserving a small space for newsletter resentment. Here’s why.
I now feel guilty for not doing a newsletter
Many writers I admire started knocking politely on the door of my inbox last year, offering monthly or even weekly updates on their lives, reading habits, and travel jaunts. I started wondering, Am I supposed to be doing a newsletter? Am I even a writer without one? (Spoiler: yes.) Am I supposed to be “building my brand” in this same way, creating weekly or monthly hype around myself as a walking, talking product?
I abandoned the idea quickly. I don’t want to work on marketing material for anyone, especially myself. I’m already cancanning for preorders on a book that’s not even finished yet. The idea of adding more marketing to the general product “ME” makes me want to take a nap.
No one needs more shit to read
Perhaps we’re good on the stuff-to-read front? Is anyone thirsty for reading material these days? I have subscriptions to various news outlets, which I have to read because if an alien landed and said, “What the hell is going on here?” journalists are the people who would be expected to provide some semblance of an answer.
I’ve been surgically glued to Twitter for a decade, another literary magazine I subscribed to in a fit of fanciness just landed on the doormat, and let’s not even talk about the to-be-read Jenga pile of books by my bed. Surely you’re in the same boat? I cannot picture sending out a personal newsletter and getting the response, “FINALLY, something to read! Thank God. I’ve been humming the ABCs just to stay current.”
I already update people on my life via Twitter. If you follow me, you already have an excellent idea of what I’m doing, writing, reading, thinking, and the ridiculous stuff my husband says.
Sorry guys, but it feels a bit vain
Obviously I would never describe the average journalist’s ego as, well, itty-bitty. Our job is basically: “Hello, I’m going to talk at you for 800 to 1,500 words now, and though you can leave a response, it will be in a tiny box, a long way below my massive chunk of chat, and I may or may not even see it, byeeee.”
But a big ego doesn’t necessarily equal high self-esteem, and I’m pretty sure that unless you already love me, the news that I was awarded a writing residency is boring — or worse, inspires a kind of envy I’m entirely uninterested in spreading: that nagging concern, Why haven’t I done a writing residency? Am I even a writer without one? (Spoiler: yes.)
I already update people on my life via Twitter. If you follow me, you already have an excellent idea of what I’m doing, writing, reading, thinking, and the ridiculous stuff my husband says. You are already getting daily updates (half-hourly if I’m angry on a train). To add to that by also showing up in people’s inboxes with 30 tweets worth of stuff about me, me, me — that takes a level of self-confidence that, frankly, brings me right back to envy.
It’s making money for someone else with my hard work. Again.
I suspect the personal newsletter has caught on among writers because something about it feels like Work. Maybe I’m not writing an article, or pitching ideas, or editing my book, or coming up with the next one before my agent has to bug me for it — but by telling the LinkedIn contacts I’ve presumptuously subscribed to my newsletter that I read a great New Yorker article, I am building my brand.
Today I saw a T-shirt for sale sporting the words “Never off-duty.” It’s the T-shirt of our times. In an essay for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen wrote, “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.” Being busy has become so glorified, particularly in a generation for whom working for free was normalized early, that we’re fish in a barrel for some startup who wants to make money off us sending newsletters. I sit here debating the merits of sliding into your inbox as if I’m any more than a user figure to show their shareholders.
Almost a decade into my career, I am basically an unpaid vanity intern for MailChimp.
So if 2018 was the year of the personal newsletter, and 2019 is the year of our inboxes being crammed, maybe 2020 can be the year we quietly abandon the trend, safe in the knowledge we are still writers without it.