Because I sometimes write in a persona that is about 15% more outraged and yelling than I really am myself, I occasionally get people wanting me to be mad about stuff that I’m not. A year or two ago, for example, someone kept asking me to be mad about adult coloring books, but I honestly can’t comprehend why I would care that some adults want to color. Or people who think I’ll hate wine tastings or quinoa. Who cares? Don’t get me wrong: I am just about always Mad Online. But I’m not always mad about things that people think I would be mad about.
Related: there’s been this kind of slowly percolating conversation about podcasts in writerly circles, or at least my weird little corner of the writing world. In a couple short years podcasts have become essential to both the culture and economy of professional opinion writing. And, you know, as much of a cliché as it is to say that there’s a lot podcasts… there’s a lot of podcasts. This has caused some angina, in a vague way. Probably the most direct (and least sympathetic, really) expression of this came in this Twitter thread by the media critic Jack Shafer. It didn’t go over well for him, for obvious reasons if you read the thread, and while I don’t think the “old man yells at cloud” responses were particularly helpful, he was practically begging for it.
I think that Shafer was, in a very grumpy and not particularly useful way, making fair critiques of some podcasts and acting like those are true of the medium writ large. This is pretty much always a bad way to go about critiquing a medium even if there are structural problems within the professional economy of that medium. Like I don’t mean to go all “both can be true” on you but in general, both can be true. Like podcasts are cool and there’s some really good ones with really good production values that add a lot to “the conversation” and there’s also a lot of absolute dross that exists only for the people who are making them. And, yes, Shafer is right that for a lot of writers the move to the podcast form enables an even more acute slide into total self-absorption, but there are also people who work harder and do more research for podcasts than they ever did on their writing. Some writers are getting into podcasts because they want a new venue to showcase their research and their insights, and sure, some writers are starting podcasts because they’re lazy.
(Also for whatever reason advertisers are currently under the misapprehension that it’s harder to avoid ads on video and audio content than it is on a traditional text-based website which, lol, but get that money people.)
In other words: good examples of things are good, bad examples are bad. Bad podcasts are indeed insufferable ego-feeders for people who love hearing themselves speak, and good podcasts are fun and informative and entertaining. Making this banal statement just doesn’t move the needle much, while coming out against the trend makes people feel edgy. I wouldn’t mention Shafer’s complaints except that they seem to be an explicit voicing of a broader set of concerns that have been bubbling around, though it seems no one wants to be the asshole and come out with it except Shafer, who clearly enjoys being the asshole.
I think the real thing is that the rise of podcasting as a habit of writers speaks to a set of under-discussed aspects of writing culture. In particular, we have this sense that “writer” is not just a job like some jobs, but also a calling and a craft, and the fact that a lot of writers seem to be jumping ship to doing podcasts offends the sense that writers should take writing seriously. It’s easy to look at a Bill Simmons type and ask, were you ever really a writer, if you have moved so quickly to leave writing behind? And I get that, kind of.
I do believe, unironically and fervently, that writing is a special kind of work that is capable of achieving rare and valuable artistic heights. I do think it takes a firm commitment to doing the slow and unsexy work of gradually getting better. Writing is not the same as talking. What makes you good at writing is not going to make you good at podcasting. Time podcasting could indeed take away from time working on your craft. If sort of lazily jumping into podcasting demonstrates that you didn’t really approach writing as a craft that requires time and dedication, then sure, that’s bad. It’s just not clear to me why we wouldn’t apply adult discrimination to trying to figure out who that criticism applies to specifically instead of griping about the medium. If you don’t like bad and lazy podcasts, just criticize the bad and lazy ones.
An uncomfortable fact, kind of kicking around in the background of this discussion, is that there’s a lot of people who get into writing not because they actually care about writing as such but because writing seems like a way to Be Somebody. That’s always been true, and I think it’s especially become true in the internet age. This is the sort of thing that I’m expected to be very harshly negative about, but honestly even that seems forgivable to me, as long as you know it’s true. If you’re someone who wants to Be Somebody and writing was just a way to do it, and now podcasting might be the way to do it, that’s fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. The problem comes in when people feel compelled to adopt a kind of writerly posture that does not stem from an organic commitment to being a writer for its own sake. There’s no shame in pursuing celebrity, even the minor celebrity associated with writing for the internet. Just know your own motivations.
You can be a Serious Writer and do a podcast without compromising your writing. You can be a writer and decide that actually you’re better as a podcaster. You can have a desire to Be Somebody and write in that effort and then podcast in that effort. All of these are possible and cool. And, you know, you can be a writer and put out a shitty, lazy podcast. That’s life.
Me, I’m only really good at reading and writing. (And teaching, but that’s not a part of my life anymore.) I like doing podcast appearances when I get asked but I don’t know if I’m any good and more to the point I don’t know how I’d evaluate that or get better at it. The number of hours I’ve sunk into writing in the past ten years are a sunk cost I’m not willing to let go of, personally. Others must make their own calculations. What I’d hate is if some sort of divide opened up pitting writing against podcasting, especially if that was expressed in some facile generational frame with writers as olds and podcasters as young — as if talking was some hot new technology. (Besides the average podcaster’s gotta be like 38.) Writing and reading have always been lonely enough, and in tough times for labor people need to hang together.