Discover more from Shalom Auslander's Fetal Position
The Dangers of Substack for the Chronically Low Self-Esteemed
or Fuck Off, George
This is George Saunders' writing cabin:
I know it's George Saunders' writing cabin because he posted it on his Substack, which I subscribed to a month ago when I was considering starting a Substack myself.
"You know who has a Substack?" my friend Arthur told me one afternoon. "George Saunders."
"I love George Saunders," I said.
That night, I subscribed to George Saunders' Substack. That's where I saw the cabin. And this is what I thought when I saw it:
Fuck you, George.
I'm as disappointed in myself as you are. I love George Saunders. If you know my writing at all, you know that I am a passionate evangelist of humor, the darker the better; I will discuss humor quite a bit here in The Fetal Position - the need for it, the attacks upon it, my approach to it - but suffice it to say for now that I believe comedy possesses an intrinsic wisdom and honesty that tragedy does not, and I think our respect for the dutifully serious over the defiantly carnival is both a reflection and cause of deeper societal problem. And so I have been a fan of George Saunders since way back in the CivilWarLand in Bad Decline days. Back then I was a young, unpublished writer of odd and darkly humorous stories, and his odd, darkly humorous stories inspired me; he gave me hope that one day maybe I would be published, too. I remember reading this Atlantic interview with him just a few years after CivilWarLand came out, bookmarking it and even printing it out, on actual paper, just in case the grid one day collapsed and it was lost forever. Even now, on those dark, dismal writing days when the twin demons Seriousness and Worthiness sink their deadening teeth into me, that interview is one of the few things I reach for to save me from their clutches. And yet, after just two minutes on Substack, here I was, thinking Fuck you, George.
Shouldn't I be happy for him?
Shouldn't I be glad he has a place to write?
But I wasn't.
In my defense, his cabin is fucking delightful. It's a delightful fucking cabin in a delightful wood surrounded by acres of delightful trees.
This is my cabin:
Note: It's not a cabin. It's a stale Panera Bread in a non-delightful strip mall surrounded by acres of no-trees. Still, my reaction was petty. It was weak. It was pathetic. I even considered unsubscribing – rage-quitting on one of my favorite writers - but resisted.
You're better than this, I said to myself.
A week later, I received George's latest Substack post. This is what it said:
"It's a thrill," George wrote, "to have a new thing in the world."
Fuck you, George, I grumbled. It's a thrill for you, not for me. A thrill for me would be my story in the New Yorker. You have a story in there every fucking week, how is that a thrill? A thrill for you would be NOT having a story in the New Yorker, at least it'd be a change of fucking pace.
I was shocked at the depth of my envy. Twenty years ago, I would have been thrilled for a new George Saunders story. I would have printed it out in case the grid collapsed. And it's not like I've never had anything in The New Yorker, or that I didn’t think he deserved to be in it.
"What's wrong?" my wife Orli asked.
"George Saunders has a new story in the New Yorker."
"So I don't."
It sounded even worse out loud. I mean, who the fuck doesn't like George Saunders? Look at him!
He's warm, he's loving, he's generous! You can tell just by looking at him. I can never imagine him being as petty and small as I was being. Here he is pretending to be angry:
He can't! He can't even pretend to be angry!
Now I felt shame in addition to envy. Again I thought to unsubscribe, but didn't. Which is how I found out a week later, via another post, that George Saunders' Substack has eighty-fucking-thousand subscribers (Getting to Know 80,000 of You) and a week after that that he was on a two-week long "retreat" (Report from the Retreat) at his delightful fucking cabin in his delightful fucking woods, and that this is the delightful view from his delightful cabin in his delightful woods:
This is my view from Panera Bread:
Note: The man in the foreground is shouting offensive slurs at empty cars. When I leave, he will shout them at me. He seems to think I'm homosexual, a lifestyle of which he evidently disapproves.
"What's wrong?" Orli asked when I returned from Panera Bread.
"Nothing," I said. "George Saunders has 80,000 subscribers."
"He's on retreat."
"Retreat. At his writing cabin. It’s delightful."
"How do you know all this?" she asked.
"Why are you reading his Substack?"
"Arthur told me to."
"Then let Arthur read his fucking Substack."
I hit bottom last week.
"Got some very wonderful news here," posted George. "Thank you so much, to the Library of Congress and Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, for this honor."
How wonderful! I thought. Another literary award for George! Who could have imagined that? You know what prize I won this week, George? None. In fact, I lost one – I was turned down for a Guggenheim (anti-Semites). No, George, my big prize this week was one night in bed when my dog accidentally licked my balls. That was it, George, that was my big win. But I couldn't be happier for you! More prizes for George! And hey, when is Congress ever wrong???
And then, Reader, I did it.
Fuck off, George, I thought as I clicked the button.
And it felt good.
Until it felt bad.
"We're sorry to see you go," said George's email.
I have read more books about art, writing and creativity than I care to admit. About the process, the struggles, the hurdles, the goals, the meaning, the psychology. Of all I have read, though, nothing quite captures what I see as the writer's function, practice and existence more than this now-iconic Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya:
I wish I had a more culturally respectable, high-minded, impressively obscure work to show you than a Lego sculpture, but there it is. That’s it. That’s everything. You tear yourself open.
You tear yourself open, and you look inside. Sometimes you find something awful, sometimes you find something redeeming. Sometimes you find something funny, sometimes you find something sad (sometimes you find something that's sad and you realize it's funny). But you always find something, and I believe being honest about that something is therapeutic, and possibly curative, for yourself and humanity at large.
That's what this post is, after all. An admission, an exorcism, an examination. Maybe my reaction to George Saunders was mere ugly envy. Maybe that's something I need to examine, overcome. Maybe it's just an ugly aspect of being a writer that most writers won't admit to (Murakami touches on it in his Making of a Novelist, but I know of few others). Maybe as a young writer all I wanted was a role model for my own writing, but as a published writer, the student wants to defeat the teacher - or at least win an award or two. Artists get no pass for terrible behavior, or terrible thoughts about George Saunders, but ultimately, at the very least, we look at ourselves and consider who we are and where we are going. Which is something I think even George Saunders would agree with.
And then he'll write about it.
And then he'll win the Guggenheim.
And so I write about these feelings, and I examine them, and I laugh at myself, and one less human being in earth thinks they're infallible, and one more tries to be better at this whole being human thing. And maybe the next time I'll react differently.
NOTE: I didn't. Last week, Jeff Tweedy, whose Substack I had also subscribed to, sent me his latest post.
He was in a famous band!
He has 87,000 subscribers!
He's been on tours!
Go to hell, Jeff, I thought as I unsubscribed.
Yours in the fetal position,
NOTE: I couldn’t take the guilt. I’ve resubscribed to both. More on guilt next time…