Author Salman Rushdie is joining subscription newsletter service Substack, telling the Guardian that hardcover books remain “incredibly, mutinously alive” and he is “having another go, I guess, at killing it.”
According to the New York Times, the Indian-born British-American author said in an interview that his interest in Substack was first spiked when he learned others he admired, such as Patti Smith, Etgar Keret, and Michael Moore, were already using the platform for their writing. Rushdie told the paper that he plans to start with serialized fiction for free but could later charge $5-6 monthly for content such as book chapters or interaction with Rushdie himself, such as comment threads.
It’s not about the cash Substack offered upfront as part of the deal, Rushdie told the Times. “If I were publishing a book, I’d get more money,” he insisted. Instead, he plans to weigh in on all matter of subjects and will continue to publish his more committed work through publishers like Random House.
“I feel that, with this new world of information technology, literature has not yet found a really original space in there,” Rushdie added in the interview. “... Just whatever comes into my head, it just gives me a way of saying something immediately, without mediators or gatekeepers.”
There’s also another, admittedly tangential, reason that Rushdie’s announcement oddly makes sense. Rushdie is best known for his 1988 book The Satanic Verses, whose fictional portrayal of the life of the prophet Muhammad spurred a years-long backlash from many Muslims across the globe who considered it blasphemous. Then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei infamously issued a fatwa, or ruling on a point of Islamic law, calling for any and all Muslims to assassinate Rushdie in revenge. This in turn spurred immense controversy. While Rushdie survived several failed attempts on his life, numerous bookstores were bombed, and an unknown assailant stabbed the translator of the Japanese-language version of the book, Hitoshi Igarashi, to death in 1991. The fatwa officially remains in effect, as current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has reminded his followers on Twitter.
The Satanic Verses debacle can be viewed as a sort of high-stakes precursor for what mutated way beyond anything having to do with fiction into the free-speech wars of today—i.e., contrarians claiming the mantle of unrestricted expression who say they are fighting a stifling, censorious culture of politically correct Newspeak. This group obviously contains the swathe of U.S. conservatives, including Donald Trump and virtually every Republican in Congress, that are obsessed with phantom oppression by social media firms. But it also includes the New Atheist movement, which eventually spiraled into Islamophobia; the cringe-aly-titled “Intellectual Dark Web,” which portrays itself as a ragtag crew of “unclassifiable renegades” while parroting right-wing talking points; self-proclaimed anti-“cancel culture” activists; and gender warriors who have tried to gussy up anti-trans talking points as serious intellectual insights.
Substack has become a sort of hive for those latter groups, who have used it as a refuge from bans or perceived harassment on social media sites—because these are media types we’re talking about, they usually cite “Twitter mobs” as the source of their oppression. It’s also served, as in the case of The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald or amateur race scientist Andrew Sullivan, as a lucrative landing pad for writers who were supposedly forced out of their prior publications due to censorious liberals. Substack has recruited those people with big cash incentives in some instances, though it doesn’t disclose who it pays upfront. (Professional victim Bari Weiss quit the New York Times last summer and is reportedly pulling down $800,000 a year on Substack.)
Earlier this year, Substack faced controversy over their contrarian-heavy roster, particularly writers with a history of viciously harassing critics or deploying anti-trans rhetoric. Substack defended itself by saying many women and people of color were in its advance-payment program, but the perception that the company is willing to look the other way in favor of grievance artists with high subscriber counts has lingered. (For example, the site has played host to people like covid-19 conspiracy theorist Alex Berenson.)
Free speech, particularly his criticism of “radical Islam,” religious fundamentalism, and dogmatism in general, has become central to Rushdie’s whole shtick. He at times downplayed his thoughts on the whole anti-cancel culture kerfuffle, saying there are bigger threats to journalistic and artistic freedom than Twitter arguments, but he’s also not exactly allergic to the rhetoric. Recently, Rushdie was one of the co-signers of a letter decrying social media “censoriousness” and “ideological conformity” that quickly became another flashpoint in the online culture war. Substack power users like Greenwald are also promoting Rushdie’s pivot to online.
So at the very least, Rushdie’s not as odd of a fit for Substack as it might seem at face value. As the Times noted, Substack could also stand to benefit considerably from recruiting off the highest-profile names in literature, potentially helping to expand both its roster and audience beyond the narrow cliques of media, the tech world, and journalism.
In interviews, Rushdie emphasized one factor in his decision was editorial freedom, though he focused on inequities in traditional publishing faced by writers of color.
“The question about which voices get to speak… is a very important [one],” Rushdie told the Guardian. “In publishing… there was a real problem about which voices got to speak, and I’m not saying that’s gone away, but it’s changing. Here [in the U.S.] there’s a lot more space for writers of colour than there used to be, both in publishing books and in the critical sphere.”
“And potentially something like this, with its lack of gatekeepers, could also enable a more diverse set of voices,” he added. “… If you want a Substack you can start one, you know, you don’t have to be invited.”
Rushdie told the Guardian he hopes Substack “might allow a slightly more complex connection” with readers and give him a platform to write about topics “just too big to discuss in tweets.” He’d also like to weigh in on things like movies.
“I’m just diving in here and que sera sera, you know. It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t,” Rushdie added.