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Reader Request Week 2022 #8: Whatever, Changing

David S (not the same David as from earlier in the week) asks:

Has success spoiled John Scalzi?

I recently re-read Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which is full of what my grandfather would have called “piss and vinegar”. Whatever used to be biting and savage. Now it’s all “look at what I bought”, and “here are new books I got for free”, and “The Big Idea”. Aside from The Big Idea, it’s less interesting.

Well, I think you’re kind of comparing different things, here: a day-to-day blog experience (Whatever) and a “Best Of” book collection (Hate Mail). Remember that Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is a curated selection of ten whole years of Whatever posts (1998 – 2008). You’re seeing the several dozen posts I thought were the punchiest and most interesting from that decade. You’re not seeing the literally thousands of other posts that went up in the same timeframe, which I deemed not worthy of inclusion because they were pedestrian, or repetitive, or fragmentary, or a picture of a cat or whatever. You’re also not seeing the gaps in posting, when Whatever was rather less than mostly daily. For example, in November of 2002, I posted five entries for the entire month, because I was taking time to do other things. One of those entries was talking about something I bought (a pen drive). One of them was a “hey, I’m taking a hiatus” housekeeping note. That was not in an interesting month on Whatever for its readers!

To flip this: 2023 is the 25th anniversary of Whatever, and in that year it’s not out of the question that I will release another essay collection from here, spanning the five years since Virtue Signaling, my last essay collection. I strongly suspect that you will find that collection (like Virtue Signaling and The Mallet of Loving Correction, the other essay compendium taken from here) will have comparable amounts of piss and vinegar as you found in Hate Mail, because five years of writing here will offer a lot of my opinions to distill down into a concentrated package.

In a larger sense, the current iteration of Whatever has nearly 13,000 individual entries to it, which doesn’t include at least a couple thousand entries from 1998 to 2003 that didn’t cross over because I wrote them with handrolled HTML code and it would have been a pain in my ass to port them over. Since 1998, however, there’s probably at least 15,000 entries here. They are not all pure gold, shall we say, even the ones in which I was in high dudgeon about some topic or another. Year to year, and day-to-day, quite a lot of them are space fillers: Sunsets and YouTube embeds of songs and housekeeping notes and brief updates of the sort like “ugh I am sick why even are viruses” and so on. This is the nature of a more-or-less daily blog, and particularly one called “Whatever,” where the remit literally is “whatever I feel like writing about today.”

Also, Whatever has always existed as an add-on. Which is to say, it’s always gotten done around however I was making a living at the time. The first half of its existence, that was largely freelance work, and some book writing; in the second half of its existence, it’s largely been book writing, and some freelance work (the nature of that freelance work having changed over the years). Success, I should note, has not necessarily made me busier than I was when I was mostly freelancing, nor more shy in expressing my opinions about things. I’m an imperfect observer of myself, but my own estimation of things is that I spend roughly the same amount of time doing work as I ever have, and have roughly the same size mouth as it’s ever been.

So, no. My success hasn’t spoiled Whatever; it’s always been spoiled this particular way.

Which is not to say some things haven’t changed over the years! Here are some of them, as far as I can see:

1. I’m writing fewer political posts over the last few years, because honestly there are only so many times I can say “The modern GOP is an authoritarian white supremacist party that has no other ethos than a will to power” without boring myself and others, and what I do have to say about it usually fits better on Twitter than here, so that’s where it tends to go these days. Not always (see posts from earlier this week), but often.

2. I have less interest in and energy for moderating comment threads, which have always been the real time-intensive aspect of the site. So sometimes I will put off writing about a topic I know will generate a lot of comments until I’ll be able to babysit a thread, and when I do that, some of those topics just don’t get written, because time passes and they’re not relevant anymore and/or I just plain forget.

(By the way, this is not blaming any of you who comment here; the comment threads have not gotten unruly or anything in the last few years, and by and large the commentariat here has interesting and insightful things to say. Please keep commenting! This is a me issue, not a you issue.)

3. In the last few years in particular, I’ve bumped up the number of Big Idea posts here, not to fill space, but because we’ve been living through a plague and lots of authors couldn’t do events and appearances, and the Big Idea was and still is a reasonably good way to introduce authors to readers. It does mean that on average more posts here have been Big Idea posts than they have been in previous years, and that’s probably noticeable.

4. I have changed over the years. The size of my mouth hasn’t changed, but I do tend to think more about what comes out of that big mouth, and whether what I have to offer has value or just adds noise. I’m less inclined to just add noise these days. Also, I’m aware that, particularly in my community of writers and in science fiction and fantasy in general, when I open my mouth I have the potential to wreck things, whether I intend to or not. I think that’s less about self-censorship, or being less “interesting” in what I write about, as it is simply being aware of what I say before I say it, because it has consequence beyond just me. Which maybe I should have thought about before!

5. Finally (for the purposes of this essay, anyway): I’ve been writing on this site for twenty-three-and-a-half years, which means a lot of what I have to say now, I’ve already said before, several times, here on Whatever. If I’m going to say a thing I’ve largely already said, often, whether it’s about politics or writing or life or whatever, I want to make sure it has a good and useful wrinkle to it, so I, at least, won’t be bored bringing the topic around again. This is another me problem, since the Whatever audience slowly changes over the years, and people who read here today aren’t necessarily going to be the ones who read me opine about something ten or fifteen years ago (some of you will be. But not all of you). But it is something I think about.

All of which has changed the tenor of Whatever, I suspect, since its earliest days. That’s okay by me. Whatever is intentionally a work forever in progress, and it is intentionally about me writing what is interesting to me at any particular point of time. Any year, month, week, day or entry is a snapshot, and (hopefully) not meant to be definitive. When I finally stop writing here, however many years into the future, what I hope it helps show is my progression in life: What was important to me and when (or what I wrote about, in any event).

That to me will be the measure of the success of this site, and my success in writing it.

— JS

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

12 replies on “Reader Request Week 2022 #8: Whatever, Changing”

Welp. Whatever!

Thanks, we’re glad to know evolution on a psychological scale happens, pretty much as we have experienced our own maturing. We hope.

My personal theory is as the controversialness of the posts on Whatever has declined, the controversialness of the burritos OGH posts has increased to compensate.

This will be confirmed if he ever tapes a burrombination to a cat (Run Spice, run!), or perhaps makes a Schadenfreude pie burrito.

Ditto on The Big Idea. So many authors and books I may never have found otherwise.

My wife made a key lime pie today. Stop by if you like! :)

Re Point 5. Have you thought about just reposting older posts maybe with a yeah still current thinking/feeling comment?
Like how Disney used to rerelease the classics every few years.

John, I’m a huge fan, truly I am and I have all of your books – except for the latest which I keep putting off – but I don’t do twitter so I’m missing voice, your snark. I’m not complaining to you; your choices – of course! – but I miss your voice in the larger format of Whatever. Whenever you come this way, like the past 2 weeks, I’m just a touch happier in my day. Thanks for that.

I enjoy the big idea posts.

In the olden days, I would go to my locally owned bookstore, and browse and talk with the owner as a way of discovering new books. I also found that when I asked him to order something for me, he would almost always ask me about it, and would often order a couple of extra copies, so the process worked 2 ways.

I have acquired only a handful of books because of the Big idea posts, but when I think about it I probably looked at or paged through 20 books for every one that I bought, and the looking was part of the fun.

One thing you didn’t mention – the introduction of Athena as contributor.

I enjoy reading both of your posts, so it’s not meant as a negative. But after writing this blog so much on your own for such a long time, I’m curious how you (or Athena) think adding her has affected the dynamics of Whatever, if it has at all.

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