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How to Be an Intellectual
On writing for the public
People often ask if I have any tips on how to be a successful writer. Of course! Just do the following, and you can follow my path:
Write about how wokeness is a cancer. Then, when you’ve built an audience of right-wing anti-wokes and MAGAs, make sure to release a series of articles about how conservatives are immoral and have low IQs, liberals are completely right about January 6, and the media is honest and good.
Have a vicious hatred of masking. But when that gives you fans that are anti-vaxx too, constantly tell them they’re stupid, you hate them, and they’re the reason we can’t have nice things.
Write a report about how China is going to become the strongest country in the world, and an essay arguing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will usher in a new era of multipolarity. Stick to this view throughout February 2022, and defend Putin’s position in the face of all of Twitter having erupted in moral outrage at what he has done. Become known for that. Later that year, declare you hate Putin, that China and Russia both suck, and America will lead the world indefinitely. Keep talking about Asians and their love of masking, explaining how this represents a great moral and spiritual defect and tying it into your geopolitical analysis.
If you’ve got any right-wing fans left, make sure they know you have positions on abortion and euthanasia that would be too much even for most liberal Democrats. As everyone is flipping out about the Canadian MAID program, write about how it doesn’t go far enough and killing yourself is actually masculine and honorable, and you are repulsed by any moral system that holds otherwise, which is for the weak.
For good measure, throw in some takes about how it doesn’t matter if female teachers have sex with underage male students, and argue that Harvey Weinstein is a political prisoner.
Do all this, and you will become an extremely popular writer beloved by the world.
Or maybe not. What I hope is clear is that there really wasn’t a plan here.
Sometimes people ask specifically about how to write better. The truth is I have no idea. Like everything, you improve with practice, but I’ve never read a book to become a better writer or trained myself in any way. Perhaps part of my success is that I have a genuine interest in the things I write about, so I’m spending a lot of time thinking about any argument I’m going to make, and when I sit down to begin an essay I usually have an outline in my head that includes everything from how the topic is going to be introduced, to the jokes, to the evidence I will present and rebuttals to other writers. But all of this is banal. “Be smart and passionate.” That’s not real advice.
Some of you apparently don’t have inner monologues, and I wonder if that’s necessary to be a good writer. Words in my head are as real to me as text on a page, and they both sort of blend together. This must give me a substantial advantage. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t even think in words, I don’t know if that’s something you can force yourself to do, even if it’s what you want.
That being said, although I don’t believe I can help you become a better writer, there are two broad pieces of advice that I think may improve your chances of getting noticed.
Be a performance artist
There are a lot of academics and journalists who do good work as parts of institutions. Those people can let their writing speak for itself. A Harvard professor or a New York Times author doesn’t necessarily need to have a personal connection with the audience. But you on your Substack can’t just sit there and do intellectually interesting work and think that’ll be enough. People want to read interesting things, but they also want to be part of a crowd observing a spectacle. In a world where attention is scarce, you need both the talent and the showmanship to break through. Educated Americans read Ross Douthat or David Brooks articles in part because large numbers of other people read them, making doing so a social event. For you to create that on your own requires you to build a reputation, and for that you need to be interesting.
If you look at almost any individual writer who has succeeded on their own, they are to a large extent known for their quirks. Consider how each of the following figures can be summarized in a funny sentence.
Scott Alexander: Psychiatrist and San Francisco rationalist with unusual love life who constantly pours his heart out to the world.
Matt Yglesias: Guy who’s willing to challenge his own side with a kind of detached irony and do funny things to operationalize his utilitarian reasoning like calling the cops on car owners with tinted license plates.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Deadlifting Med bro with a short fuse who lets people know they are IMBECILES.
Andrew Sullivan: Gay, Catholic, and conservative, and somehow reconciling all of that while talking about it every step of the way.
Curtis Yarvin: Monarchist and anti-egalitarian allegedly whispering into the ears of powerful and important figures telling them to abolish democracy.
Noah Smith: Anime fan asexual economist who likes rabbits and dunking on people on Twitter.
The GMU economics department similarly has a kind of corporate identity, and one expects everyone affiliated with it to be a quirky or autistic libertarian of some sort.
Speaking of which, while writing the list above, I noticed how many times I either wrote or was tempted to write “autist” in my description of various personalities. Aella is supposedly autistic too, and that plus sex is a powerful combination. Independent writing is probably not for the psychologically normal.
It’s hard to think of many public intellectuals who aren’t weird and unashamed of it. One exception that comes to mind is Rob Henderson, but in an “exception that proves the rule” kind of way. In Rob’s case, his background is what makes him interesting. His mom was a Korean from Los Angeles who gave him up for adoption, after which he grew up in the foster system among white proles, joined the US military, and eventually went to Yale. One doesn’t see that every day! Being able to share this kind of background makes up for Rob being a pretty normal guy in terms of personality.
This is why I can’t be replaced by ChatGPT. Part of the experience of reading an author is getting a glimpse into a human mind – a living, breathing person who perceives the world with all his quirks, prejudices, and foibles. You can interact with him on Twitter, try to get him mad, or wonder whether or not he’s trolling or serious in any given circumstance. Even if an LLM could produce text in the style of a famous author and predict his views on every issue, I don’t think the public intellectual has anything to worry about.
Modern art shows the extent to which people care about the human touch. Much of it is pure garbage, and either indistinguishable or barely distinguishable from what apes or children can produce. Nonetheless, modern art can sell, because it’s about the artist more than it is about the product. The public intellectual isn’t all that different.
Even if you have a conventional personality, one may gain an advantage by being more willing than others are to share details about yourself and your personal life in your writing. Recently, I was talking to a very attractive girl who had dabbled in journalism and opinion writing, and she said that she was feeling depressed because she didn’t think she was as smart as me (who is though?) and couldn’t make it as a writer. I told her that I would be interested in reading what it’s really like going through life as an attractive woman, written by someone free thinking enough not to filter every experience through the lens of feminism. The point is you don’t have to be some giant weirdo for this to work; there are markets like “attractive woman writing about being attractive in a non-feminist way” that are far from saturated.
If the thought of talking about your personal life and experiences fills you with embarrassment or dread, and you could never imagine interweaving personal narrative into your work in the way that Scott Alexander or Andrew Sullivan does, making it as an independent writer is going to be difficult. You might try to make it in academia or journalism instead, where the personal touch is less necessary.
Be less risk-averse
I have already written about how most people are too risk-averse in most circumstances. Writers may be an extreme case. There seems for most people to be a psychological tendency towards audience capture. There are broadly two kinds of readers: those who want to learn and be challenged, and those who just want someone to aggressively and unapologetically tell them what they want to hear. I won’t lie to you – the latter group is much larger. This is why Sean Hannity has 6.3 million Twitter followers, and Tyler Cowen, as influential as you think he might be, only has 218K.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing Tyler is more your model than Hannity. In that case, you’re aiming for a smarter, more emotionally stable, and less tribal audience, one that will probably be more likely to tolerate or even appreciate eccentric opinions.
Of course, one can also go down the path of playing to the crowd, and if you do you can probably make more money in the end. One might even be able to morally justify this. Say you think Republicans are right on more issues than Democrats are, and so you want to become an influential conservative figure, which might mean keeping your mouth shut on abortion, immigration, or some other issue where you’re outside of the mainstream of your side. Still, even in this case I would still advise you to not be risk-averse – here, the risk acceptant behavior may involve going all in and taking a view to its logical conclusion instead of challenging your audience.
I’ve adopted elements of both kinds of risk acceptant strategies: I challenge the my audience on certain issues, and agree with it but go much further than one would expect on others, including civil rights and crime. The point here is that you may pick a path and be risk acceptant in one direction, or if you’re feeling really brave, be like me and become risk acceptant in all directions.
What holds this advice all together is the basic idea that a lot of people want to be writers, and few make it. You’re going to have to try and stand out. Many of your favorite writers pay the bills by having one rich guy support their work. It’s like picking up women, in that it’s better to have a personality that attracts half of women and repulses the other half than it is to have them all feel indifferent towards you. We live in a world of endless distractions. Your first goal is to be something other than just another name on a screen to at least some substantial part of the public.
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