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Happy Birthday to me!
It would appear that I missed my own Substack’s first birthday, which came and went a few days ago on April 24th. My inaugural piece, on the complex tragedy of racialized police shootings, still holds up quite well if I say so. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of writing many more pieces on many more topics. Despite launching this newsletter on the cusp of a move and a new job, I’ve been able to provide something new just about each week, with open rates consistently in the 50-60% range for free pieces and the 55-70% range for paid-tier pieces. I’m told this is very good. So, thank you all very much for that. Readers sustain writers. I would not have the motivation to keep doing this without you.
For those curious, I’ve also endeavored to keep my hand in with the occasional out-sourced piece, most recently with an article this week in The Critic plugging my unearthed collection of Great War letters by the Scottish minister A. E. Laurie. I was proud to debut a preview of those letters right here at the Stack this year, and I can’t wait to pull together the whole collection in a real book between real covers. Apparently some of you can’t wait either, which pleases me to no end.
For stats wonks, we currently sit at 1174 subscribers, of which 176 are paid-tier, of which about 70 are gift subscriptions. This is modest in the grand scheme. I’m not quitting my day job. Nobody is beating my door down with a major book contract, April Fool’s Twitter joking aside. (To all my followers who actually fell for that, I’m so sorry.) Bari Weiss doesn’t need to check her rear-view mirror. But, for a niche writer, for my first year, I count this a solid win.
As is typical of any publication like this, I’ve had a high “churn rate,” which is to say a steady up and down of subscribes and unsubscribes. I recently discovered there was a place for people to leave feedback on their way out. It was mostly empty, but there were a few gems. Perhaps the most amusing was the shortest: “This has proven to be one of the Substacks I enjoy, and quote, least.” Then there are those who actually like the work but simply can’t afford the paid tier. Please do let me know if you become one of those people. I can turn your free pumpkin into a paid-tier coach with the click of a mouse. Bibbidy bobbidy comp subscription!
Oddly, though I’ve kept up a steady output of paid content, there seems to have been a net downtick in recent days. Perhaps this is because my free posts have been less frequent, so that I’m not replenishing as much. Perhaps it’s because some people are realizing it’s been a year and they’ve got someplace better to put that $50 next year. Who knows? Such is Substack life. I’m still playing with the balance of free and paid content, but I have consistently prioritized paying subscribers when I had to choose, and this will continue to be my MO going forward. I seem to have settled into a rough average rhythm of one new bit of paid-tier content every week and a half. The one-week free trial option is switched on, so anyone who likes can go sample the goods if you’re curious to hear my thoughts on such diverse topics as Maundy Thursday, Pink Floyd, President Zelenskyy, the homelessness crisis, prostitution, and much more.
And now, as a fun thing, I thought I would make a Top 10 list of the last year’s most-viewed free pieces, all of which pulled in at least a couple thousand hits each (and the top four significantly more). Most of these spiked because somebody with a much bigger platform than mine graciously (or ungraciously!) sent me an influx of new readers, the vast majority of whom no doubt didn’t hang around to read much more. But they were appreciated anyway! So, whether you came to the Stack later or you just missed these pieces at the time, I hope you’ll find they offer a nice cross-section of my work. (This also gives me an excuse to replace old links that were broken when I changed my subdomain, so that I can start slowly climbing back up Mr. Google’s ranking ladder.)
Coming Out As Me—The piece where I finally shed the pen name I’d been using for years. This seemed to be of interest to way more people than usual, making this far and away the most-read piece of the year. Since then, I’ve been asked how it’s going. I can report that on balance, being myself has been great.
Frail As Summer’s Flower—A rather rambly hodge-podge of thoughts on Caitlin Flanagan, assisted suicide, dementia, and a depressing film about an aging gay couple would not have been my predicted clear #2 on the year-end top ten, yet here we are. It’s a long story, but I have Caitlin herself to thank for this one, quite unintentionally on her part. With apologies to those just tuning in who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, thus showing just how ephemeral people’s online arguments really are.
What We Can’t Not Know—A big Christian site gave me a pingback for this one, so I think I have that to thank for putting this in clear third. Another early piece that I think is still quite apt, on the fact-value distinction and whether one can state moral claims “objectively.” This intersects on perhaps a more subtle level with certain Christian-friendly public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and Tom Holland. Even more fun than this piece was the extended tweebate it launched between myself and Holland, whom I somewhat critique here. Have a look, and be sure to keep reading until you get to the part where Tom called me a sophist! (We are still friends.)
What Will Become of Atheism?—Funny enough, this early piece on Freddie deBoer and “new New Atheism” also seems to be relevant again, since Freddie has just posted yet another nihilist sort-of manifesto on his Substack. I’m generally positive to Freddie in the piece, because I think he does have the number of a particular type of post-New-Atheist.
God’s Firebrand: An Interview With Hatun Tash—I’m absolutely thrilled to see that my encounter with this extraordinary saint landed in the top five. I encourage everyone to read this, if you only read one of the things I link here. This was the unedited version of an exclusive sit-down I obtained for The Spectator after she was stabbed in Hyde Park. I will never forget her curiously asking me, in her gentle Eastern accent, “Where are you publishing this, sister?”
The Song of the Saints—A literary analysis of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Pieces like these are among the most fulfilling work I’ve done.
Sucker—I wrote this one for Tucker Carlson. ‘Nuff said.
We Were Stewards—I wrote this one for our heroes of the Afghanistan debacle. I still can’t think about it without getting slightly misty.
It’s a Sin (Part I)—Another one of these really rather disorganized pieces that people still liked somehow. Part history lesson, part cultural commentary on American gay activism. This piece was the first in a trilogy, and predictably Part II and Part III didn’t get as many hits, but I’m pleased with the whole thing in hindsight. As a friend said, “That did not go where I thought something with that title was going to go.”
The Parable of the Two Pandemics—In which I actually went there with an extended COVID/AIDS compare/contrast, carefully designed to make almost everyone slightly uncomfortable. Which, admittedly, is on brand.
With that, let me open the floor to you all. What would you like to see more of? Less of? Drop me a note or leave a comment below and let me know. Thanks again for reading. Further up and further in!