‘I guess I’m having a go at killing it’: Salman Rushdie to bypass print publish next book on Substack | Books
Out of the gloom Salman Rushdie floats into view, his familiar face with short beard glasses hovering on screen in front of a library that should win any competition for the most impressive Zoom bookshelf backdrop.
From his New York apartment he is here to share three things: he has made a deal to publish his next work of fiction as a serialised novella on Substack; he intends to fulfil a long held, once thwarted desire to be a film critic; he still doesn’t have the courage to write poetry.
“I got very attracted to the idea recently, in this strange year a half, of trying out things I’ve never done before,” he says.
“It’s to do with this enforced condition we’ve all been in of being pushed inwards … I published this book of essays [which was] the 20th book I’m already writing the 21st book, which is a novel. I just thought: do something else. And exactly the moment I was thinking that this project cropped up.”
“This project” is Substack came about after the newsletter platform wrote to Rushdie’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who asked him if it was something he wanted to do.
He wasn’t sure, but the platform, which is best known for attracting big name journalists, has recently been courting fiction writers. Patti Smith is publishing on it so is the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.
“I’ve been looking at [Keret’s] Substack it’s so witty enjoyable, he’s clearly having a wonderful time doing it, I thought, ‘maybe I could do that’.”
Substack provides a platform for readers to subscribe to individual writers, whose posts are sent to your inbox or can be read online. Writers often provide a mix of paid free content, which is what Rushdie plans to do.
“I’m going to kind of make it up as I go along, but I have some starting points,” he says. Aside from the novella, it will feature short stories, literary gossip (“as long as its not defamatory”) writing about books – film.
“I always wanted to write about movies. There was one moment 100 years ago, when somebody at the New Yorker was taking paternity leave I was asked if I’d like to step in for a couple of months to be their film critic. I thought that was a wonderful idea I said, ‘yes, please’. Then the critic in question ended up not taking the paternity leave so I got fired before I started.”
Often locked inside during the pandemic, Rushdie set himself a program to rewatch the films that made him fall in love with movies when he was young – “the French New Wave, the Italian New Wave, all the other great films of that period of the 60s 70s”.
“It was very interesting to see what, in my view, held up what did not.”
His novella, titled The Seventh Wave, is also linked to film. The 60,000 word text, which has now been slashed to 35,000 words, is about a film director an actor slash muse written in the style of New Wave cinema, with “disjunctions crash cuts gangsters”.
“The infallible test of anything I write is embarrassment,” Rushdie says. “If I’m embarrassed to show it to you, then it’s not ready.
“There comes a point where I’m not embarrassed to show it actually I’m kind of eager to show it. After the complete rethinking of this text – compressing, condensing, cutting, changing the narrative line somewhat – now I like it.”
It will be a digital experiment in serialising fiction (“the way [it] used to be published, right at the beginning”) with new sections coming out approximately once a week over the course of about a year, he says.
A surprising number of the classics were originally serialised: Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers is the best known example, but there are also Madame Bovary, War Peace, Heart of Darkness. Rushdie references the experience of Samuel Richardson, who serialised his novel Clarissa in 1748.
“His readers expected that she would, in the end, fall in love with the guy. But then he rapes her. Richardson had quite a lot of correspondence from readers who said that, in spite of that terrible act, they still wanted what they would consider to be a happy ending – he very determinedly would not give it to them.
“I’ve never had that before, to be publishing something where people can say things about it while it’s going on.”
Is he open to the idea of feedback from readers shaping the story?
“It would have to be a very good suggestion,” he says. “But it does sometimes happen that somebody says something about a character, which you hadn’t thought about when you were writing it … If somebody were to say, for instance, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I want to hear a bit more about that’, then maybe I’ll give them a bit more about that.”
Rushdie says he doesn’t want to use Substack as a political platform (“I think what happens is that takes over obliterates everything else”), but he acknowledges that events (“eg. Afghanistan”) might force him to say something.
Despite his intentions, the move to Substack could see Rushdie wading into a politically charged fight over the moderation of tech platforms. The Trump era now Covid have poured rocket fuel on to questions about gate-keeping, misinformation which voices get to be heard, that have been simmering for the best past of a decade.
Earlier this year, Substack was accused of weak moderation policies that allowed the publication of anti-trans views, which led some writers to leave the platform in protest. Substack, like the platforms that came before it, has tried its best to skirt the issue by saying it is not a publisher, its users are.
In separate posts in March, the company outlined its thinking behind Substack Pro (where users, like Rushdie, are paid an advance for their first year) its moderation strategy (no hate speech, harassment, threats or doxing). But critics say the platform has a duty to be transparent about who it is paying to write.
After becoming the target of a fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 over his novel The Satanic Verses, freedom of speech has been central to Rushdie’s public identity.
“The question about which voices get to speak … is a very important [one],” he says. “In publishing … there was a real problem about which voices got to speak, I’m not saying that’s gone away, but it’s changing. Here [in the US] there’s a lot more space for writers of colour than there used to be, both in publishing books in the critical sphere.
“And potentially something like this, with its lack of gatekeepers, could also enable a more diverse set of voices … If you want a Substack you can start one, you know, you don’t have to be invited.
“But I don’t want to be their cheerleader,” he says. “It was interesting for me to have a go with this all I’ve done is make a 12-month commitment. A year from now, I’m going to see where we stand, I’ll either go on with it, or I won’t.”
What he is interested in for now is engaging in a dialogue with readers. In the first post on his Substack, which is called Salman’s Sea of Stories, Rushdie writes poetically about how stories give birth to other stories, using as an example two stories in his own life which sparked the idea for his best of the Booker prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children.
“Human beings have always been storytellers you use that as a way of understanding who you are, who the people around you are, what’s going on,” he says. “If I look back, which I don’t very often, the books do seem to be like reports from different stages of my consciousness. I think most of us do that – we all tell each other stories all the time.”
Rushdie says Twitter has enabled him to maintain a connection with his country of birth due to a disproportionately large number of his 1.1m followers being Indian.
“It does become a way for me, sitting in New York, to have a conversation with people across India as if I was there – it actually sometimes makes me feel that I am there, you know, because I’m in their living room on their computer, they’re online.”
Through that community Rushdie, who has remained engaged both with India’s political situation its suffering amid Covid, got involved in campaigns to fundraise money to provide oxygen cylinders the like.
He is hoping that Substack “might allow a slightly more complex connection” give him the space to talk about things that “are just too big to discuss in tweets”.
“I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age … Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.
“I have a very strong suspicion, it is not going to be somebody of my age who comes up with it.”
Rushdie is quite laissez-faire about where this new project will take him.
“I’m just diving in here que sera sera, you know. It will either turn out to be something wonderful enjoyable, or it won’t.”
But he also realises that by taking his fiction digital, he is taking a small step away from the beloved medium he has dedicated his life to.
“People have been talking about the death of the novel, almost since the birth of the novel … but the actual, old fashioned thing, the hardcopy book, is incredibly, mutinously alive. And here I am having another go, I guess, at killing it.”