Salman Rushdie enters his Substack period

There is Salman Rushdie in real life, and then there is Salman Rushdie in virtual gear, the one who posts limericks about Kim Kardashian, fights with Facebook over his proper name and blocks people on Twitter. He has even had a Tumblr account.

>> Edmund LeeThe New York Times
Published : 2 Sept 2021, 05:40 AM
Updated : 2 Sept 2021, 05:40 AM

He can now count Substack among his many adventures in digital publishing.

Rushdie, the celebrated novelist and Booker Prize winner, plans to publish his first dispatch on the newsletter platform Wednesday as part of an effort to “try things I haven’t done before,” he said breezily in an interview.

The Bombay-born author, an American who has lived for the past two decades in New York, didn’t know anything about Substack until the company reached out to him. “I began to investigate it, and I discovered that quite a lot of people that I know and admire were diving in,” he said over a Zoom chat. He was at his desk in his library, dressed in a grey V-neck sweater and checked shirt, a confluence of muted tones throughout. He said he had been surprised to find that Patti Smith, Etgar Keret and Michael Moore were on the service.

Rushdie plans to start with some serialised fiction and possibly a few essays, all of which will be free at first. He will eventually charge ($5 or $6 a month) to unlock, say, later chapters of a continuing work of fiction, or the ability to interact with Rushdie himself.

“I would want, for example, to say to people, ‘Tell me what you think about this,’ and have a kind of comment thread that I can join in,” he said. “I mean, I thought, ‘I’ll see what happens.’ I don’t know how much there will be in the way of audience response.”

For a chunk of his adult life, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran condemned his 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” and called for his death, Rushdie was in hiding. He eventually reentered society as a literary man about town, appearing at book parties and galas as a sort of dashing, intellectual Zelig.

More recently, he has been something of a target on Twitter. He was pilloried for a gag tweet about Kardashian’s divorce. Separately, an Islamophobic quote falsely attributed to him remains on the platform. (He has appealed to the company to take down the post, with no luck.)

Rushdie, 74, said he was not a great fan of social media, at least not “in their current form,” yet he remains fairly active on Twitter. There he has more than 1.1 million followers, a figure he described as “nothing compared to the real aristocrats of Twitter.”

He prefers what Substack has to offer, he said. He can go deeper on all manner of subjects, such as his love for French New Wave cinema (since college), photography and music. The company also sweetened the pot by offering him money upfront. Rushdie declined to say how much, but indicated it was far short of what he would normally get for a book advance.

“I mean, if I were publishing a book, I’d get more money,” he said.

He still plans to hold back his big swings for the traditional outfits and is at work on a novel to be published by Random House.

Substack has cash to burn. It has raised nearly $83 million at a valuation of $650 million, and it recently acquired Cocoon, a social media app that is driven by subscriptions and does not include any advertising.

Rushdie has always been a maximalist, on the page and in life. His fiction is a highly stylised blend of magical realism and meta-theatrical storytelling, stories within stories told by multiple narrators. He has had an adventurous personal life and has been married several times. In many ways, Substack seems a natural venue for Rushdie. His catholicity of tastes and interests lends itself to the often expansive (sometimes shapeless) epistles that already make up Substack’s many thousands of newsletters.

Still, Rushdie thinks the written word has stalled when it comes to the web.

“I feel that, with this new world of information technology, literature has not yet found a really original space in there,” he said.

He added that he liked Substack’s potential for experimentation. “Just whatever comes into my head, it just gives me a way of saying something immediately, without mediators or gatekeepers,” Rushdie said.

He offered a taste of what may come in an essay collection published this year, “Languages of Truth,” a rangy work tackling everything from Shakespeare to the death of Osama bin Laden. Critics flayed the book, with one calling it a “confused vision of this century.” His most recent work of fiction, “Quichotte,” a postmodern retelling of “Don Quixote,” received a similar reception.

Rushdie’s move to Substack, a platform better known among tech bloggers and journalists, may be a coup for both parties. The novelist gives the tech startup some literary heft, while Substack lends a modish sheen to an author entering his twilight years, a period when big-name novelists are often keeping an eye on Stockholm while pretending not to.

“Let’s see how it goes,” he said of his new experiment. “I’m as curious as anybody else.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher