‘I Miss Blogging, Terribly’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

(Editor’s note: These questions from Atlantic readers—in bold—and replies from Ta-Nehisi were compiled from an “Ask Me Anything” he did with the TAD group on 1/12. In the podcast above, starting at the 114:30 mark, Ta-Nehisi speaks at length about the bygone era of blogging and his writing today. Money quote: “Blogging was real-time, ongoing learning process. That went away. … I didn’t write too much [during the 2016 election] because I didn’t want to take this oracular role. There was no space to try to figure it out. There was no space to think about it.”)

I have been dying to ask about the new book. Is it by any chance the historical fiction one you’d started oh so long ago? I always thought you had captured some lightning with that one.

Hi Sandy. Yes. Signed a two book deal. First, is essays. Second is that historical fiction.

You tweeted earlier this year that you’re focused on book-writing. How much has your process changed as you’ve gotten more attention and a wider audience? How different is your day-to-day process now from the days of The Atlantic blogging and the original Horde?

Changed a lot. More people looking. Probably more than I’m comfortable with. Much less room to think out loud. So, thinking is much more of a private thing these days. The landscape isn’t really set up for the public act of asking questions.

It’s cool though. There was a time when I asked questions privately—before I got to The Atlantic. Basically have to go back to that. Maybe that’s as it should be.

Do you miss blogging? [Atlantic colleague and former Dish editor] Chris B. was lamenting the fall of blogging as a platform for thinking and learning in public and I always found that to be my favorite kind of process to read.

Yes. Terribly.

You seem both surprised and a little discomforted by how much attention you got following BTWAM [Between the World and Me] and, obviously, a lot of it was hostile. I remember reading about your Park Slope house purchase and your comments on the whole response to that. How do you manage that? I'm legit just curious about it as someone who feels, y'know, affection for you from your work but also invested in your work and what it adds to the discourse.

The house was actually in Lefferts-Garden, where I’d rented when my wife, my son and I first moved to New York. Was attached to that neighborhood. Got the house. Neighborhood blog plastered my face up. Realtor talked. And suddenly it wasn’t home anymore. It was performance.

When you know that people know who you are, you are always working—and not the work you want to do. You are sort of performing, because you know they are looking, or at least glancing at you. Would hate to walk out thinking about that.

There is something else: People never stop to think about you as an actual person with a family in these situations. I’ve said this publicly now, so it’s no point hiding it. My wife has long had women’s health issues at the core of her mission, specifically reproductive rights. She’s actually in med-school now, and the plan was always for her to be active on that front. When you want to go into that work, and your address is plastered all of the internet, with pictures and floorpans of your house, well … When I talked about “not feeling safe,” it wasn’t just for me.

People sort of went crazy when BTWAM came out. I’m happy a bunch of people read it. I’m happy it touched so many people. I’m less happy that it became an object for certain folks, or was discussed that way. I’m less happy that journalists started scrolling through my kid’s Instagram account.

It’s been a year of adjustment. The good news is I think I understand now. The rules are different. I can’t do things like I used to. I’m not “one of the folks” anymore. I kinda had to accept that. Was very hard to.

I can only imagine that was difficult—not just the specific risks, but having to reorient your way of carrying yourself both as a writer and person to accommodate and adjust to that sudden level of attention. It’s interesting to me that you became noteworthy in part and while interacting very directly with your audience, which always appealed to the punk fan in me, but also that you never seemed to hold yourself apart or above your readers and commentators.

So it's hard not to notice when you bought the house that the attention had a specific edge to it, in much the same way that the critiques of BTWAM or “The Case for Reparations” had an edge to it. Part of watching your career has sort of been watching your room to maneuver or margin for error shrink, even as the critiques—particularly from other writers—become more personalized and less focused or astute. I don’t know that there's really a question in there, just observations from being a reader for the past six or seven years. Your growth as a public intellectual and writer has been tremendous and some of the attention you’ve gotten has been warranted, but it’s sad to see how you becoming more widely known and noteworthy enables some of the worst reactions.

It’s just a fact of “winning.” That’s what it is. I won. I became a “successful” writer. And this is part of what comes with it. My job is to make sure that I don’t let any of that—good or bad—corrupt the things that I love: writing, my health, and my family.

Hi Mr. Coates, this is the artist formerly known as Horde Centurion Erik Vanderhoff. I’ve been reading you since 2009, and I have to say, it’s been fascinating watching you grow as a thinker and a writer. The time period where you felt brave and curious enough to share that growth in real time through your blog at The Atlantic and interacting so directly with your commenters was a really special thing, something I’ve not seen reproduced and am not sure could be. Now, as a member of the moderator team at TAD, I’ve come to really appreciate the sheer amount of effort curating the Horde must have entailed for you.

As with all things so special, it had a short life. I’m wondering if you could verify a suspicion of mine: Did the Horde sort of sow its own seeds of its demise? Was there a point where you realized that the Horde was no longer providing the challenge and education it had in the past? I’ve always felt that we moved beyond deep discussion to a more insular community of personality, and that such things invariably attract discord from without

I never expected my writing to become as popular as it did. You don’t make a case for reparations thinking “Oh yeah, people are gonna love this.” I didn’t see that coming. That, more than anything, killed the blogging. It became impossible to talk. Just too many people.

Do you have a question for us?

I just want you all to know that I’m sorry I had to leave you. It was not a case of me feeling like I’d outgrown the space or anything. Just became impossible to protect it as such.