Substack Reads: Christie Smythe, Sam Freedman, and Astro Poets
This week: The relationship that rocked America; how politicians are manufacturing “authenticity”; plus, how celluloid helped one writer come back from the brink
This week on Substack Reads, we highlight new names from the world of journalism who have brought their voices and stories over to Substack.
These include former Bloomberg journalist Christie Smythe, who is releasing her book SMIRK (based on her scandalous relationship with “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli) exclusively on Substack. Author and former editor of Time Out New York Terri White launches her Substack, White Noise, with a brilliant essay on the films that saved her, and political adviser Sam Freedman explores the problem of authenticity in modern politics in Comment is Freed.
Of course, the stories we surface here on Substack Reads are only a snapshot of the work being created across the platform. To find more writers and podcasters you’ll love, download the app, which makes discovering new voices so much easier.
You can also share Substack writers you love in the comments below. We’d love to hear who’s keeping you up at night.
The relationship that rocked America
Christie Smythe was a married reporter for Bloomberg when she crossed paths with pharmaceutical fraudster Martin Shkreli. What happened next is a love story so shocking, she decided to write a book about it, serialized exclusively here on Substack
—Christie Smythe in SMIRK
It didn’t matter to people that I didn’t date him while I was covering him, or even that I never slept with him. (For the record, he went to prison well before I seriously entertained that thought.) Nor did it matter that I had grappled painfully with the ethical quandaries for months before deciding to leave my job and pursue the romance, which was detailed in the piece.
I had, to many people, forsaken my vows to the profession of journalism—for Martin Shkreli. Both were deemed not only unforgivable, but unthinkable.
“Is she delusional or psychologically unwell?” a feminist columnist (married to a man she met while working in journalism) mused in an opinion piece for CNN, as she speculated on my reasons for entering the relationship. Echoing many of the pearl-clutching voices in the media bubble, she went on to ask whether I was “pathologically attention-seeking? A victim of a bad man or an enabler of one?”
Why the challenge of authenticity in politics is way more complicated than you’d think
—Sam Freedman in Comment is Freed
There is agreement amongst the academics who’ve studied it that political “authenticity” is, paradoxically, performative. Politicians who have been tagged as authentic, like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage, all, very obviously, have constructed personas. Much has been written about the contrast between the shy Alexander Johnson and his alter ego “Boris.” And the way, before becoming PM, he staged the same rambling after-dinner performance over and over; taking care to mess up his hair before he went on stage. Likewise Trump, with his aggressive hyperbole and boasting, has a brand developed over many years.
The paradox can be resolved, though, if we think of authenticity as a perceived match between the persona and the underlying reality. Johnson is what you might expect a posh Etonian to be like, and Trump an exaggerated version of a deal-obsessed New York property magnate. (One of my favourite pieces on Trump remains Andrew Sabisky’s explanation of how he formed his persona via his regular participation in WWE wrestling.) [Rishi] Sunak’s attempt at the ordinary Dad persona, on the other hand, was a failed match.
Can a movie save your life?
When she hit rock bottom, Terri White sought salvation the only way she knew how: by switching on the box and rewatching some old favorites
Content warning: Suicide and mental illness
When things were bad at home, when my mind first started to warp, I would borrow homemade videotapes off my schoolmate Debbie or take my babysitting money and visit the 50p shelf at the village video shop. Relief slipped out of the mouth of the machine as the video was pushed in. I would sit cross-legged on the floor, waiting as the tape whirred (someone had always forgotten to rewind it. Remember when we had to rewind tapes?! Wild). For the next 100-odd moments, my life was on pause. I was taken by the hand, pulled through the Artex ceiling and the wet roof, into the heavy clouds and across unseen to other lands. The Goonies, Beverly Hills 90210, The Lost Boys, Stand by Me, Tales of the Unexpected, Prisoner: Cell Block H, Return of the Jedi.
Now clearly, these other lands weren’t always sunlit, but they were elsewhere. That elsewhere has been there for me, as life has gone on. In my 20s after my first suicide attempt, when I barely knew the self I was trying to patch back together (Sex and the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Psycho, Boyz n the Hood, Six Feet Under, Dawson’s Creek). In my 30s, six months before my second, when I was living in the sky in New York’s Soho and cracking right through the middle (Girls, Happy Valley, The Dark Knight Rises, Crimewatch).
Meet the medieval outlaws
In his series on real-life Robin Hoods, New York Times best-selling author Dan Jones delves into the lives of some of history’s most under-the-radar rebels, starting with Fulk FitzWarin
The outlaw tale in which we usually meet King John today is Robin Hood, where John is presented as the epitome of corrupt kingship, in contrast to his just and valiant brother Richard. Yet as we discussed last time, the king in the first-known Robin Hood ballads is named as Edward; John and Richard are later additions whose inclusion technically transports Robin to a different historical dimension. If we want an outlaw tale that is authentically ‘early Plantagenet’, we should really get our heads around Fulk.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”
The Fifth Column podcast describes itself as “a weekly rhetorical assault on the news cycle.” This week: journalist Jon Ronson talks about cancellation, satanic panics, and the interview that (almost) made him believe in God
—Michael Moynihan in The Fifth Column podcast
The hidden meaning behind a viral photograph taken by Ukrainian soldiers reveals much about the ongoing war
—Lawrence Weschler in Wondercabinet
Some of you may have been seeing this inspired image flitting about the internet recently, perhaps not quite comprehendingly:
It depicts a group of Ukrainian soldiers who recently took a few minutes away from the roiling front line to restage a conclave that would be instantaneously recognizable to anyone in Ukraine, or for that matter in any lands of the former Russian empire. The reference is to a celebrated historical painting from the late nineteenth century, which in turn had reimagined a legendary event of the late seventeenth.
The end of the world is coming…
And how you dress for it matters greatly, writes Sarah Lazarovic
—Sarah Lazarovic in Minimum Viable Planet
I was growing increasingly appalled by the pace of waste around me. If you’re roughly my age, you grew up alongside fast fashion and could therefore track how the Gap went from refreshing its clothes every month or so to a world where Zara had new clothes daily. You could see this warp-speed consumerism ramp up everywhere. People were buying more stuff at such a clip that it leapfrogged “worrisome” and went straight to “alarming.” This was not going to be sustainable.
So I did art projects about this (not shopping for a year at a time, painting the things I would have otherwise bought) and eventually wrote a book about this. But it was a very light entry point to climate, more about personal consumption than any of the bigger issues.
Your star sign… in Allen Ginsberg lines
See what the stars have in store for you this week, with a little help from Beat poet, and Gemini, Allen Ginsberg
We’re very close to Gemini season, and Allen Ginsberg is one of my favorite Geminis. You can feel his Gemini nature in the poems, which are a little messy, endlessly interested in themselves and everything else, and in his tone, which approaches nostalgia but almost never succumbs to it. Geminis love being in the world. They are curious creatures. Leave the constant emotional processing to someone else. They just want to live!
Real as a dream
What shall I do with this great opportunity to fly?
What is the interpretation of this planet, this moon?
Geminis are always asking questions. Sometimes they’re not even waiting for your answer (or any answer). They just want to put it out there. To say what they question, to question what they think. To think about the world and experience on a large scale. Because if you don’t know by now, Geminis are deep thinkers. They want to know about everything.
Substack Reads is a weekly roundup of writing, ideas, art, and audio from the world of Substack. Posts are recommended by staff and readers, and curated and edited from Substack’s U.K. outpost with writer Hannah Ray and editor Farrah Storr.
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Edited at 8.39 a.m. PT on May 23, 2022: This post was edited to remove the incorrect descriptor of Christie Smythe’s book, “fictionalized.” The book is memoir.
A very interesting collection. Thanks for sharing this.