This is an Ideas piece by Scarlett Harris about why we should maybe cool it with the hot takes.
The pressure of hot take culture means that culture websites and their writers are forced – by an increasingly short news cycle that largely survives on click – to publish recaps, reviews and thinkpieces about movies, shows, books and music before they’ve really had a chance to settle in and make their mark on the zeitgeist. I reviewed the latest season of Orange is the New Black for Junkee when it premiered in June. Initially, I praised the show’s confronting take on race relations in the women’s prison in which it’s set and how it ripped stories such as Black Lives Matter and deaths in custody from the headlines.
I’ve since had time to ruminate on the season, taking into account the response from viewers of colour to the framing of black and brown trauma, and I realised I fell victim to hot take culture.'
Many writers working in pop culture and criticism will be familiar with this quandary. Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth, wrote about giving up freelancing last year in the wake of the transition from primarily print to online modes of publishing resulting in a “demand for ever faster speeds for ever lower pay.”
“I have always been a writer who has treated each story I produced as an overwrought birth of sorts, over-researching and pouring over every sentence,” Hills goes on to write. “In the world of online journalism, it is a financial disaster.”
Junkee staff writer Sinead Stubbins wrote earlier in the year about pop culture stress—”In this internet age—with its surprise album drops, entire seasons released in one hit, online spoilers in every nook and cranny of the internet—it’s more stressful to be a fan than ever before”—but she could just as easily be musing on the stress of being a pop culture writer. Having written for such pop culture institutions as Vice, Vulture and Pitchfork, Stubbins seldom puts a foot wrong in her analyses. But what about writers who don’t have the good fortune of working full time in the vocation?
Lisa Dib, a Melbourne-based freelancer, decided to “study when it became apparent I could not making writing full-time financially viable. This was a sad realisation to come to, since I adore writing, but there’s only so much room and money in the oft-cliquey, sometimes overwhelming online maze of hot takes and political satire,” she told me, echoing Hills’ sentiments. “I was tired of feeling myself falling down the ladder, despite everything I did, and worked toward.”
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, marketing content coordinator at the Melbourne Writers Festival, writes a bi-weekly column for Daily Life, where she’s covered such topics as fusion cuisine, casual sex and discussing that casual sex with her parents. When we spoke, the Melbourne Writers Festival was in full swing, Nguyen is taking “a few weeks off my column because I’m going to be working so much.” The flexibility of her editors means Nguyen is more concerned with managing her own expectations of what she can feasibly take on during this hectic period. The fact that “a lot of my stuff is not time-sensitive because it’s just about me and my experiences” takes the pressure off.
Nguyen doesn’t feel the stress of hot take culture as keenly as other writers of her ilk, “because my column is relatively infrequent [that] I know that when something happens, firstly, I don’t have the time to write about it right now, and secondly, by the time my column comes out it’ll be old news. The online news cycle means that things last for, like, a day and everyone gets over it.”
Nguyen felt inspired to write about the recent Melbourne school pornography ring but she “would rather take my time with something like that but because it is such huge news people are just pumping stuff out and I don’t really want to do that.” Outlets are “obsessed with getting clicks,” she feels, “and I just don’t have the time to write something that is meaningful to me rather than getting in there first to get the clicks. If it’s something that I’m not proud of, it’s gonna be something that’s in my portfolio.” My before-mentioned OITNB review could come under this category.
Some online publications seem to be moving away from hot takes but there are still plenty of readers—and, indeed, writers—hungry for the latest in the Taylor Swift-Kanye West-Kim Kardashian feud (about which I read all the thinkpieces) and what we should be thinking and feeling about the Nate Parker rape case.
In this way, writers have a responsibility to their audience and the demand to churn takes out in less than a day means we aren’t always honouring that responsibility. To again draw from my own experience, I recently pitched and published a quick-turnaround piece on World Wrestling Entertainment incorporating LGBTQIA storylines into their product for the newly-shuttered SBS Zela (RIP). Looking back on it, I wish I had more time to work on the article, incorporating further examples and a more thoughtful thesis.
As writers we need to know our strengths and weaknesses and perhaps avoid this urge to pitch and get paid for hot takes on topics we are less-than-informed about. We can’t be all over every aspect of culture and the politics inherent in them.
I still stand by my initial review of Orange is the New Black, but I also understand that it was a reflexive response to a show that does what good pop culture and thus, pop culture writers, should: incorporate and comment on what’s going on in the world around us, for better or worse.
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Scarlett Harris is a regional Victoria-based freelance writer, musing about femin- and other -isms.