The Top 10 Newsletters of 2021
What did men yell at me this year?
This is the mid-week newsletter for Men Yell At Me. A newsletter of journalism, essays, and interviews that explores that place where our politics meets our personhood. It is written by me, Lyz Lenz, an author and journalist in Iowa. This newsletter is a year-end wrap up and I am currently on vacation until the new year. If you like this newsletter and you find it readable, please subscribe. (I always accept hate subscribes too.) The bulk of my newsletters will always be free. But subscriptions help me keep writing these stories. See you in 2022!
I started this newsletter in 2018, when I was a broke single mom, who was freelancing, writing books, and looking for any source of extra income. Substack’s founders reached out to me and told me they thought I could build something interesting and make some money. I did not believe them. Honestly, in hindsight, I was a little rude on that phone call. I think I said, “You have to be kidding? I don’t think this idea will work.”
But they insisted, and who am I to resist the men in tech? I posted a little Twitter poll, and an overwhelming number of people replied that yes, they’d pay for a newsletter from me.
Men Yell at Me began as a newsletter chronicling the personal and professional behind-the-scenes aspects of my reporting career. In those first two years, I wrote about tracking down the woman who accused Tucker Carlson of rape (it’s for subscribers only, because I want to protect this woman’s mental health, but no, I do not believe he assaulted her). I wrote about writing about Gretchen Carlson. And Anne Helen Petersen wrote a guest post. The early newsletters are rough. Unedited. And very rushed. I was writing them while finishing up my first book and writing a second. And then I also wrote and recorded an audiobook, and ALSO, I was freelancing. And parenting. Don’t forget parenting. Then, in 2019, I got a job working for my local paper. When I was fired in October of 2020, for what I believe were political reasons, Substack gave me a grant and an editor and asked me to make this my full-time job.
So, that’s what I did this year.
I also did some other things too. I sold my third book to Crown publishers. And it’s due out spring of 2023. I wrote for Vanity Fair about the controversy at the Iowa Dental School, for The Columbia Journalism Review about Seth Abramson (he never sued me, by the way), and for Huffington Post about Nazis.
But this year, this newsletter really took off. I hit over 2,000 paid subscribers and nearly 15,000 total subscribers. This newsletter has been mentioned on MSNBC, in Nieman Labs, in On the Media and on WNYC.
In 2022, I have plans to expand the scope and breadth of what I do here. I’ve heard from subscribers. You want more reporting, and okay, I want to give you that. I want to give you more about the politics and people that impact our daily lives, especially here, in the middle of America.
This year, a lot of people have asked me when I would move. Which is a fair question. The reality of writing and creative jobs in Iowa is that there really aren’t a lot of them here. And very few of them actually pay real salaries.
But, I don’t want to move. Sure, sometimes I hate it here. But most of the time I love it. Did you know that I go for runs, and my neighbors wave “hi” and tell me they love the newsletter? Did you know that a couple of weeks ago, Sue called me from the bookstore to tell me another writer had come through town and did I want to talk to her? Also, did you know my son lives near his little best friend and on summer nights we jump on the trampoline and roast marshmallows and catch fireflies? And did you know that this is my town too? I love this messy, tangled, drama-riddled town. Where we all witness each other’s loves, fears, and worst moments. But no, I won’t endorse any of you for mayor. Not ever.
I belong here. I love it here. And so, I am here. And I can live and thrive here because we made this newsletter a success. And as someone who only two years ago was borrowing money for groceries, that means something.
I remember being in a job interview in February of this year and talking to an editor I deeply respect, who told me, “Iowa is your superpower.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, while watching our newsrooms shrink and misinformation rule our politics and our policies. We need more stories. We need more voices here. We don’t need more parachute journalism. We need more people to stay.
It’s really a Midwestern story of not just making due with what you have, but making it a success. Of turning the shit storms into fertilizer. But doing it as a community. And also, just having some fun.
Here are the top 10 stories from 2021 that you all loved, shared, and commented on this year. If they have anything in common, they’re stories that speak to the ways the personal is political, how the raw humanity of our lives intersects with the ideas and issues of our culture.
I interviewed author Talia Lavin about her book Culture Warlords, which chronicles her journey into the rotten underside of the internet chasing down Nazis online. But first, I wrote about my own experiences with online hate and pushback and how I’ve handled it, from how I protect information online to how I protect my mental well-being. The conversation was amazing, because Talia was smart to point out the difference between being criticized for something you say or do (a perfectly valid form of online criticism, one that happens all the time) and sending death threats or doxxing someone’s parents (horrible and terrible things to do).
And wow, did this interview rile people up. Glenn Greenwald had thoughts about it. Some weird Republican politicians had thoughts about it. We were accused of whining, of being fragile women who can’t take the heat. And a whole host of other things that I forget, because I muted everyone on Twitter. Because, as it turns out, I can take the heat. And I’m thriving. All I ask is that you not send death threats? I know it’s a lot to ask.
On the flip side, since this was published, I’ve had so many people (community activists, journalists, politicians, doctors, and school board members) reach out to me and thank me for it, because in a way it’s a roadmap for handling the digital mob.
In January, I read a story that was lightly lamenting the decline in American birth rates, which absolutely set me off. Just the assumption that people choosing not to have kids in this climate is something to lament is enraging enough, but the rollback of women’s rights during this pandemic has been breathtaking to watch. I think the popularity of this newsletter was that it remained salient all year, up until a few weeks ago, as we watched the Supreme Court undermine women’s right to an abortion.
In June, a professor at a local college shared a viral meme on Facebook, which was, first of all, mostly fake in that it grossly overstates the accomplishments of one woman. And second of all, was demeaning toward women. It pits two women against each other, one an aspiring astronaut and the other, Kendall Jenner. The false binary created by the meme uplifts one woman while demeaning another. And I simply think that you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to demean any type of woman at all. This is a kind of toxic benevolent feminism that, at its core, is more about reining in unruly bodies than it is about uplifting women, and we simply do not have to do it.
I wrote this newsletter at the beginning of the summer, when it seemed, as the poet Lizzo sang, it would be the summer when they let us out the house. And everyone’s talk was about “hot girl summer.” But then COVID came back, and the reality of our American divide bitch-slapped us once again. And I think the anthem of this newsletter became a little more relevant:
This is not a summer of pretending things are fine. Of going back to normal. This is the summer of calling this shit out. Of saying it’s not okay. Of standing up for ourselves. Of nuking our lives. Of breaking them down. Of letting go. Of refusing to hold it all together. Of refusing to smile and say, “He helps; he picked up dinner the other night.” When you and I both know he left a stack of dishes in the sink for you to figure out, even though you had two Zoom meetings and inexplicably it was dress-like-a-penguin day for online school. No. We are done with that. And it ends now.
At the time I wrote that, I did not realize how much more breaking we had yet to do. But it’s still happening.
Sometime in the middle of the year, I began a group chat with Anne Helen Petersen and Virginia Sole-Smith all about the business of newsletters. I wanted, I told them, to go to Charlottesville and cover part of the lawsuit against some neo-Nazis, which I had written about for the Huffington Post. They pointed out I could do it, because I was a business after all. I could take business travel. So, I did. I swallowed the expense, which felt like a huge leap, and did it. That this was one of the most popular newsletters of the year, shows me that it paid off.
Funnily enough, this is a reprint of an essay I wrote in 2017 and published in 2018, when I felt as low as I could be and I needed to find some hope. This essay has become my rallying cry. I like to read it when I am invited to read, especially when I know other writers will be there. It’s a reminder that we are lone reeds, but we are not alone.
Right after the insurrection, I put on my mask and went to a gun show and to church and watched several sermons to find out what was happening in America. I talked to a lot of people, bought some jalapeño jelly and had some thoughts on religion and nationalism.
This summer, my house decided to fall apart. And I had to turn to YouTube to learn how to fix it all. And what I discovered was a gentle and instructive and immensely helpful community of men, all willing to share their knowledge. This newsletter was, in part, a love letter to masculinity.
Like so many people, I watched The Sopranos this year. And as it turns out, I had some thoughts about white women, power, corruption, money, and complicity. This newsletter probably got me my highest number of unsubscribes, with a lot of white women saying they would not listen to me bash white women. Which just taught me that white women really have a hard time being held accountable.
After I adopted an Alaskan Malamute in January, I began taking her on long walks while also listening to books about wolves. This newsletter brings together my obsession with my wolf, musings about wildness, and thoughts bodies in peril.
Thank you so much for reading my newsletter this year. I hope next year, to write bigger and bolder stories for you. Have a wonderful new year celebration. Thank you for being part of this enterprise.