Intersections & Opportunities in Writing About Pop Culture
BY Nicholas Belardes
Ranting Out Loud started off as a project to ghostwrite for a social media star.
Let me explain . . .
Without offering a literary history lesson (that I would fail at telling without interviewing friends much smarter than myself or doing a lot of research) I think it’s safe to say published words have long gone hand in hand with both popularity contests and those literary artists with a penchant to be prolific. I imagine Victorian-era socialites as those lights most publisher-moths were attracted to. Today this often translates to social media star. YouTubers, Snapchatters, Twitteralists, Instagrammarians—whatever you want to call the many faces of social media stardom—they’re here to stay. They’re popular. They’re prolific. And publishers are hungry to publish them.
I don’t look at myself as a social media star, although I did write some experimental fiction between 2008-2010 that went viral (though not by today’s standards). I was one of a leading handful of pioneers in fragmented fiction in the English language using social media platforms. Recent articles in Spain, Italy, Argentina and Brazil in 2016 are a testament to the longevity of Small Places a vast collection of tweets about a man stuck in the cubicles of hellish corporate America. Recent mentions in Repubblica, El Pais, 24 IL, Wired, and El Litoral are byproducts of having been cemented in just about every article on Twitterature and Twitter novels. This still doesn’t make me a social media star. My tweets don’t go viral every time I post. I usually have to beg to get above fifty Facebook likes. Don’t even get me started on how to get Tweet favorites.
Hermits cast their own light. It’s different for us, even . . . unexplainable. I’m a fiction writer, an essayist, a poet hiding in an experimental Twitter-lit body. I’ve been possessed by Twitter-centric news articles that focus on the collision between technology and prose. It’s not a curse, but it makes people think I may be something I’m not.
I’d already won over the publisher because I could churn out a lot of words in a short time. That’s me. Content engine. I do a lot of ghostwriting where deadlines loom like the Wall in Game of Thrones. I have to scramble up and over fast or the monsters will eat me. It’s constant terror.
Lucky for me, the social media star who I was supposed to write for abandoned ship. That meant I had the opportunity to pitch a variation of the original idea and to pitch them as myself. The publisher wanted pop culture essays. I pitched the intersection of pop culture and my own life.
I had a bunch of essay ideas: Game of Thrones and me as a writer being obsessed with storytelling and Tyrion Lannister, Twitterature and the confusion it causes and how I’m always thrown in the center of it, My racist dad and the problem with all-white avatars in Ready Player One, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s affect on my memories of my cursed family, cheesy Vegas cartoon-writing and how it transformed my relationship with my gambling-addict dad, the dangers of art and oppression in today’s society, reminders of my Dungeons & Dragons days in Stranger Things, and a lot more.
For me, finding those pop culture fusion points meant unearthing the core center of me and my collision with television, social media, film, literature, and sound-and-light shows. This was more challenging, and a whole lot more interesting and honest than ranting in cock-a-doodle-do about why Cersei’s eyebrows might be overarched or how Twitter has morphed into a public relations extension of broken political logic. Sure, those things are fun to gossip about. I was more interested in exploring myself rather than hovering over the surface of ideas. So I pitched essay pop culture/me fusions to the publisher’s editor and suggested a subtitle to go with their pre-ordained title. I made the subtitle about what the gist of the book was really about: life, pop culture & how we sometimes don’t get along. Because, guess what? We don’t. Our intersection is as conflict-filled as the ongoing disasters inherently within all the media we’re attracted to.
Guess what? The editor was interested. He gave me carte blanche, allowed me to dive in, explore myself, my siblings, my parents, my childhood, my writer self, and all those other fun areas of entertainment I’m just as addicted to as millions, maybe billions are. I explored each topic honestly within my whirl of fears and uncertainties. This kind of honesty was important and meant I could share these essays with someone like Pulitzer finalist Kim Barnes and have her not fillet me for being dishonest, but acknowledge my own loves. She said I’m “David Foster Wallace meets Hunter S. Thompson,” and suggested, “in these essays, we find ourselves in the astute and tender company of someone who loves the world.”
I do love the world.
I’m just at odds with it.
Invariably, I’m at odds with myself.
Her words illustrate why any of us become writers. We want to embrace the world. We want to, however briefly, be embraced in return for our moments of candidness.
That didn’t mean every essay I explored would see its fruition. I had to drop one on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It wasn’t taking the kind of form I wanted. One on Trump felt like it would get sucked into the oversaturation of articles published about him on a daily basis. I wanted to explore Barack Obama. I wanted to dig into Indiana Jones. Never got to them. Every essay I did finish the editor loved.
Oddly, there were no developmental suggestions. Other editors might have had me dig in further, or challenged me on my strange way of meandering through familial lament, or called me on some of my admittedly shallow views of pop culture. Let’s face it—I haven’t seen all of the 700-and-something episodes of Star Trek.
You have? Ah, hell. Whatever.
You haven’t lived my life.
Our intersections may have commonalities, but our experiences, oh how they can be different!
I only had a month to write these essays. It was an endless several weeks of digging through my own memory banks and researching pop culture topics. I found myself reading all of the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide for one of my Stranger Things essays. I binged on the pilots for every Star Trek television series (as a refresher course mostly). I re-read the Catcher in the Rye, dug into essays, news articles, and portions of novels. I even interviewed a few people. Mostly, I dug into myself for those intersections that I felt mattered. And now it’s for everyone else to determine if any of it does.
More on RANTING OUT LOUD
More on SMALL SPACES
Nicholas Belardes is author of the essay collection Ranting Out Loud: My Life, Pop Culture & How We Sometimes Don’t Get Along (2016). His work has appeared in Carve Magazine, Acentos Review, Pithead Chapel, Island Review, Barrelhouse and others. He illustrated the NYT best-selling novel West of Here, and is author of the first experimental twitterature, Small Places. He tweets from @nickbelardes. More at nicholasbelardes.com.