Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 3 — Getting personal

Just a quick recap today. I’m in Shreveport, La., for a long weekend to be a judge at the first-ever Louisiana Film Prize, where 20 short films are competing for a $50,000 win. It’s a big street party. With movies! Check it out.

Meanwhile, back in Missoula …

On Wednesday, we discussed three (almost four) personal essays the students were asked to read and mark up. The next writing assignment is a 750-1,000-word personal essay about popular culture.

Is there a movie that changed you? A TV show? A book (or series of books)? A superhero? A rock band? An album?

The point of this assignment is to look deep within for traces of any germ in the Beatlemania strain: Something that held you in its grip. This could be a good feeling or it could stir something wistful, even Proustian, about lost childhood. When we understand it in ourselves (why do we love what we love; what do we dislike a piece of pop culture that “everyone else” likes?) we become better pop-culture journalists who can write about other people’s attachment to particular kinds of culture. We can understand Trekkies, people sleeping in front of Apple stores, concertgoers, Comic-Conners, ravers, skaters — whomever, without having to be one ourselves. Also religious followers, campaigners, sports fans.

So we talked about Vowell on The Godfather (a more or less perfect template for the personal essay assignment — self-revealing without lapsing into memoir; able to tell a broad and relatable story about the film, beyond her personal devotion to it). We talked about Sandra Tsing Loh’s essay on her father, who became a subculture legend without even trying. We talked about Sam Anderson’s revelatory and intelligent essay about his trips to the local water park — what it says about him and what it says about all of us.

And once again, we enjoyed the unhinged wit of Lindy West. Mostly I included this one as a blog item that could, with a little more work, be rewritten as a full-fledged essay. (Even if, yes, of course, that’s not the point of her Jezebel format or intended audience.)

Then we brainstormed on what the students’ essays will be about. Lots of good, funny (and sad) ideas in room 301. I won’t share theirs, honoring our cone of privacy with work-in-progress.

(But I did share one of mine: the Alien movies. I watch Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) the way other people attend motivational entrepreneur seminars. Always do what Ripley says. Because if just one of those things manages to get down here then all this, this BULLSHIT that you think is so important? Well, you can just kiss all that goodbye!)

More to come, I’m sure.

Here are your readings for Monday, Oct. 8:

• A short selection from Wayne Koestenbaum’s Jackie Under My Skin (1995), called “Jackie’s Humiliation,” about the Zapruder film.

• From the late, great David Rakoff’s Half Empty (2010), a portion of an essay called “Isn’t It Romantic?,” about the underlying awfulness of “Rent.”

• A long one from Jonathan Franzen, which originally appeared in the New Yorker and then in his essay collection The Discomfort Zone (2006), about Charles Schulz, “Peanuts” and a rift in the Franzen family. It’s called “Two Ponies.”

Til then.

Leave a Comment