Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 31 — Shaggs’ own thing

Photo illustration: smellslikepop.com

Last Wednesday’s class was more of a had-to-be-there thing.

As we move into reading and talking about long (or sometimes just long-ish) narratives, our class sessions are becoming more and more like a book group. (Without wine and Trader Joe’s-style nosh, alas.) We wonder “how’d she get that?” and try to think of answers. We ask “what’s it about” followed by “what’s it really about?” on everything now. We read aloud sentences we really liked. We talk about what works, what doesn’t. I’m holding forth a little more on HOW to do it — how to get people to talk to you. How to hang out. How to arrive in a new and strange place and ask questions. I’m finding that I can’t take notes for a recap AND lead the discussion.

On Halloween, we talked about Stephanie Hayes’s excellent portrait (see Oct. 29 recap for link) of a Clearwater, Fla., costume shop and the woman who owns it. Look deeply at this story and notice how many details are crammed into it, so effortlessly, with just the right combination of explaining the place without over-explaining it. What’s it really about? Fantasy. Becoming something else. Death (the proprietor is downsizing, dealing with health issues; other costume shops are closing, she’s buying up some of their garb). Death is almost always a theme in a good narrative — that’s what Gene Weingarten would say.

And, of course, we talked about Susan Orlean’s New Yorker piece on the Shaggs, the worst (best?) rock band of all time. It’s pretty clear when you read it that that story is really about abuse. Or delusion. Also, as documented time and again whenever the story is about “outsider” art, that weird way that something beguiling and even beautiful emerges out of something dreadful.

To torture my students, we listened to “Philosophy of the World.” Just the song, not the whole album. I would have loved to play the whole album, but I’m not that mean.

For Monday, Nov. 5: We’re discussing the work of GENE WEINGARTEN. Here, then, is the master practitioner of “what is this story really about.” We’ll be discussing several pieces from “The Fiddler in the Subway.”

Read the introduction, “The Great Zucchini,” “The Ghost of the Hardy Boys,” “The Armpit of America” and “Tears for Audrey.” (For Nov. 7, read “Doonesbury’s War,” “None of the Above,” and “The Fiddler in the Subway.”) These are all fantastic stories, by one of the very best, if not the best. Enjoy.

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