Saturday, March 11, 2006

Guilty Pleasure or Student of Popular Culture?

Over on the Anatomy of a Book Deal blog, soon-to-be-published thriller writer Robert Gregory Browne mentioned that he'd turned off the Academy Awards show because to him the coverage seemed like a high school prom, with the Hollywood press more interested in who was holding hands with whom and what people were wearing than the movies themselves. So, okay, Shallow Girl here admits to watching shows like the Oscars mainly to see the clothes. Most often so I can say, “What was she thinking?” (There actually didn't seem to be that many of those moments this year and I thought nearly everyone looked appropriately movie star glamorous.)

Being on the east coast, I didn’t watch the last ten minutes — dogs had to be walked before bed — but I was glad Crash won. It, along with the equally excellent The Constant Gardener, were the only ones I’ve seen so far because I’ve gotten spoiled by my monster screen TV and hooked on the DVD extras. They both left me thinking about the stories for days afterwards, but with Crash, I actually had a lot of conversations on writers’ lists and with my workshop group about whether all that back and forth time-jumping and changing povs could be done in a book without the actors to help readers keep track. I still think all those povs (off the top of my head I remember seven) would be very, very tricky.

However, getting back to the Oscars, other people commented they no longer watch TV, and don't care about popular culture all that much. Again, putting on my sparkly shallow girl tiara, I’ll also admit that my TV viewing always seems to match the top ten-twenty of what America’s watching. This year my reality shows are The Amazing Race (amazing again after last year’s family race bust), Dancing with the Stars, Beauty and the Geek (a wonderfully sweet show about tolerance and often, like this year, incredible personal growth), and so far The Apprentice, but I may give that up pretty soon as I did Survivor and American Idol because of boredom and repetition.

Reality shows do much of what we do in fiction. Put people in stressful situations, then watch how they react. And no, they’re not real, but neither are our books, so they work for me. As do popular shows like Bones, Gray's Anatomy, Lost, The Sopranos (which YAY!! is back!), Deadwood (brilliant, but admittedly not as mainstream popular), and, occasionally, Desperate Housewives. I’ve discussed this with other writers for years and those of us with more pop culture tastes are convinced it’s helped us have long-lived careers. There’s a reason they call it Mass Market, after all.

Back in the early 80s, when I was writing my still unsold books in an Allstate booth in a Phoenix Sears store, I insured a woman who'd grown up in the hinterlands of Alaska, where her family ran a store and restaurant for workers building the oil pipeline. She told me that when she'd moved down to the Lower 48 States to go to college, her most difficult adjustment was that having been so removed from American popular culture for so long, she felt lost by references in the most casual of conversations. I'd think that would be a problem for contemporary writers who aren't "plugged in." Yet, I know successful writers who don’t ever watch TV, so apparently it doesn't bother them. Which just goes to show, once again, how different we all are.

One of the people who commented on Rob's blog is an aspiring comedian whose friend, David Feldman, was one of the first, if not the first person in the country to actually get a degree in popular culture. He's written nearly a dozen books on the subject called The Imponderables, has taught her to be proud of her viewing choices, and now rather than admitting to being a TV addict, she says she's a student of popular culture.

So, from now on, instead of letting anyone make me feel the need to defend my "guilty pleasures," I'm going to stick to my belief that hey, I'm studying popular culture! :D


Anonymous said...

Thank you, JoAnn, for defending popular culture. For years, when I was teaching school, I didn't have time to watch TV because I was always writing when not teaching.

But since I quit last year, lately I've enjoyed watching CSI, The Amazing Race, Apprentice, etc. I think it does help to keep me "plugged in" to what the masses are enjoying.

I'm also getting a kick out of watching off the wall movies that my teenage son and his friends watch -- like Napoleon Dynamite and Waiting for Goffman.

Anyway, yay for American pop culture!

Alfie said...

I'm one who doesn't watch a lot of TV. It's always on, usually on a news channel, but it's mostly background noise. What I'm trying to figure out is how you manage to keep such tight deadlines retaining the quality of writing you maintain, be so supportive to other writers and all the other things you do and still have TIME to 'study pop culture.' If I ever figure it out, that's the next book I'll write. I'll share your 'SECRET' and it will be on all the bestseller lists for years and years.

Alfie said...

Oh. P.S. I am addicted to Earl. And I watched a new reality show this week--Black. White.--that I don't think I'm going to be able to miss.

Teresa Bodwell said...

I love TV. Always have. But I did pretty much stop watching when I started writing seriously. Fortunately I have a 16 year old daughter who is very plugged in to pop culture and she is chatty, so I feel like I'm staying in touch.

I watch Sex and the City re-runs and a lot of shows on VH-1 with my daughter. Left to my own choices, I watched the new Pride and Prejudice DVD 3 times this week (plus once more with directors comments).

And speaking of Oscars--Keira Knightley should have won best actress and the movie should have won best score!

Nancy Herkness said...

I make no secret of the fact that I watch the Oscars strictly for the beautiful (or awful) clothes. I LOVE the glamour of dressing up! There's so little of it left these days. You're right, JoAnn, there were very few of the "what was she/he thinking?" outfits this year. I miss Cher!

Recently, I got to be a "student of pop culture" in reality. I was invited to contribute an essay to an anthology titled "Welcome to Wisteria Lane: On America's Favorite Desperate Housewives" (coming out in May). I rented the entire first season of DH and watched it in about five days...while taking notes! When a member of my family walked into the T.V. room, I'd say, "Shh, I'm working." That was the best part. Television without guilt.

I would argue that those of us who read and write romance are also true students of popular culture. Genre fiction generally reflects the zeitgeist and mores (see, you can even use fancy foreign words to describe it) of its time.

So, I'm with you. We MUST keep up with television in order to be effective writers (she says, grabbing the remote control).

gailbarrett said...

I hardly watch tv, so I guess I'm not much of a student of popular culture. I will admit that sometimes I feel a bit out of touch, although it doesn't really bother me much. I lived outside of the U.S. for four years in the 1970's and never came back during that time. By the time I came back I was totally out of touch, had never seen the movies or television shows everyone else talked about, completely missed Carter's presidency -- in fact, modern soda pop tabs had been invented while I was gone! It was rather amazing. In my case, the value of living overseas more than compensated for any loss. However, comedy is based in culture, so being out of touch would be a detriment to comedians. That's why it is so difficult to understand comics in another language -- it's not the words but rather the cultural references that make it funny. If you don't know the reference, you can't get the joke.

Teresa Bodwell said...

I love it! "Shh, I'm working."

I'll have to remember that line the next time I pop the Pride & Prejudice DVD in.
"Got it memorized yet?"
"Shh, I'm working!"

Allison Brennan said...

Very interesting post, JoAnn. I used to watch all the popular television shows, but I did give up most TV because of writing. It was the only time I could find to write.

However, I still watch CSI and I absolutely love WITHOUT A TRACE. And as I've posted before, I reward myself with a season of a television show I missed whenever I finish a book. I absolutely love DEADWOOD (but agree that it's not as popular with the mainstream, largely because of the language) and I can't wait to see the second season of that and LOST. I watched FIREFLY which is a cult classic, but another blog I read mentioned that it wasn't an easy sell to the public because the name didn't convey the theme (cowboys in space).

I've watched odds and ends of television lately, an I used to be an ALIAS addict until they switched nights. But with finite time, television is the first thing to go . . .

JoAnn Ross said...

Alfie -- I've no idea how I find time. (Except I've never needed more than 6 hrs sleep a night. Does that count?) Ages ago, when we were still in our mid-teens, my sweetie told a mutual friend he'd begun dating me. Her response was, "Oh, JoAnn. . . She's always so busy." Decades later, he occasionally reminds me of this. However, as I've said, I can tend to get carried away with this writing business and recently, when I almost lost him, realized I needed to prioritize my life better. :)

Nancy -- Lucky you, watching Housewives for work!! Years ago I took a sociology and the mass media class (hmm, thinking about this, I'd already chosen my pop culture path), and had to watch a season of The Prisoner and write essays on the themes, etc. I did much the same as you. . . I'd tell my kid and sweetie, "Excuse me, I'm working!" Last Christmas my son bought me the entire Prisoner series, so although he'd been just a tyke at the time, obviously it had made an impression.

Allison, darlin' --- If I had five children and a writing career, if I even tried to watch TV, I'd be asleep before the first commercial.

Maybe my love of TV comes from having grown up with out it for my early years. Or maybe because it's so mindless. Unlike reading, which requires effort, you just sit there and a story unreels in front of your eyes. (Actually, I multi-task, making greeting cards and scrapbook pages during all the Sunday morning political shows, which don't even need to be watched, just listened to.) As people become more and more stressed out and time-limited, it makes sense that book reading is decreasing across all genres.

I'm currently working on a series and watching ALL the videos of X-files from Netflix. Not to steal plots, but to get a handle on how I want to layer my characters. And is my hero part non-human or not? I tend to switch ideas about that every other story. This is especially fun because it COUNTS AS WORK!!! LOL

Allison Brennan said...

JoAnn, I LOVE the X-Files. Up until season 7 when it got stupid.

JoAnn Ross said...

Allison -- A funny thing I've noticed is that most of the episodes come from stories/legends/myths right out of all the books I've collected over the past few years waiting to write this story/stories. I'm taking a completely different slant on them, but they're all showing up. (Coincidentally, I read the New Jersey Devil legend the day after watching Skully and Mulder chase it down.)

Apparently the writers and I have much the same research library. Which just goes to show, there are no new ideas. LOL

Playground Monitor said...

I missed 4 years of culture living overseas too. Of course, I got 4 years of European travel in exchange. I think I got the better deal. *g*

I love Dancing with the Stars and the DH and I are even taking ballroom lessons (we signed up before the show started). Survivor is a fave too. One of my son's friends is on Beauty and the Geek (Wesley) but I haven't watched the show. I adore CSI (the original) and am in lust with Gil Grissom (don't tellt he DH, okay?). And Monk -- how can you not love that poor vulnerable man?


JoAnn Ross said...

Marilyn -- How cool you're taking dancing lessons! We'd talked about that before our kid's wedding, but never got around to it. (Watched one of those do it yourself videos the night before we had to leave for D.C., which only confused us more.) The bride and groom, being perfectionists, had taken Swing lessons. And looked it. Everyone, knowing them well, just laughed when they put on their perfect show.

One of the final questions on Beauty and the Geek was "Name a secret only the two of you know." One of the two finalist geeks answered "the size of Wes's (okay, not knowing what I can say on a blog, I'll just say the "P" word.) Which was such a shock because although you saw Wes and Cher -- the geek's team partner -- hooking up in Las Vegas, it really was a very sweet, non trashy show.

Proving that geeks do, indeed, need to work on their social skills, the Beauty was shocked he'd actually said that. So was I, actually, and I guessed right that it was so not what she'd answer. LOL

Wes, the monkey tracker, was the cutest and least geeky of the guys. But he didn't have the amazing personal growth the winning geek -- who slept in a closet the first night because he was initially so intimidated being in a house with beautiful women -- did.

One of the members of my online writers' group got us watching Dancing with the Stars. It was amazing in that everyone on the show really did seem to actually like each other. But I was glad when Drew won.

This week Nashville Star begins again. I only watched the first year, voted for the winner, Buddy Jewel, from show one, bought his early CDs prior to his win, and have an autographed photo hanging behind my desk, but I'm trying to employ some restraint. Maybe I ought to cancel my TV Guide subscription, then I'd never notice this stuff was on in the first place! :D

Loved Monk the first year. My favorite was their visit to Mexico. Talk about taking the guy out of his comfort zone!

Your secret regarding Grissom is safe with me! And I'm sure your watching CSI is only crime -- and popular culture research! LOL

Nancy Morse said...

I make no secret of the fact that I watch the Academy Awards, mostly to see the beautiful clothes that I'll never get to wear. I also watch the junky entertainment shows, and shows like Lost, House, Rescue Me, Cold Case, American Idol, and yes, even Dancing with the Stars. Although I drew the line at Skating with the Stars. And my favorite TV viewing of all, the Lou Dobbs Hour. Love that man. But by the end of his hour of news, debate & opinion, I'm either spitting nails over the world situation, or so thoroughly depressed that I need a dose of Jeopardy. I don't have HBO or any of the movie channels, but living with a guy who makes his living in the film business, we go to a lot of movies. There's nothing like watching a movie on the big screen.

Allison Brennan said...

Nancy, when I worked for a legislator who represented Burbank, we got lots of free movie passes :) . . . I loved going to the screenings. I wish I had more time to go to the movies (okay, more time to go to movies that are rated R, LOL) but I enjoy the good kids shows. I took my girls to FREAKY FRIDAY remake with Jamie Lee Curtis (who I love) and Lindsay Lohan and I thought it was a very well-done remake, essentially updating the story to be relateable to today's kids. THE PARENT TRAP was another good remake.

BTW, I'm becoming more interested in my daughter's viewing choices as they become older and (hopefully) more discerning. My oldest loves THE GILMORE GIRLS and SMALLVILLE. I haven't really been able to get into SMALLVILLE (and I think it's a tad to mature for her, but I've been watching reruns of the GILMORE GIRLS and now I want to buy all the seasons on DVD for the dialogue alone! What a fabulous show.

JoAnn Ross said...

Before my kid got lured away from journalism to a D.C. policy think tank, he was always going to MPAA parties where they'd screen upcoming movies for selected members of the Washington press. Now that he doesn't get to go free, I notice he's not seeing nearly as many, LOL

I've heard good things about Gilmore Girls. I'll have to check it out. (I sooo love Netflix. If you've ever thought of it, they will send it! And you can keep the DVDs as long as you want!)

I have to admit I'm way easy when it comes to movies. I even used to enjoy those after school specials when my kid was little and it's interesting how many of the directors went on to make bigger, "more important" films. I think, perhaps those were a good way for directors, and probably lighting people and others to make money while learning the craft.

David said...

I loved your comments, Jo Ann.

I'm an unregenerate fan of television. I love to go to the movies, but am constantly disappointed. I love going out to the movies, but for every "Squid and the Whale" or "Capote" that engages me, there are many more that leave me feeling: "ehhh."

Yet I'm shocked if I can't find at least a couple of hours of entertaining programming on TV every day. Right now I'm on deadline for my next book -- I'm semi-panicking, actually -- but I manage to get some TV in every day. Along with reading the New York Times, it's a crucial part of my life.

And a big part of the appeal is being keyed into the popular culture. Our society is so fragmented now, with so many choices, including ones that are tailor-made for whatever your particular demographic group is.

I think part of the appeal of "American Idol" is that we can have something to share with many other people, over the watercooler or classroom or assisted-living center.

TV-lovers -- Stand Proud!

Love your blog.

Dave Feldman