I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most. —Margaret Atwood
It all started with a poignant scene from the semi-scripted show The Hills, as many great intellectual undertakings do. The heroine and moral center of the not-quite-reality show that ran on MTV from 2006 to 2010 and preceded the rise of Real Housewives–esque wealth-porn TV was Lauren Conrad, a mega-privileged California girl with tons of wonderful opportunities, a beautiful apartment, great hair, and really bad taste in boys and friends. The entire show had a fake, airbrushed glow about it, but Lauren’s emotions always seemed so real. She felt things. There’s a famous screenshot from The Hills that shows Conrad arguing with a friend over some petty yet dramatic grievance and crying the most perfect single black mascara tear.
As I watched that gorgeous tear fall in slow motion, I thought of a quote from a novel I’d recently read: “Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, halfway down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waves swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.” It’s an observation from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse made by the matriarch of a large family about a young homesick maid in her service. It’s a passing thought, a tiny vivid portrait in the midst of a much larger stream-of-consciousness narrative that flicks between topics like the remote control of an avid channel surfer. The impression of LC’s (as she’s known to her fans) angst struck me in a similar way. Click.
We all know the thrill of reading a great line that illuminates an idea we’ve sensed but were unable to articulate, that magical feeling when a piece of writ- ing leads us to see the world with greater clarity or more wonder. Such epiphanies can be inspired by TV shows and pop songs and films as much as books, of course. Pop culture and literature are not mutually exclusive passions. In fact, they work in tandem. Media from every area of the spectrum can edify and influence us, and there are a zillion shades of gray within culture—there is so much fluidity between high and low. So of course Daria Morgendorffer, Whitney Houston, and Alex P. Keaton can inform our ways of thinking just as much as Sylvia Plath or James Baldwin ever could. The Fly Girls from In Living Color could be childhood inspirations just as much as Louisa May Alcott’s March girls. Our brains can be equal parts George Eliot and George Costanza, Jean- Paul Sartre and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, both Jane Austen’s Emma and Clueless’s Cher Horowitz.
What a delight to discover, then, that one of the greatest living writers of our time, Lorrie Moore, could inadvertently explain the appeal of America’s Funniest Home Videos and Jackass: “I have always felt that life is a series of personal humiliations relieved, occasionally, by the humiliations of others.” Or that the antiheroes who populate so many of TV’s most prestigious dramas—Omar Little, Tony Soprano, Walter White—echo the sentiments of the narrator of P. G. Wodehouse’s 1906 novel, Love Among the Chickens: “I am not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments.”
Looking through the lens of literature, you might discover that Hemingway expresses heartache in The Sun Also Rises just as palpably as My So-Called Life does, or that you might like Daphne du Maurier if you are completely obsessed with the Hitchcockian nighttime soap Pretty Little Liars. You might find that Veronica Mars or Lisa Simpson are feminist icons just as much as Susan Sontag is, or that Orange Is the New Black is a natural successor to Russian epics by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or that Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation could have been a Jane Austen heroine.
Since 2009, Slaughterhouse 90210 has been celebrating the intersection of literature and pop culture. What started as a goofy mash-up designed to compare and contrast high and low culture to comedic effect (in retrospect, pairing F. Scott Fitzgerald with Jersey Shore in 2009 seems portentous of Snooki’s 2014 Gatsby-themed wedding) evolved into a larger, more diverse project that aims to inspire lovers of culture to binge read as much as they binge watch shows and films on Netflix. Great writing transcends time and place and is even more essential in our Internet-addled, DVR-addicted age than it ever was.
Slaughterhouse 90210 (Flatiron Books, 10/6) is available for purchase here.