"Good artists copy; great artists steal." This concept explains roughly 85% of the witty things people say in everyday conversation. I've only ever caught two people in the act of stealing witticisms. I'd like to think that my pop culture radar is so developed that these were the only two to fly under, but my utter cluelessness in these cases would indicate otherwise.
The first time it happened, a friend of friend – call him Mark – had come into town and my crew was showing him around Chicago. After the Bean and karaoke at Trader Todd's, we were merrily driving home when someone mentioned The Godfather.
"You know what I hate about The Godfather?" says Mark. "It insists on itself."
While I didn't agree with the statement entirely (some artworks are allowed leeway to insist as such, and I won't penalize them for being accurate), I did have to admire the sentiment. It was an interesting concept. A great concept. Yes, The Godfather definitely had the conceit of a work that knows it's going to be remembered as a class and thus can take itself as seriously as it pleases.
A couple of years later, I was walking with my brother and his wife down Riverside Drive in New York City. The Godfather comes up and my brother says, "I did not care for The Godfather. It insists upon itself." I nearly lost it. My brother, stunned and mildly curious, informed me that he was quoting a scene from Family Guy.
I was flabbergasted. I had never experienced someone completely ripping off a joke like that, and in a way that could be proven so easily. If someone had recognized the reference during that car ride, I guess Mark could have played it off. But no one did and so he didn't have to.
Of course, as I was to learn when the same scenario repeated itself, people do indeed accomplish that with full intention. Years ago, when voicemail recordings were more of an artform and a novelty than they are now, my entire family was enchanted by a particular person's voicemail. Call him Jacob.
Jacob's recording went something like this:
"Believe or not, Jacob isn't home! Please leave a message on the phone. Is he in bed or maybe drinking tea? Where could he be!"
We would sing the little song at each other - as well as in front of Jacob. It wasn't until this year, when I watched Kat Dennings interact with Jason Alexander on a talk show, that I heard George's voicemail from Seinfeld. It was the same tune, the same self-aggrandizing third person, the same great sense of self-deprecating humor. The familiar feeling from my experience with Mark's reference crept back in: euphoria at my discovery mixed with the sinking weight of disappointment.
Mark and Jacob thought they were stealing when in reality they were only borrowing. On some level I should admire what they accomplished, but I can't help be disappointed - that they weren't as original as they claimed, or that in the world at large I don't personally know whoever came up with that material. Or maybe I'm sad that I could see the behind the window dressings, to the man behind the curtain, to the magician rigging up his carefully-plotted machinations.
In my experience, there are two ways to go about genre writing: The one where you go into the writing process having made the decision to write genre fiction, and the one where you realize after the fact that you have been writing genre fiction.
There are certain perks to writing genre fiction. Since it is essentially formulaic, there are formulaic solutions to the issues that might arise. If the reader is having trouble connecting with characters, say, or the tension isn't there, or the plot has become inconsequential, returning to the basic tenants of the genre can be helpful. Take romance novels, for instance. My sister, the genre-spanning Batya Ungar-Sargon, told me that every good romance novel needs three things: a hero to fall in love with, a heroine you can root for, and a world you can disappear into. With a formula, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can play within the expectations of the reader or surpass them. Whatever you decide to do within that structure, your decisions are based on the structure's existence.
On the other hand, there is the case where you create genre fiction by accident. The story you're in the process of writing happens to have the formula of a specific genre. Or your story has a couple of devices in common with a specific genre, but not all – and those devices you aren't using are the reason your story isn't working.
I've been writing my novel for over two years, a story about best friends and unrequited love and jealousy. One day after the workshop of an excerpt, a fellow classmate approached me and told me, with no malice or intent to insult, how my work reminded her of Emily Griffin's Something Borrowed and its retelling, Something Blue. I was stunned. Chick lit? She thought I was writing chick lit? Those books you pick up in the airport when your mind can't handle something of more consequence? I had refused to entertain the notion up until then. Once I heard it, though, I came to understand. Much as I – and the rest of my classmates – would have liked, I am not currently in a position to create something new. I don't have the skills or maturity to do that. So naturally, my work will be following a certain path, a path well-trodden by others who came before me.
Near the end of my MFA career, I accidentally caused someone going through a similar realization. During a critique of her work, I casually mentioned to the writer that I had watched a Nicholas Sparks movie the night before and that her story reminded me of it. Though I had hated the movie, her work was much better and actually accomplished the act of transferring the protagonist's yearning and emotion to the reader. Our professor, the wonderful Juan Martinez, after a kind and gentle preface, took the opportunity to point out that my classmate's lovely, intelligent prose might do well on the romance market. I recognized the look of chagrin that crossed her face. The unexpected understanding that our work, what we thought had fallen under unique and original criteria, was the reiteration of a genre on which we had long looked down and with which we never thought we'd be associated.
Nonetheless, with that understanding comes acceptance. Despite the instinctual horror, once there is a name for what you're writing, you are no longer alone. You have a blueprint for that which you couldn't name. And now you have something to follow, where once you might have stumbled in the dark.
And if I'm going to be writing chick lit, then it will be the most earnest, highbrow chick lit I'm capable of.
The first time I watched reality television – cinéma vérité – that wasn't a reality competition, I had to go through the mental process of understanding that what I was watching was not scripted. That first time, it was an episode of Jersey Shore. The fact that I was not watching an actress pretending to be Snooki, but rather watching Snooki fulfill the role usually reserved for actors, was fascinating. The Situation was sharing actual thoughts that went through his actual mind. These characters were like people I knew, only sassier and less original. I was sitting through the spoken thoughts of people who actually existed.
Of course, I now know that the seasons of reality TV are scripted by producers. That the "talking heads" portions of the episode are filmed after the fact and can't represent true in-the-moment feelings. That the work done on video and sound in the editing room is appallingly all-consuming. Nonetheless, I've embraced reality shows on the regular, especially during the tundra that is summer television. I watched Total Divas, a show about female wrestlers in the WWE, for the parts of the show that go meta when they involve "kayfabe". The Glee Project, in which young actors competed for a role on the now-canceled Glee, because it was the first time that someone realized they could just tell drama kids there's a camera on them and then let it roll. Bring It, about a teenage majorette dance team in Mississippi and their creative coach, because the moms on that show teach me not to be afraid to get up in somebody's face. Throughout the viewings of these shows I settled into the role of spectator and came to understand how someone could become a national celebrity just for being him/herself.
I had a different reaction when I tried watching Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, a show about the spawn of billionaires. (That's the entire plot.) Maybe because for the first time, I watching people who didn't need to make money. Or maybe because the show, aired on the E! Network, is designed and packaged for the viewer to desire what is on the screen. To desire the private jets, international vacations and Birkin bags. To desire the exclusivity. To desire the consumption. The characters – sorry, personalities – are presented as having flaws, but they're hardly a tragic-hero-level of flaw. The drama is mostly from within the group, incidentally highlighting the same issues most people have in a large group of friends: fear of someone gossiping behind your back or fear of your friends deciding to leave you out in the cold.
For me, the worst sin that reality TV commits is filler episodes. I hate when I'm watching a season and the whole thing feels like it could have been five episodes shorter. Watching Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, I got the sense that this was going to be one of those shows. (Full disclosure: I did watch the entire first season.) But the first time I watched it, I thought that Morgan, one of the main duo of friends, looked a lot like the actress Rosemarie DeWitt. And I had a flash of inspiration. What if this reality TV show was really a scripted show featuring Rosemarie DeWitt? What if there was an entire season of action waiting, something that would be absolutely clear if the writers put that much thought into the pilot episode? At least then I would know that this show wasn't going to be a colossal waste of time.
Which is when it occurred to me: If I wanted to watch Rosemarie DeWitt act, I should turn on the first season of Mad Men, or pop Rachel Getting Married into the DVD player. Because clearly, reality TV is not where I'm going to get a satisfying session of television.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.