On Writing Towards Both the In-group and the Outliers
“Getting Down to What is Really Real”
from Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2011
In the first sentence of “Getting Down,” Sullivan mentions both a location and a person, neither of which meant anything to me. The Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill (no state given, but I assumed North Carolina, because I knew the author to be from the south), sounds like a certain kind of sweaty, bad-dance-music kind of place, and because my family lives in an Avalon in a different state, my brain substituted a long-gone nightclub in that Jersey town, famous for nearly-naked waitresses and pricey Long Island Iced Teas.
The club isn’t the important part; “the Miz” is. Sullivan tells me that the essay is about this Miz person, and here, the writer’s challenge is to be interesting to those who know what he’s talking about as well as those who do not. Sullivan manages a position where he informs the novice (me) whilst feeding information of a near-gossipy nature to the readers who already know who Miz is, and who already have an opinion about him.
The Miz isn’t given a context in the first paragraph. The author gives not one clue as to why this guy is or should be recognizable by his irritating moniker and why I should care. Because I have family in New Jersey, as admitted above, I have a certain experience with guys having dude-ish nicknames such as this—and because of this history of mine, I am disinclined to read an essay that’s about such a person. It’s up to Sullivan to hook me in some other way.
In that first paragraph, Sullivan introduces information one grain at a time, and while still not telling me, the uninitiated, just who this mug was, he creates weird visuals by using ordinary language—but in odd ways. He hooks me by the style of his writing, rather than by the content—at least at first.
In the opening sentences, Sullivan implies that there is an event about to happen, “…the Miz was feeling nervous. I didn’t pick up on it at the time—I mean I couldn’t tell.” So this Miz person is known to the writer, if not personally, in a way that the author had some sense of him. Then we hear that he looks like he did since “his debut season”, so: TV, which explains why I don’t know who he is. Here I would have been ready to move on, but then the rest of that sentence happens: “…when I first fell in love with his antics: all bright-eyed and symmetrical-faced…”(Symmetrical-faced? What is that?! I thought of those photos you used to see in magazines where a star’s face is bisected to show true mirror images and we see how weird that would be. To what point? Well, who knows. Mostly, it cracks me up, which is enough for a bit.) The description continues: “…fed on genetically modified corn, with the swollen hairless torso of the aspiring professional wrestler he happened to be and a smile you could spot as Midwestern American in a blimp shot of a soccer stadium.”
There is so much to like in these italicized sections. I see that the writer will march right up to poking fun, but will stay on the proper side of things. He knows from decorum and he knows what picking-on looks like. We know that the writer is smart and a bit snarky on the inside, but he is a gentleman and therefore will not make fun of those less, shall we say, reserved. Sullivan then goes on to describe the Miz’s hair, using phrases like: sort-of-mousse-Mohawk and ridgelet of product-hardened hair emerging from his buzz cut. It’s like Sullivan knew that people who don’t watch a lot of TV are visual and/or interested in language-play; which is counter-intuitive, but maybe also makes sense. We can make our own fun, or something like that.
It turns out that the essay is about “The Real World” or rather, the humans behind the characters on the show. He dissects reality TV for the non-reality that it is, but briefly, because we already know (because we are smart like that) or he doesn’t want to disenfranchise those people, whoever they are, that think the whole business is real.
Later in the essay, Sullivan talks of several characters and shows that I know nothing about, but as I’d already been hooked by his voice, as well as our aligned perspective (here, I’m totally imagining things), I’m unconcerned by feeling disoriented. When he reveals that he is a huge fan, I’m surprised, but not appalled.
In an essay such as this one, where prior knowledge affects the reading, the writer has a few choices. They can address those in the know, for example, in sports writing, or they can be informative to readers who may not have encountered the material before, such as a Smithsonian article about spelunking, which would likely be boring to a seasoned cave enthusiast. Sullivan, here, dares to write for the Real-World-ists (a group that can be subdivided into believers and not) AS WELL AS those of us who think their brains are too big for reality TV. It’s a risk, one that has to be met very early in the piece, which Sullivan does by sort of bifurcating: the content is largely for the followers, but the style and the viewpoint make it interesting and accessible to those who enjoy a good piece of writing just for the sake of it.