What Can We Steal From Smart Pop Books?
Title of Work and its Form: Smart Pop Books, publishing company
Author: Smart Pop is an imprint of BenBella Books (On Twitter: @smartpopbooks)
Date of Work: Founded in 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: Smart Pop’s books can be found in fine bookstores everywhere. You can also purchase them directly from BenBella. Why not do that?
Bonuses: Well, Smart Pop is the one who offers you bonuses. They are kind enough to post selections from their books on their web site. (I would link to the essays directly, but I am guessing the temporary sample links go away.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creative Mindset
Pop culture criticism can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you are exploring deep thoughts about a book or television show or movie that means a great deal to you. On the other hand, you sometimes find yourself launching into an intelligent critical defense of Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo Child. Smart Pop books have meant a lot to me because I genuinely enjoy thinking about and discussing the many popular creative works that I love. (For evidence, look no further than this very site!)
An imprint of BenBella Books, Smart Pop publishes engaging and intellectual books that analyze and reconceptualize some of your favorite pop culture artifacts. You like Mad Men? They’ve published a book about it. You’re a big fan of everyone’s favorite web slinger, Spider-Man? There’s a book about that, too. I like the Rule of Threes, so I’ll mention their April 2013 book containing essays about the classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game.
The great value of Smart Pop’s books (and their worldview) is that they are doing at least two very important things:
- They make scholarship accessible to people who don’t realize they are really scholars
- They enrich our understanding of cultural artifacts that often go without the critical consideration they deserve.
“Scholarship” often gets a bad name because it’s really a societal subculture. Many folks love Shakespeare, but never read a single article from Shakespeare Quarterly. That’s okay, I suppose, but when you understand the theory behind the writing that you produce, you’ll inevitably do better work. Smart Pop and similar publishing concerns put a heaping spoonful of sugar into their medicine. Veronica Mars may never break its way into some kinds of journals, but there are plenty of fans out there who want to read about what Veronica Mars really means. Smart Pop is happy to oblige.
Smart Pop is a great entry point into this scholarly subculture. Let’s say you have a fourteen-year-old child who loves the Buffy TV show. When you put Smart Pop’s Buffy anthology into his or her hands, you’re subconsciously beginning their training as a scholar. They begin to learn the language of the scholar and the way those folks think about storytelling and about life. You don’t need a child in order to reap these kinds of benefits. I just re-read Neptune Noir to celebrate the Veronica Mars movie and it hadn’t occurred to me how well the production team chose cars for each character. (I still associate LeBarons with Veronica.) I had thought deeply about the Season 1 finale, but I enjoyed having another scholar walk me through it in their own way.
The point is that no artist creates their work in a vacuum; we’re all inspired by the culture we consume and the discussions that are happening around us. Am I likely to write a show like Downton Abbey? Sadly, this probably won’t happen. But I love hearing my friends talk about it and watching the Sesame Street parody of the show and realizing that everything I create sheds light on the “more important” works of the day. It’s true that most of us are writing for all time, but we’re also writing for the age.
This web site should make it clear that I love Shakespeare and Renaissance drama and literary novels and other examples of “high culture.” I’ve also written about “Baby Got Back” and How I Met Your Mother, examples of “low culture” to varying degrees. The popular culture offers us a vast buffet. You don’t want to mound the iceberg lettuce on your plate because you’ll have no room for the olives and onion and cherry tomatoes. Great writers consume a balanced diet of stories, from the vulgar to the sublime.
Easy full disclosure: Smart Pop has long been on the list of publishers with whom I want to work at some point. (Partial list: MAD Magazine, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Greywolf Press, The Normal School, Hobart and about a zillion other publications and companies.) These are all long-term goals and most will likely go unfulfilled, but we work toward them nonetheless. The important thing is that these goals push a writer to absorb the tone and structure that each of the markets are looking for. Even if you never see your byline in a Smart Pop book, the work you do as a result of your ambition to fulfill that goal will lead you in other meaningful directions.
What Should We Steal?
- Admit you are simultaneously a scholar and a producer of cultural artifacts. Even if you never attended grad school (or any college at all), all writers are part of the fraternity of scholars.
- Acknowledge that your work is part of the contemporary zeitgeist. Yes, this includes your historical novel. By simple virtue of the time and place in which you grew up changes your understanding of the world. Easy example: today, it’s hard for us to understand how anyone could be in favor of slavery. Three hundred years ago, even if you opposed slavery, you would be more likely to understand the motivation behind it.
- Appreciate high and low culture in appropriate proportions. Fine, go listen to Ke$ha. But make sure that you love Beethoven, too.
- Set your sights on the kind of publications you want to publish your writing. Establishing these kinds of discrete goals can help you immerse yourself in the corners of the publishing world that are most appealing to you.