This year, Barrelhouse is branching out from lit journals and moving into also producing a few books per year, and we decided the best way to kick off the brand was with an essay anthology celebrating the best pop culture essays we’ve ever run, plus five new pieces. The book is at the printer now and will be available by the start of March, but you can pre-order now.
I’m kind of on the hook for this one, since I was given the lead on the project, and I feel really great about what we’ve put together. Plus, look at this cover:
To give you a sense of what to expect in the book, here’s my introduction:
ON THE STUPID THINGS WE LOVE
Let’s start here: pop culture matters. Whether you like it or not. Not just the highbrow and hipster approved fare like Werner Herzog and Downton Abbey and Pet Sounds and Community, but also the trashy, exploitative, existentially bleak aspects of pop culture. Even if the world might be better off if more people cared about Faulkner than they do about the goddamn Kardashians, the reality is that they do not, and they will not. In general, American Idol voters are dramatically more passionate and better informed than voters in the presidential election. People will always care about the status of celebrity wombs (as in, is her womb filled with a celebrity baby or not yet filled with a celebrity baby?), will always want to know the stars are just like us. Look—it’s consistent and true throughout history.
If the ancient Greeks had tabloids, who would be on the cover but Achilles?
How many weeks would Nancy Grace spend shouting about the scandalous abduction of Persephone by Hades?
What’s the difference between Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur and Brad/Jennifer/Angelina?
You take your mythology where you can get it.
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Now, let’s add this: it’s okay to care about pop culture. Like, to really care a lot and find yourself so deeply invested that you sometimes get in actual, real-hard-feelings arguments with friends and family, and you can’t fall asleep at night because you’re so excited by an album you just downloaded, and you restructure your entire week to accommodate the viewing of a new movie or the release of a video game.
How many of your most enduring memories are filtered through the prism of pop culture? I vividly recall losing a five dollar bet when The Undertaker pinned Hulk Hogan at the Survivor Series, remember that as a moment when I learned (among other things) that even superheroes can lose. I had friendships throughout high school based exclusively on a mutual love of The Simpsons, friends with whom I could hold conversations comprised entirely of Simpsons quotes. When I was twelve, Davy Crockett’s on-screen death prompted me to ask a simple enough question (i.e., why did Davy Crockett have to die?) that elicited a forty minute conversation with my parents complete with the solemn bestowal of pamphlets and rosaries.
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Let’s keep building: we are obligated to treat even the most seemingly frivolous and potentially loathsome aspects of our culture seriously and subject them to real scrutiny until they prove themselves either unworthy of that study or more richly layered than we’d imagined.
You may not like the Transformers movies or the real housewives of wherever, but you ought to understand them, because in many ways it’s the worst of pop culture that defines large aspects of our culture as a whole. Pop culture is a relentless river that defines the landscape of our culture and shapes who we are as individuals.
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One more layer: you can be serious about something without being boring. Some of these things we care about are ludicrous; think about the concept of projecting forty-foot-high images of Ashton Kutcher on a wall and asking people to pay ten dollars for the right to see him fall in (and then out, and then back in) love. Think about how stupid it is to sit on the couch for twelve hours every Sunday and form personal attachments to strangers simply because they wear the colors of the team you support and temporarily work in the same city as you.
The risk in writing seriously about pop culture is that if you do it incorrectly, if you lack self-awareness, if you refuse to acknowledge the inherent absurdity in many of the things we care about, then you can sound like you’re auditioning for a part as the stuffy professor in a gritty reboot of Revenge of the Nerds.
The best writing about pop culture knows that this stuff is important, but not that important. It knows we can be intelligent and insightful and demanding but still have a laugh now and then.
There’s a reason Patrick Swayze is the patron saint of Barrelhouse.
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I’m the new guy here, having taken over as non-fiction editor between Issues Nine and Ten. So, for the other editors, this book represents a triumph and a validation: they got drunk one day and decided to start an indie press despite the countless reasonable arguments against doing so, and they are still here and thriving. I’m just hitching my wagon to them after they’ve done all the hard work of making Barrelhouse mean something.
When Barrelhouse debuted eight years ago, the editors wanted the work to be inviting even to people who aren’t regular readers of literary magazines, people to whom “literature” is synonymous with “boring.” The goal was to bridge the gap between high and low culture, to engage with the parts of our culture that are often neglected by other publications.
Many of the essays in this book are reprinted from the first eleven issues of Barrelhouse, but five are all previously unpublished, original works produced for this anthology. In each essay, pop culture is the lens through which the authors view the world and try to make some sense of it. The topics are varied, but the common ground is this: these pieces all have important and compelling stories to tell, about who we are and what our culture says about us.
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Here’s a rundown of what you’ll find in this anthology:
In Sarah Sweeney’s “Before Adrian Grenier Got Famous,” the author stalks a teen heartthrob and chronicles the dissolution of her relationship with her best friend.
In “Jam,” Paul Crenshaw, now a father of young daughters, reflects on his aimless and depressed youth as a devoted fan of Pearl Jam.
Featured in Issue Five’s special Dive Bar feature, Chad Simpson’s “Home of the Poor and Unknown” takes us on a tour of a rundown bar for Cubs fans.
In “All Aboard the Bloated Boat,” Lee Klein argues that the public furor over Barry Bonds’ alleged steroid use is symptomatic of a greater sickness in America’s bigger-is-better culture.
Johannes Lichtman’s collage essay “Hipster Mosaic” shines light on the evolution of hipsters and the way our culture has defined them.
In “Irish on Both Sides,” Tom Williams details the author’s pilgrimage to Ireland to visit the grave of Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy’s biracial lead singer.
Melanie Springer Mock, in “For the Love of Good TV,” finds The Love Boat and Gilligan’s Island morally defensible, even while growing up in a Mennonite household and while attending (and later teaching at) a Christian college.
“This Is Not Their Job: The Never-Ending Reality of The Hills” by Patrick Brown takes a humorous and incisive look at the changing definitions of reality in a post-Hills world.
In “Babyfaces,” W. Todd Kaneko explores his lifelong obsession with pro wrestling and the ways it has impacted his relationship with his father and his own racial identity.
Steve Kistulentz’s essay, “Home from the War: An Appreciation of Magnum P.I.,” explores the parallels between Magnum’s struggles and the author’s own personal ones.
One of the features in Issue Nine’s Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll section, John Shortino’s “What It Means to Grow Bob Dylan’s Beard,” explains the author’s decision to grow his own version of Dylan’s infamous “tragedy beard.”
Matt Sailor’s “Return to Oz” analyzes the unofficial, and largely forgotten, Wizard of Oz sequel that is more bizarre and darker than any ostensible children’s movie you’ve ever seen.
Joe Oestreich, a rock ‘n’ roll veteran, deconstructs the many uses, and misuses, of the verb “to rock.”
“Drumming,” originally published on our website, is Nic Brown’s short exploration of his life as a rock and roll drummer who came very close to hitting it big and then stepped away.
In “Lost Calls,” a lyric essay about payphones–and memorable payphone scenes in film– Jill Talbot reflects on a failed relationship that has haunted her for years.
“On Tubes, by Ted Stevens” is an illustrated essay written by Bryan Furuness and comicked by Kevin Thomas, inspired by the late Senator Ted Stevens’ infamous comments describing the Internet as a series of tubes.
The only appropriate place for us to end is with a Barrelhouse staple: the Swayze Question, in which authors, musicians, and other artists answer the simple, but very revealing, question: What is your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
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You can trace the history of Barrelhouse in these pages and glimpse into our future.
This book—the first release in the Barrelhouse Books line—represents the best of who we are and who we have been. It makes us all immensely proud to have been associated with writers so talented, and reminds us, again and again, why these things that sometimes seem so trivial are just the opposite and why we cared so much in the first place.