Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.
I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.
Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”
Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”
What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.
Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.
Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.
The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.
[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]
Kyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, OpiumMagazine, and RainTaxi, among others.
Books have never had it easy. Even their sanctuaries are vulnerable. Setting aside natural disasters, libraries—a depressing number of them—have succumbed to all kinds of destruction throughout history: most of it intentional, some of it accidental, and almost always involving fire.
For three years, Susan Orlean has been steeped in this particular bibliophilic tragedy, coming to it by way of her book-in-progress on the 1986 arson of the Los Angeles Public Library, the largest library fire in American history (400,000 items destroyed, including books, historic maps, drawings for patents, fine art, film negatives, and the like).
The story of a big fire was almost too easy to tell; for Orlean, a deeper attraction lay in the biography of the place that survived it. “I’m always drawn to stories that operate partly at the level of being familiar to a fault, something that seems unable to sustain a great deal of examination. That’s what makes it interesting to me. It is awfully challenging to take a subject that people initially might think of as boring and convince them that, actually, it’s really interesting. That seems to be my perverse tendency.”
A library, of course, makes for a stubborn protagonist in a work of narrative journalism. “The reality is, it’s just different writing about something that has all of the complexity of bureaucracy. I don’t do a lot of stories where I have to go through channels to get the material I want, and I’m not somebody who knows how to game a system to get access to stuff.” Doggedness helped, both in chasing leads and, later, arranging them—fittingly, with one of the indispensible tools of the librarian’s trade.
Orlean says that when she sat down to write The Orchid Thief, her book about anthomaniac John Laroche, and was confronted by the volume of her notes, “it was like my head blew up.” But she’d read about John McPhee’s taxonomic method of using index cards, and decided to give it a shot. “This was the answer to many of my woes—the index card. A giant part of the writing process is to figure out how to keep material manageable: How do you find things? Structure is maybe the single most important and challenging part of writing a book. So any mechanical way you can help yourself is really important.”
Where ideas belong; where to find them when you need them. The method here isn’t so far removed from the beneficent principles of the library itself. “In a way,” Orlean adds, “the hero here is this amazing legacy of human civilization choosing to preserve the process of our thoughts. Sure, you could say it’s just a place with a lot of books, but people feel tremendous emotions about libraries, about the goodness of them as institutions. And that’s the heroic part of this—that somehow we have this impulse to keep creating these places that preserve for everyone the stories that we’ve made.”
Susan Orlean’s L.A. Reading List:
Ask the Dustby John Fante
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis
The White Album by Joan Didion
Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Monster: Living Off the Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne
L.A. Modern by Tim Street-Porter
Susan Orlean is the best-selling author of eight books, including The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (Random House, 2001), My Kind of Place (Random House, 2004), Saturday Night (Knopf, 1990), Lazy Little Loafers (Harry N. Abrams, 2008), The Orchid Thief (Random House, 1998), and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Simon and Schuster, 2011), which was a New York Times Notable book. Orlean has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1992. Her work has also been published in Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. In 2014, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Arts/Nonfiction. In 2016, she was selected as a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony.
Maisie Crow works as a director, cinematographer, and documentary photographer. Her most recent film, Jackson, about Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2016. Her short film Half-Lives: The Chernobyl Workers Now, released to coincide with the Fall 2011 issue of VQR,won an award from the Overseas Press Club of America. She has taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Fall 2016 Volume 92# 4
October 3, 2016
September 30, 2016
books, Susan Orlean, narrative journalism, library, institutions, preservation, literature, stories