Why Nicolas Cage Matters

September 30, 2015 by Stacey May Fowles

Many years ago, when I was an enthusiastic young writer, I took a creative writing class at a nearby university campus. I honestly can’t remember much about the experience (besides of course the absolute horror of twenty of us sitting around a large wooden table and being forced to share our fiction) but I do remember the one dangerous lesson that was imparted to the group—if you want to be a serious, successful, celebrated literary writer, don’t ever write about pop culture.

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Many years ago, when I was an enthusiastic young writer, I took a creative writing class at a nearby university campus. I honestly can’t remember much about the experience (besides of course the absolute horror of twenty of us sitting around a large wooden table and being forced to share our fiction) but I do remember the one dangerous lesson that was imparted to the group—if you want to be a serious, successful, celebrated literary writer, don’t ever write about pop culture.

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Though it was a throwaway line from an instructor whose name I can’t even remember, I’ve seen that snobby little rule repeated time and time again. So many of my editors have stripped any poppy references from my prose out of the concern their inclusion will date my work, thereby making it unsellable in the long term. In story meetings at a magazine I worked at, I listened to editors very seriously discuss whether or not a writer’s song or movie references were clumsily executed, asking if employing such details made things seem dated or not. Important, high profile literary prizes generally go to books that have an “evergreen” or “timelessness” about them—whether because they are rooted in another period completely, or simply (and oddly) void of the cultural signifiers of our day to day.

While the ease of online publishing has facilitated some amazing examples of strong, insightful pop culture writing (The Toast and Hazlitt being just two examples of outlets that embrace the right now,) the black mark from the literary status quo still lingers. For whatever reason, it seems to be a common practice to drill into the heads of hopeful, fledgling writers that to be taken seriously, they can’t reference Magic Mike XXL, the latest Beyoncé video, or whatever Emmy-winning scripted show is airing on primetime right now. Despite the obvious opportunity for thoughtful analysis, what is accessible and popular is gauche where words are concerned. This could be viewed as an extension of the old high school idea that the cool kids don’t like what is widely well-liked, and while books that employ an analysis of or references to mass media can certainly see a great deal of success, they’re rarely seen as “meaningful” or intellectually lasting.

Given the amount of time I spend obsessing over Law and Order: SVU, Denzel Washington, and Drake, shouldn’t I be devoting at least some of my writing time to them? The problem with ignoring pop culture in the aim of making literature timeless is that it denies how vital what is on our radios and screens really is to defining ourselves. (To understand that truth, one only needs to look to the saccharine TV shows of the Cold War fifties, post-sexual revolution slasher films, or the apocalyptic crises released in theatres during the Vietnam War.) Though we so often think something like the new Katy Perry single is ridiculous, disposable fluff, her teenage dreams really tell us more about our era than any of the talking head intellects and academics of our day ever could.

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Toronto publisher ECW (who, in the interest of full disclosure, published my novel Infidelity in 2013) has a long history of rejecting the notion that pop culture can’t be both illuminating and literary. While they’ve been responsible for publishing “serious,” innovative, and widely successful CanLit favourites like Tony Burgess, Brian Francis, and Emily Schultz, and have won the Governor General's Literary Award, the Heritage Toronto Award, and the Independent Publisher Book Awards in the process, they’ve also had a foot firmly planted in the market of pulpy entertainment manuals for years. Beside their award-winning, high-end novels and poetry, ECW’s catalogue includes cultish unofficial guides to everything from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, to Alias, to Xena: Warrior Princess, to Sherlock, to Doctor Who. Since spring 2014 they’ve expanded their offerings to a fun, dedicated series they’ve named Pop Classics, described by the publisher as “incisive critical commentary in short, punchy volumes of pocket pop.”

Though obviously similar to the successful American 33 1/3 series, which invites an author to take a thoughtful look at a single seminal album (and now includes 114 editions including The Smiths’ Meat is Murder, Radiohead’s OK Computer and Hole’s Live Through This), Pop Classics is much looser in terms of what it includes as its subject matter. In two short years they’ve released four books in the collection, with a fifth due in October; Adam Nayman on the beloved and blisteringly bad raunch-fest that is Showgirls, Richard Crouse on bespectacled crooner Elvis Costello, Richard Rosenbaum on comic book characters turned cartoons turned film stars Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Andy Burns on the bizarro world of Twin Peaks, and now Linsday Gibb on “national treasure” Nicolas Cage.

What sets these slim little books apart from ECW’s usual entertainment fare is the new audience it aims to court. While most of the publisher’s media companions appeal to the already converted and obviously obsessive, the Pop Classics series includes intelligent defenses of cultural artifacts the masses may currently be unsure of. “Having to constantly defend something you like can make you love it more fiercely,” writes Gibb of actor Nicolas Cage. “And being accused of liking something ironically was, at least for me, infuriating.” (A few lines later she declares Cage to be the best and “most interesting” actor in America.)

Nayman surprisingly describes Showgirls as “revered at both the ‘low’ end of pop culture as a hardy cult favourite, and at the ‘high’ end by academics as a critical fetish object.” He then basically goes on to write a dissertation to prove his wild thesis, and is quite effective and insightful in doing so. Reading his take actually inspired me to watch the movie again with a newfound openness. Though it retained its schlocky train-wreck attributes (and Elizabeth Berkley still being a steaming hot mess of an actor), I certainly saw the validity of his analysis.

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Pop Classics are characterized by their long, well-crafted arguments for why certain (and oft-derided) things matter, railing against the kind of knee-jerk dismissiveness my long-forgotten creative writing instructor (and initial viewing of Showgirls) scarred me with. These books also have their work cut out for them—it is much more difficult to defend something you love, something often ridiculed, than it is to abstractly employ critical thought in an already respected realm. For example, proving that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are significant is much more challenging than proving that, say, Jonathan Franzen (“Is Purity author Jonathan Franzen the new Dickens?” asked an Evening Standard headline) or Orson Welles (Citizen Kane frequently tops lists of the best movies of all time) mean something to the world.

“The Turtles captivated their audience as the ideal heroes for the fragmented and hybridized times in which we lived and still live,” writes Rosenbaum. “Uniquely suited to tell all the different kinds of stories that we wanted and needed to hear. And still do.” Certainly a much more enlightened viewpoint than I thought pizza-eating sewer-dwelling mutant reptiles could inspire.

Beyond this concerted effort to legitimize the seriousness of what is sometimes considered “trashy,” there is actually something truly beautiful about spending a hundred pages with an author who is smartly passionate about their subject matter—especially if you yourself would never have actually considered its value before they did deft work of convincing you of it. At the risk of sounding like a hater, I readily admit my opinion of Nicolas Cage was somewhere in the realm of “slightly amused mockery” until Gibb persuaded me otherwise.

“Cage consistently encourages viewers to question our assumptions and expectations about actors and acting, about art in general,” she writes. “And above all, he’s always trying. And that’s what makes him great. He’s earnest even when it would be much cooler not to care.” (To Gibb’s point, it would probably be much “cooler” not to care about why Nomi Malone licking a stripper pole or Dale Cooper eating a slice of “best in the tri-counties” cherry pie is culturally important, but where’s the fun in that?)

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Gibb’s National Treasure acts as an enjoyable reminder that though we tend to view actors like Cage and his ilk as disposable, the duality is what gives him true value. “Inept/genius, best actor/worst actor, auteur/hack. This divided response has often reduced him to a punch line, but it’s also arguably his greatest strength, enabling the breadth, diversity, and longevity of his career.” Though she is speaking specifically about the actor that brought us a brilliant performance in 2002’s Adaptation, but also the complete absurdity of 2006’s The Wicker Man, she could be speaking about how we consume pop culture in a broader way—divisively, combatively, and above all else, passionately.

By employing smart writers to take a serious look at the overlooked facets of mainstream entertainment culture, ECW has helped to pull this kind of analysis out of niche subcultures (who the publisher has readily served in the past) and introduced it to a literary market. The fledgling series is unique to Canadian publishing, and understands that more and more we’re hungering for an intelligent analysis of the television programs, movies, and music we consume more avidly than ever. Though the idea of 20,000 plus words on Cage’s career might not immediately seem like the most compelling literature to the average reader, these kinds of books are certainly worth our time—if only to see what magic a writer can create when paired with the subject matter that compels them.

I think even that very wrong creative writing instructor would be amused.

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Stacey May Fowles is a writer and magazine professional. She is the author of the novels Be Good (Tightrope, 2007), Fear of Fighting (Invisible, 2008), and Infidelity (ECW Press, 2013). Her essays have been widely anthologized in collections like Yes Means Yes, First Person Queer, and Nobody Passes. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.


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