“Monkey See,” Monkey Do

One of the writers I’ve learned a lot from recently is Linda Holmes, who helms NPR’s “Monkey See” blog and the “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast. I was not particularly into blogs or podcasts before reading some of Holmes’s posts on NPR’s website; now I’m a daily follower and weekly listener.

This blog is what sold me, and it really had nothing to do with popular culture, which I’m a fan of and would happily tune in just to consume that subsection of content. It was the strength of Holmes’s writing, the attitude she and others who write for “Monkey See” bring to the blog, and the vision she has for this medium.

Put simply, Holmes and Co. do not subscribe to what might be called the “King Me” view of many of the pop culturati. This worldview engenders the kind of exclusive club of insiders who know more than you ever will about the minute details of the plot of their favorite TV shows, the origin stories and bizarro world tales of superheroes, the alternate tracks that never made it onto the record of the bands they idolize, etc., etc. “Monkey See” gives away the secret password so that everyone can enter the clubhouse – and quite a fun clubhouse it is, thanks to their “all in” attitude.

One of the first pieces that really made me sit up and take notice was this one about Steve Martin’s engagement at the 92nd Street Y. Up until then, this venue had been considered something of a modern-day salon for artists and thinkers. The Y refunded the audience’s money the following morning, apparently claiming that the discussion covered in the Martin interview wasn’t comprehensive enough and that a number of attendees had expressed disappointment in the talk.

At the end of 2010, Holmes, like a lot of other columnists, prepared an end-of-year list. Instead of cutting down bad entertainment, she dashed off a list of 50 wonderful pop culture phenomena she was treated to during the year. “Honestly,” she wrote, “the hands-down best part of this job is coming in every day and being repeatedly delighted.”

Apparently, this piece of writing got Holmes to thinking because, at the beginning of 2011, she announced on the podcast that she was going to dedicate the year to sharing with her readers the high points, the best, the things that make people happy, the works of art and culture that uplift. If this sounds a bit too Up With People for you, note that the opposite of what she’s proposed is to sharpen her pencil and use it as a skewer. Change the secret password and effectively barricade the door to the clubhouse.

All this to say: Isn’t this what great writing is about? Helping people aspire, rather than tear down. Yes, satire has its place, and it can be a precision tool when addressing abuses of power. But, we’re talking about pop culture criticism here and, if we want our artists to take risks and share their best work with us, then we need to give them the space to create – and sneering and snark doesn’t promote that kind of environment.

If you work in another area of communications – say, employee communications – you can substitute the word “employees” for “artists” and come up with the same equation: Don’t we want to create an environment for employees where they feel comfortable bringing their best ideas to the table? How we write in our corporate communications vehicles can foster or it can dampen enthusiasm.

This is writing that can make a difference, and isn’t that why we became writers in the first place?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Tolerating the ideas that classical music can be viscerally stirring and that ‘Survivor’ can be sociologically interesting allows much better balance — which benefits everyone — than an escalating and unnatural war between fun and art. Fun and art are natural allies (despite often appearing separately), and forcing them to do battle just divides us into tinier and tinier camps, where we can only talk to people who like precisely the same kinds of culture that we do. That benefits absolutely nobody — not artists, not audiences, and not the quality of discourse.”
Linda Holmes“Monkey See” blog