Every week, a rotating crew of your favorite Popdose writers takes to the virtual pages of Kirkus Reviews Online, taking on the best — and sometimes the worst — in pop-culture and celebrity books. From coffee-table studies to quickie unauthorized bios, if it’s about show biz, it’s fair game.
This week we get in on the ground floor of a new series of pop-culture guidebooks…
The new If You Like book series from Hal Leonard is a slyly ambitious project. In form, each book is guide to recommended viewing and listening, analogous to Netflix’s recommendation engine — “If you like this, you’ll like that” — but within that format the series finds room to make far-ranging and unexpected cultural connections, drawing together disparate works by thematic and stylistic threads.
The leadoff title, If You Like The Sopranos, sets a high bar for the series. San Antonio-based blogger and knockabout arts journalist Leonard Pierce places David Chase’s Mafia saga firmly in the context of film noir; but Pierce — who has written for Nerve, McSweeney’s, the AV Club, and the fondly-remembered High Hat, among other places — turns his restless intellect loose to find unlikely parallels with such things as European art-films, Hong Kong action cinema, and the Grand Theft Auto videogames.
These are the highlights of an email exchange, lightly edited for length and clarity.
So you got paid to write a book about a teevee show! I’m jealous as hell. Tell me a little about how you got the gig.
One of my editors put me in touch with the folks at Hal Leonard, and they let me know what they were looking for with the project. We talked about their expectations and desires for the series, and I sent them various samples of stuff I’d written, and it turned out to be a good match. I had to push [the deadline] a bit so we could get the book out by the holidays, but I think it turned out pretty well. It meant several months of sitting on the couch watching gangster movies — not that I wouldn’t have done that anyway, but this way I got paid for it.
Why The Sopranos? Did Editorial choose the subject, or did you pitch them on it?
The Sopranos was one of several possibilities. My editor, Mike Edison, wanted to pick topics that were both recent and influential, so that it appealed to modern audiences but was rich enough historically that there was enough to explore. I picked The Sopranos because I’m a huge fan of both the show and crime dramas in general; it’s by far my favorite film genre. I could write about them for ages, and this gave me an excuse to do so.
I like how you use the show as a springboard to talk about what organized crime means — about ethnicity, about business, about city life. It’s a sort of scholarly approach, something that you might not expect from a pop-culture reference guide.
It wasn’t hard to bring a more analytical approach to a book about The Sopranos — it’s a show that deliberately encouraged that kind of analysis. It makes explicit what was previously subtextual in crime dramas: the immigrant experience and how it’s changed; the nature of urban crime and how it’s developed as cities have developed; the differences and parallels between legitimate capitalism and criminal profit-making — these are all issues that David Chase and his writers put front and center on the show. It was always a show about ideas, and how to present those ideas in a way that satisfied those who where looking for deeper context as well as those who just wanted gangster action.
And, not to flatter myself in the comparison, that’s the same balance I tried to achieve with the book: keeping the original idea of a sort of consumer guide for fans of the show, while adding some deep reads of the show’s precedents and antecedents for those who wanted more.
The idea behind the If You Like… series fascinates me. These books are basically trying to beat the Web at its own game of recommending related content — taking that function away from the algorithms and putting it back in the hands of human curators.
I’d say that’s fair, and I think that human curators, as you put it, will always be superior to a computer algorithm, because a computer can only sort and prioritize various points of data: a film’s director, say, or genre, or an aggregate of critical ratings. It can’t capture the most essential elements of criticism, which are passion and value. A piece of art appeals to us is because it triggers our passions, our emotions, our deepest fears and desires: a computer can tell you what elements are present in a story, but it can’t tell you why White Heat might be more likely to appeal to a fan of The Sopranos than, say, Mildred Pierce, because it only knows the similarity of the elements of those films, not the emotional triggers that made them what they are.
If you tell [an algorithm] you like film noir, it’s only going to give you a list of them that are generally well-regarded; it’s not going to tell you the vast tonal differences between a movie like In a Lonely Place and Brute Force. Using only a computer-generated list, it might take you ages to get from Bonnie and Clyde to Gun Crazy, even though the two films are natural companions…
Read the rest of this interview at Kirkus Reviews!