High And Low Cultures Collide On ‘Slaughterhouse 90210’

CREDIT: MACMILLAN/SLAUGHTERHOUSE 90210
CREDIT: MACMILLAN/SLAUGHTERHOUSE 90210

Maris Kreizman’s Slaughterhouse 90210 is for book people who love television and TV junkies who love books. The premise of her blog — like, one could argue, any internet success that can sustain itself for five-plus years — is a simple one. She pairs screenshots from television shows with quotes from literature. And now her blog has become a book: Slaughterhouse 90210, which expands upon this theme by pulling imagery from the pop culture universe beyond TV, and comes out Tuesday.

Pictures on Slaughterhouse 90210 don’t come with traditional captions, cluing you in to the name of the show or the characters; it is the close TV-watcher who will enjoy Slaughterhouse 90210 the most, who will not just realize, “Hey, that’s Abbi from Broad City” but will recognize from the photo the context of the scene the screenshot depicts and why the chosen quote resonates so strongly with this single, frozen moment.

You get the feeling, scrolling through the site, that, on a micro level, Elana Ferrante has something meaningful to say to Angela Chase, or that E.B. White should rise from the dead to binge-watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But what emerges, in a zoom-out way, is a broader, more invigorating thesis: That no art is created in a silo, that ideas and narrators and characters can be lifted from their original context, juxtaposed with something seemingly unrelated, and feel, in a foreign thing, the smack of recognition.

Slaughterhouse 90210 makes explicit something consumers of pop culture already understand intuitively: That the boundaries between high and low culture are often blurred and sometimes non-existent; that images and text that are technically unrelated can still communicate with each other, across platforms and mediums and centuries, in ways that illuminate both; that “television” is more of an idea than a boundary-obeying, clearly-definable thing and “literature” is not exactly staying within the book-margins these days, either.

On the eve of her publication day, Kreizman spoke with ThinkProgress about whether or not we’re really in a Golden Age of Television.

Talk me through the process of turning this blog into a book.

I worked on Slaughterhouse 90210 for about five years before I got a book deal for it, and it was really just a matter of doing it every single day and letting this thing that could be some ephemeral internet phenomenon for a couple of weeks take over what I do. So by the time I got it, I had a big enough fanbase on Tumblr, I felt confident in what I was doing and understood why I was doing it more, because for me, it really became about making sure that consumers of pop culture know that books are a really important part of that conversation. So putting the book together was actually really challenging because, for five years, I’d only done screencaps from TV shows, and then I went out and had to use stockhouses to find images that I could actually get permission to use, and that changed the entire way I thought about my book. Rather than capturing specific moments in TV shows, more about what the entire, overall theme of them was. And it expanded to make it a little bigger for the book. It was expanded to movies and pop stars and sports figures and politicians, so getting a bigger pop culture world.

How has the blog evolved over the years? Did it wind up going in directions you didn’t expect?

The whole thing was supposed to be about how funny it was to blend high and low culture. So, every dead, revered author you could imagine paired with every shitty reality show.

When I started, the whole thing was supposed to be about how funny it was to blend high and low culture. So, every dead, revered author you could imagine paired with every shitty reality show. But as the blog evolved, I kind of realized that the authors I like to use the most are still alive. They’re not these old, dead white men. And the TV shows that I watch are really good. So the idea that I was pairing trashy TV with great literature just seemed silly. Things started to blend together a little more. It wasn’t high and low anymore.

I was going to ask you about that — if, in this time of excellent TV, that tension between highbrow and lowbrow is gone — but my experience in talking to people about TV, and in writing about it, is that there are always holdouts and culture snobs who think not liking television is a badge of honor, a sign of intellectual superiority.

Sure, and I think it goes the other way, too. Some people always think that books are not worth their time! I’m trying to talk to people who have been told, at some point or another, that you can’t have both. That these things are too different. That it’s gratifying, in this age, to be a fan of both mediums.

You’ve written about this before, but can you describe what was going on in your life when you started the blog?

I had worked in publishing all my life and had only ever wanted to be a book editor, and that was the touchstone of my identity for most of my twenties. And I found myself laid off when I was 28, and took a job that wasn’t all that fulfilling, and had to figure out who I was when I didn’t have this one goal anymore. And so a friend at work was like, “You should start a Tumblr!” Which is how all the best stories start! And he said, just write out your favorite quotes from books and make a Tumblr, and I thought, that sounds boring. But if you add a photo of Joan Holloway to the quote, it’s immediately much more eye-pleasing, and it becomes about how the image and the quote work together.

CREDIT: Screenshot, Slaughterhouse 90210
CREDIT: Screenshot, Slaughterhouse 90210

What was the very first post?

So actually, the first post was more of a — I wanted to start out with two things that I loved very much. It was a screenshot from Veronica Mars and a quote from The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken. I talked about how I started as a high-low kind of place, but actually, I was already trying to focus on what I loved.

Why Tumblr? What makes that the just-right platform for this content?

A couple of things: First, it’s the best place to do visual work with a little bit of text added onto it. Just because people are able to reblog and comment and turn the thing that you made into their own by adding a few words. And I just found that the book community on Tumblr was so full of really like-minded people who like to have fun, love books but weren’t self-serious about it, and wanted to connect. And part of it, I have to credit Rachel Fershleiser who does book world outreach for Tumblr, manages it really, really well. And has built up this community on Tumblr that’s really supportive.

What kind of feedback do you get?

The best thing that I hear doing my blog that has really sustained me and kept me doing it for so long, is when I see people reblog and say, “I never heard of this author, I love this quote, I’m buying this book.” That, to me, is the holy grail. To find a new way to get the word out about books I love.

As someone who loves books in their own right, does it disappoint you at all to think there are readers who need television as a framework to find books interesting? Like hiding spinach in the brownies?

I don’t feel bad if this is a gateway. There’s so much consolidation in the publishing world, both in publishers and retailers, that it’s so nice to have a new venue that allows people to think about books when they might not have otherwise.

What shows or authors provide a bottomless well of material for you? What do you keep returning to?

When you live alone, it is very easy to watch TV and read through all your meals and fill your days with entertainment-slash-work.

I was just trying to go back and research this, because at some point I read a criticism of Mad Men, that it was too captionable. Well, guess that’s why I love it so much! There are moments when it can be heavy-handed but I think that show is magic for many reasons. And there are so many really wonderful characters who are working through their own shit. There’s an endless supply of good material to work with from there. And on the author side, Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood are my go-tos. They tend to make broad observations about the world. I was just reading, the fourth Neopolitan novel, Elena Ferrante’s collection. I love her writing so much, but it’s so specific to a time and place, so many Italian words. And Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood happen to be my favorite writers anyway, but it’s easier to find something in there.

Do you watch every show and read every book that you reference?

I have watched every show that I’ve used. The books, I would say, two-thirds of the quotes I’ve used I’ve read the books for. And my little secret is Goodreads. When I watch something in particular and know I want to have a quote to go along with it, I can search by keyword on Goodreads.

How are you feeling about television today?

I think right now, people are talking about how we’re in the Golden Age of TV and TV is great. But I look at some of the shows that I love that other intellectually-minded people love, and there are shows like Empire and Quantico, and these aren’t — some of the things that they’re doing in them are world-changing, perhaps, but in terms of quality storytelling, this isn’t the be-all-end-all. And there isn’t enough space to consider the middle. It’s either The Wire and The Sopranos, telling the greatest stories in America today, or it’s The Bachelor.

CREDIT: Screenshot, Slaughterhouse 90210
CREDIT: Screenshot, Slaughterhouse 90210

That’s so true. But it’s really hard to find a way to write about those middle shows in a way that is interesting or meaningful. What is there to say about a mediocre CBS sitcom? There’s no there there.

I recapped Modern Family for Vulture for a year. You have to be restrained at all times. Because for the most part I’ll be like, this isn’t that good! This is not as groundbreaking as you’ve been told! This depiction of a gay relationship is not quite as out the box as you think.

I feel that way about House of Cards. It’s so much fun to write about, and there’s a lot to dig into and investigate. But also, it thinks it’s a much better show than it is. And I think because it has that prestige vibe, it gets away with being a just-fine show. It’s like if Scandal didn’t have a sense of humor.

There’s also a weird thing with House of Cards, I see it with Scandal, people feel like if they’re being told about the government they’re learning. If things are harder to figure out, it must be right and good. I was just tweeting about how there has to be a time in your favorite TV show that you realize, it’s not because you’re not smart enough, but the show is going off the rails.

What new shows do you love?

I just finished Mr. Robot and loved everything about it. I’m thinking about the hackers we’ve seen, but this is the first time it felt real. And it was paranoid and it was wonderful. I guess my overall theme for 2015 is that, all of a sudden I’ve started paying attention to networks I thought were garbage.

Yes! All these outstanding shows are popping up in unexpected places. It’s Lifetime with UnREAL, too.

I would add Younger to that. I love every second it. And that’s TV Land. And it’s a funny experience because as you’re watching these quality shows, you’re seeing ads for, like, the little person exploitation show on Lifetime.

How about books? What are you reading?

I just finished Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And the problem with that book is, it’s too quotable and I can’t make my entire blog a Lauren Groff fansite. I loved that the TV version of it would be so much subtext in that first part, and then you get the curtain pulled back and see from the wife’s point of you, in a less Gone Girl way. There’s just anger and life experience that we just don’t know about until it’s real. And I just read Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City. It’s wonderful and in some ways it reminds me of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonaut. These are cultural critics talking about great thinkers and great books to tell the story of moments in their own lives.

CREDIT: Screenshot, Slaughterhouse 90210
CREDIT: Screenshot, Slaughterhouse 90210

In expanding your source material for the book — looking not just at TV shows but at movies, pop culture figures, sports, politicians — did you want to change the lens for the blog, too? Or did you want to keep the site as a place for strictly TV-to-books comparison?

Austin Kleon is a friend of mine. He is a creative guru at this point. And he said to me that it is nice to put boundaries and guidelines on a creative work just so you’re not overwhelmed. So keeping it on TV narrows my focus enough so I can do it all the time. but for the book, it was really fun to consider other famous figures. And easier to get the rights to their images.

How long did it take you to put the book together?

It took about a year. Once the book was sold. Because it really was about doing a lot of photo research and tailoring the quotes that I wanted to use to the images I could find. And to be inspired by the images I had.

You were working full-time the entire time, right? Do you look back and think, “I wish I’d taken book leave and not tried to do all of this at once”?

Yup, I was working. Looking back, I’m really glad that I actually — I have a modest savings account for the first time in my life, in my late thirties. It was about time. And book leave, I think, is a luxury right now. Some people make it work. I had been living alone for most of that time, too, so my rent was really high. So having the psychological padding of the book deal was really helpful.

Do you ever think back to that time in your life when you started the blog and you were stuck in a job you hated?

I was there for way longer than I had hoped or planned. And the best thing I can say about creating the blog is, I have something that’s mine, that doesn’t depend on what I do during the day and can inform what I do during the day and that’s the best kind of job or career I could have. That I could never be fired from!

How did you have the energy to do both?

I wasn’t into sleeping for a little while! I will say this: I’ve now lived with my boyfriend and my dog. When you live alone, it is very easy to watch TV through all your meals and read through all your meals and fill your days, really, with entertainment-slash-work.

Has Slaughterhouse 90210 made watching television and reading books more fun for you? Less? Does it always feel like work, or can you flick it off like a switch?

I’m going to say more fun. Although I will say that I’ll probably never stop mining for quotes now, ever, when I read a book. Maybe in the distant future.