Mundane titillation

This week's stories prove that a good writer can make the most mundane subject riveting, while a hack can turn the sexiest topic into a colossal snooze.


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Jenn Shreve
July 16, 1999 4:00pm (UTC)

The mundane stuff of life -- speed bumps, insects, baldness -- doesn't make good headlines. We want prostitutes, jails, celebrities, junkie masseurs. These are the things that make pages turn, links click, profits soar. But occasionally a writer can transform the most mundane of topics into a masterpiece -- or at least something worth skimming. On the other hand, even the sexiest story can be remarkably boring in the hands of an inept wordsmith.

Today, in my never-ending quest to evaluate, ponder and rate the offerings of America's alternative press, I give you the snooze-o-meter, my personal method of measuring the liveliness, or deadliness, of stories lurid and mundane.

  • Insomnia: Will keep you awake after that long, carb-intensive lunch.
  • Amusement: Heh heh. That's nice. Think I'll forward it to my cousin in Vermont.
  • Drowsiness: I try to care, I really do.
  • Zzzzzzzzzzz: Zzzzzzzzzzz.

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Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, July 14-20

"Bump and Grind" by Katy Reckdahl

Speed bumps. What are they? A mere annoyance to impatient drivers? A valuable safeguard of suburban toddlers? Nay! Speed bumps are the center of a swirling controversy, a Catch-22, one person's misery and another's peace of mind. They are, according to reporter Katy Reckdahl, the nemesis of pizza deliverymen. Thanks to the annoying bumps, those who deliver pepperoni with mushrooms can no longer navigate the streets of sleepy suburbia with Andretti-like speed. Alas, Reckdahl must leave the piping-hot pizza-delivery universe for the politics of speed bumps -- the ordinances, the tiresome neighborhood bickering. The story that begins with a roar lands with a thud, but it made me consider speed bumps in an entirely new way and may guilt-trip me into tipping pizza delivery people more generously in the future.

TOPIC: Mundane

TREATMENT: Creative

RATING: Amusement

"The Gene Sifters" by Andrew Carter

DNA testing involves crime, blood, death, murder, suspicion, lives on the verge, O.J. Simpson. Not bad for a subject dominated by people in white coats hunched over test tubes in sterile labs. Andrew Carter reports on Minnesota's DNA database, improved technology in testing and why blood samples are becoming the fingerprints of the new millennium. He manages to squeeze the terms "mummified samples," "corpse" and "lip cells on a cigarette butt" into one thrilling paragraph.

TOPIC: Titillating

TREATMENT: Bland

RATING: Amusement

"Sandy Berman's Last Stand" by Burl Gilyard

Sandy Burman, 65, head cataloger for the Hennepin County Library since 1973, gets sacked by callous management for speaking his mind. The story leads with a lengthy discussion of his typewriter and the inflammatory memo he typed on it. That's pages 1 and 2. There are four more. Zzzzzzzz.

TOPIC: Mundane (Libraries are dull, even if free-speech struggles are involved)

TREATMENT: Slow

RATING: Zzzzzzzz

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Long Island Voice, July 15-21

"Living and dining on Long Island" by Andrew Friedman

The setup: Two guys hit 24 diners in 24 hours. The subtext: "We eat at 24 diners in 24 hours so you don't have to." Why would we have to? Andrew Friedman, a talented stylist who deserves better material than this, sums up the problem with his piece well: "Diners look numbingly the same. As if we are stuck in a loop, a labyrinth, where we keep entering the same diner, over and over and over again, seeing our reflection in the same multiplying mirrors." Marathon pieces like these are hard to keep entertaining. Believe me. I know. The trick is selecting a topic that contains some inherent mystery.

TOPIC: Mundane to the point of madness

TREATMENT: Smart and sassy

RATING: Drowsiness

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Orlando Weekly, July 15-21

"Declining Years" by Steve Helling

"When St. Cloud police responded to a recent domestic dispute, the scene was a surreal mix between 'Cops' and 'Cocoon.' A 66-year-old woman had allegedly punched and pushed her 75-year-old husband after tying him to his bed with a dog collar and leash." Steve Helling does an excellent job with this story about the rise of domestic abuse among Florida's senior citizens.

TOPIC: Titillating

TREATMENT: Fine balance of smut and serious journalism

RATING: Insomnia

McSweeney's

"Plath or Gabrielle" by Kevin Shay

This quiz bears no small resemblance to a quiz Salon News ran two weeks ago. And Neal Pollack's story on taking a lover in Cuba, also published in McSweeney's, reads like every other Travel story Salon publishes. Imitation as flattery? Or something else? You decide. But comparing excerpts from Ted Hughes' "Birthday Letters" to poetry posted on the "Xena: Warrior Princess" fan site is a lark.

TOPIC: Silly

TREATMENT: Good idea, well executed

RATING: Amusement

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The Stranger, July 15-21

"Y2K" by Steve Perry

Here's a little fact to give you pause and perhaps, during that pause, reason to wonder why the hell you're reading this column when children are starving, senior citizens are bludgeoning each other and some new skin fungi are untreatable. I'm about to write about an article about the media coverage of an event that's, more or less, an invention of the press. Pause. Pause. Pause. OK.

TOPIC: Y2 ... who cares

TREATMENT: Same old, with tons of earnestness

RATING: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

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S.F. Bay Guardian

"Street-walkin' cheater" by Johnny Angel

If you get busted by a decoy police hooker, it's $500 in fees and no jail time. Seems to me that the San Francisco Police Department is making out better than the pimps. But that's not what this story is about. This is the profile of a woman doing a rather unpleasant job. It is also about feeding our seemingly insatiable fascination with illicit sex and hookers. Lord knows, we need more of it.

TOPIC: Textbook titillating

TREATMENT: Sympathetic profile

RATING: Drowsiness

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Missoula Independent, Week of July 8

"The Son Also Rises" by Blake de Pastino

As a Hemingway fan, I found this interview with his son, Patrick, who recently put together "True at First Light" from a tangled mess of manuscripts, fascinating. The book itself is the center of much hemming and hawing within literary circles. Blake de Pastino of Missoula, Mont., one of the finest towns in the world, seeks out the fellow responsible for the controversial last "novel." And here we learn that Hem's last tome was put together with Microsoft Word, a fact that leaves me slightly queasy.

TOPIC: Titillating to book nerds

TREATMENT: Interview 101

RATING: Insomnia

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Austin Chronicle, July 9-15

"A bald-faced lie?" by Charles Harp

Charles Harp takes on every woman who's ever said out loud she doesn't mind a shiny head, then ignored every bald guy in sight. No mincing of words here. These chicks are hypocrites!

TOPIC: Mundane (Hair problems?)

TREATMENT: High drama

RATING: Amusement

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Village Voice, July 14-20

"Back to Which Garden?" Margit Detweiler

Few topics have been chewed to mush the way Woodstock has. Endless articles, books, reminiscences and tampon commercials have paid their tribute to the moment that epitomized a decade, a time when music drew people together politically and spiritually. That's right. I buy into it a little. I even found myself nodding in agreement to Margit Detweiler's assessment of current pop sensations as "soulless." They are. On the 30th anniversary -- we really can't trust you now, hippies -- of the event, Detweiler looks at three concerts honoring the event and searches for the original spirit of Woodstock. Unremarkably, she comes up short.

TOPIC: Timeless titillation

TREATMENT: Mournful, searching

RATING: Amusement

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Philadelphia City Paper

"Tick Tick Tick" by Stefany Ramp with Jennifer Darr

"Tiny bug: Big trouble," reads the subhead to this piece. I gotta agree. Few things sound scarier than ending up debilitated after having your blood sucked out by a teeny, disease-carrying bug. Of course, once you launch into the medical controversy and all the bacterial this-n-thats, things get a little less thrilling.

TOPIC: Titillating and mundane

TREATMENT: Starts off nicely, but drags on

RATING: Drowsiness

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New Times Los Angeles, July 15-21

"Shrink on Ice" By Susan Goldsmith

Finally, Monica's back in the news. That is, her shrink is in trouble and that's in the news. It's stories like these that make me want to throw in the towel and trot my butt over to a nunnery for a life of good deeds and repentance. Because even if Monica's shrink did commit multiple negligent acts -- such as not taking good notes -- who cares? I don't care. Do you care? Do you?

TOPIC: Titillating

TREATMENT: Space-filler

RATING: Why, God, why?


Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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