Sleep Around Before You Marry An Argument
Reading around Dolly is reading in a complex media-driven world
Welcome back to essaying. In this latest newsletter, we are talking about one of the most important stages of crafting an essay: reading. We will be talking about craft a lot over the next year. Feel free to share this email. It is available to all. If you would like to talk with Tressie and other subscribers about craft, join us on the Open Discussion threads.
I have never had writer’s block. I say this all the time, much to the chagrin of my colleagues. For me, writer’s block is all about perspective. When I cannot write, I take that to mean that I do not yet have anything to, well, say. It is a novel concept, but I do not write until I have a point of view or an argument. If I do not have either of those things, it means that I am not done reading. My “writer’s block” looks like “keep reading until you have something to say.” In the case of The Dolly Parton Moment essay, I had accepted an invitation to write about her with a very cautious response: “Let me see if I have anything to add.” When you are writing about a big subject like Dolly Parton, you have to learn how to read for the subject, which is one thing. But you also have to read around the subject, which adds depth and heft to a good, critical argument.
There are two approaches to reading for something like a strong narrative essay. There is the census approach and then there is reading around. If I have time or a knowledge gap, I do both. Most readers and thinkers start with the census approach. It is the approach taught in high school and most of college. It is also the most intuitive approach. The census is useful but I feel strongly that if you start an essay a little in love with your subject, it is best to go slut it up before you start writing. For the less prurient among us, I will start this mini-lecture on reading with the census approach.
The census approach is straightforward. If I'm going to write about Dolly Parton, I would search on Google for everything written by Dolly Parton or about Dolly Parton. It is a lot. She has such a long career. You could spend a good year and a half just reading it all. And that's if you were a very disciplined writer and did it for hours a day but it can be done. This approach is really common in journalism and journalistic writing, where it's about accuracy of facts, even when they're doing an analysis of a cultural phenomenon. I wouldn't necessarily call it a critical analysis, but those accounts are usually explaining or describing a cultural event.
There’s nothing wrong with the census approach, and in fact, you should read as much as you can about the actual subject. You should know what other people have said. Ideally, you would know what other people have said at different points in time, across different types of publications, with different types of audiences, because you want to to triangulate ideas in the context of the moment that produces them. Time and place always matters.
I find the second approach, reading around a subject, the most important way to prepare for a layered argument. Reading around a subject is about going beyond the object of study to unpack, examine, or pick apart what the person or the object of study represents. That is usually where the good stuff is. The fun stuff. Leaving all that on the table is like cracking open a crab leg and not being able to get at all the good gristly parts in the far reaches of the crab knuckle. I hate it when people leave all that meat behind. That's what it's like if you just read the subject and you don't read around it: You're leaving so much meat in the shell.
Reading around a subject is one of the skills you learn in graduate school, which also bothers me. Reading deeply should not be an advanced skill set. In a complex media environment, we all need to learn how to read around an object of study. That is more than just media literacy, although media literacy matters. “Media literacy” is what we mean when we try to teach people a step-wise approach to vetting the quality of their sources, for example. It’s a very rational model of information-seeking. People in institutions really like the idea of giving someone a checklist that tells them what to do: "Compare these two sources. Look at the address in the address bar. Does it say HTTPS? Is it a secure website? Look it up in Wikipedia. See who owns it." As important as that is, media literacy is not enough and can, in fact, lead people down misinformation rabbit holes. In layman's terms, the kind of contextual reading I favor involves reading sources, vetting them, and also reading through them to see what is missing.
I can plug Dolly Parton's name into the Google search bar, get back a big list, print it all out, and then collect the books and magazines. It would be a lot, but I could physically put them all in boxes in a room, and sit there and read my way out of that room over the course of two years. At the end of it, I will know everything anyone has said about Dolly Parton. I would have all the facts of her life pretty much straight, and, I presume, a well-researched document at the end of it that is boring as mud on a stick. Because why should we care? What does it mean? That's what we want, especially in a world as complex as ours. We aren’t just looking for facts. We're looking for meaning. And on the way to our search for meaning, it becomes really easy to confuse us about the facts.
To read around the subject of Dolly Parton, instead of plugging her name in the Google search bar, I'm going to ask Dolly Parton, cultural object, "What are you?" Not: Who are you? You're Dolly Parton, I get that. But what are you? Think about this like a Law & Order episode. God help me with the cop-aganda here, but give the cops a description of the suspect. Just pretend it is the Swedish cops and not the U.S. cops. Everybody has learned how to talk to the cops, albeit differently based on who you are. If the cops came along and said, "Did you just see somebody run by here?," how would you describe Dolly Parton? You would likely say, "Well, it's a woman. She's white. She has yellow hair." You overheard her yell something. “She has an accent.” What's the accent? “Sounds rural and Southern.” And now, instead of searching Dolly Parton's name, I'm going to start searching around what Dolly Parton is. That kind of searching gets you closer to what the object means, rather than what the object is. Because knowing everything about Dolly Parton isn't the same as answering the question, "Why Dolly Parton?" You start with the question of what she is, but you're really trying to answer the questions, why is she and what does she mean?
To do that, you start with the nouns — woman, white, Southern, blonde — and then you unpack those nouns. Nouns, of course, classify things. Classifications are the symbolic representation of power, who has more and who has less. It is always worth exploring what classifications mean. In the case of Dolly Parton, I read a lot about gender, southern-ness, celebrity, and beauty. I did a lot of reading in Southern studies, in Southern history, gender in Southern history. The blonde thing was interesting because I had to figure out what blonde represented, and I think you really see that thought process in the essay. What did blonde represent? Was it that her hair is blonde, or that blonde has some cultural meanings and significance? Here's something that I found really fascinating: There was not a ton of what I would consider rigorous critical work about the meaning of blonde.
Oh, what a good place to be in as a thinker, a writer, or a curious person. When something is as diffuse as the understanding and the mythology of blonde is in our culture, but there is a very limited amount of rigorous literature about it, you have found something. Something's happening over there. Something is so important yet so taken for granted that we are all held in its sway. That's a really generative place to be, to find those moments. Now, don't go getting excited, because those aren't just laying around. But when you do happen upon them, as I did in the case of reading for this essay, it is exciting.
Dolly Parton has become a cultural shorthand for a rich set of ideas with coded meanings that span research and lived experience across the most important domains of our lives: race, gender, place, history, sexuality, class and identity. When you find a cultural object that has those intersections, that meet at a place where a lot has been written about what it is, but not nearly enough written about the components that make it how it is — you're in a place to do some really interesting reading and writing about a subject that might resonate with a lot of people. The very best essays do it so well that you cannot remember exactly what you thought about the subject before you dug in.
Speaking of reading around, Team Tressie did us a solid by putting together a brief reading list for The Dolly Moment. If you have suggestions, drop them in the comments. Maybe there will be a critical reader list on whiteness, pop culture and blondes one day…
I did not read it for the research on this essay because it wasn’t yet published, but this essay by Stephanie DeGooyer and Srinivas Murthy argues quite convincingly that we should not valorize “the Dolly vaccine”.
The Dolly Moment Reading List
Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South by Charles L. Hughes
Reading for the Body by Jay Watson
Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton
Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton by Lydia R. Hamessley
“Living with Dolly Parton” by Jessica Wilkerson
Country music culture: from Hard Times to Heaven by Curtis W. Ellison
Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde
Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music by Leigh Edwards
Smart Blonde: The Life of Dolly Parton by Stephen Miller
Pilgrimage to Dollywood: A Country Music Road Trip Through Tennessee by Helen Morales
“The Code of the New Southern Belle: Generating Typifications To Structure Social Interaction” by John Lynxwiler & Michele Wilson
Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South by Tara McPherson
Bound South by Susan Rebecca White
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blond Myth in Our Culture by Natalia Ilyin
Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong
Thick: And other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
Ugliness: A Cultural History by Gretchen E. Henderson
Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion by Monica Carol Miller
Southern History Across the Color Line by Nell Irvin Painter
The Honky Tonk on the Left: Progressive Thought on Country Music Edited by Mark Allan Jackson
Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory Edited by Andrei Pop & Mechtild Widrich
Reinterpreting Southern Histories: Essays in Historiography Edited by Craig Thompson Friend & Lorri Glover
The History of White People by Neil Irving Painter