Intersections & Opportunities in Writing About Pop Culture

by Nicholas Belardes

My new book, Ranting Out Loud, started off as a project to ghostwrite for a social media star.

Let me explain . . . I think it’s safe to say published words have long gone hand in hand with both popularity contests and those literary artists with a penchant to be prolific. I imagine Victorian-era socialites as those lights most publisher-moths were attracted to. Today, this often translates to the social media star. YouTubers, Snapchatters, Twitteralists, Instagrammarians—whatever you want to call the many faces of social media stardom—they’re here to stay. They’re popular. They’re prolific. And publishers are hungry to publish them.

I don’t look at myself as a social media star, although I did write some experimental fiction between 2008-2010 that went viral (though not by today’s standards). I was one of a leading handful of pioneers in fragmented fiction in the English language using social media platforms. And that fiction, Small Places, has appeared in just about every article on Twitterature and Twitter novels. This still doesn’t make me a social media star. My tweets don’t go viral every time I post. I usually have to beg to get above fifty Facebook likes. Don’t even get me started on how to get Tweet favorites.

Hermits cast their own light. It’s different for us, even . . . unexplainable. I’m a fiction writer, an essayist, a poet hiding in an experimental Twitter-lit body. I’ve been possessed by Twitter-centric news articles that focus on the collision between technology and prose. It’s not a curse, but it makes people think I may be something I’m not.

I pitched essay pop culture/me fusions to the publisher’s editor and suggested a subtitle to go with their pre-ordained title. I made the subtitle about what the gist of the book was really about: life, pop culture & how we sometimes don’t get along. Because, guess what? We don’t.

I’d already won over the publisher because I could churn out a lot of words in a short time. That’s me. Content engine. I do a lot of ghostwriting where deadlines loom like the Wall in Game of Thrones.

I’m purposely vague about describing what kinds of ghostwriting I do. All I can say is I write popular fiction. It’s an ambiguous description I came up with myself. While it pays some of the bills, I’m sometimes not allowed to talk about it, though I did have this one really weird experience writing for a Frenchman who flew me to Beverly Hills to discuss how he was a friend of gypsies and once robbed a chocolate truck in the suburbs of Paris with a shotgun. Alas, that’s another story.

In the case of Ranting Out Loud, one of the publisher’s social media stars was terrified about the idea of pouring out 45,000 words. So, I was asked to step in.

Lucky for me, the social media star completely abandoned ship.

That meant I had the opportunity to pitch a variation of the original idea and to pitch the publisher as myself instead of a ghostwriter.

I had a bunch of essay ideas: Game of Thrones and me as a writer being obsessed with storytelling and Tyrion Lannister, my racist dad and the problem with all-white avatars in Ready Player One, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s affect on my memories of my cursed family, cheesy Vegas cartoon-writing and how it transformed my relationship with my gambling-addict dad, the dangers of art and oppression in today’s society, reminders of my Dungeons & Dragons days in Stranger Things, and a lot more.

For me, finding those pop culture fusion points meant unearthing the core center of me and my collision with television, social media, film, literature, and sound-and-light shows. I was more interested in exploring myself rather than hovering over the surface of ideas in a rant or listicle.

The publisher wanted pop culture essays. I pitched essay pop culture/me fusions to the publisher’s editor and suggested a subtitle to go with their pre-ordained title. I made the subtitle about what the gist of the book was really about: life, pop culture & how we sometimes don’t get along. Because, guess what? We don’t. Our intersection is as conflict-filled as the ongoing disasters inherently within all the media we’re attracted to. The editor was interested. He gave me carte blanche, allowed me to dive in, explore myself, my siblings, my parents, my childhood, my writer self, and all those other fun areas of entertainment I’m just as addicted to as millions, maybe billions are. I explored each topic honestly within my whirl of fears and uncertainties.

I only had a month to write these essays. It was several weeks of ceaseless work, digging through my own memory banks and researching pop culture topics. I found myself reading all of the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide for one of my Stranger Things essays. I binged on the pilots for every Star Trek television series (as a refresher course mostly). I re-read the Catcher in the Rye, dug into essays, news articles, and portions of novels. I even interviewed a few people. Mostly, I dug into myself for those intersections that I felt mattered. And now it’s for everyone else to determine if any of it does.

That didn’t mean every essay I explored would see its fruition. I had to drop one on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It wasn’t taking the kind of form I wanted. One piece on Trump felt like it would get sucked into the oversaturation of articles published about him on a daily basis. I wanted to explore Barack Obama. I wanted to dig into Indiana Jones. Never got to them. Every essay I did finish the editor loved.

Oddly, there were no developmental suggestions. Other editors might have had me dig in further, or challenged me on my strange way of meandering through familial lament, or called me on some of my admittedly shallow views of pop culture. Let’s face it—I haven’t seen all of the 700-and-something episodes of Star Trek.

I shared these essays with Pulitzer finalist Kim Barnes. She said I’m “David Foster Wallace meets Hunter S. Thompson,” and suggested, “in these essays, we find ourselves in the astute and tender company of someone who loves the world.”

I do love the world.

I’m just at odds with it.
Invariably, I’m at odds with myself.

Her words illustrate why any of us become writers. We want to embrace the world. We want to, however briefly, be embraced in return for our moments of candidness.

Inevitably, once we let go of that brief embrace, it comes back to this idea of being at odds with myself. We’re all conflicted. Or, at least I have this theory that we all are. And we have to be truthful about what bothers us when we’re writers. We have to fillet our souls and show off every fatty rib bone. I don’t mean that our prose needs to sound whiny like we can’t take a defeat once in a while. But those moments where we feel we’re losing something? People need to read about that. I don’t know why but we get comfort in it. Someone is going to find comfort in me ranting about my family just as much as another person is going to want to hear what a whiny baby I think Luke Skywalker is. So, I guess in a way this book bares more than most people would. And I’m okay with that.


In his debut essay collection, Nicholas Belardes uses today’s pop culture and self-deprecating humor as a filter for discussing personal stories of family, writing, gender, art, and race.

Nicholas Belardes is author of the essay collection Ranting Out Loud: My Life, Pop Culture & How We Sometimes Don’t Get Along (2016). His work has appeared in Carve Magazine, Acentos Review, Pithead Chapel, Island Review, Barrelhouse and others. He illustrated the NYT best-selling novel West of Here, and is author of the first experimental twitterature, Small Places. He tweets from @nickbelardes. More at