Essays — August 8, 2016 12:58 — 0 Comments

Shaun Scott, Millennial Mouthpiece

Shaun Scott is a writer, director and contributor to the Monarch as well as other Seattle publications. His keen insight and his strength in tackling difficult subjects like race, politics and pop culture have him writing some of the most impactful prose in the Emerald City. On top of all that, he has a new book coming out, which he’s been working on for either a year or his whole life, depending on how you count. We talked with him about his process.


So you just got a book deal. First question: HOW THE HELL DOES SOMEONE GET A BOOK DEAL?

Stubbornness and an amazing support system, mostly. When I first tried to pitch proposals or obtain writer-in-residencies last summer for Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1984-present the rejection letters were relentless. I took it personally. “Topic is too broad.” “You were a finalist but we decided to go with so and so.” “We encourage you to apply next year.” For the last year I internalized it all and did everything I could to get my book to a more competitive place.

I took rejection personally, but the process of getting better was collaborative. I had a great team of readers who looked over my first few chapters and gave me feedback that pushed me in the right direction: Graciela Nuñez Pargas and Lily Shay are two super engaged and energetic younger Millennials who gave me strong feedback in the reader workshops I conducted. My girlfriend Natasha Varner is also a historian who contributed immeasurably as a sounding-board and a kind of consultant. The organization Artist Trust kicked in a grant that went a long way towards buying research materials. Also, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin Magazine helped behind the scenes to get the proposal in great shape. Then it was on me to research, outline, and draft chapters that proved I could compete. Because the topic is so huge, I decided it would be better to show actual chapters than to try and sell on proposal.

Zero Books is my publisher, and they were my first choice. They initially turned me down in the summer of 2015. I knocked again this year and they accepted. The books they have published—in particular Robin James’ Resilience & Melancholy, Laurie Penny’s Meat Market, and Jordannah Elizabeth’s Don’t Lose Track—have always been an inspiration to me. I’m beyond humbled to join them and others under the Zero Books banner when my book comes out in 2017. Hard as I’ve worked for this, I feel like a complete fraud next to them.

How do anger and grudges fuel you? 

Well that’s our culture in a lot of ways, right? I write about this in my book. Think about all the ways we valorize resilience in popular culture. In professional sports you have to have a season that ends in disappointment before you’re celebrated as an underdog and an eventual champion. In reality TV you have to have some kind of personal trauma or adverse circumstance that helps the audience identify with the main character. Rap is all about rags-to-riches. And the most popular R&B phenomena of the decade is a rich performer who has an equally rich husband, and she’s successfully convincing us that her life is just as challenging and difficult as ours are. So this is the context we live in. It’s all about finding ways to somehow turn setbacks into success of some sort. It’s hard to not internalize this on some level.

In the book, I write about resilience as a post-9/11 cultural trope. If you read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, you’ll see where our fixation on resilience is also a function of how capitalism behaves at this point. In any case, finding ways to frame failure in motivating ways is a requisite for getting anything done. Pain—and the act of moving past it—gives our lives shape and narrative.

Do you think your book will be a marker in the road for you, one you will get past, or do you see it staying with you, influencing your work for years to come?

So the book is about the parallel maturation of Millennials with a new phase of American life that began in the middle 1980s. I use popular culture as a lens to understand a generational condition that’s defined by lengthening adolescence, changing gender mores, and new attitudes to work and loyalty in the late 20th and early 21st century. My main argument is that Millennials came of age in a particular era of capitalism that clearly isn’t working for the majority of Americans, and that pop culture often serves to legitimate this social order, even as it can suggest ways forward.

In the process of writing I was made conscious of how certain biographical details—being a latchkey kid, working low-wage jobs out of college—reflect widely on this generational condition. So I often use personal narrative to push the larger historical narrative along. I think doing the work to ground and personalize a narrative that can be impossibly “broad” means I’ll always stay with the book, and that part of my own story has been bookended by it. It also means I’ll feel freer to move on to different kinds of topics when it’s done.

What is your favorite metaphor you use in the book?

Oh man… I mean, at one point in Chapter 10 (“Millennial Man”), I compare Steve Urkel and Aziz Ansari’s character in the TV show Modern Romance to Wile E. Coyote. It seems to me that Urkel and Dev are both representative of this creepy, scheming mode of sociopathic (beta-)masculinity that became popular in the cultural aftermath of the film Revenge of The Nerds. Their entitlement doesn’t allow them to grasp the concept of someone—a woman, anyone—just not being that into them. So they hatch these plots to impose themselves on people in ways that remind me of Coyote’s pursuit of Roadrunner. My stablemate at Zero Books, Adam Kotsko, has written about this. It’s gross.

Having done all this work and research, do you see a particular hope at the end of the tunnel that is the 2010’s?

This is an important question that critics do not ask enough. I think we have to learn to identify what, in the book, I call “dialectical opportunities.” Power has to make itself appear responsive to the demands of women, of people of color, of the youth, and of people concerned about the environment. In order to maintain a semblance of decency, it has to appear to enfranchise the disadvantages, and appropriate the symbols of progressivism in contained forms. It’s there—in the gap between what capitalism has to pretend to be and what it actually is—that the Trojan horses of real reform can be deployed.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney