The first time that Maya Van Wagenen’s memoir Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek crossed my radar was when a Deadline headline from October 2013 announced, “Dreamworks Acquires 8th Grader’s Journal.” Van Wagenen was the youngest non-actor to ever make a feature deal at Dreamworks, and the story that the studio was going crazy over was a book that she’d write about her journey to “popularity” through following the advice of a ’50s advice book called Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide.
Well, now Popular is available and Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide is reprinted and we can figure out just what the hook was that led to this sort of deal. What Van Wagenen pulled off was a sort of tweenage Julie and Julia: by deciding to follow all the rules in Cornell’s outdated book for the duration of a year, theoretically, she should have enough incident and learning to form the core of a story.
There’s a machine behind this book, to a degree. The zeal for YA fiction has not quite translated to YA nonfiction, a far more limited category that’s mostly filled with druggy memoirs (the moral being don’t do drugs, teens) and beauty advice from Lauren Conrad. The pitch for Popular is a chance for a teen memoir that has a gimmicky hook like the best “My year in” blogger books. What’s funny, however, is that it has the same basic plot as a recent YA book, Lindsey Leavitt’s Going Vintage; but this Popular should, ostensibly, carry with it the weight of a memoir — albeit a memoir written by a 13-year-old about her life in eighth grade.
Even though I read Popular with all the hopes, and, frankly, naïveté in the world, the resulting memoir is frustrating. And it’s one of the rare cases where I suspect the machine around Van Wagenen’s story is to blame, more so than the writer. She’s a bright, precocious writer, who’s startlingly funny.
When she writes about growing up in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, there’s energy and it’s interesting. There is an entry in November where she discusses what it’s like when her school is in lockdown. “So close to the Mexican border, we have ‘lockdown drills’ more often than we do fire drills… Last year our school was on lockdown because of a secret FBI drug operation going on down the street. There were even helicopters flying over and agents in our parking lot.” Van Wagenen has a voice and she’s part of a generation where “lockdowns” at schools are becoming depressingly commonplace. Perhaps that’s a subject for her to write about someday.
Because where the book rings false is in its “my year of X” setup. Popularity is never particularly defined in Van Wagenen’s world, and that’s a problem: what is it that she wants to get out of this experiment? Is she blondish, nerdy Taylor Swift in glasses, dreaming of being hot, evil, popular brunette Taylor Swift? We have no idea. Her father gives her a copy of Betty Cornell’s book, her mother suggests that she tries out the tips and takes notes, and there’s an air of stage parent about the whole pursuit. It doesn’t feel so self-directed, and you need that energy in a “my year of” book, a curiosity fueling it. Additionally, The Teen-Age Guide to Popularity may be terrible in addition to outdated, which is basically the subtext: Cornell’s book starts with a chapter on “Figure Issues,” so, consequently, Van Wagenen’s book starts with her bemoaning her figure, when she is a child. Her pursuit of wearing “pearls and cardigans” is not particularly enlightening. She’s not writing much in detail and depth about her peers, which makes it hard to relate her concept of popularity to the social scene that she’s in.
The frustrations I had with the book reminded me of my former Flavorwire colleague Michelle Dean’s piece on the problems with (in this case) dystopian YA, which feel very applicable to this project:
And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.
Perhaps that makes me a wolf when I say that Popular is an experiment that, mostly, suffers from being a 13-year-old’s memoir and is very self-conscious of what it needs to have to be something that people will buy. Eventually, Van Wagenen is asking her peers what their definitions of popularity are and what they think about her experiments. That’s the most sincere part of the book, and it’s where it threatens to take off into something that’s important.
But far too much of the time is taken up with strange experiments from Cornell’s wacky book, and Van Wagenen’s work ends with a school dance. Wanna take a guess as to what the writer decides to do about a date? Hint: the results are heartwarming and will make an endearing movie, I’m sure, but as a book they just feel rote. Van Wagenen may be an author worth reading someday, and I really don’t think that the fault lies with her, in this case. Besides, she has a movie deal. She’s doing fine.
But everything I needed to learn about popularity came from that Nada Surf song: