Susan Orlean has always been one of those writers that I knew I wanted to read. I’d scour used bookstores for The Orchid Thief and scan The New Yorker to see if she had a profile, but I never seemed to find anything. And then, even after I found a copy of The Orchid Thief, I just couldn’t find the time to read it. Susan Orlean just seemed to constantly elude me until I found The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup for $6 at a bookstore near my apartment and took it on vacation with me. Huzzah!
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup is a collection of Orlean’s profiles and short pieces from The New Yorker and other literary magazines from about 1987 and 1999. The collection has a lot of variety, including profiles of a 10-year-old boy from New Jersey, the elected king of the African Ashanti tribespeople living in the United States, a highly-recruited high school basketball player, and a pampered show dog. What they all have in common is they capture a sense of extraordinary in ordinary people.
My Thoughts, In Short
After reading the entire collection straight through I don’t think Orlean’s writing style is spectacular. Her prose is clean and lyrical, but after 290 pages of profiles meant o be read seperately you can start to see the writing patterns and techniques that Orlean utilizes. However, whatever criticisms I have about Orlean as a writer (which aren’t many, I’m just uber-critical), are blow away by how great Orlean is as a profiler. In each of the essays, Orlean writes details about her character and scene in the first paragraph, then goes on to tell that person’s story without seeming to over-dramatize or minimize the experience. This is the reason I recommend the book, but suggest reading it in small doses instead of straight through.
Orlean as a Literary Journalist
Like most literary journalists, you can sometimes see Orlean’s personality in her profiles. In her essay “The Maui Surfer Girls,” Orlean covers the prelimiary round of a surf tournament in Hawaii. This is part of the first paragraph of the essay:
The Maui surfer girls love one another’s hair. It is awesome hair, long and bleached by the sun, and it falls over their shoulders straight, like water, or in squiggles, like seaweed, or in waves. They are forever playing with it — yanking it up into ponytails or twisting handfuls and securing them with chopsticks or pencils, or dividing it as carefully as you would divide a pile of coins and then weaving it into tight yellow plaits… The Maui surfer girls even love the kind of hair that I dreaded when I was their age, fourteen or so — they love wild, knotty, bright hair, as bit as stiff as carpet, the most un-straight, un-sleek, un-ordinary hair you could imagine, and then can love it, I suppose, because when you are young and on top of the world you can love anything you want, and just the fact that you love it makes it cool and fabulous.
I think this opening is fantastic because it shows the reader how the girls look and act and also gives the perspective Orlean is going to take when writing the profile. She’s not approaching this profile as a profile of athletes; she’s approaching it as a profile of teenage girls who happen to surf. Those two stories are different will each tell you something different about the world. A sports profile will tell you about athletes; Orlean’s profile will tell you about people.
Orlean on Journalism
While I liked the profiles, I have to admit that one of my favorite parts of the book was Orlean’s introduction “Encounters With Clowns, Kings, Singers, and Surfers.” Here, she talked about her experiences as a journalist and why she loves to write profiles:
What I wanted to write about were the people and places around me. I didn’t want to write about famous people simply because they were famous., and I didn’t want to write about charming little things that were self-consciously charming and little; I wasn’t interested in documenting or predicting trends, and I didn’t have polemics to air or sociological theories to spin out. I just wanted to write what are usually called “features” — a term that I hate because it sounds so fluffy and lightweight, like pillow stuffing, but that is used to describe stories that move at their own pace, rather than the news stories that race to keep time with events. The subjects I was drawn to were often completely ordinary, but I was confident that I could find something extraordinary in their ordinariness. I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough, and that the best and only justification for writing any particular story was that I cared about it. The challenge was to write these stories in a way that got other people as interested in them as I was.
To me, that’s just about the most precise explanation of why feature writing can be powerful and important; by chronicling the extrordinarily ordinary lives of average people, feature’s like these provide color that’s important to understanding the world and our place in it. Each of the profiles in this collection are written in a way that made me interested in the subjects — exactly what Orlean strives to do.