Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The map and the territory

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Jules Feiffer's map of The Lands Beyond

The other day, I posted a quote from Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie With Maps, a fascinating little book that offers a surprising amount of insight into storytelling. A map, after all, is a kind of narrative: unless it’s the hypothetical 1:1 map of the territory that authors from Lewis Carroll to Jorges Luis Borges have imagined, a map always involves selection, emphasis, and abstraction, much of which is left to the mapmaker’s discretion. As with any story, it’s not a perfect reflection of the world, but a projection of it, and its apparent accuracy is often the result of carefully managed artifice. The cartographer Arthur H. Robinson has said that when he designed his famous projection of the globe, he worked backwards, coming up with the approximate shape he wanted for the continents, then figuring out the mathematical formula that would produce the appropriate effect. A novel often works in much the same way: the author will begin with a set of scenes or moments he wants to include, then retroactively refine the characters and their motivations to get them from one point to the next. And if he’s done his job properly, the manipulation will be invisible.

A little artifice is fine in fiction—we’ve all found ways of faking it—but it’s possible to take it too far. One of the most interesting sections of Monmonier’s book involves development maps, which are used by real estate developers to gain municipal approval for new buildings or projects. Here, the element of persuasion, which in most maps is deeply buried, is right there at the surface, and Monmonier includes a clever list of the tricks that an unscrupulous developer can use to present a more attractive picture to the town zoning board. These tricks include shrewd selection of detail (“Don’t show what you’d rather they not see”); strategic framing (“If a neighboring site is unattractive or likely to be unfavorably affected, leave it out”); pleasing but meaningless detail (“Details are useful distractions”); and icons of superficial elegance, like the developer’s best friend, the tree stamp (“After all, it takes much less time and effort to stamp or paste treelike symbols onto the map than to plant the real thing”). And if there’s a single common thread uniting most of these cartographic strategies, it’s an emphasis on the decorative or merely aesthetic, combined with the omission of inconvenient facts.

Map from The Plan of St. Gall

When we turn from maps to the forms of storytelling we encounter every day, we can see these strategies operating in full force. Monmonier notes that aerial photographs or historical maps can be used to provide reassuring moments of familiarity (“Hey, there’s my house!”), which reminds me of how so many comedies fall back on easy cultural references to gain audience goodwill; if we recognize the object of the homage, we smile and congratulate ourselves on our knowingness, even if there isn’t really a joke there. The abundance of camouflaging detail evokes the use of expensive art direction and production values in a big-budget movie to cover up an empty story. (I’ve always enjoyed Pauline Kael’s takedown of Doctor Zhivago—a movie I like—in which she observes that the film’s reliance on elaborate sets and locations is “basically primitive, admired by the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”) And even the best stories often frame the narrative in a way that omits anything the author finds irrelevant, whether it’s ending a romance on a note of transitory happiness or focusing relentlessly on the negative and grim.

If a development map is designed to elicit a certain response from the zoning board, a story is meant to get an analogous reaction from the reader. Instead of committing money and land to an idea, we’re investing our time and emotions, and the world is full of stories that are glad to give us a simulacrum of a payoff instead of the real thing. I keep thinking about that tree stamp, which is used to fill space on the map with an optimistic idea of the beautiful shade trees that would grow there in a perfect world, instead of the “anemic saplings” that the developer will plant there instead. In writing, the equivalent is a cliché, which serves as a kind of stand-in for real thinking or creation. (In fact, a tree stamp is literally a cliché, a term that originally referred to the printing plate used to repeatedly reproduce the same word or image.) There’s a reason why a smart developer will use all these tricks, and even talented writers will occasionally fall back on similar tactics to create a map that a reader will want to explore. But if readers follow the map to the end—or construct an edifice of emotion using its outlines as a guide—only to find that they’ve ended up nowhere, they aren’t likely to trust it again.

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2014 at 9:32 am

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