Alec Nevala-Lee

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A specialist in the dream world

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The dream world is becoming my specialty. Henry [Miller] has gathered together all his dreams and is rewriting them, transforming them, expanding them. He wants to use them as the climax to Black Spring. He wants to recapitulate the themes of the book via the dreams. He came to me the first time with two pages which seemed off-tone to me. He wanted the animal realism of his dreams, and he introduced vulgar music-hall dialogue. It was not obscene, as some dreams are, but consciously and wordily vulgar. “The obscenity of the dream,” I said, “is different. It is one of erotic images, or sensations, but it has no vocabulary. There is no dialogue in the dream, and very few words. The words are condensed like the phrases of poems. The language must be a kind of non-language. It cannot be everyday language. The dream happens without language, beyond language.” Then Henry wrote the third part, or the third batch, and experimented with irrational language, getting better and better as he went along, while I watched for the times when he fell out of the dream.

Anaïs NinThe Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume One: 1931-1934

Written by nevalalee

September 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

Talking the Talk

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A few days ago, while reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, I came across the following passage about William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

Nowadays Shawn is nearly as famous for his oddities as for his editorial prowess. The catalog of his phobias and behavioral tics, the intrigue (especially his decades-long office romance with Lillian Ross, which was meant to be a deep, deep secret and become, with the passage of time, merely the obvious but unmentionable status quo), the passive-aggressive manipulation of colleagues and contributors, the velvet tenacity of his grip on power…it’s all almost enough to make us forget the astonishing success with which he steered the magazine.

Earlier this week, Lillian Ross passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Her personal life, like Shawn’s, often received more attention than her professional accomplishments, and her obituaries predictably devoted a lot of space to their affair, which might have chagrined but not surprised her. In an era when celebrity journalists like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese were on the ascendant, she cautioned reporters against placing themselves at the center of the story—although she also wrote a late memoir of her life with Shawn, Here But Not Here, that caused a firestorm of controversy within its tiny world when it was released two decades ago. In his New York Times review, Charles McGrath called it “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions,” and it struck many readers as an odd departure for a reporter who had been complimented for her ability to fade into the background. And while its title sounded like a motto for objective reporting, it actually came from something that Shawn—whom Updike later praised for his “disinterested standards”—liked to say about his home life: “I am there, but I am not there.”

But Ross, Shawn, and their magazine entered the inner lives of their readers in ways that transcended the efforts of reporters who asked more insistently for our attention. In her book Reporting, Ross offered her personal rules for conducting journalism:

Reporting is difficult, partly because the writer does not have the leeway to play around with the lives of people, as he does in fiction. There are many other restrictions, too…Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not yourself. Do not, in effect say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!” Do not, if you want to reveal that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, write, “I am showing that the Emperor is already naked.”

A few more admonitions: do not promote yourself; do not advertise yourself; do not sell yourself. If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit from your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor. Too many extraneous considerations have been imposed on reporting in recent years, and it is time now to ask writers who would be reporters to report.

Decades later, in speaking of her reputation as a fly on the wall, Ross struck a rather different note: “What craziness! A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved in a story.”

Ross might sound like she’s contradicting herself, but I don’t think that she is. It helps to focus on the words “chemically involved,” which makes reporting sound like an industrial process—which, in the hands of Shawn’s writers, including Ross and Updike, is what it became. A recent tribute describes Ross as “an early architect” of the Talk of the Town section, which puts her at the center of a certain way of viewing the world. The Talk of the Town has always been characterized less by any particular subject than by its voice, which Begley capably evokes in an account of one of Updike’s early pieces, in which he visited a lawn care business in Southampton:

The resulting journalistic trifle is mildly amusing and fairly typical of The Talk of the Town, save for the exurban expedition…The reporter (“we,” by hallowed New Yorker convention) gathers a comically copious amount of information about the product, allows its makers to display a comical commercial enthusiasm, and adds to the comedy by appearing (almost) to share that enthusiasm.

In this case, the product was a lawn treatment that dyed the grass green, but The Talk of the Town remains the magazine’s place to accommodate more famous subjects who have something to promote. Its stance toward such material allows its interviewees to plug film or book projects while keeping them at a bemused distance, and a lot of it hinges on that remarkable “we.” (It’s the counterpart of the “you” that appears so often in its movie reviews.) Updike gently mocked it years later: “Who, after all, could that indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic ‘we’ be but a collection of dazzled farm-boys?” But it’s still our ideal of a certain kind of nonfiction—privileged, lightly ironic, with dashes of surprising insight that don’t prevent you from turning the page.

Ross was one of the inventors of that voice, which was the chemical trick that she used to dissolve herself into a story. It allowed trivial pieces to be rapidly produced, while also allowing for deeper engagement when the opportunity presented itself. (To push the analogy from Updike’s article to the breaking point, it was “the desired combination of a dye that would immediately color the lawn and a fertilizer that would eventually rejuvenate it.”) And much of the success of The New Yorker lay in the values that its readers projected onto that “we.” As Begley describes the characters in Updike’s story “Incest”:

The young couple…are college educated, living in a small, pleasant New York apartment furnished with bamboo chairs, a modernist sofa, a makeshift bed, bookshelves filled with books. They’re familiar with Proust and Freud and the pediatric pronouncements of Dr. Benjamin Spock…Jane sips vermouth after dinner, listening to Bach on the record player while she reads The New Republic—if the story hadn’t been intended for publication in The New Yorker, surely she would have been reading that magazine instead.

Norman Mailer, a New Journalist who actually published a collection titled Advertisements for Myself, was dismissive of the magazine’s hold on its readers: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.” He’s speaking of The Talk of the Town, as refined by Ross and Shawn, and it’s still true today. Updike made fun of that “we” because he could—but for many readers, then and now, the grass on that side was definitely greener.

The final problem

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In 1966, Howard L. Applegate, an administrator for the science fiction manuscript collection at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he would be interested in donating his papers. Campbell replied that he no longer possessed most of the original files, and he concluded: “Sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!” Fortunately for me, this statement wasn’t totally true—I’ve spent the last two years combing through thousands of pages of letters, magazines, and other documents to assemble a picture of Campbell’s life, and if anything, there’s more here than any one person can absorb. I haven’t read it all, but I feel confident that I’ve looked at more of it than anyone else alive, and I often relate to what Robin W. Winks writes in his introduction to the anthology The Historian as Detective:

Historians pose to themselves difficult, even impossibly difficult, questions. Since they are reasonably intelligent and inquiring and since they do not wish to spend their lives upon a single question or line of investigation, they normally impose a time limit upon a given project or book (or the time limit is imposed for them by a “publish or perish” environment). They will invariably encounter numerous unforeseen difficulties because of missing papers, closed collections, new questions, and tangential problems; and the search through the archive, the chase after the single hoped-to-be-vital manuscript, has an excitement of its own, for that dénouement, the discovery, an answer may—one always hopes—lie in the next folio, in the next collection, in the next archive.

My work is more modest in scale than that of most academic historians, but I can understand the importance of a deadline, the hope that the next page that I read will contain a crucial piece of information, and the need for impossible questions. When I first got my hands on the microfilm reels of Campbell’s letters, I felt as if I’d stumbled across a treasure trove, and I found a lot of fascinating material that I never would have discovered otherwise. As I worked my way through the images, one inch at a time, I kept an eye on how much I had left, and as it dwindled, I felt a sinking feeling at the thought that I might never find certain answers. In fact, I never did resolve a few important issues to my satisfaction—although perhaps that wasn’t the right way to approach this particular Nachlass. In his introduction, Winks draws a telling contrast between the American and the European schools of history:

With sufficient diligence American historians can expect to find the answer—or at least an answer—to most factual or non-value questions they may choose to put to themselves. As a result, American researchers tend to begin with the questions they wish to entertain first (Did failed farmers truly move West to begin life anew in the eighteen-forties? Did immigrants reinforce older patterns of life or create new ones?), confident that the data can be found. European historians, on the other hand, are likely to begin with the available source materials first, and then look to see what legitimate questions they might ask of those sources. (Here are the private papers of Joseph Chamberlain, or of Gladstone, or of Disraeli. What do they tell me of British polities? Of Queen Victoria? Of the Jameson Raid? Of the development of British tariff policy? Of Colonial affairs? Of Ireland?)

Winks’s point is that American scholars have the advantage when it comes to sources, since there are vast archives available for every state with materials dating back to their founding. In writing about the history of science fiction, which is its own country of the mind, I’ve found that the situation is closer to what he says about European historiography. I’m far from the first person to explore this material, and I’m astounded by the diligence, depth of experience, and mastery of the facts of the fans I’ve met along the way, who have saved me from countless mistakes. In some areas, I’ve also been fortunate enough to build on the efforts of previous scholars, like Sam Moskowitz, whose book The Immortal Storm was accurately described by the fan historian Harry Warner, Jr.: “If read directly after a history of World War II, it does not seem like an anticlimax.” (I’m similarly grateful for the work of the late William H. Patterson, who did for Heinlein what I’m hoping to do for Campbell, thereby relieving me of much of the necessity of going over the same ground twice.) But there were also times at which I had to start with the available resources and see what they had to offer me. A lot of it was tedious and unrewarding, as detective work undoubtedly is in the real world. As Winks writes:

Much of the historian’s work, then, like that of the insurance investigator, the fingerprint man, or the coroner, may to the outsider seem to consist of deadening routine. Many miles of intellectual shoe leather will be used, for many metaphorical laundry lists, uninformative diaries, blank checkbooks, old telephone directories, and other trivia will stand between the researcher and his answer. Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue may be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.

And the real point of asking a question is less the possibility of an answer than the motivation that it provides for you to keep digging. Winks nicely evokes the world in which the historian lives:

Precisely because the historian must turn to all possible witnesses, he is the most bookish of men. For him, no printed statement is without its interest. For him, the destruction of old cookbooks, gazetteers, road maps, Sears Roebuck catalogues, children’s books, railway timetables, or drafts of printed manuscripts, is the loss of potential evidence. Does one wish to know how the mail-order business was operated or how a Nebraska farmer might have dressed in 1930? Look to those catalogues. Does one wish to know whether a man from Washington just might have been in New York on a day in 1861 when it can be proved that he was in the capital on the day before and the day after? The timetables will help tell us of the opportunity.

But it’s only with a specific question in mind that the historian—or biographer—will bother to seek out such arcana at all, and you’re often rewarded with something that has nothing to do with the reasons why you originally looked. (Sometimes you find it on the other side of the page.) Every setback that I’ve encountered in search of a specific piece of information has opened new doors, and a question is simply the story that we tell ourselves to justify the search. The image that I like to use isn’t a private eye, but the anonymous reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, whose boss, the shadowy Mr. Rawlston, tells him to solve the mystery of Kane’s last words: “See ‘em all! Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts. I don’t mean go through the city directory, of course.” But that’s what you wind up doing. And as I near the end of this book, I’m haunted by what Rawlston says just before we cut to the lightning flash that illuminates the face of Susan Alexander: “It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

Time for the stars

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Last year, the screenwriter Terry Rossio, whose blog is the best online resource I’ve ever seen for advice on survival in Hollywood, posted a long post titled “Time Risk.” How long was it? If published, it could be sold as a short book of a hundred pages or so, and it would probably be acclaimed as one of the two or three most useful works ever written on the business of screenwriting. Rossio has spent more time than any successful writer since William Goldman on sharing his experiences in the industry, and this post is his masterpiece. (It received a flurry of attention earlier this year because of one unflattering anecdote about Johnny Depp, which is a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees.) I don’t know why Rossio invested so much effort into this essay, but I suspect that it was because he realized that he had stumbled across a single powerful idea that explained so much that was otherwise inexplicable, even cruel, about the life of a writer in the movies. It’s the fact that any investment of time presents a risk, which means that there’s an enormous incentive to transfer it to others—and the writer, for better or worse, is where the process ends. As Rossio puts it in an exchange with a producer whom he calls Jake:

At the point of sitting down to write, there was no way for my writer to know whether this particular story was going to work. She set forth on faith alone. So did thousands, tens of thousands of other writers around town, none of them knowing whether their stories would pan out, or even whether they could finish, or whether they could beat out the competition and have their work land on your desk…You [the producer] not only gain the value of the time my writer put at risk, but also the risk of every other writer who sat down to face the blank page around the same time, most of whom came up short. It’s like having everyone play the lotto, then you call the one person with the winning ticket. At the start it’s a giant risk pool, and all that collective risk is represented by this one winning screenplay.

This is a remarkable insight, and it applies to more than just screenwriting. Rossio doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies there’s a fundamental cognitive divide between people who can work on more than one thing at a time and those who mostly can’t. It’s the difference between writers and agents, writers and book editors, writers and producers. The relationship doesn’t need to be adversarial, but it unquestionably creates different incentives, and it can result in situations in which the two players in the room aren’t even speaking the same language. It also lead to apparently paradoxical consequences, as when Rossio describes what he calls “Death by Sale”:

The day you sell your screenplay, you gain a small real chance it will be produced, at the same time almost guaranteeing that it will never be produced. Put another way, the same screenplay, unsold, has a much better chance of reaching the silver screen than it does when purchased by a studio…Selling a screenplay represents the exchange of all future positive outcomes of a project for a single, often unlikely, current scenario. You throw in with a particular set of players, at a particular time and place, with a particular set of restrictions and parameters.

This might sound crazy, but like everything else in Rossio’s post, it’s a logical extension of the principle in the title. If you’re a rational producer, you deal with time risk in the same way that a fund manager deals with investment risk—by diversifying your portfolio. A producer can have twenty or thirty projects in the hopper at any one time, in hopes that one winner will make up for all the losers. Writers don’t have this luxury, but they engage in a kind of simulation of it during the submission process. An unsold script has a virtual portfolio of potential buyers, one of whom might one day pay off. As soon as someone buys it, all those other possibilities disappear, and if it fails, the project might be tainted forever.

So how in the world do you deal with this? Rossio’s advice is simple, but it’s also the exact opposite of the reality that most writers face: “Spend as much time as you can making films, rather than trying to get films made.” Every strategy that he proposes comes down to knowing where to commit your time and how much of it to devote to a given situation. Take what he says about buyers and sellers:

First, understand when you’re in a room with fellow sellers, and temper your excitement accordingly. Second, commit less time risk to fellow sellers—and infinite time risk to an actual buyer. Third, understand the real value of investing time with fellow sellers. The value is not just an eventual project sale. The real value is building your team.

Rossio also advises writers to take cues from the industry players, notably producers, who have learned how to maximize the relationship between risk and return. (In financial terms, they’ve figured out an investment strategy with a good Sharpe ratio.) He quotes the producer Ram Bergman: “I told Rian [Johnson], I simply will not let you sell anything you write…The more we put it together, script, cast, producer, the more effectively we can dictate how it gets made.” If you can be a director or a novelist—or set up an animation studio in your garage, as Rossio repeatedly recommends—that’s even better. But even powerful people need to take what comes. Rossio devotes a considerable amount of space to the travails of his screenplay Déjà Vu, which set and still holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a spec script, only to run into rewrite problems and a reluctant director. When Rossio complained and suggested that they pull out, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer replied: “I have a director, a script, a star, and the studio giving me a green light. It’s not my job to not make movies.” And he was right.

I could keep quoting forever from this essay, which is loaded with throwaway insights that deserve a full post of their own. (Here’s one of my favorites: “Writers and producers often do the majority of their work with the cameras snug in their form-fitting foam cases. Actors get paid when cameras roll. And it’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” And another: “It’s amusing to listen to film critics assign responsibility for the content of a film exclusively to the screenwriter, the one person on the team with no final authority to insist on any particular story choice.”) But I’ll close with a story about a project in which I take an obvious interest—the adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, on which Rossio worked while the rights to the novel were still held by DreamWorks. Here’s what happened:

The screenplay was completed about a month prior to the rights renewal date, and to be honest, we nailed it. The source material is of course fantastic, one of the top ten science fiction novels of all time, and the draft we turned in would have made an amazing film. The renewal date came and went, with no word from the studio, but a few days later we got a phone call. “We’re going to let the rights expire,” said the executive. “Did you not like the script?” we asked. “I’ll be honest with you,” said the executive, “We’ve been really busy. I’m sure the screenplay is fantastic, you guys always do good work. But we just didn’t have time to read it.”

Rossio concludes: “While this sounds insane from a business perspective—why option the book rights at all, on such a high profile project, or hire screenwriters to do an adaptation—it makes perfect sense from a time risk perspective. If you’re an executive, and you know the project doesn’t fit your production schedule, why expend the time risk to even read the screenplay?” He’s perfectly right, of course. But the real takeaway here is one that he leaves unspoken. In this situation, you don’t want to be Terry Rossio, or the producer, or even the executive on the other end of the phone. You want to be Heinlein.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2017 at 8:51 am

Songs of distant earth

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For a few months in the early seventies, a curious debate briefly raged about sex in space. In designing the aluminum plaques that would be carried by two of the Pioneer spacecraft in case they were ever recovered by extraterrestrials, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had included line drawings of an anatomically correct man and woman, and the response was about what you’d expect. As Sagan recalled in The Cosmic Connection:

The principal feminine criticism is that the woman is drawn incomplete—that is, without any sign of external genitalia. The decision to omit a very short line in this diagram [for the pudendal cleft] was made partly because conventional representation in Greek statuary omits it. But there was another reason: Our desire to see the message successfully launched on Pioneer 10. In retrospect, we may have judged NASA’s scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is…

Yet it is clear that at least some individuals were offended even by the existing representation. The Chicago Sun-Times, for example, published three versions of the page in different editions all on the same day: In the first the man was represented whole; in the second, suffering from an awkward and botched airbrush castration; and in the final version—intended no doubt to reassure the family man dashing home—with no sexual apparatus at all…The Philadelphia Inquirer published on its front page an illustration of the plaque, but with the nipples of the woman and the genitalia of the man removed. The assistant managing editor was quoted as saying: “A family newspaper must uphold community standards.”

A few years later, when a team led by Sagan had a chance to include a much more elaborate message on the golden phonograph records on the Voyager spacecraft, an identical issue arose. Timothy Ferris, one of the producers of the project, reveals in the new book The Voyager Golden Record: “NASA vetoed a photograph of a naked man and pregnant woman holding hands, likely concerned about the same prudish reaction stirred up by the nude drawings on the Pioneer plaques.” In the end, the record included a pair of vague, unrevealing diagrams—on the level of a grade school sex education class—and a reduced variation of the Pioneer drawing. Any aliens who are curious about human sexual reproduction, which is probably the single most fundamental fact about our culture, will come away very confused. And this wasn’t the only instance in which the team felt political pressure. Ferris recounts of the process of choosing the music:

A few politically motivated requests did crop up, among them a strange plea that we include a third-rate Russian nightclub standard on grounds that it might please the rulers of the Soviet Union. (We listened politely, then passed.) When we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for the first Voyager launch, a NASA official confronted me to complain, “Damn it, Tim, how could a good Irish boy like yourself not put an Irish song on the record, knowing that Tip O’Neill is speaker of the House?” I was sorry to disappoint him, but one seldom succeeds at anything by trying to please everybody.

And before we smile, let’s take a moment to reflect that if a similar project were attempted today—presumably with Neil DeGrasse Tyson in charge—it would be approximately a million times worse. Just imagining the think pieces, tweets, and cable news segments makes my head hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve just received my copy of The Voyager Golden Record box set, a Kickstarter project that turned about as well as I could have hoped: three hefty records of translucent gold vinyl, beautiful packaging, and a fascinating book. Listening to the music is like playing the strangest, most moving mix tape ever made, although it still leaves me with the same response expressed in my favorite joke from Saturday Night Live: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But if it were compiled again right now, I doubt that Berry would even make the cut. His obituaries from earlier this year were filled with an uneasy tension between his unquestioned stature and his private misbehavior, and if we’ve never totally assimilated it, it’s mostly because we’ve never been forced to do so. If we were putting together the Voyager record today, we’d have no choice but to deal with it directly, and I have a hunch that Berry would be quietly vetoed for exactly the same reasons that Chuck Klosterman applauds his inclusion:

I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen [for the Voyager record] is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select…Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis. Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned forty. Rock music is tied to myth and legend…Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.

In fact, “Johnny B. Goode” just barely made it onto the record, as Ferris recalls: “Carl initially called it ‘awful.’ But he soon came around on that one, going so far as to politely remind [Alan] Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as ‘adolescent,’ that Earth is home to many adolescents.”

If nothing else, the Voyager anniversary release reminds us that we should be grateful that it happened at all, since it occurred at perhaps the one moment in our history when such a notion was technologically, culturally, and politically possible. Ferris says that he and Sagan “backed into the concept” of a record in their attempt to encode more material in a limited amount of space, but the fact that it led them to focus on music was the happiest of accidents. (He also debunks a famous story that I’ve spread here before: “Rumors to the contrary, we did not strive to include the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ only to be disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. We did consider that lovely track for a time but soon moved on. It’s not the Beatles’ strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short run, seems unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.”) Ferris argues that even the phonograph format itself is charged with significance:

A diamond dances along the undulations of the groove; its intricate motions vibrate an attached crystal (in the case of ceramic phono cartridges, like the ones attached to the Voyager probes); the vibrations generate a flow of electricity that’s amplified and sent to the speakers. At no point in this process is it possible to say with assurance just how much information the record contains or how accurately a given stereo has translated it. You never know whether a record might sound even better if played with a different phono cartridge, or at a different stylus pressure, or through different equipment. The open-mindedness of the medium seemed akin to the grand gesture of sending a record to the stars—and, for that matter, to scientific research, where one is always aware that more can be learned.

I’m not sure that I entirely believe this, but I’ll buy it. The Voyager record stands as one shining instance in which the highest ideals of science fiction found an embodiment in the real world, and perhaps you need to be a teenager to be as entranced by it as I once was. But earth is home to many adolescents.

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2017 at 8:56 am

Their brand is crisis

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A while back, The New Yorker ran an engaging piece by John Colapinto about the branding firm Lexicon, which specializes in coming up with product names for corporate clients. It was published nearly six years ago, but it’s stuck in my head, after so many other articles have faded, in part because the work of Lexicon—which has named such brands as BlackBerry, Pentium, PowerBook, and Dasani—feels like a distillation of what writers and artists do all the time. It’s hard enough to write a distinctive slogan or jingle, but trying to evoke so much in a single word, like Swiffer, resembles a form of black magic. (I’m reminded of the protagonist of John Barth’s novel The Tidewater Tales, who keeps cutting down a short story until it consists of nothing but the word “olive.”) But there’s a science to it as well. Colapinto writes:

Lexicon employs two in-house linguists and consults with seventy-seven others around the world, specialists in languages as diverse as Urdu, Tagalog, and Hindi—a critical resource, [founder David] Placek says. They screen names for embarrassing associations. (The industry abounds in tales of cross-linguistic gaffes, like Creap coffee creamer from Japan, Bum potato chips from Spain, and the Chevy Nova—in Spanish, the “no go.”) They also offer input on the unconscious resonance of particular sounds. In the mid-nineties, Lexicon funded a linguistic study whose results suggested that the sound of the letter “b” was one of the most “reliable” in any language—“whether you were in Poland or Paris or New York,” Placek said. He mentioned this to the Research in Motion executives, and they decided to capitalize both “b”s: BlackBerry.

Yesterday, a story broke about another brand that starts with a “b.” Bodega, a startup that has raised millions of dollars in venture investment, inspired a flurry of online rage after Fast Company published an article with the headline “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The profile, which was responsibly reported and written by Elizabeth Segran, summarizes the company’s pitch as follows:

Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card…Bodega’s logo is a cat, a nod to the popular bodega cat meme on social media—although if the duo gets their way, real felines won’t have brick-and-mortar shops to saunter around and take naps in much longer.    

There are obvious problems here, both on the practical side and on the level of what we’ve somehow agreed to call “optics,” and they’ve been capably pointed out by others. But the company’s name, which appropriates a term for corner stores in urban areas often owned by immigrants, didn’t help. As Segran relates:

I asked [founder Paul McDonald] point-blank about whether he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive. Not really. “I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no.’ It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

When I first read that quote, shortly before the firestorm broke, I thought of the famous line from Fargo: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there.” It seems safe to say that if you feel obliged to check whether or not your brand name is a “misappropriation,” you’re probably better off not using it, and that the three percent of respondents who find it objectionable might cause you a disproportionate amount of trouble. (Focusing on “the Latin American community” also overlooks the fact that many people are more than willing to be offended on behalf of others.) In an apologetic post that was published late yesterday, McDonald asked rhetorically: “Is it possible we didn’t fully understand what the reaction to the name would be?” He answered himself:

Yes, clearly. The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined. When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation. We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.

Personally, I’d be curious to know which “branding people” they consulted, and whether they were seduced by the “reliability” of the letter “b,” or by the word’s “consonant-vowel-consonant pattern,” which, as Colapinto notes, is “among the first that infants learn in any language.”

Whatever the process was, the result was that Bodega ended up with just about the worst name that it could possibly have chosen. Its business model has other issues that make it unlikely that it could pose a threat to anyone, much less one’s favorite corner store, but it could easily have positioned itself to make it seem that it was targeting big chain drugstores, not independent businesses. Instead, it chose a name that was like a torpedo aimed at itself. It was a self-inflicted wound, and you could argue that the editors of Fast Company were ready with almost unseemly glee to ram the dagger home. Yet it was bound to happen sooner or later, and the real question is why none of Bodega’s investors raised concerns about it at any stage. You could say, quite reasonably, that the culprit was the lack of diverse voices in technology and finance, but I suspect that something else was involved. The founders were clearly aware of the potential for trouble, but they were so in love with their name and logo that they ignored it. It was worse than a sin—it was a mistake. And if they’re penalized for it, it shouldn’t be for being offensive, but for being bad at what they were supposed to be doing. As Colapinto writes:

Placek said that it can be dangerous to become too programmatic about what he calls “tactical” aspects of naming. The real goal, he says, is to determine what “story” a client wishes to tell about his product (it’s faster, it’s more powerful, it’s easier to use) and then find a word that evokes it, without being predictable or even necessarily logical.

For better or worse, “Bodega” was definitely a name that told a story. And it ended up saying more about its founders than they probably would have liked.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2017 at 9:20 am

Quote of the Day

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[Not only are we] more likely to remember a plotted narrative; we are also less likely to ask awkward questions about it. This is why historians as well as novelists (traditionally) place such value on “followability”; it limits the possibility of awkward questions, it leaves less to explain; for historians usually write narrative rather than explanation if they can. Thus the detection of occult figurations, and the questioning of the narrative as a report on fact, is delayed.

Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

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