Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Barth

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

He wonders: will he become a regular person? Something has gone wrong; his vaccination didn’t take; at the Boy-Scout initiation campfire he only pretended to be deeply moved, as he pretends to this hour that it is not so bad after all in the funhouse, and that he has a little limp. How long will it last? He envisions a truly astonishing funhouse, incredibly complex yet ut­terly controlled from a great central switchboard like the console of a pipe organ. Nobody had enough imagination. He could design such a place him­self, wiring and all, and he’s only thirteen years old. He would be its operator: panel lights would show what was up in every cranny of its cunning of its multivarious vastness; a switch-flick would ease this fellow’s way, complicate that’s, to balance things out; if anyone seemed lost or frightened, all the operator had to do was.

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

Their brand is crisis

leave a comment »

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

with one comment

John Barth

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

Disrupting the printed page

with 4 comments

A page from House of Leaves

Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere—although I haven’t been able to find the exact reference—that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same. Stevenson’s advice is generally taken as a warning against the use of ornate vocabulary that doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the line, but in my own work, I’ve also applied it to the level of paragraphs and chapters. Not every chapter should read the same way, of course: a climactic moment should feel different from a chapter primarily devoted to setting up information for a coming run of scenes, and a novel that was written in the same tone throughout would soon grow dull. When you glance quickly over the text without reading it, though, every page of my fiction looks pretty much like any other. Along with the many other arbitrary rules I follow, I’ve never used narrative devices like found documents or diagrams, I stick to one typeface, and I’ve done what I can to make the surface of the book look as seamless as possible, presumably on the theory that any visual device that calls attention to itself can only distract the reader from the story.

This may seem like something other than a matter of style, since it’s primarily visual, but I don’t know what else to call it: it affects the balance between dialogue and description, helps determine paragraph length, and has a subtle but very real influence on the narrative register of my stories. A book that alternates between many different tones often reflects this on the page: the stylistic shifts in a novel like Ulysses are visible at a glance. This is also true of popular fiction, which can alternate between long passages of rapid dialogue, extended sections of description, and strings of short paragraphs and sentence fragments for action scenes. Part of the reason I’ve tried to keep my novels visually consistent is a desire to see if I can get the same effect through the writing alone. In a way, it’s another constraint I’ve laid down for myself: I try to make the story’s events as colorful and interesting as I can while remaining within the same narrow visual range. It limits my range of options while forcing me to develop other skills to compensate, and thus far, I’ve been pleased by the result.

A page from The Tunnel

All the same, I sometimes get a little jealous of novelists who seem comfortable with radical typographical or visual experimentation. I’ve never managed to get through all of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, for example, but it still occupies a treasured place in my home library: every few months, I’ll leaf through it, my eye caught by its oddly sinister flags, shifting fonts, and stretches of comic strip narrative, each of which stands like an island in the middle of the sea of Gass’s prose. The same is true of the works of such authors as John Barth and Georges Perec, not to mention House of Leaves. When I flip through a novel in a bookstore and come across a diagram or unexpected illustration, I’m always a little tickled, as if I’ve stumbled on a bonbon for browsers. Indeed, a striking typographic trick will often make me more likely to buy a book, or at least remember it: they’re like advertisements within the text for the author’s ingenuity, or cleverness, which may be one reason why I resist them in my own work, at least in the absence of any overwhelming reason to the contrary.

And while I wouldn’t rule out using graphic elements in my fiction in the future, I have a feeling that their presence would be as systematic as their absence has been so far. I’m most comfortable when operating within clearly defined rules, even if they’re only obvious to me, so any attempt at formal experimentation I’d make would probably be closer to something like Dictionary of the Khazars, my favorite novel of this kind, which embeds considerable typographic and visual invention within an attractively uniform surface. It’s a choice that can have unexpected consequences these days, when it’s likely that many of my books will be read on Kindle or a similar format over which I have less control: few, if any, of the novels I’ve mentioned above would survive that transition. When all of your sentences look more or less the same, you don’t need to worry about how they’ll appear in print, and I’ve been glad to leave that aspect of my novels to professionals who know what they’re doing. That way, I can focus on trying to put variety into the story itself, regardless of how it’s laid out on the page—which is more than hard enough as it is.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

My twenty favorite writing quotes

with 5 comments

It’s hard to believe, but over the past two years, I’ve posted more than six hundred quotes of the day. At first, this was simply supposed to be a way for me to add some new content on a daily basis without going through the trouble of writing a full post, but it ultimately evolved into something rather different. I ran through the obvious quotations fairly quickly, and the hunt for new material has been one of the most rewarding aspects of writing this blog, forcing me to look further afield into disciplines like theater, songwriting, dance, and computer science. Since we’re rapidly approaching this blog’s second anniversary, I thought it might be useful, or at least amusing, to pick out twenty of my own favorites. Some are famous, others less so, but in one way or another they’ve been rattling around in my brain for a long time, and I hope they’ll strike up a spark or two in yours:

Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert

An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.

Edgar Degas

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from such things.

T.S. Eliot

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Luck is the residue of design.

Branch Rickey

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

Francis Ford Coppola, in an interview with The 99 Percent

Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.

Lionel Trilling

The worst error of the older Shakespeare criticism consisted in regarding all the poet’s means of expression as well-considered, carefully pondered, artistically conditioned solutions and, above all, in trying to explain all the qualities of his characters on the basis of inner psychological motives, whereas, in reality, they have remained very much as Shakespeare found them in his sources, or were chosen only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

David MametSome Freaks

Great narrative is not the opposite of cheap narrative: it is soap opera plus.

Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama

You must train day and night in order to make quick decisions.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

Kurt Vonnegut, to The Paris Review

The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?

Dennis Lehane, to The Writer Magazine

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

William Blake

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.

—Attributed to Leonard Bernstein

If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held onto your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Stephen King, On Writing

You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the f—king game.

Harlan Ellison

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2011 at 8:16 am

“A multitude of drops”: Thoughts on Cloud Atlas

leave a comment »

While I was in Los Angeles over the weekend, I finally finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which over the past few years has gradually emerged as a consensus choice for one of the major novels of the decade. It first gained critical attention, and a fervent cult following, both for its striking structure—six nested novelettes, arranged like a series of Russian dolls, with each story commenting obliquely on its predecessor—and the virtuosity of Mitchell’s language and command of genre, which ranges from  dystopian science fiction to thriller to period pastiche. And while I do have some mild reservations about the novel, which is probably unavoidable for book that pushes the envelope so consistently, there’s no doubt that Mitchell is a formidable talent, and an author I’m looking forward to reading for years to come.

The element of Cloud Atlas that I enjoyed most, surprisingly, was its commitment to genre and plot. Despite what other critics have said, I don’t think the tone of the individual stories ever degenerates into simple parody, not even in “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” which some have called a satire of an airport novel. For my own part, I feel that Mitchell loves and respects his sources too much to dismiss them so easily. If anything, “Half-Lives” reads more like a tribute to The Crying of Lot 49 by way of a 70s thriller, which turns out to be a surprisingly heady combination, even if it’s likely to be underrated simply because it’s so readable. The same is true of “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” which, until its rather predictable closing twist, qualifies as a near-great science fiction novella, and the work of someone who clearly has great affection for the form.

That said, I also suspect that Mitchell’s fondness for the genres he’s inhabiting prevents him from weaving the novel together more tightly. A work like Cloud Atlas needs to walk a fine line between seeming too tidy or contrived and spinning apart into its separate components, and I think it strays a bit too close to the latter: I wanted more resonance, more jangling, between the constituent parts of the story, and the connections seemed either too obvious (the birthmark that all but one of the central characters share, with the implication that they are reincarnations of the same soul, perhaps on its way to Bodhisattvadom) or nonexistent (as in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” a segment which, while fun to read, fails to justify its presence). Obviously, this is a matter of taste. But I can’t help but thinking that a writer like John Barth or Nabokov would have given us a more elegantly structured edifice, even if it might have been less true to the genres of the stories themselves.

Still, it’s only been a few days since I finished the novel, and on going back, I’ve already begun to appreciate some of Mitchell’s more subtle associations. I also have a feeling that this is a novel that will gain much on rereading, which is something I plan to do fairly soon—certainly before the movie version comes out. The adaptation that has been announced, with Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis directing, seems utterly unnecessary: if anything, it should be an anthology piece, with a different director tackling each segment, or at least a virtuoso acting challenge, with the same actors tackling roles in various time periods. Neither, it seems, it going to happen, which makes me skeptical about the outcome. No matter the result, though, we’ll still have Mitchell’s novel, with its richness, its ambition, and its only occasional lapses into tedium or obviousness. It’s a startling hydra of a book, and seems likely to endure for a long time.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

—John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2010 at 7:36 am

How Rambo saved my novel

with 2 comments

Earlier this year, as I was pushing forward on the final draft of The Picasso Imbroglio—er, I mean, Kamera—I hit a wall. The first third of the novel had always been a challenge: it has a lot of characters and a lot of moving parts, and as I read it over again, I found that there was a stretch of six or seven chapters where the book kept losing momentum. The material was there, the writing was decent, but the pacing wasn’t quite right. And I might never have solved the problem if it hadn’t been for David Morrell, author of First Blood and creator of John Rambo.

Morrell, as one might expect, is a pretty interesting character. He’s the author of twenty-eight novels, a former English professor at the University of Iowa, and one of the world’s leading experts on the postmodern novelist John Barth. As his website notes, “He has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and car fighting, among numerous other action skills that he describes in his novels.” So it’s safe to say that his author biography is much cooler than mine.

He’s also the author of Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, which is the book that saved my neck earlier this year. It’s full of good stories, especially the one about how Morrell nearly forgot to get profit participation in First Blood’s sequels or merchandising, since in the original novel—spoiler alert!—Rambo dies at the end. (Given how things turned out, he’s probably glad he held on to the rights.) And the book also contains a lot of useful advice, including one rule so powerful that it instantly joins the pantheon of great writer’s tricks:

Unless you’re writing a novel whose manner is intentionally that of a nineteenth-century novel, your work will often benefit by cutting the beginning and the end of the [action] in each scene. Start with dialogue. Start with activity. Conclude with something strong….Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

Italics are mine, for obvious reasons, because I tried Morrell’s trick on the uncooperative chapters of my own novel, and by God, he was right! I found that I tended to close each chapter with a tidy concluding paragraph, as if I were tying a bow on the scene. In most cases, though, it’s far better just to move on, even before the main action is over. The reader will fill in the rest. And simply by cutting the first and last paragraphs of a few chapters, along with a bit of rewriting, I was able to solve my pacing problems so easily that it seemed almost like magic.

(Note that Morrell credits this advice, in turn, to the great William Goldman, author of Adventures in the Screen Trade, who evidently suggests that “the key to constructing a series of scenes is to omit their beginnings and ends and jump from middle to middle.” I’m a huge Goldman fan, and I own and love Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I haven’t been able to track down this specific reference. If anyone out there can point me in the right direction, I’d be very grateful.)

%d bloggers like this: