Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner

“I know who you are…”

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"When Maddy turned around..."

Note: This post is the forty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 46. You can read the previous installments here.

Freedom in writing is a lot like its equivalent in everyday life. In theory, we’re all free actors of ourselves, as Harold Bloom describes the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, but in practice, we’re hemmed in by choices and decisions that we made years ago—or that other people or larger systems have made for us. Similarly, a novelist, who really does have access to limitless possibilities, inevitably ends up dealing with the kind of creative constriction that Joan Didion describes in an observation to The Paris Review that I never get tired of quoting:

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone…I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.

The difference between writing and life, of course, is that it’s easier for a writer to start over. No matter how much time or effort you’ve put into a project, you can always throw it away and begin again without anyone being the wiser, which is harder to pull off in the real world. Yet many writers stubbornly insist on sticking to what they’ve written, as if they didn’t have any alternative.

And the kicker is that they’re often perfectly right, at least where the first draft is concerned. Earlier this week, I talked about the finite amount of energy that a writer can allocate to the different stages of the creative process, and the strategies that he or she develops to conserve it. Discarding the material you’ve already written is a good way to sap the limited resources you have. More pragmatically, starting over usually amounts to never finishing the story at all: the most common reason that most attempts at a novel peter out halfway through is because the author was unable to live with what he or she had written the day before. A crucial part of becoming a writer lies in learning how to plow ahead despite the shortcomings of the work you’ve done, which often means treating your existing pages as fixed quantities. If nothing else, it’s a helpful strategy for concentrating exclusively on the work at hand: during the first draft, it makes sense to think of what you’ve written so far as inviolate, because otherwise, you’ll be tempted to go back and tinker, when you should be more concerned with the pages you don’t have. Revision requires another mental shift, in which everything is on the table, no matter how much work you’ve invested in it. And that transition—which flips your approach to the rough draft completely on its head—is one that every writer has to master.

"I know who you are..."

But there’s an even more interesting case to be made for preserving the elements you’ve already written, or at least for doing everything you can to work with them before giving up. In the past, I’ve spoken of writing as a collaboration between your past, present, and future selves: it’s too complicated for any one version of you to handle alone, so you set up ways of communicating across time with different incarnations of yourself, aided by good notes. Your existing pages are a message from the past to the present, and they deserve to be taken seriously, since there’s information there that might otherwise be lost. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says of a writer working on a story about Helen of Troy:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

Every writer, I think, will recognize this—but it only works if you trust that your past self knew what he or she was doing. And you’re more likely to come up with useful ideas if you treat that material as irrevocable. Like any constraint, it’s only fruitful if it can’t easily be eluded.

There’s a small but telling example in Eternal Empire of how this works. Way back in Chapter 5, when Maddy visits Tarkovsky’s house for the first time, she sees Nina, the oligarch’s daughter, riding a horse on a polo field, dressed in jodhpurs and a bomber jacket. Nina looks stonily at Maddy for a long second, and then disappears. It provided a nice visual button for the scene, but in order for it to make sense, I had to introduce Nina later on as a character. And I had no idea what role she might play. I had her pop up now and then in the pages that followed, always seen from a distance, just to remind the reader and myself that she still existed. Finally, when I reached Chapter 46—months after writing that first image—I knew that I couldn’t postpone it any longer: from a structural perspective, coming just before the huge set pieces that conclude the novel, it was the last area of calm in which any interaction between Maddy and Nina could take place. I thought more than once about cutting the earlier beat, which only amounted to a few lines, and taking the daughter out of the story entirely. But when I forced the two of them to meet at last, I ended up with what still feels like an essential moment: Nina drops a clue about her father’s plans, as well as to the overall plot, and they feel a brief connection that I knew would pay off in the final act. Without the image of that girl on a horse, which I introduced, as Gardner says, “by impulse, because it seemed right,” none of this would have occurred to me. It took a long time for it to justify itself, but it did. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t acted as if I didn’t have a choice…

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March 10, 2016 at 8:55 am

“He had played his part admirably…”

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"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

The disintegrating cube

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The 22x22 Rubik's Cube

Last week, a video made the rounds of a disastrous attempt to construct a 22×22 Rubik’s Cube. Its creator, who remains thankfully anonymous, states that he spent seven months designing the mechanism, printing out the pieces, and assembling it, and the last ninety minutes of the process were streamed live online. And when he finally finishes and tries to turn it for the first time—well, you can skip to the end. (I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he mutters “We are experiencing massive piece separation,” followed by a shocked silence and finally: “Nope. Nope.” And if you listen carefully, after he exits the frame, you can hear what sounds a lot like something being kicked offscreen.) After the video went viral, one commenter wrote: “This makes me feel better about the last seven months I’ve spent doing absolutely nothing.” Yet it’s hard not to see the fate of the cube as a metaphor for something more. Its creator says at one point that he was inspired to build it by a dream, and it’s actually the second of two attempts, the first of which ended in much the same way. And while I don’t feel any less sorry for him, there’s something to be said for a project that absorbs seven months of your life in challenging, methodical work, regardless of how it turned out. Entropy always wins out in the end, if not always so dramatically. The pleasure that a finished cube affords is minimal compared to the effort it took to make it, and there’s something about its sudden disintegration that strikes me as weirdly ennobling, like a sand painting swept away immediately after its completion.

I happened to watch the video at a time when I was particularly prone to such reflections, because I quietly passed a milestone this weekend: five years ago, I launched this blog, and I’ve posted something every day ever since. If you had told me this back when I began, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, and if anything, it might have dissuaded me from starting. By the most conservative estimate, I’ve posted over a million words, which doesn’t even count close to two thousand quotes of the day. The time I’ve invested here—well over an hour every morning, including weekends—probably could have been spent on something more productive, but I have a hard time imagining what that might have been. It’s not like I haven’t been busy: the five years that coincided with the lifespan of this blog saw me produce a lot of other writing, published and otherwise, as well as my first daughter, and I don’t feel that I neglected any of it. (There does, in fact, seem to be a limit to how much time you can spend writing each day without burning out, and once you’ve hit those four to six hours, you don’t gain much by adding more.) Rather than taking up valuable time that would have been occupied by something else, this blog created an hour of productivity that wasn’t there before. It was carved out of each day from the minutes that I just would have frittered away, just as a few dollars squeezed out of a paycheck and properly invested can lead to a comfortable retirement.

The 22x22 Rubik's Cube

Of course, the trouble with that analogy is that the work has to be its own justification. I’m very happy with this blog and its reception, but if I were giving one piece of advice to someone starting out for the first time, it would be to caution against seeing a blog as being good for anything except for itself. It isn’t something you can reasonably expect to monetize or to drive attention to your other projects. And if I had to explain my reasons for devoting so much time to it on such a regular basis, I’d have trouble coming up with a response. There’s no question that it prompted me to think harder and read more deeply about certain subjects, to cast about broadly for quotes and topics, and to refine the bag of tricks I had for generating ideas on demand. Like any daily ritual, it became a form of discipline. If writing, as John Gardner says, is ultimately a yoga, or a way of life in the world, this blog became the equivalent of my morning devotions. My energies were primarily directed to other kinds of work, often frustratingly undefined, and some of which may never see the light of day. The blog became a kind of consolation on mornings when I struggled elsewhere: a clean, discrete unit of prose that I could publish on my own schedule and on my own terms. I could build it, piece by piece, like a cathedral of toothpicks—or a massive Rubik’s Cube. And even if it fell apart in the end, as all blogs inevitably must, the time I spent on it would have been a worthwhile pursuit for its own sake.

I realize that this sounds a little like a valedictory post, so I should make it clear that I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Still, the odds are that this blog is closer to its end than to its beginning. When I started out, my resolve to post every day was a kind of preemptive resistance against the fate of so many other blogs, which cling to life for a few months or years before being abandoned. I didn’t want it to succumb to half measures, so, as with most things in life, I overdid it. Whether or not the result will be of lasting interest seems beside the point: you could say much the same of any writing at all, whether or not it appears between book covers. (And in fact, my quick post on George R.R. Martin and WordStar seems likely to be the single most widely read thing I’ll ever write in my life.) The only real measure of any project’s value—and I include my novels and short stories in this category—is whether it brought me pleasure in the moment, or, to put it another way, whether it allowed me to spend my time in the manner I thought best. For this blog, the answer is emphatically yes, as long as I keep that Rubik’s Cube in mind, looking forward with equanimity to the day that it all seems to disintegrate. It’s no different from anything else; it’s just more obvious. And its value comes from the act of construction. As the scientist Wayne Batteau once said of the three laws of thermodynamics: “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.” Or, as the critic David Thomson puts it in the final line of Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles: “One has to do something.”

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2015 at 10:02 am

My great books #9: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2015 at 9:00 am

Surviving the German forest

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Jad Abumrad

Recently, I was leafing through Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, an updated and expanded version of her classic illustrated guide to radio, when I came across the following story from Radiolab host Jad Abrumad:

The station manager came to me and he said, “Hey, do you want to do an hour on Wagner’s Ring Cycle?” Had I done five minutes of research, I would’ve realized that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an eighteen-hour cycle of operas that tries to encompass the totality of European art in one work. You got imagery, you got music, you got psychology, it was supposed to be “the work of art that ended art.” I could’ve found this out in thirty seconds, but I didn’t, and so I thought to myself: “Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, I don’t know much about Wagner. But, uh, sure, okay, Wagner, why not.”

Fast-forward a couple months, I had missed four deadlines, I’m on the verge of getting fired, and I haven’t slept for four days. I had the pressure of ideas that I just couldn’t reach, I had the pressure of being a newbie and talking to people who were very sophisticated. And I had the pressure of deadlines that were going “splat!” left, right, and center.

Abrumad concludes: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:

When I head the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, “Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive.

Notes by Ira Glass

What interests me about this the most, though, is that Abrumad—a MacArthur fellow and very smart guy—is working in a form that has laid down strict rules for managing its material. As I’ve noted elsewhere, because radio poses such unique challenges, it has to be particularly ruthless about sustaining the listener’s attention. In the previous edition of Abel’s book, Ira Glass lays out the formula in a quote that I never tire of repeating:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass frames this structure as a courtesy to the listener, but, more subtly, it’s also there for the sake of the storyteller. It isn’t a map of the forest, exactly, but a compass, or, even better, a set of rules for orienting yourself, and the tricks that survive are the ones that provide value both during the writing process and in the act of reading or listening. You can think of the rules of storytelling as a staircase with the author on one end and the audience at the other, allowing them to meet in the middle. Their primary purpose is to ensure that a project can be brought to completion, but they also allow the finished product to serve its intended purpose, just as the rules of architecture are both a strategy for building a house that won’t fall down halfway through and a blueprint for livable spaces.

And this is a particularly useful way to think about all “rules” of writing or storytelling, particularly plot and structure. Kurt Vonnegut says: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” And, he might have added, of keeping writers writing. Similarly, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner notes that one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is how to treat each unit on its own terms:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

You write a story, as David Mamet likes to say, the same way you write a turkey: one bite at a time. And a few seconds of thought reveal that both the writer and the reader benefit from that approach. You find your way through the forest step by step, just as the reader or listener will, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come to the same conclusion that Abrumad does: “You begin to recognize the German forest for what it is. It’s actually a tool. It’s the place you have to go to hear the next version of yourself.”

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 10:11 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2015 at 7:30 am

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.


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