Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Branded Bookish

This is the cover of Evan Morris' book on the surprises behind
famous brands. Morris is also notably the estimable Word Detective.

Another late post, but not as late as yesterday's. Will it be worth the wait? I'd be a fool to think so.

Here's a two-fer from the Grumpy Old Bookman in case you don't read him daily- shame on you. This is about the travails of a small publisher trying to find a good novel among thousands of author-submitted manuscripts. And as I was retrieving that link, I saw he'd posted today about one of my most favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, as readers may know from here and here. His latest book, Thud!, has been reviewed by Donald Westlake, another author in my top handful of favorites. As GOB opined, "this is an inspired piece of review commissioning." Color me porcine and slop-covered.

UPDATE: Now I've read the review, I totally agree with Westlake, who writes series of his own, and eerily echoes what Pratchett himself said at his NYC signing at B&N. He said (in loose paraphrase) that he was looking at the end of new Discworld books and is being challenged to think beyond that creation, because it's gotten too full to leave enough creative elbow room anymore.

So, now you're thinking I'm just regurgitating bookish items today, but no, here is my original contribution.

Let's open with the caveat that I am not an enormous fan of James Patterson and what used to be his fifty invisible book brownies. I find his best set-ups overpromise the middles and especially the ends, but I have enjoyed some of them. Also, it's unlikely I can hurt Patterson et al's feelings, and since he's (they've) reached a level of commercial success of which one as lowly as myself can only dream, he's (they're) ripe for critique. Therefore, I must complain that he (and one now overtly-named collaborator Howard Roughan) dropped product brands and other names without explication into nigh every chapter of Honeymoon. It needled me for several reasons:

1) It makes this reader wonder if it's an attempt to write off luxury goods as business expenses or to solicit freebies.

2) It guarantees the text will age badly. Ever listen to people from generations on either side of yours wax rhapsodic, without explanation, over consumer goods you've never heard of? Interesting? Not usually.

3) If you're not in the know about a contemporary but obscure reference- am I expected to catalog Connecticut's antique merchants or Cinncinnati's ice cream purveyors?- it conveys worse than nothing in that it actually wastes the reader's time with text that doesn't serve the story.

4) Even where I know the brands and references, I find it an inexcusably lazy form of characterization for a novelist. If a foundling's name is Glad, you can tell me he was abandoned in a trash bag, but use proper noun shorthand for effect and sparingly. Only the chronically insipid system of Hollywood describes people like "Mercedes Benz meets Pabst Blue Ribbon".

Oh, but how bad could it have really been, you ask? How egregious? Chapter 2 of Honeymoon is typically tiny. (Don't even get me started on how I feel about books like this with 117 numbered chapters in fewer than 400 pages when many times there's no setting, interval, or POV break as an excuse.) In this dainty 3-page demichapter, 25 brand names dapple the text like pigeon droppings. Here they are, and I'm including localities and famous figures as brands where they're used as descriptive shorthand.

Briarcliff Manor
Eleish-Van Breems
New Canaan Antiques
the Silk Purse
the Cellar
Hudson River School
Thomas Cole
George III
J.P. Morgan
Richard Nixon
New York School of Interior Design
Le Cordon Bleu
Back Bay
Amstel Light
Smith and Wollensky
Dom Perignon '85
Jack Daniel's

You can practically smell the quality of the prose that would enrobe such a combination. Yeesh.

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