The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Story shadows (and a quick Friday read)
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If you follow my other feeds (Twitter, robinsloan.com), you’re going to be sooo sick of this by now—but most of you don’t, so let me point you to some fun Friday reading: a very short story inspired by a pair of pants.

Not to be grandiose (I mean, it is a very short story), but there’s actually a larger idea at work here.

The meta-inspiration was an idea that Geoff at BLDGBLOG threw out a while ago. It went something like this: How about fiction commissioned specifically for a new building? Imagine it: There’s a swank new apartment tower going up, and the developers pay a writer to compose a book of short stories about it. (It would be great arbitrage: a fortune in writer-terms is a pittance in developer-terms.) When you move in, there’s a crisp, limited-edition copy of that book waiting on your polished-concrete kitchen counter. The action is all set in and around the building: characters move in and out of spaces you recognize. They walk down your street, shop at your grocery store. They have the same view out their window that you do!

Why do I like this? Well, one of the things writers need desperately, I think—especially writers of short fiction—is new venues, new contexts. General-interest magazines used to provide one (I guess?); the internet sort of provides one now, but honestly, a short story on the internet can be pretty random. The most vital venue for short fiction today is probably, uh, school. Which is fine if you’re in the 7th grade, but what about the rest of us? How do you ground a story and—here’s the crux of it—give people a reason to read? (And, optionally, how do you support the creation of new fiction? Where does the money come from?)

So, as one of many possible solutions, I really love this idea of hooking a story to something in the real world, whether it’s a new building or (in this case) a pair of pants. Imagine that you took this a step further, and the story actually came with the pants. You open the trademark blue-paisley Bonobos box that just arrived in the mail and there, folded neatly atop your new khakis: a short story to get you started, to fire up your imagination.

What if every product shipped with a story?

Imagine analogues in other media: an album composed with a new car in mind, and when you buy the car, the album is loaded into the stereo, waiting for you. (It’s fine-tuned for the car’s acoustics, natch!) Or a movie set in that swank new apartment tower—filmed after construction is complete but before people move in.

It’s fanciful, but I think it connects to the idea of a data shadow—the idea that every physical object has tons of metadata attached to it, cascading away from it—and expands it. That “metadata” can be more than, like, a stream of usage information. It can be narrative; it can, in fact, be fanciful. Call it a story shadow.

It happens naturally, of course. Think of New York City’s story shadow! It’s huge! It’s like, a fifth of all movies ever made! Most cities already have story shadows; some buildings do; relatively few products do. So really what we’re talking about is priming the pump: producing a starter story-shadow on the front-end. And I think done right—again, this is the whole point—it could give people new reasons to read new fiction.

Probably the best example of story-shadow engineering today is the super-awesome Significant Objects. I feel like you ought to be able to take what they’re doing and move it up the food chain—imagine a future for new objects, as well as a past for old ones.

Does this even make any sense? It’s one of, like, the top ten things I’m interested in these days—but I’m not sure I’ve figured out quite how to articulate it yet.

P.S. Ha ha, now here’s a reason to read. Dave Eisenberg from Bonobos chimes in and offers a discount to short-story readers!

25 comments

John Sloan says…

A Bag of Oranges

Plop. Thump. Thump.
Oranges don’t really bounce. Drop one and the most you’ll get is a kind of double thud before they roll off to hide. It’s usually the top one in a bagful who makes the first break for freedom. Gaining that top spot is quite an effort for a roundish fruit, but they work at it. They really do. I’ve heard them groaning with the effort in the produce department when I go into the 24-hour supermarket late at night. Listen sometime when the time is right.
Sliding, Pushing. Rolling.
Again and again.
They know the trip home is their last chance. And unless you’ve captured them in a tied, net bag, they’ll likely bolt en masse, not knowing that a moving car offers no real freedom, but sure capture at the end of the drive.
I know where the oranges go in my kitchen when they make their escape: Under the table where they think they can’t be reached. Usually, they are mistaken, and my hand or a handy broom is all that it takes to make them mine again.
But sometimes, only sometimes, they roll softly to to the furthest reaches, back under the bench under the wall.
Sometimes they make it.
Sometimes they are safe.
And grow the soft, green mold of freedom.

Um, wait, this has sorta been done. BVLGARI commissioned a novel devoted to hawking its jewelry. If I remember correctly, I think they even sponsored an excerpt of the story as an ad in the New Yorker (I think that’s the case, but in trying to fact check my memory, I can’t find confirmation of this).

Also, Mattel already purchased a company the perfected the art of packaging books with products, the American Girl dolls. The “back story” is a big part of the appeal of such dolls.

With the Bulgari case, what you call “metadata” is simply marketing. Whereas the American Girl example is more in line with your story shadow.

Maybe I need to really focus it in more on places vs. products.

Personally, I love reading books/stories IN the places they refer to. Reading a great Paris detective novel in Paris; reading a Dashiell Hammett story in San Francisco. There’s just this wonderful resonance to it. So partially what I want is more of that: stories linked to specific places that you can read IN those specific places.

It would be terrific to commission something like this for a hotel, for instance! Ah, yes–that’s an even better idea than the apartment complex. Some new boutique hotel commissions an amazing short story for every room. And they’re all bound up and collected in editions that you can read down in the lobby, or at the bar.

Interesting. So I’m reading along with this post, going “Yeah, yeah!” but then the further I read the less enthusiastic my yeahs got, and I wasn’t sure why.

Until I got to the car with the pre-loaded album.

Then I understood, because I’d be all “what if I don’t like that kind of music? Then that’s just irritating.” My snazzy new car experience (and let’s face it, part of the joy of a new car is the _experience_, as much as the car itself) would have been sullied by some over-engineered trendy hip-hop crap that I hate. For example.

The core problem is that genre preferences in the arts won’t always neatly align with a product’s intended market. If the two did somehow line up–like, say, a sleek black leather jacket being marketed to 14 year old goth girls with a one-off commissioned Twilight story attached–then yeah, you’ve got some mojo there.

But most of the time it won’t. Most of the time, the product’s target market can’t be expected to have sufficiently homogenous artistic tastes for this to work, so I would generally expect sellers of mass-market consumer goods to shy away from trying it.

The apartment building developer just wants people who can reliably pay the rent. But what if one of your stories was about the guy from 3A who falls in love with the girl from 4B, which happens to mightly offend the sensibilities of the little old lady who moves into 2D and doesn’t think young people should be shacking up like that. Or what if one of the stories is a murder mystery? Not the best image to be putting forth of your new book.

Good point, well-articulated. Your last graf in particular is a really nice crystallization of the gulf between commerce and art. “The apart­ment build­ing devel­oper just wants peo­ple who can reli­ably pay the rent.” It’s true!

I don’t think it’s really a criticism to say “this has been done before,” especially since in the case of toys, packaging a story with the toy was standard operating procedure in the 80s. Think He-Man, which even before the cartoon was packaged with a small storybook, much less She-Ra, GI Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, etc., etc., etc.

If anything, I’d make the argument, already hinted at by echan, that creating this kind of associated narrative is and always has been essential to advertising of all kinds. Bully if some fiction writers can make some money at it, but how many already do as copy writers? Or is there something different about this that I’m missing?

Tim Carmody says…

Yeah, I’ve got to go with Gavin on this one. This may be more of an innovation for advertising than an innovation for short fiction. As for “hooking stories in to something in the real world” — this is of course crucial. But it’s hard to see what a pair of khakis has over a relationship, a city, an experience, an event — all of which potentially have several advantages over pants.

To split the difference between the advertising/marketing angle and that of changes in storytelling: I’m more excited about the idea that this can help create new places where we can encounter fiction. If you say, “yes, this divorce story is a minor masterpiece of psychological realism — but there is no place to read it,” then you start to see how this kind of context-dependent fiction makes sense.

We have public and corporate art — why not public and corporate fiction?

Also, go with what works: Robin got a fun story out of it, plus what I’m sure are a great pair of pants, and Bonobos got some unusual (and I hope useful) pub. I don’t feel coerced to buy pants (just as well, since they don’t sell in this friend-of-Robin’s size), nor did I feel like the story was tainted. Everybody wins.

“I’m more excited about the idea that this can help cre­ate new places where we can encounter fic­tion.”

Yes—that’s a great way of saying it. That’s what I like best, too.

I.

And yes, maybe it’s a pretty small–and debatable–nuance, but I think it matters if the work sits before or after a transaction.

Seems to me that ad copy is all about getting you to want to buy something. By contrast, I’m primarily excited about fiction that enriches a product or experience once you already have it.

So the point (for me) is not that a story might make you go “ohhhh I want to buy that!”; rather it’s to use a physical product (or a place) as a point of deep connection between you & a character in the story. As I said to echan up above: I absolutely love reading fiction about a place IN that place. I think there’s something magical about it.

II.

I actually think action figures are a great example of this; it’s just that no one ever took that prose very far, quality-wise.

Now you’ve got me thinking; imagine a new line of somewhat arty action figures–fabricated with these new 3D printers–that riff on Thundercats and He-Man, but are much more nuanced & artful than those figures ever were — these new ones are designed for adults — AND they’re packaged with terrific fiction. Or maybe it’s a mixture of different formats: fiction, comics, even a stop-motion short film made w/ the figures. Fun!

Yes, it’s not quite a criticism because it is essential to almost all advertising. But now, my mind is going on examples of where a long form product narrative was well-executed. The Clive Owen – BMW series comes to mind as one of the best, in terms of short film. In terms of clothes, I think the copy writers over at J. Peterman were pitch perfect in borrowing from Fitzgerald.

Matthew Battles says…

But the innovation isn’t in tying storytelling to objects, but in the relationships forged among teller, object, and maker/seller—relationships that start to look more like gift than commodity exchange. The advertiser, no matter how creative (and there are great narrative campaigns, to be sure) is like a meme-middleman; in Robin’s example (it’s a lovely story, by the way—a visitation of the divine, deftly played) the story is currency. But no that’s not right either—it’s more like a medium for gift exchange (obligatory obeisance to Lewis Hyde duly offered here). And in Significant Objects, what’s masquerading as an advertisement is actually a multiplier of value. It becomes the product, while the object is almost a medium—like a touchstone or mnemonic. These examples are innovative precisely because they look something like advertising (which is to be deprecated) while accomplishing another thing altogether.

Tim Carmody says…

But the value added by advertising penetrates beyond the sale, too. Let’s say I get a hard sell on an iPhone — I believe at the moment of purchase that it’s the best phone ever made, that there’s so much I can do with it, that I’ll wonder how I’ll ever live without it. This convinces me to buy the iPhone over a Blackberry. (In the opposite scenario, I’m convinced that a software keyboard is unworkable, that the BB is better for business/power users, etc.)

Now after I get the phone home, in most cases, I’m going to continue to believe this, unless something terribly disappoints me about the experience. So long as it reasonably conforms to my expectations of it — and I’m not likely to have many continued opportunities to continue to compare and contrast devices — I will believe and proclaim to others that this is true. When I use the phone, I will think, “there’s so much I can do with this device.” I’ll think, “this is the most advanced phone ever invented.” (If I bought the Blackberry and like it, I’ll think, “this keyboard is amazing.)

Advertising in the postmodern age pursues the creation of needs, not merely the fulfillment of them. And those needs must continue to operate through the life of the device before they can be met by them. Otherwise, you’ll feel hosed. And you’ll tell your friends.

To be sure, advertising enchants the object, and that glamor clings to the thing, shedding sparks as it wends its way through your life. And there’s a very enticing business model in the notion of starting an advertising shop that generates ready-to-wear stories for commodities (Jane McGonigal’s done this sort of thing, in a way; it can be beautiful on a sheer creative level). But if you offer a story in exchange for an item—and even (and maybe especially) if the haberdasher or grocer or bike mechanic you’ve exchanged with then uses the story to promote her product to others—you’re in a different space altogether. Maybe Bronze Age economics—craftspeople trading goods & services for like value.

Tim Carmody says…

No, story for goods is completely different. But that’s Robin’s individual transaction. Everyone else who reads Robin’s story and buys a pair of pants because of it, or folks who buy a Significant Object, is participating in a kind of advertising. It might be a really cool, socially significant kind of advertising. (Ads can be art.) But the distinctions are of degree rather than kind.

Tim Carmody says…

I mean, think about Mauss’s conclusion to The Gift. The lesson of gift economies is that beyond 1) satisfaction of bare needs, 2) the equivalence of exchange, and 3) the social benefits of a division of labor, exchange in general, and symbolic exchange in particular, builds social bonds. Thinking about gift economies might help us bring a sense of mutual social obligation back to the employer/employee relationship, and that this social obligation can provide a third-way alternative to stark free-market capitalism and full-bore socialism.

And maybe there’s some truth to it. Ideologically, most of us have kind of bought into it; beyond statutory ties like health care, family and medical leave, and unemployment insurance, employers and employees have an ethical relationship to each other that transcends the sheer exchange of goods, a loyalty that binds the two of them together so long as that ethical relationship is preserved. The employee ideally doesn’t just work for a wage, but finds fulfillment in work, and works altruistically to benefit his employer; the employer cares for the employee and his future beyond simply paying a wage, continuing his education and professional development to benefit his employee.

This is arguably similar. Yes, the stories are advertising, and its intent is to sell the product. But they create value beyond the equivalence of the exchange, a value that is above all social, a bond both to the seller, the sold, and an absent past.

Heirlooms also do this; so do garage sales. It’s why someone would spend $250K for Cormac McCarthy’s worn-out typewriter. But we have to grant that it’s also why the copy in a Restoration Hardware catalog is so appealing. A table made from reclaimed wood beams from a French monastery? Sold!

A closed black box.

It inherently sucks everything to it through a strange combinations of magnetisims. It is two inherent mysteries in one object – it is black, which is of course nothing; and it is a box, a closed box, and we all want to know what’s in the box.

It is also unfortunately evil, being both black and a box, which is very unfair. I think the black box became a scapegoat for the white box, which is out there attacking old ladies and causing global warming.

Like oranges, above, there is a sound attributed to a black box.

Grrrr.

Grrrr.

Grrrr.

A sound which really doesn’t assist playing down claims that it is evil.

Personally, I adore the black box. I am magnetised to it.

****

I keep a daily 1000+ word offbeat fiction short blog at http://jamesbent.com/blog.

Regards,

James Bent

love the idea of a story about the very space you’re in. you’re right, that’s the real idea here, and it’s awesome. more than just a novel set in paris but set in the very room of the very hotel you’re in. maybe even a guide book in disguise. stories change the environments they’re in and are changed by them in return.

on a slightly extreme tangent here but what about a story that interacts with the very object it’s shadowing? so say, for instance, i’m a furniture maker and i sell you a table. and on its surface is written the beginning of a story about that table, maybe about the things kept on it or where the wood came from or about the room it’s in. and as the owner you get to finish writing that table’s story on it, perhaps jump to its chairs or the floor it’s on. or perhaps it’s a dress or a shoe or a yoga mat. am reminded of miranda july’s “the thing” project that does this to an extent. it’s like the back-of-pack copy on your shampoo bottle times a hundred. it’s advertising and art and literature and decoration all at the same time…

Tim, you’re right about the subsequent transactions—the story, traded for goods, has become an ad. But I still think that touches the system as a whole—in degree, as you say, and not in kind. But in worthwhile degree. It’s not a utopian promise, only sort of ferally ameliorative (the ugliest combination of words for 2009!).

It’s the black balloons that worry me. Nothing shakes me to the roots like the sight of a black balloon. Except maybe the sight of a white one.

Let me just be clear – I’m not trying to denigrate Significant Objects or Robin’s Bonobos deal, but trying to elevate and evaluate advertising. Advertising DOES add value beyond the purchase, and at its best, it’s not merely instrumental, but operates on our mythic consciousness, existing somewhere on a continuum with film and literature.

So, what we can do in this rarefied market is to drift even closer to that mythic/literary pole, capitalizing on that possibility for consumers, writers, and businesses for whom the instrumental/informative poles of advertising have lost their charms.

What’s more — unlike painting or architecture or music, we never really had a pop art revolution in literature. This is what I think Kenny Goldsmith argues for in his advocacy of “uncreative writing” — this could be another way to get there. Not detatched and fame-driven like Warhol, but bespoke, humanist, local, as befits our times.

Jacob O says…

Really fascinating idea! In my understanding, the story becomes an instant myth that, just like other myths, gives us hints about how to act in relation to the world; I do this myself all the time, finding inspiration by how people relate to each other and the world around them in fiction and adopting similar viewpoints in my life. The story becomes a user’s guide, written in a more accessible form (“this is how these spaces have been used by others, this is how they’ve met here, this is what they made of this place”, although noone has been living there before).

If we do consider these texts advertising, I think that they can add to regular advertising by inviting audiences that are not part of the target audience. While regular advertising uses the established understanding of the target audience to evoke certain emotions and, most of all, make them open their pockets, the ability of written stories to place you inside the head of someone that does not necessarily think or value the same way you do makes it possible for them to place someone outside the target audience in the mind of someone who would be part of it. Ok, that wouldn’t always be efficient marketing, but I’d like to see it happen, life is too boring when you just buy on values that you already know that you embrace.

…and when thinking about it, written stories could be one of the best tools available to communicate completely new products to people. If I buy an apartment in a development with an ambition beyond the purely physical and aesthetical (well, perhaps that doesn’t happen very often but again, I wish it did 🙂 ), with ambitions that stretch into the remaking of how people relate with neighbors, for example, I’d need *stories*, not photos and soundbites, to understand if I want to fit into that context.

I guess my impression is that while traditional advertising can be good at communicating that a product fits into stories that you already know (such as stories of fitness (Nike, for example), social responsibility (Bodyshop, I guess) and so on), written stories can more powerfully communicate entirely new sets of values and ways of living, and how the products in question can fit into that life. In a world where values have diverged to create numerous evolving subcultures, I believe that short-story advertising has a much better chance at participating in the ongoing conversations in which these subcultures redefine themselves than traditional advertising.

Jacob: Awesome comment! Mostly just wanted to say “thanks”—but also, I really like this phrase/idea in particular: “The story becomes a user’s guide.” Seems like there’s a lot you could do with that.

Tim Carmody says…

Reminds me of Georges Perec’s famous (and marvelous) novel Life: A User’s Manual. (The French title, La vie mode d’emploi, is even better.)

Somewhere along the road in this discussion the premise of the short story changed.
I think it’s important to consider exactly what the purpose of the story; no the nature of the story is. If the story is a product in itself, for people to read and enjoy more because of the familiarity of its setting, this is very different than adding a story to add value to a purchased product. At least in my mind there’s a big difference.

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