Thursday, December 30, 2010

What's wrong with Literal?

I disagree (with qualifications), Diagram.

Writers, directors, and artists of all kinds shy away from the literal. Literal is predictable, it's been done, and it doesn't often give a new perspective to a treatment of, say, a Shakespeare play or a Bob Dylan song. I once told a music man how I envisioned a video for a certain song, and I was immediately reproached: "That's so literal." Well, what's wrong with a little literal once in a while?

By 'literal' I mean the obvious meaning of words or lyrics, the expected (and even hoped for) staging of a play or movie, or an image that might come to mind for a good portion of 'readers' when they first see or hear something. None of these things have the postmodern factor, or even the cool factor -- but that doesn't mean literal interpretations, presentations, and re-presentations can't be effective.

I think artists and writers across many media and genres (and pardon me but my examples today will be from the realm of advertising) have forgotten how to do literal. They have forgotten how a straightforward voice can communicate clearly and quickly, how a solid and expected image can be grounding for the reader, and they have completely forgotten that to be literal does not mean to give up metaphor and all its possibilities. You can be literal and make meanings multiply. You can be literal and be nuanced.

Unfortunately these forgettings have led to the forgetting of how to say anything that means anything -- how to say anything that's even readable. In the following examples, from a sunglass catalog that attempts to create a 'lifestyle' backstory for its products, language becomes more and more abstract, forgets what the product is, and then altogether forgets what was being said in the first place. This is even more unfortunate, or just plain lame I should say, because the products have interesting, mostly concrete names. These could have been used as jumping off points to keep the copy somehow tied to the product. Some of them start out that way, then trail off into oblivion. You'll see. I'll comment on some of this awfulness afterward, and venture a theory that sticking to the literal helps the writer as much as it can help the reader.

Note: The names before the dashes are the product names. The trails of ellipses are really in the copy. Any misused punctuation or apostrophes are there as well.

Clutch -- When you gotta get a grip come through in the clutch! Don't hang on to the past when the future is in your hands..... and on your face. Make it happen while the rest of the world is nappin' and seize the day -- some how, some way.

Kickstand -- Hey you, get on your bike and ride! Better yet, throw down the kickstand and get down to business.... so you can get back to the business of getting down. Ya heard?

Burnout -- Kill the headlights and put it in neutral, pop off the t-top and crank it to 26! The party's just begun... Smokey's on the way and everybody's looking for the burnout.

Modcon -- In this new age of modern convenience, a jet-setting operator can afford only the finest contraptions and contrivances for... their countenance. Make yourself useful in the modcon. The gizmo of choice when it is time to get your gadgets under control.

Checko -- Microphone checko, one, two. What is this? A yes. So fresh. Four lens jam. Sweeter thana frech's in the place to be. so what do you do so naturally? Be down by law. The center of attention and take yourself to the 4th dimension. Wurd!

Telly -- Who loves ya baby? ....For the bold and the beautiful and everyone in between ... No need to channel surf when your [your!?] rockin' this big screen.....So flip on your telly and enjoy your show....

Skitch -- On any sunday you can smell it in the air. Tatse it in the atmosphere and see it in the clear....The skitch is not a beer goggle, but the next best thing to one. We've go the facts to prove it....

Giggles -- Isn't life a blast? It's just like living in the past. So let's go downtown. do some shopping.... get all silly and giggle our way to the land of happily ever after. Ha! Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha ha!....

All right, now that that's over can I just take a breath and say WTF? Can you tell what any of that means? In an attempt to speak some kind of hipster language that only vaguely refers to reality, all meaning (and interest, for me) is lost. I experienced a similar vapidity when I worked in West Hollywood years ago, making internet cartoons. It was like that episode of The Simpsons where the writers (I'm so glad they make fun of cartoon writers) throw out all these ideas from pop culture and say "No but it will be different because it will have this other idea from pop culture tacked onto it!" Okay, these descriptions are not exactly like that but they keep reminding me of West Hollywood cool types and their "ideas."

As I vainly attempted to glean something of the essence of this brand and its products by reading the above nonsense, I came across a very few descriptions that had a ring to them. Not a crystal clear, resonant ring, but a ring that is definitely more sonorous than the other junk on the catalog pages. How did that copywriter get his act together (so sexist of me to think it's a him right?) and write such tight copy after all that rambling? He stuck to the name of the glasses, what they actually look like, and got down and dirty in literal-land. Here are a couple of those readable descriptions:

Nessie -- The search for the legendary Loch Ness monster is over. It turns out the highly sought after creature is a sexy beast after all! ...The elusive Nessie has surfaced from the depths as a dark and mysterious Italian sunglass ready to be worn and adorned....

Debutante -- When it's time to make a not so formal introduction, beautify yourself with the Debutante and be the belle of the ball.... Next to the gown and the white gloves, this eyewear masterpiece will most certainly make a mark (if not a scar) on society....

Panzer -- The VZ army wants you! As a recruit in the Von Zipper war against the sun's evil rays. Your protection is our first concern... Standard operating protocol calls for you to armor up with the Panzer and blitzkrieg your way though enemy lines....

Other sunglasses with readable and almost successful descriptions were Absinthe, Southpaw, Comsat, Bionacle, Gamma, Tastemaker. They all took these names and the associated style of the sunglasses, and used those words and impressions to create a product, rather than some nebulous vignette into a too-cool-for-you-to-understand lifestyle. (Because that's what I think bad writers who happen to be cool are doing -- trying to make us think we don't understand their writing because we're not hip enough to fill in the gaps and get all the references, rather than because they just actually haven't written anything that constitutes a sentence or even a Beat poem.)

There are 40 sunglasses.

30 out of 40 descriptions are mostly unreadable and therefore uncommunicative as evidenced by the examples above, and 4 out of 10 readable descriptions are poorly executed. Only one of the readable descriptions is non-literal. A few of the unreradable descriptions may have been literal -- it's hard to tell when you have no idea what the writer is saying! Based on this sunglass catalog, I think there is something to be said for thinking literally when you approach a topic or subject. At the very least, fledgling writers should try to think literally before they go out on tangled and indecipherable limbs at the tippy-top of the meaning tree. Stay near the ground until your wings have matured!

Although I don't think that I personally need to stay on the ground, I used literal meanings of the names of these sunglasses combined with real knowledge of the art movements and styles they emulate to create what I would call very literal descriptions. I used humor and storytelling too, but didn't stray too far from the inspiration the names and styles had to offer. Maybe that's uncool, but I was writing over a hundred sunglass descriptions. If I hadn't gone literal, they would have all started to sound the same. And if I hadn't gone literal, I wouldn't have learned so much about the things I was writing on. German tanks, Jackie O, rap rhythms...I even researched how clutches work! A literal kind of writing forces you to be knowledgeable about your topic. If you just start spouting hipnesses and things you heard in a movie somewhere, along with vague descriptive words you may or may not be using correctly, you will have no idea what you're talking about and neither will anyone else.

So the literal not only grounds our writing, ensuring it imparts some kind of easily understood message, but it (counter-intuitively, perhaps) gives us infinite possibilities. Just think how many people, places, and things are in the world! Good God, y'all! If you decide to base your descriptive writing on things, you will never run out of examples, hip references, and even great metaphors -- that work even better because they too need to be based on things.

Apart from how easy being literal makes getting a good hold on writing, I'm sure literal has something to offer for film, art, even music videos (do those still exist?). There is nothing wrong with occasionally saying or portraying something without some kind of postmodern ulterior motive, or some cooler-than-thou, "I don't have to commit to any one meaning" language of youthful bad writing. Think of how much satisfaction we get from convention. Without it, all art would be chaos. Just write (act/direct/paint) something as it is, for what it is, and if you have a voice that really adds to the "text" of whatever it is you're writing on, it will come through.

NOTE: I didn't include any of my rewrites of the product descriptions here because I don't want you to Google them and find out who I was working for when I was knocking Von Zipper (which I've done twice now). Suffice it to say that my rewrites are very literal, and I laughed a lot while I was writing them. What I can do here is refer you to a website I don't do work for that has good, mostly literal descriptions of all these same products, a website I turned to for help when I couldn't figure out what the hell the VZ catalog was saying. sells all the VZ sunglasses, and they have some funny and meaningful takes on the shades. They completely ignored the catalog descriptions and I don't blame them.

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