Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stieg Larsson, Verisimilitude, and Billy's Pan Pizzas

I know that many of you are reading Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" series of novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The discussions about these books are endless. Some people are unhappy with the sex. Other people are happy about the sex, except for rape. Some say the characterization of this or that character is poor, or hollow. (That fits Bloomqvist. Maybe it's because Bloomqvist is Larsson?) Some say the police couldn't be that bumbling, or that Neidermann couldn't be that strong and Paulo Roberto wouldn't have shown up out of nowhere the way he did.

No matter how you feel about these or other issues, you probably enjoyed the books. They're great entertainment. I've yet to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, but I liked the first two--particularly the realistic nature of the family background,* the screwups in the system, and the human greed and manipulation that put Salander where she was--in the position of ward of the state over whom a warped individual had absolute power. (And didn't we enjoy Lisbeth Salander getting her own back?)

But--oh, the product name-dropping! Larsson waved brand names in front of the reader to the point where it disrupted the reading. IKEA, Macintosh, 7-Eleven stores, MSIE, Billy's Pan Pizza--products of all sorts are firmly branded, over and over. In the typical popular novel, a character fires up her unnamed laptop when she needs to do a little hacking. It might be singled out as a Mac if the author is enthusiastic about Macs, but just once. She might pick up frozen pizzas at the minimart, or occasionally at a King Kwik. A motorcycle might be distinguished as a Kawasaki, and a car as a Camry, to help give the reader a picture. But when every market is a 7-Eleven and every snack is a Billy's Pan Pizza, and so many brand names are overemphasized by repetition, it wears on the reader.

At least, it wore on me to the point where I went looking to see whether Billy's Pan Pizza--which Bloomqvist and Salander seemed to live on--was a made-up product. It is real. I posted an image of the packaged product above. The maker is Gunnar Dafgård AB, and they crank out 80,000 rectangular pizzas a day. And then I went back to reading the novel.

Was Larsson paid for these mentions? Unlikely. And it's unlikely that he was such a huge Apple 7-Eleven Billy's fan-boy that he couldn't pass up the opportunity to mention any of his favorites. ( 7-Eleven really that ubiquitous in Sweden? I know there are more than 36,000 7-Elevens around the world, but here in the U.S. I trade at a number of mini-marts that aren't 7-Eleven. Has 7-Eleven totally trampled its competition in Sweden?)

I think it's more likely that Stieg Larson subscribed to the verisimilitude school of fiction writing, which maintains that if you use brand names, your stories will be more believable. But, going back to the 1940s and 1950s, there was a school that felt that using specific product names left one open to some sort of defamation risk, or constituted a kind of unfair endorsement--or free advertising. (There's a tradition in newspapers that frowns on that--more about it in another posting.) Hence, authors would write Yamahonda or Tartus rather than Yamaha or Taurus. Even far-future tales disguised brand names, as Robert A. Heinlein did in The Man Who Sold the Moon, with Moka-Coka instead of Coca-Cola, and 6+ rather than 7UP.

So, was Larsson of the opinion that naming names a better story makes? Or could it be that his journalism background imprinted him with the habit of identifying specific brands?

Did he overdo it, or is it just me? Obviously, it wasn't fatal to sales, but...

Eva Gabrielsson, if you read this, let me know.

* I have a family like that.
Copyright © Michael A. Banks, 2010

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Be Suspicious of Facts

Remember the 8-track stereo cartridge? 8-track (and 4-track) stereo cartridges and players were really hot consumer items throughout most of the 1960s. For the first time, you could listen to the music you wanted--without commercials, and without changing and scratching records. (In-car record players were hopelessly vulnerable to potholes.) Once you put the tape in, all you had to do was listen. A typical tape offered an entire album's worth of songs on an endless loop of quarter-inch tape. If you wanted to skip a song, you could move among program channels or just drive your way to the next tune (the Sixties' version of fast-forward).

The cartridge was eventually eased out of the picture by the cassette tape, but not before it made its mark on popular culture, and the music and automotive industries. The history of this technology is part of a project I have in the works--and a fascinating history it is, involving a surprising range of people and events. (And, no: Bill Lear didn't invent the technology.)

As I tracked the development of the stereo cartridge, I was reminded of how easy it is to change history without trying. All you have to do is not check facts. Go with the first source you consult, or the story that offers the most entertainment value. It's easier, takes less time, and most of your readers won't know the difference. (And if you don't check your facts, you won't know that you're repeating the mistakes of those whose work you copy.)

This fast-track research seems to be very popular among those who write popular histories. I observed it when I was researching Crosley and Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons, the Woman Who Created Talk TV. Not to mention dozens of other subjects. And I'm seeing it now, as I research the evolution of the stereo tape cartridge. In the hands of short-cutting researchers, televisions morph into radios. Events that took place in 1940 flash forward to 1956. Toledo becomes Cleveland.

How do such transformations happen?

Consider the Toledo/Cleveland switch. The cities should be difficult to confuse: they're on opposite sides of Ohio, and Cleveland's the place where the river caught fire. But one can imagine an academic or freelance writer seated at her desk some time in the 1990s, surrounded by references, and jumping between notes and manuscript on the computer screen. The book she's writing includes passing mention of an engineer from Ohio named George Eash. (Eash came up with the first practical endless-loop audio tape cartridge--the template for radio station as well as auto stereo carts.) She remembers the name but can't remember the city. "Okay. He was from Ohio...but which city?"

She can't put her hands on the source immediately. Maybe she's up against a deadline. So she ponders for a moment more, hoping for a reliable memory. It was only last week that she'd read about Eash, after all...

"Cincinnati? No--nobody is from Cincinnati." Then she writes "Cleveland," because she's never been to Ohio but Cleveland pops right up because--well, because it's a name in the media. There's the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. And Drew Carey. Strong associations, those. "Yeah. If I remember it, it must be Cleveland. It's a big town. And it sounds good."

Three years later someone researching the same subject comes across her book. "Oh--he was from Cleveland! That saves me some digging." He doesn't bother checking other sources; the book he's reading is from a university press, and surely they must check all the facts--right? So he puts this "fact" into his notes and into his book. Several more writers duplicate and reinforce the error in books and magazines.

Oops! Before long, flawed memory becomes fact.

Nine years later I come along and take a quick look through their books and articles. As always, I'm checking multiple sources, and their info doesn't jibe with what I've seen elsewhere. "Cleveland?" I ask myself. "That doesn't seem right." I double-check my own notes and find that Eash told magazine and newspaper interviewers in the 1950s that he was from Toledo. Eash holds some patents and--by golly!--his residence is listed as Toledo in the patent records.

Now, maybe swapping Cleveland for Toledo isn't such a big deal. But it could be--especially if someone needs to know more about Eash and his activities. And there's the general point of Getting It Right. Isn't that what historians and journalists are supposed to do?

It is. But too many don't get it right for lack of checking a second (or third) source. Repeated often enough, erroneous information becomes historical fact--something "everybody knows" to be true. Like Henry Ford inventing the automobile or Powel Crosley inventing the FAX machine, neither of which is true.

Be suspicious of your sources. Even if you find two that agree, look for a third that doesn't. If you can't find a contrary source, you're probably okay--but if you find one, it's time for a real fact-finding expedition.