If I Redesigned Lolita

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Nearly every cover of Lolita has an evocative image of a young girl, or a young girl’s body parts. At first glance this seems natural since Lolita is a book about an evocative young girl. 1

But that’s always bothered me. Not for moral reasons, although I am definitely and obviously against the exploitation and over sexualization of young girls (and girls the age of Lolita are over sexualized in our culture without a realistic grounding of what sexuality is. We set them adrift with pushup bras, bare midriffs and pointed heels while laughable visions of chaste vampires dance in their heads), but none of these images cross the line of inappropriateness. This doesn’t bother me the way, say, Law & Order: SVU bothers me — where they show sexually titillating crime victims while decrying sexual titillation of crime victims.

No, they bother me for two other reasons:

  1. They’re too damn obvious. Talk about going for the simple cliché.
  2. They ignore the irony and message of the text. Nabokov builds his monster Humbert on layers of pious education and self-justification. Lolita is evocative, but the implicit irony is that men like Humbert make her so, and she rises to please them as a substitute father, and so she presents to Humbert in an evocative way, and he is smitten with her and there is your abuse cycle. In other words, that Lolita is sexualized is part of the layers of irony and cultural criticism Nabokov wrote, and to focus on a sexualized cover image is to exploit the text of the story without understanding the subtext. Even worse are the covers that try to moralize by showing a sad Lolita, or a broken Lolita. Those covers miss the point that the book is about Humbert’s desire and love more than about the girl. Lolita is a metaphor, and to overly humanize her and feel pity for her may be part of the reading process, but, I think, is simpering when used for a cover design.

So, in a conversation I had with a friend over about the book, I was struck by this problem with the designs. In wondering what I would do for the cover, I came up with the idea (that I tooted about) that instead of a girl’s lips or eyes or legs, a better cover for an edition of Lolita would be a wood-paneled motel room.

Lolita is about transience. The primary locations are motel rooms, and Humbert is fascinated and repelled with motor America. The initial seduction takes place in a motel room, as does the escape and constant movement to avoid detection. Only when they settle down do things start to go sour.

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So, as a proof-of-concept I designed the above cover. I found the image on Flickr (searching for ‘Motel Postcard’ is pretty entertaining). I wanted a wood paneled room, austere and simple. This showed the prim bed, the simple chair, and the mirror which reflected the sunlight outside. It’s cropped so that it feels confined.

I set it in Goudy Old Style to impart a bit of traditional seriousness, and brought in red and white for their inherited symbolic meanings.

Is this cover successful? I might argue that it’s slightly ironic and better for people who have already read the book then for those who have never heard of it. I also think that it evokes a more accurate picture of the text than a girl’s lips or legs or eyes. Is it commercial? Probably not — and therein lies the rub. People are more apt to pick up a book with a titillating sexualized girl on the cover to feel morally superior to the words about a monster sexualizing a girl. There’s a reason Law & Order: SVU has been on the air ten years running.

UPDATE

A more comprehensive index of covers can be found here.

  1. 0140188223.01._SY190_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpgOnly one of the covers I linked to uses the titillating image but gets it right: the Penguin edition that uses Balthus’ Girl and Cat from 1937 as the cover image. Balthus and Nabokov mined the same metaphor in their art in their different mediums. Balthus’ image is every bit as disturbing as reading about Lolita’s sexual knowledge and aggression, and this understated cover is the best of the lot by far.


Anger Is an Energy

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This morning I spent some time in my writing studio downtown in the Vain building. I left around 9:30 and headed south on First, headphones on, head down under my umbrella in the rain. I crossed the street westbound at Virginia and, looking north up First Avenue, noticed that a bus was approaching, so walked up to wait at the southbound stop between Lenora and Virginia.

As I was crossing the street, I heard some guy yelling. It happens often enough that I wasn’t even listening, but I seem to recall something the effect of “You people are so fucking stupid!”

When I was across the street, I chanced a glance back. Surely he wasn’t talking to me? I thought I saw him standing in front of Tully’s — maybe selling Real Change, although I can’t sure that was him and most of the vendors on that block I know by sight. Whatever. A guy ranting on the street. Mark it, keep an eye on it, but it’s none of my business. Don’t let crazy set its sights on you.

I’m waiting at the stop a minute later when he stomps up First. Eyes locked on me. Keeps six feet between us, but he’s talking.

“People like you!” he said. Or something like it — this whole conversation is from memory, so is only as accurate as the source. He’s pissed off about something. The world has wronged him. Or, so it seems, I have.

He’s small. In his sixties. Has a mid-century workingman look to him. Bulbous nose, like a modest W.C. Fields. It’s red, either from gin blossoms or the cold. He’s got a cap on and he’s holding, what appear to be, Etymotic headphones in one hand, but they may have been in-ear knockoffs, because he certainly doesn’t look the part of the discerning audio consumer. I’ve got a character in one of my stories, a guy named Andy Walk. This guy is Andy Walk come to life.

“You think you’re so wonderful,” Andy says, derision and disgust spiking his tone. I’m taken aback.

“I didn’t do anything to you.” I said, after I realize that his particular brand of crazy has zeroed in on me and isn’t going to pass from ignoring it. No doubt I’m defensive in my tone. I leave my headphones in.

Maybe I did do something. Maybe I brushed past him, or dripped water from my umbrella, or any of the myriad of unknown social ungraces we all might inflict by accident on some poor soul on the street. Maybe he needs an apology, however disproportionate his response. I have no pride in this matter. I’d offer one, especially if the offense came from ignorance on my part.

“You think you’re so great. Let me tell you something, you’re nothing more than a pimple on the face of God!” he said. This man deeply hates me at this moment. Whatever I have done to him, no simple apology would de-escalate it.

“I’m not interested in talking to you,” I said. I calculated walking away from him. My guess was that he would follow, and I wouldn’t have time to make it to the next stop before the bus got there. Best option was to stand my ground and wait.

“Too bad! It’s a free country. I have every right to stand on this sidewalk and talk to you. You have to listen!”

“No,” I said, realizing as I was talking that engaging him in his argument was as foolish as engaging a child in theirs. His real argument was not his words but his tone of anger and outrage. That’s what I should have been addressing, calmly. But I didn’t. “You have every right to stand and talk,” I said, “but I don’t have to listen.”

I turned to the bus as it pulled up to the stop.

“That’s right,” he said. “Run away on the bus.” I believe here he was calling me a pussy. “Maybe I’ll just follow you.”

So I stood aside, and motioned that he should get on the bus first. At which point, I thought, I would walk down the street while he was caged on the moving vehicle. Let me now apologize to the poor commuters on that bus who would have been subject to his rage at being fooled had my plan worked.

But he’s too smart for that ruse. He motioned that no, I should get on the bus first. I turned to him and pointed my now collapsed umbrella “You gonna follow me?”

“You’re threatening me!” he said, suddenly the victim. Come to think of it, I’m sure he thought he was the victim all along. That’s the way these things work, right? We’re the righteous victim in our own heads, nearly every time we feel something negative about somebody else. Maybe, occasionally, it’s even justifiable, that feeling. The doors close, but he stays. He doesn’t follow.

I sat next to a woman on the bus, and my mind spun for a few minutes. I tried to soak it in. I remembered that I needed to stay calm. I needed to not engage. I needed to remember that the only way to avoid crazy is to walk away (which, is essentially what I did by getting on the bus) or never let get in its line-of-sight to begin with (unavoidable this time).

Somewhere up First Avenue is Andy Walk. We’ll see if he recognizes me the next time I pass him.

UPDATE

Just over a month after this incident, I saw Andy Walk again this morning. He was selling Real Change on the corner. I walked past him, looked at him. Was that him? Yes, yes, it was. No doubt about it.

He was younger than I remember, late 40s or mid 50s. All smiles. I decided that he wouldn’t remember me, and I wanted to test that theory under the idea that I acted in a very reactionary way when we last met since I wasn’t expecting him. This time, if he got angry I might be able to get to the bottom of what it was that triggered his reproach in a calm way, however rational or irrational his reasoning may be. Maybe a truce could be negotiated.

So I withdrew a dollar, approached and bought a copy of the paper. He smiled the whole time. Looked me in the eye. Shook my hand and told me two jokes. Wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. I did the same and walked off feeling more that whatever transpired that day last month probably had very little to do with me.

Or maybe it did, but the flare of anger that was triggered is now long gone and forgotten. Whatever the case, I’ll continue to buy the paper from him when I see him. If I have a preference in the matter, it would be that his memory of me is that of a customer, rather than that jerk on that rainy day who triggered an anger so deep that it took crossing the street and confronting me to assuage it.

Besides, I’ve since written one of my characters telling another that he is nothing more than a pimple on the face of god. I figure buying the paper from him is paying commission on the line. In that perspective, the whole thing was totally worth it.

There is No Debate. One Space After A Period Unless Typesetting in A Monospace Font.

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I came across a post on a random blog that sparked me to write the following comment. Cross-posted there as well.

There is a well known trait in psychology that says that the ignorant are not aware of their ignorance. Usually, you can feel sorry for them, but when they actually start proclaiming their ignorance is truth and/or debatable (and anybody who can’t think of three examples from the daily headlines is probably just that ignorant), then one feels pushed into the role of offering the truth like you might offer a vegetable to a child. Chances are they won’t like it because the child is more interested in reinforcing their own will than in the actual food. That doesn’t mean the vegetable is any less good for them.

Simply: double spaces after periods are because monospaced typefaces make it difficult to find the ends of sentences when reading. Professional typesetters of the past 100 years (since the standardization and acceptance of an amazing machine called the typewriter), would remove those double spaces when setting the lead type that would print our proud heritage in beautiful typefaces made by artistic souls entrusted with the daunting task of maintaining legibility. With the technology given us by the incredible advances of computation, you — that’s right you — are now your own typesetter.

Here’s the rule: when setting type in a monospaced typeface, such as Courier, use double spaces. Otherwise, use single spaces. If your video-game trained fingers cannot undo their tacky double tapping, modern computation has also offered a tremendous tool called “search and replace.”

There is no argument here. Typesetters and professional typographers have known this forever. Now you are admitted to their club. Please stop spilling your punch on the nice carpet.

Also, broccoli, kale, carrots and peas.

(Photo by Flickr user Lan Bui)

Reflections on the Last Day of my Thirties

They say that March goes out like a lamb, but this year March is a biting lamb with steel wool. Of course, I’m in a building downtown with heat behind glass so the weather is abstract.

I leave my apartment, get on the bus, and ride to within two blocks of work. I travel from contained space to contained space. So different than my grandparents and their grandparents who were connected more to the weather then I. Still, we keep in touch and know when the weather turns nasty it means that problems pop up for those who don’t have the resources to get out of it, and those whom the extremeness afflicts — like Fargo, North Dakota, on the verge of flooding and filled today with snow.

In modernity, weather is a kinetic painting against the frame of our window panes. We like to think about what’s on the other side of the glass. Like the woman I sat next to on a plane, whose husband kept talking about the weather throughout the world. “Oh, he only watches the weather channel,” she explained. “The rest of the news is too upsetting to him.”

And maybe that’s not so bad. Our great-great-grandparents would have looked outside in the morning and dressed for it. Gone and done the chores. Walked to the factory, or taken care of the animals. They would have read the newspaper about the changes in the world, but with the exception of rare massive events, those changes were novelties in their lives.

We think back on those times in order to measure how successful our modern world is, and often feel that we’re lacking so canonize them. But then, look how the life-spans increase, and the disease rates fall. How we’ve cracked the genome and have a finger-hold into astounding universes that can transform us into a twenty-first century life as surely as the violent and radical events one-hundred years ago brought forth the very idea of modernity.

So, in the end, this is a little essay on gratitude. For what we have, and where we are. Tomorrow, we get to pull a few pranks and thanks to this figure the fool, get away with it. Today we can measure those pranks by thinking about our own achievements and foolishness. Then we close out the first quarter, marveling at how quickly this year is spinning by us.

And for me, closing out the quarter means ending another decade. Of the goals I set for myself, I made them. I’ve made new ones for this next neatly grouped set of ten years. In that measure, I call success. In measure of dreams, I’m not quite where I want to be, but if I were wouldn’t that mean that the station is approaching? I’d rather set my travel to further than my pocketbook allows, and only get off when the conductor categorically insists.

For my forties my goals are publishing, writing. Transforming my life into one where my stresses are fewer and my output of words is higher. Of creating a flow where that is possible. During my thirties I honed my craft, and now I need to build the furniture that this craft allows. Maybe this furniture will be remaindered at market, and maybe it will be comfortable and people will like it. Who can say? I only know that I’ve run out of my allotment of metaphors for my thirties, and I don’t want to dip into the quota that starts tomorrow. Until then, I’m concrete. Until then, I’m looking backward. At midnight, I’m all about tomorrow.

Brand New Spitball!

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Mr. Kent M Beeson and I have rebooted the Spitball! franchise at a brand new home with a new design and new domain. Come take a look, if you like people talking about writing.

Rivers of Type

One thing the Kindle iPhone app gets wrong: it justified the type, creating huge gaps in the flow of the text. Do you know any type nerds that would read this?

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With the spacing between words highlighted.

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And with the text removed to just see the inconsistent spacing.

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Computer justified type only looks good to people who like straight edges on their blocks but don’t bother to read the text inside them. Easy fix, Amazon: leave the text ragged-right, or at least give us some better typography preferences.

UPDATE

Looks like the justification is a publisher preference. Glenn Fleishman at TidBITS praises the left justification, but then on the Slog comments he verified that it is an individual preference.

UPDATE 2

Kragen in comments asks:

How would you justify this type by hand?

My full answer is below, but here is the same page that I’ve handled:

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Dropbox for Writers

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For those who write on the computer, two issues are constant:

  1. What’s the latest version of my work?
  2. How can I back up my work so that if my computer crashes, I won’t lose it?

The answer, if you’re computer savvy, could be version control such as Subversion, or Git or Mercurial (which is what I currently use to store my writing). But the barrier to entry with those systems is steep. Probably impenetrable to people unfamiliar with the command line.

Enter Dropbox a fantastic, simple and free-to-use system that is perfect for keeping your writing.

Dropbox creates special folders on your computer — Mac, Windows or Linux — that watch over the files you keep. They look and act exactly like other folders you might have, with the exception of small status icons on the folders and files within them. You simply create your folders in any hierarchy you want, put your files in and then work as normal. When you add a file, it is automatically synced with the Dropbox servers. So, it gives you automatic backup.

But even better: when you open a file in your editor, type or edit your text and then save it, Dropbox silently uploads a version of your file to its servers. You continue working and hit save again, Dropbox does its thing. Always in the background, your work is automatically backed up.

More than that, though, it is keeping versions of every save you make. Did you accidentally delete a paragraph? No problem, go online to their website and grab an older version. Did you accidentally delete a whole file or folder? No problem. Go online and restore.

Need to share a file with a collaborator or group? There’s a public folder, and you can share the URL via email.

And if you work on two computers, Dropbox automatically syncs both of them for you so that your writing is wherever you need it to be.

Best of all, Dropbox is remarkably simple. You don’t have to do anything but work, and it takes care of the rest. You don’t even need to understand how it works, unlike the systems I mentioned above. And if you have under 2gb of files, the service is free. Additional storage is available, a generous 50gb for $99 a year.

Easy, free, and it can save your ass. What could be better? Check out the video on their webpage for more information.

(Photo by Flickr user helveticaneue)

The Ants and the Bee

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I bought two books today at Barnes & Noble downtown in the Pacific Place Mall. This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley, and A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver. I like reading books about writing by writers.

The woman ahead of me in the checkout line was buying the Associated Press Style Guide. I know this not because I saw it, but because the clerk asked, rather loudly, “Oh, do you write for the AP?”

She wasn’t quite so loud in reply, so I didn’t hear her response. Whatever it was, he pressed it. “Are you a reporter? Who do you write for?” She said something about writing an article. He said “Wow! You’re being published in the New York Times! That’s amazing.”

He talked his way through the transaction, so delaying it. Eventually she moved on and I approached, putting my books down.

“A Poetry Handbook?” he said, my ears flapping with his volume. “Who here is a poet?”

I’m guessing he used this phrasing since I was with Christine, and I could be buying the book for her. I ignored him. I pretended to be struggling with the debit card machine. He half-heartedly asked if I was a member, and thankfully didn’t attempt to upsell me.

Then he pressed the issue. “Are you a poet?”

I gave him a look. In the mirror in my mind, it was a quizzical, are-you-stupid look. Did he ask self-help book purchasers if they were lonely? Did he ask Story of O purchasers if they were into S&M?

“That’s an awfully heavy label to put on somebody,” I said.

Here’s where the two philosophies of naming yourself come in. One says “You should call yourself what you are and what you want to be, because the naming helps you become that thing.” The other — the one I subscribe to — says “You are a product of what you do, not what you want to be.” It is all about action, not intention.

When I was a kid my next-door neighbor and his friend put dirt and leaves and a small ant colony in the bottom of a large jar. Then they would catch a bee and watch as the ants took the bee down, swarmed it until dead, and disassembled its body. It only took minutes. Then they’d catch another.

I think of loaded words, like “poet” or “artist” or “writer” as the bee. Full of ego and pollen, bustling around. All of the intention in the world, all of the rights of the privileged. I think of the ants as the work produced. When you produce a lot of poetry, and you work on your craft and your work improves, it’s like the ants in the jar taking down the bee and destroying it. The work is all that’s important, not the label on the person creating it. The work consumes the label, and therefore defines it.

The clerk took in my admittedly snide comment, and ignored it as he picked up the Walter Mosley book.

“Are you going to write your first novel?”

I know what he wanted. He wanted me to know that he was a writer. He worried that I was a better writer than him. He was jealous that I was buying books about writing while he was working. And, he probably sized me up and thought that I didn’t look like a writer. That he was probably a better writer than me. The snideness in his tone told me that much.

And I know because I’ve felt those things. That self-doubt and worry when you meet someone who might be better than you at the thing that you so very much want to be the best at. I am ashamed of those feelings and try to bury them. He was obvious, and it irritated me.

So, I could have tried to craft some snide remark. Part of me wanted to, but then I thought that this man knows nothing about me, and isn’t really curious to. His questions were parries more than queries. They were about him, not me. And really, this whole transaction is about me buying some books and spending time with them to learn what I might. It’s not about a relationship which is going to end in a moment’s time.

“That’s the idea,” I said. I said that yes, I did want a bag. I thanked him, and we went upstairs to watch our movie.

The Walter Mosley book, by the way, is most excellent. I haven’t opened the other yet.

(Photo by Flickr user Hamed Saber)

Spec is Speculative

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So a site pops up that asks artists to compete for assignments and then to rate other artists on the assignments to help the original querier pick the best of the lot.

There is a no question that this is spec work, which is defined as doing any work before you get paid, or before you have an agreement for payment. It’s called spec for speculative, meaning that it’s speculative whether you will gain any return for your efforts. It’s speculative whether your work will get used.

Pixish is spec work. But, we need to ask: is spec work always bad, and is the way that Pixish is using spec work unethical?

Derek Powazek writes:

Big company says to little designer, “make me a logo!” The designer works for days on the logo and hands it over to the company. “No good!” they say, and walk away. Later the designer finds out that the company had been doing that with lots of designers, and they only paid for the one they liked (if any).

The company has all the power. The designers, disconnected from each other and working in the dark, are victimized by the company because they spent time on a design for no pay.

This is not the only situation where spec work comes into play but is presented as such in his article and thus is a somewhat lame straw man. However, Powazek is correct, in my opinion, about spec work only happening in an unequal power relationship. Almost always, it happens with designers or illustrators starting their careers, and acting on the promise of a snake-oil salesmen who tempts them with tales of riches and recommendations if they do the work first.

Tell me if any of these sound familiar:

“I’m not going to pay for any work since I don’t know if I will like what you do.”

“I’ll tell all of my [business partners, friends, famous connections] and bring you tons of work if you do it for me.”

“Think about how many people will see this design and want to hire you because you’re doing it for me.”

“I’m helping you make your portfolio stronger.”

Or, in this case:

Also note that the power relationship has changed. Clients aren’t taking advantage of designers in secret. The publisher is inviting submissions (something that most publications do), but instead of doing it in private, making different deals with different contributors, it’s all out in the open.

Which really only addresses the fears of inexperienced artists. I don’t think established illustrators and photographers would really be that keen about all of their financial negotiations being in the open. Which to me just means that Pixish is an attempt to capitalize on the labor of the naïve.

What irritates me is the implication that this site is solving a problem in the industry. It does no such thing. It solves a problem for Powazek, who clearly states it:

I put out a call for submissions, review them all, choose the best, and make arrangements with each artist individually. I love it, but it’s incredibly time-consuming. I wish there was a way I could put out a call for submissions, empower the community to sort them, and have a more elegant way to choose and reward the best submissions.

Which can be translated as: “Please help me do my job.” That’s a fine thing to ask, but don’t try to play off queries for spec work by claiming it’s not.

Frankly, I was fairly neutral on Pixish until I read Powazek’s article. In its desire to be cute it misses the issue completely. Be honest about what you’re doing and let the market decide if spec work should be re-evaluated for the internet age (my thought? Maybe for photographers since the barrier to entry is now so ridiculously low. The value of good photography is plummeting. Not for illustrators, for whom the barrier to entry not shrinking nearly as fast).

Finally, one of his attempts to toss away his straw man is so ludicrous it needs to be addressed:

Spec work is when you’re asked by a client to do work which may not be paid for upon completion (the “spec” is for “speculative”). That’s a problematic definition, because all contests work this way.

Exactly. Which is why the AIGA website is extraordinarily clear on this point:

Similarly, organizations sometimes initiate contests as a way of developing logos or other identity work. Unlike disciplines in which the designer can bill for implementation of the proposed design (e.g., architecture), in communication design, the submitted solution already represents the bulk of the intellectual work. AIGA encourages organizations to issue a request for proposals from qualified designers.

Illustration “Golden Spoon” by Christine Larsen, ©2008. Used with permission.

Muriel's Quote

Paul over at the Muriel Awards was kind enough to ask me to write about Jonny Greenwood, since he won the Best Music category. Only, after I wrote and submitted the piece I realized that my comment about Greenwood being denied an Oscar nomination was off base, because I misunderstood the reason (He was denied for using his own previously composed works, but I thought he used to high a percentage of other composers works).

Alas, this was all too late to fix when I realized. So, below is my corrected text, for the sake of pride and history.

The opening shot is like a western. You expect to see a lone horse riding around the bend. Instead we have a muscular spider web of glissando strings. It resolves, more or less, to a harmonious chord. And the pick hits the rock and we hear the tang of the hole Daniel Plainview has dug for himself. If I tell you this is no western, friends, you’ll agree.

Those who complain of There Will Be Blood lacking heart should sit and listen to the soundtrack again. The score is melancholy and complex, halting and both slightly antique and completely modern. Only small portions of low mixed guitar might confuse this work with Radiohead. The rest is pure heartbreaking orchestration that illustrates that you really can take the composer out of the band, and the band out of the composer.

But most impressively it burned the turns of the tones in my synapsis like the ghost of an image on the retinas. When I listened away from the visuals, I was surprised by how much of the score I not only remembered, but remembered well. Like you might remember that favorite song you played every day for a month a few years ago. The one that you still love. The score evoked those ghosts of memory, but not necessarily the ghosts of Plainview.

Like Eisenstein’s theory of montage where one uninflected image placed next to a second uninflected image forms a third idea apart from both of them, Greewood’s score stands alone, and then during the movie combines to make something that neither of the visuals or the music could have without the other. Shame that it’s ineligible for an Oscar. It would win in a walk.