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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Receiving a Brand
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steepholm
Two friends' posts from the last 24 hours intersect in my mind. First, there's papersky's fascinating Wiscon speech on the ways in which authors create characters that readers care about (or writers manipulate readers into caring about). I've nothing to say here about its central subject, but towards the end she mentions how the members of a Trollope list divided sharply on the desirability of footnotes. Do notes add depth to our reading - or at least useful handholds for tyros - or are they a distraction from the immersive experience of fiction?

Then, another friend mentions in a locked post a disagreement about the use of brand names in fiction. When Ian Fleming scatters his books with desirable makes of car, types of drink, etc. he may be a) providing an aspirational roadmap for some of his readers, and also b) evoking a world through an economical shorthand that doesn't unduly hold up the action - but the negative aspect is that the shorthand can become (especially in less skilled, shall we say more Jeffrey Archer-ish hands) a shortcircuit, or at least a cheap off-the-shelf substitute for genuine observational and expressive skill. As if one could become sophisticated merely by driving an Aston Martin!

These things coincide in that it is the brand-name-heavy authors who will (if they are lucky enough to last) need most help from footnotes. Brands come and go and when they've gone they will need to be explained. Even ones with staying power may significantly change their connotations. In one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues, "A Chip in the Sugar", Bennett's character talks of a man who's "been had up for exposing himself in Sainsbury's doorway. As Mother said, 'Tesco, you could understand it.'" In 1987, when that programme was broadcast, the difference in social standing between Sainsbury's and Tesco was noticably greater - and Mother's remark has the minutely-sifted snobbery you'd expect from Bennett. Today I don't think the line works as well, because the two supermarkets are much more comparable. Substitute Waitrose for Sainsbury's, or Asda for Tesco, and you can recapture the effect to an extent - but it's only an approximation. You can never set foot in the same retail sector twice.

That example makes me wonder how much help footnotes would actually be, but undoubtedly when Talking Heads is studied in 2313 it will be some use to understand in broad terms what kind of establishments Sainsbury's and Tesco were. I've seen this (from the other side, as it were) with A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. For years, I taught city comedies by Middleton and Jonson alongside Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare needed notes, he needed a different kind of note. With Shakespeare you might have to gloss hawks and handsaws, but Middleton was likely to refer to a particular tavern, or a street with a certain reputation, or a piece of topical news - things that were sure to strike a chord with his audience (Londoners who had come to see a play about smarter and wittier versions of themselves) but that render him more opaque today. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside had immediacy, no doubt - whether we complain that it was cheaply won or whether we applaud Middleton for having his finger on the pulse - but that's precisely what limited the time that it could be read and understood without reference to notes. We may become very familiar with the notes, and be confident that we have "got" the joke, and laugh, but there will be a certain deflationary aspect to it, as there is to any joke that has to be explained.

Shakespeare, as far as we know, never wrote a play set in contemporary England. Some have suggested that this was because he wanted to steer clear of controversy - but perhaps he was trying to future-proof his work against just this kind of textual sclerosis? He was profoundly sensitive to the depredations of time and the possibilities of defying them through literature, if we can believe the sonnets. Maybe he saw, consciously or otherwise, that setting his plays in unbranded fantasy lands like Venice and Verona would give them a better chance of survival?
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