The Literary Origins of North West

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter is barely a week old, and little North “Nori” West is already a household name. Yet despite endless commentary about the unconventional moniker, the literary origins of North West have yet to be revealed.

The obvious association is Hitchcock’s beloved film, North By Northwest, but this title is actually derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” Hamlet muses to Guildenstern. In modern English, the troubled Prince of Denmark thinks he’s one fry short of a Happy Meal when the breeze blows north or north-west.

Is Kimye aware of the literary connotation of their baby name? Probably not, or they wouldn’t have associated their daughter with mommy issues and madness as fickle as the wind. The unique name, and its surprising Shakespearean association, bring up a fascinating question about the cultural legacy a baby inherits solely based on its name.

Certain names are forever tainted by their literary heritage. Jezebel couldn’t shake its association with the shameless wife of Ahab — until, perhaps, the feminist blog came along and reappropriated the name. Both Romeo and Lothario are inextricably linked to passionate seducers, one sincere, the other unscrupulous. Names derived from strong women in Shakespeare’s plays like Miranda and Portia are fairly common, but Ophelias are rare (Unless they’ve all gotten themselves to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.) Then there’s Lolita, a name practically synonymous with a sexually advanced, nymph-like young woman (So why don’t we call pathetic old guys infatuated with younger women Humbert Humberts? Just wondering.)

If some names are tainted, then others are forever blessed by their bookish
background. Is it any surprise that literary names like Phineas (A Separate Peace) and Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) have taken off in recent years? Who doesn’t want to bestow upon their child a Pavlovian response from strangers who automatically find their child attractive, wise, honest or dignified because of a book they read in ninth grade? And would an ironic little hipster like Ebenezer be the equivalent of naming a child Miser or Greed? (There actually are 70 people named Greed, according to the Census). I won’t even ask about Quasimotos. Somewhere in Brooklyn, there may be one being born right now.

Interestingly, for girls the names of precocious and whimsical yet feminine characters like Matilda, Madeline, and Alice have become perennial favorites — but not their feistier and more assertive literary sisters, Pippi and Eloise. I guess most parents don’t want daughters sliding down banisters and rejecting basic social norms. It’s no wonder the names of strong women in literature — Tolstoy’s Natasha, Morrison’s Sula, Larsson’s Lisbeth — carry a certain lyricism, fierceness, and sensuality that make them both intriguing and dangerous. Often these characters come to be known more closely than the hefty volumes they inhabit.

Then there are names whose connotations are transformed along with the popularity of a particular book. My generation knows Hermione from Harry Potter, but those prior knew her from The Winter’s Tale (J.K. Rowling probably knew what she was doing, naming a precocious young sorcerer after a Shakespearean character magically “resurrected” after being dead for 16 years.)

Which brings up another trait of literary naming: the cannonical tip of the hat. Claire Messud’s dollhouse-crafting Nora in The Woman Upstairs is clearly piggybacking on Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In doing so, Messud invokes the magic of her literary ancestors and creates depth of character before the book even begins. On that note, could any writer name a character Holden or Nathan without readers thinking the author was referencing Caulfield or Zuckerman?

Perhaps names in the titles of books — especially those from childhood — have the most lasting influence over how these names are perceived. Harriets must always wear glasses and are probably undercover agents; Annes are plucky and face difficult obstacles in faraway places like Green Gables and Amsterdam. Sheilas, well, they’re just great.

There’s the rare situation where the overwhelming popularity of a name can all but erase its literary connotations. The influx of Emmas (it was the second most popular baby name in U.S. for girls in 2012) has totally diminished its relevance to Ms. Bovary and Ms. Woodhouse in my mind. The first time I read The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter Jessica threw me for a loop. I thought her name simply didn’t have enough gravitas for Shakespeare, since it is one I associate with popular blonds and B-list actresses.

Some names are just plain obvious in their symbolism. Name a character Adam if you want him to be an everyman. Marys and Maggies are innocent and likely to get devoured in sci-fi or deflowered in literary fiction. Katherines, and now Katniss, are heroine types. Just as certain names in literature connote good and others evil, the concept is fairly often seen off the page too. The suggestion that Tamerlan, a common name in the Caucuses, be retired after the Boston Bombings was a culturally tone-deaf suggestion, but it spoke to the type of personal biases that many of us have with names. I admit to initially feeling slightly prejudged against guys with the same name as certain ex-boyfriends, and when I first started dating my current boyfriend, Lenny, the only other Lenny I knew was the protagonist in Super Sad True Love Story. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was setting myself up for heartbreak (We’re doing just fine, thanks.).

North West is what’s being called a concept name. Will it spawn a generation of Word Smiths and Harry Pitts? Putting Green? Old MacDonald? Cupcake Baker anyone? Names might carry the baggage of their literary predecessors, but what about a phrase? Little North’s legacy will likely be shaped by so many other factors, and to suggest a child’s destiny is exclusively shaped by his or her name is bunk. My prediction is that North West will be a force of nature. After all, wasn’t it the Bard who said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?

The Lively and Maybe Lost Art of the Literary Reading

1.
Call it a sign of the times.

To compensate for dwindling sales, some bookstores are apparently starting to charge for readings. Though payment may seem antithetical to the open and accessible spirit of an event marking a book’s publication, the news should come as no surprise. Bookstores are in danger of extinction, and it only makes sense that if a writer’s habitat is in danger, readings will also struggle to survive.

Yet the shift goes beyond the economic changes precipitated by e-books and extends to the realm of author branding. Modern writers are advised to blog about their process, tweet the banal details of their lives and self-promote via book trailers. Lacking an online presence is bookselling suicide, but creating an online identity also lets authors broadcast a voice vastly different from the one that resonates on the printed (or e-reader) page. If I can “meet” an author online, why bother to go to a reading in the first place? It’s not like I can get my Kindle signed.

It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall. And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text? Considering that packaging and promotion are just as much part and parcel with being writer as creating content, why shouldn’t an author’s public appearances be monetized? Writers have increasingly become products in and of themselves while getting paid less and less for their literary artifacts.

The underlying problem with charging for readings isn’t the cost (though even a few bucks will deter the cash-strapped) but that the very notion of payment turns readings into something they are not: artistic commodities. Authors are not performers; their readings are not meant to be entertaining in a splashy musical sort of way. Readings exist to promote and sell books, but they also serve a more important function: they provide space for writers and readers to directly communicate and transmit ideas, taking the solitary slow drip of the reading process and infusing it directly into the bloodstream.

However, an economic transaction implies a different sort of exchange between writer and reader. Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned? Will they pass out cookies and break into song? Charging for readings problematically conflates books with how said books are marketed and presented, meaning that writers will feel pressure to cater to their (paying) audiences. We all want to get what we pay for, right?

2.
Ever since my very first communication from an author — a purple form letter from Judy Blume — I’ve felt the need to connect with them. Exactly why I felt moved to write Blume I’m no longer sure, but I think it had something to do with Sally J. Freedman, Margaret and Blubber. How could a total stranger create characters that seemed to channel my most private feelings? After many years and countless books I no longer feel that authors are writing expressly for my validation, but the yearning to connect with those who intimately understand the landscape of my inner world hasn’t ceased.

A live reading is a crapshoot, but that’s the point. There’s always the possibility that a writer I revere will turn out to be stilted, less interesting in person than on the page, or just a total jerk. But I don’t really care. I want to know how writers who echo my experiences intone each sentence. I want to discover whether or not the cadence of their voices confirms the meaning of the text in my mind. In short, I want to know who they are, and that’s different from knowing their marketing plan.

Distinguishing between a writer and her brand becomes a challenge when Internet exposure reduces complex people to rough sketches. I like being intrigued by writers, and I like discovering them rather than being told how to think about their work. Tao Lin is one who knows how to remain elusive even while maintaining a strong online presence. When I went to hear Lin read, he mumbled his way through a short excerpt and made no eye contact. He spoke in a tumbling monotone that fit the terseness of his prose, and offered laconic responses to questions. The reserved demeanor stood in sharp contrast to his strong online presence. At the end, he drew a smiley face with feet in my copy of Richard Yates. I was in love, for a second.

I’m especially curious to hear writers with an unconventional prose voice read. When I went to hear Aimee Bender read from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the story felt like an extension of herself, as though she was recalling something from a psychedelic childhood rather than reading from a book. I spoke with her afterwards, and she mentioned that when her first book came out, someone asked her what her reading persona would be. “I felt nauseous,” she told me. “It feels disingenuous. What works best is what suits you,” she explained, acknowledging the pressure to brand oneself.

One of my all-time favorite readings was at Chicago’s Book Cellar, where five writers and critics paid homage to David Foster Wallace and The Pale King by reading their favorite selections from the late author’s body of work. A palpable intensity filled the room as the readers summoned Wallace’s voice through his text. I felt most connected to Wallace through Adam Levin, who seemed like he might be fun to grab a beer with, if I actually drank beer.

Yet I knew part of what made it special was that Wallace wasn’t there. Think Salinger, think Bolaño: their absence — online and in the flesh— makes them all the more captivating. It’s precisely the lack of accessibility that makes readers hunger for their work — and their presence.

I’m not quite sure what happens to writers — and readings — when social media self-promotion becomes not just a distraction, but part of the job description. What I do know is that being perpetually plugged in runs counter to the very nature of writing. I admire those who can disconnect and burrow inside long enough to untangle a thread of human experience with which to spin a story. It’s hard but satisfying, and that’s why I get annoyed with myself when I opt for the instant gratification of Facebook (or sometimes the refrigerator) over a sustained writing session.

I worry that having to pay for readings will make writers’ online personas more valuable than the content of their work. I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy readings, and still believe in their importance: I want to see writers without a filter and know they are flawed and imperfect, and that they struggle to get words out too — yet still carry on. Perhaps in an age of e-readers, we’ve forgotten that tired cliché about not judging a book by its cover.

(Image: Podium in the screening room from spine’s photostream)