In 2018 I had recurring fantasies of deleting my Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Slack accounts. (Not Tumblr, because their new content policy basically did the job for me.) This wouldn’t be a personal conflict of interest except that I’m the social media editor of the site you’re currently reading, and completely disavowing the most basic terms of my own employment would be, as internet parlance so disdainfully puts it, Not A Good Look. So instead I sublimated my professional death drive in reading. Even without intending to, I found myself gravitating toward books about people who dared to leave it all behind.
My Absolute Darling came out in 2017 but I didn’t get to it until this year. It’s sere and visceral and made me want to move to the Pacific Northwest, so beautiful were its descriptions of the natural world out there. The novel is a cautionary tale about retreating from contemporary society, but it also shows what we lose by living within our current, constantly Linked-In bonds. In March I picked up We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed, which is the best book I’ve ever read about the Tour de France. That’s not actually saying much, so let me instead say that every one of its words felt so carefully chosen and necessary, and I really couldn’t put it down once I started. Its protagonist has to decide whether to compromise his spirit or walk away from a lifelong dream, and the fallout of his choice hit me with the force of a peloton.
I knew things had gotten bad when it felt like actual apocalypse would be an acceptable tradeoff for all social networks finally collapsing. That’s the premise of Nick Clark Windo’s novel The Feed, which I enjoyed despite a plot twist halfway through that might throw some readers off. I couldn’t finish The Middleman, which came out in August, because the idea that 400 Americans would suddenly abandon their lives to join a leftist splinter movement read like one of Alex Jones’s Antifa fantasies. It went back to the library.
I read two great books whose main characters make dropping out feel futile and noble at the same time. Apex Hides the Hurt is an old favorite, and it was fun to revisit pre-Pulitzer Colson Whitehead in all his spiky, anti-social glory. Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State is vital and true and stylish, and its forward momentum hypnotized me. If you haven’t yet just GO OUT AND BUY THE BOOK ALREADY. (Truly this recommendation comes without bias, although I should also tell you that her stewardship of The Millions has kept my own faith in the project of literature alive at times when it too seemed maybe worth deserting.) Both novels capture the extent to which we have become what one of Kiesling’s characters blithely calls Casualties of Capital!, and yet also how complicit in its logic.
I loved How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, whose narrator is more than 400 years old, so his observations put today’s mediated noise into half a millennium’s perspective. As to whether it’s always been thus or we’re living in a truly different era, noise-wise, the book doesn’t conclusively say. Instead it does what the best novels always have, posing questions. In fact, Haig wrote my favorite passage in any book this year, and it’s almost completely interrogative:
Just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? … If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?
The most literal interpretation of my internet escape fantasies is a book I’m still reading. I picked up Jaron Lanier’s latest manifesto, the directly titled Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, after reading Hannah Gersen’s interview the author here, and am still making my way through a pretty damning indictment of what it calls BUMMERS, or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into Empires for Rent.” It’s confirming my suspicions that most of the services we use as internet infrastructure are garbage; we’ll see if I actually have the courage to hit Delete when I get to the end.
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It could almost be a writing workshop prompt: tell a story, do it in six words, go for the wow effect — and that’s exactly what the Ritz-Carlton wants. Recently, the hotel company launched a campaign inviting social media friends and followers to provide six-word stories about their Ritz-Carlton experiences with the hashtag #RCMemories. The company calls these stories “Six Word Wows,” and the campaign, if one were to believe the corporate website’s press release tagline, is “Paying Homage To Classic Ernest Hemingway Line.” “Which classic Hemingway line?” we might ask. “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them”? No, Ritz-Carlton is referring to the probably apocryphal anecdote that when bet he couldn’t write a story in six words, Hemingway replied, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Although the stripped-down prose of #RCMemories might be seen as loosely inspired by the Hemingway legend, the nonfiction specifications have more in common, perhaps, with SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs®, which became so popular that they were released as a series of books in conjunction with Harper Perennial. Six-Word Memoirs® have included micro-narratives such as “Waves lapping. Pages turning. Perfect day,” “Be silly often, and invite friends,” and “I am my neighbor’s weird neighbor.” Someone cynical might note that Six-Word Memoirs®is a registered trademark. “Six word wows,” on the other hand, is all the Ritz-Carlton’s own.
To model the ideal #RCMemories, the company has released eight “Six Word Wows.” They’ve included: “Dinner ‘til dawn. Laughter. Years regained,” “First tooth. Fairy knocks. Girl delighted,” and “Sold out. Last seat. Dreams transpire.” These bytes suggest that accommodations are not just a bed and shelter but Tweetable—an enviable narrative arc in a storied life. Not only that but Ritz-Carlton suggests that by providing a personal narrative gratis for the benefit of a company that netted $626 million in 2013 — after paying to stay at one of their properties, of course — is honoring literary genius.
The conflation of the artist-rebel and consumer is not an entirely new problem. In the mid-nineties, Thomas Frank described a new type of capitalist: One raised knowing that conformity, at least conformity embodied by 1950s suburban life, wasn’t cool. Rock ‘n roll was cool. Beat poetry — cool. Dionysian gratification, diversity, not affecting seriousness, and getting away from what seems like boring homogeneity — cool. The result? The Culture Trust: a corporate America that deploys the sensibilities of counterculture for profit. Its branding offers the reassuring image of nonconformity and heterodoxy that helps the Establishment materialism go down easy and is typified by the logic whereby a company makes Henry Rollins a spokesperson for his purported punk individualism. “The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy,” Frank wrote. “Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism… We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock ‘n roll rebels.” The ads tell us that buying stuff is spinning away from the buttoned up commuter home lifestyle and indulging our individual anarcho-hedonistist.
Today, the very jargon of advertising gestures toward this ethos. Ad firms offer “creative solutions.” Their online efforts are focused on “social storytelling.” “Brand ambassadors” lead promotions. This vocabulary reframes advertising as artistic and creative, which on some level, it is. The problem is one of dishonesty by omission: Advertising has become more creative and progressive, but its primary object is still capital gain.
The Six Word Wow campaign takes the Culture Trust and raises it a couple of copywriters’ salaries. Where once the Ritz-Carlton LLC was satisfied with its customers merely feeling their consumption to be rebellious, now it asks for user-generated content to supplement their $10-15 million-a-year worth of advertisements. In other words, it asks its customers to first pay for hotel rooms and then advertise them without any compensation. And it’s all done with a playful call to arms, not unlike the announcement for a flash fiction contest — except the prize is always won by the corporation, not the writer, or in more modern terms, the content provider.
Of course, Ritz-Carlton is not alone in adopting a user-generated content strategy. Last year, when Belkin and Lego collaborated on an iPhone case, customers were invited to share phone selfies with the hashtag #legoxbelkin. Burberry’s Art of the Trench campaign asked for trench coat photos to be uploaded to a Tumblr. In Culture Trust 2.0, we’re all Don Draper, and we’re all susceptible to his slick salesmanship. Our complicity via ad content generation allows us to believe that our consumerism is a new, better consumerism; we aren’t bragging about the stuff we bought as much as sharing our stories with the online global community.
Some might protest that user-generated content campaigns are simply a new iteration of word-of-mouth recommendations. We’ve always asked our friends advice. We’ve preferred a reliable consumer report to a fast-talking sales guy. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Ipsos Media CT and the Social Media Advertising Consortium, Millennials trust user-generated content 50 percent more than advertisements, primarily because they find it more “authentic.” The question is: What happens when user-generated content and advertisements amount to essentially the same thing? Furthermore, what happens when the purportedly authentic UGC ad is sought by asking for stories inspired by an unverified story about a fiction writer’s classified ad-styled narrative? Perhaps, like Saatchi & Saatchi’s Team One, the brains behind the Six Word Wow campaign, the best place to turn for answers is fiction.
Toward the beginning of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 tome The Corrections, there’s a scene in which Chip Lambert, a young professor at an elite Connecticut college, shows his critical theory class a series of videos from an ad campaign. In the videos, an enviably brassy, chatty group of women working in an office discover that one of the gang, Chelsea, has a lump in her breast about which she’s too frightened to see a doctor. Her boss, a woman of compassionate technological savvy, has news for Chelsea: She can use the W—Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0 to research cancer, join support groups, and find medical care. It’s all very emotional, not least of all because after Chelsea dies, women around the world look at images of dead Chelsea on their personal Global Desktops before the video cuts to a message urging viewers to “Help us Fight for the Cure” and explaining that W has given more than $10 million to the American Cancer Society. After the viewing, one student praises the bravery of the ad for allowing its protagonist to die, but Chip expects “someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously ‘revolutionary’ plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad.” The class does not take Chip’s bald baiting. Instead his favorite student says of the ad, “It’s celebrating women in the workplace… It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology.” And of course, in a sense, she’s right. The ad doesn’t serve only one purpose, and that one of those is to promote a brand does not negate the company’s charitable donation. Like many texts, the W—Corporation’s commercial is complicated, and the author’s aims may be manifold.
It is exactly this advertising “author” that Colson Whitehead zeroes in on in Apex Hides the Hurt, a novel in which the sixth most popular bandage manufacturer in America hires slick consultants to increase sales. On the advice of one consultant, the brand’s new strategy becomes selling bandages in a range of hues, unlike their competitors that offer only a single “flesh” tone. After all, as he says, “You manufacture this thing and call it flesh. It belongs to another race. I have different ideas about what flesh color is… We come in many colors. And we want to see ourselves when we look down at ourselves, our arms and legs.” The brand is renamed Apex and soon ads showing white, black, and Asian mothers sticking Apex bandages matched to white, black, and Asian children appear on television. Apex begins selling well. As the nomenclature consultant who conceives of the name Apex recalls later, “The packages spoke for themselves. The people chose themselves and in that way perhaps he had named a mirror… In the advertising, multicultural children skinned knees, revealing blood beneath, the commonality of wound, they were all brothers now, and multicultural bandages were affixed to red boo-boos. United in polychromatic harmony, in injury, with our individual differences respected, eventually all healed beneath Apex.”
Whitehead’s bouncy prose is flush with satire: The bandages do not create a society in which it’s understood that the similarities of the soul belie differences in skin color. Throughout the novel, Apex bandages will fail to heal a minor toe injury incurred by the brand-namer—who, notably, is nameless himself—yet he does, ostensibly, believe his own observation that the image of multiculturalism at work in the ads is beautiful. Apex may fail the very man who has marketed the product, but the product also does, to a degree, rectify a sin of homogeneity. What Whitehead captures is the way that advertisements act as limited utopian fictions, reflecting the fantasies of the target demographic. Seeing—and therefore being reminded of—the values signified in a commercial may not be such a bad thing when so often the real world fails to live up to these ideals. Even the authors of these ads are enchanted by their own fairy tales.
Yet at a time when 89 percent of adults ages 18-29 use social networking sites, perhaps the most relevant example of advertising in fiction arrives via Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Set in the near future, the novel depicts a world in which its characters are never without their electronic devices, personal and financial information is (often humiliatingly) public, and men and women are Mediastuds and Mediawhores. Books are rare, but ads coyly branded as social media “hints” are not. When users log in to send messages, the Super Sad Facebook equivalent GlobalTeens posts these “hints,” such as “Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!!!” and “Harvard Fashion School studies show excessive typing makes wrists large and unattractive. Be a GlobalTeen forever — switch to images today!” Language itself has been perverted so that its chief use is to keep the Mediastuds and Mediawhores of the world vapid consumers — proud of their electronic savvy and low on emotional savvy. Most insidiously, the desire to connect digitally is exactly what exposes GlobalTeens users to ads meant to silence them. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t. The characters of Super Sad True Love Story still air their frustrations through GlobalTeens messages and stream their love letters. The need to be heard cannot be quashed by the machinations of social media advertising. A writing workshop might carefully call them unsuccessful texts.
Perhaps what draws Franzen, Whitehead, and Shteyngart to address advertising in their fiction is its kinship as a type of text. The difference, of course, is that ads can be consumed in seconds, and the author company is the text’s distributor. The text doesn’t need to be chosen by the reader. Yet in each novel, the limitations of authorial intent loom over advertising; advertisements are never purely exploitative vehicles toward consumerism. Copywriters may intend a particular effect, but it is the reader who interprets it. Filtered through the complexity of the human mind, the ads may generate a multiplicity of meaning, and we readers must ask for what advertorial texts we’ll suspend our disbelief.
One reason the Six Word Wows have been effective is that in some sense, the Ritz-Carlton has called for patrons to take some authorial role. Ed French, chief sales and marketing officer of the Ritz-Carlton, provided a statement for the #RCMemories campaign press release: “The Six Word Wows are yet another way for us to celebrate the special memories that guests take away from a visit to our hotels all over the world.” The company has said, don’t kill your darlings; make them for us to share. Like the characters of Super Sad True Love Story, those who choose to provide #RCMemories do want to celebrate their travels by re-narrating them on social media. They want to be asked how their trip was; they want the singularity of their experiences to be acknowledged. And like many writers, they want to believe that with just a few words, they can convey the romance of a moment. “Look!” they say. “Lots of people go on vacation, lots of people sleep at hotels, but I am narrator of my extraordinary life.” And we do all live extraordinary lives. So perhaps the problem isn’t that brand campaigns are exploiting users for content. Perhaps the problem is that we can’t buy an audience, and in the absence of empathetic ears, our default narrative mode is the fiction of advertising.
#RCMemories does not really pay homage to Hemingway, and it’s certainly not art for art’s sake, but like any writing exercise, the Six Word Wows provide a formal frame to display the unwieldy sprawl of human experience. What’s important is that we remember Hemingway’s advice to, “Write the truest sentence you know.” In that spirit, here’s a Six Word Wow: Our stories. Their profit. Share wisely.
Image via vitroids/Flickr
Very clever of The Morning News to do this whole bracket competition with their Tournament of Books, because here I am writing about it again. I can’t help myself, especially with the palpable frisson of being tied for first. In all seriousness, though, I’ve greatly enjoyed both the write ups by the various judges and the attendant banter by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Today’s installment, pitting Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day against Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon was, as judged by Anthony Doerr, particularly entertaining. The whole exercise has served as reminder, especially in light of recent controversies, that engaging with books in this fun and perhaps silly way can be just as worthwhile as “serious” criticism, especially if one counts among his goals getting more people to read more good books.Regardless of the merits of TMN’s endeavors, though, I am in it to win this thing, and I remain tied with the formidable Condalmo. I fear, however, that I may be peaking early in this contest. The “zombie round” may yet give me new life, but as it stands now, my two finalists, Apex Hides the Hurt and The Echo Maker, are out of the competition.