Because It’s Relatable
I don’t like jargon. I don’t like jargon because—although it masquerades as a linguistic shortcut for harried professionals or the answer to some cutting-edge verbal need—mostly, it’s just bullshit. It obfuscates or evades or it supplants a perfectly good word with one that’s blurry or distasteful or unnecessary. Indeed, while Webster’s definition number two for the term is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group,” definition number one includes “confused unintelligible language” and “a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect,” and the third sense of the word pretty much sums up my own abhorrence: “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.” As I say, I don’t like it, and every time I hear someone use a business buzzword, I die a little inside.
One of the dangers of jargon is that the people who use it often come to believe in it—that is, they think that jargon conveys real meaning and, indeed, that everybody talks like they do. I will go further to suggest that some members of the sales and marketing professions actually begin to think in jargon, which is sad and frightening.
I bring this up now because of certain statements Miss Lindsay Lohan recently made to the L.A. Times. To whit:
“I always want to be perceived as normal and wholesome, because it’s relatable,” she says. “I hope people think I’m wholesome.”
To anyone interested in the social life of jargon, this interview excerpt presents a kind of perfect storm, a spectacular collision of reality as its understood by a “pop culture brand” and, well, real reality. Savvy individuals that we are, most of us know what Miss Lohan means when she says “it’s relatable”—basically, she means “it’s something people can relate to.” I have not been able to pinpoint the precise moment when “relatable” entered the corporate vocabulary (the OED cites a use of the word as early as 1825, but the meaning is different), but it’s easy to see its appeal: “relate to” sounds kind of lame, like something a therapist in a beard and a brown turtleneck might say while he’s “rapping” with one of his clients. “Relatable,” on the other hand, sounds hip and new and action-packed. But, unfortunately for Lindsay, that’s precisely the problem with using “relatable” in an interview. If she were to say that audiences can “relate to” the girl next door, so being that girl is part of her job as an actress, she would be making a fairly innocuous comment about her profession. “Relatable,” though, is all about delivering a product to consumers.
This episode is grand and horrible—and fucking hilarious—because poor little Lindsay ends up saying precisely the opposite of what she is, presumably, trying to say. Rather than offer up some examples of her humble wholesomeness—she spent the weekend baking cookies with her grandma, she trains helper monkeys, she plans to take a break from movies for awhile and concentrate on reading aloud to orphans—Miss Lohan basically says, “I know I have a reputation for being a crazy ho and possibly a coke fiend, but my P.R. people have told me that Herbie is going to tank unless parents believe I’m family-friendly. Thus, I have been instructed to tell all interviewers that I am ‘normal’ and ‘wholesome’”—behavior which is, of course, anything but “normal” and “wholesome.”
Did her publicist not know that Miss Lohan needed an actual script, as opposed to a guiding philosophy, before her interview? Or, is the publicist so used to thinking in jargon herself that she failed to instruct her charge in the difference between speaking jibberish and actually communicating? That, we’ll never know, but I think we all know how the poor little commodity feels: Screwing up an interview with the L.A. Times is totally relatable.
[L.A. TIMES QUOTATION VIA DEFAMER.]
“That's a pretty wild accusation coming from a giant leprechaun with gerbil wings.” Seth Sonderling interviews Tammi Littlenut
Bon vivant, man about town, elite Scorpio: My friend Seth is all these things—all these things and much, much more. He’s also a columnist over at the Used Wigs, and it’s in that capacity that he recently interviewed Maria Thayer, the actress who portrays Tammi Littlenut of Strangers with Candy, on screens both small and big. This is a must-read for SWC fans, folks with a redhead fetish, and anyone who enjoys eavesdropping on two clever conversationalists.
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Guest Columnist: Stephanie Lehmann on The Art of Undressing
Stephanie Lehmann doesn’t just write chick lit: She also teaches it. In both pursuits, she strives to keep the fledgling genre vital and—dare we say it?—relevant. The heroine of her first novel, Thoughts While Having Sex, is a young playwright learning to live with the fact of her sister’s death. Are You in the Mood? concerns the adventures of a flailing actress who discovers—a bit too late—that marriage, motherhood, and the Upper East Side are perhaps not for her. Both these books feature romance, comedy, and girly artifacts—the signatures of chick lit—but they also confront real issues with honesty and clear-sighted compassion.
Lehmann’s new novel, The Art of Undressing, is a very contemporary coming-of-age story, one that addresses the very particular—and occasionally quite comic—hurdles to self-realization faced by the daughters of hot moms. You can read an excerpt from The Art of Undressing at Lehmann’s website, and the author introduces her novel right here.
What’s the Daughter of a Stripper to Do?
I wrote The Art of Undressing because I wanted to explore what it might be like when a mother is less inhibited, more sexually free than her daughter. I thought it might resonate, considering that there’s so much pressure on women to be sexy these days as old taboos are falling away. After all, Jenna Jameson is respected as a business woman as much as porn star, g-strings are marketed to teenage girls, and we can all see Howard Stern interviewing topless hookers during primetime. So, I started imagining two characters: Ginger is a hardworking, practical, aspiring pastry chef in her 20s. She has modesty issues. Her mom, Coco, is a free spirited ex-stripper in her 40s who teaches classes on striptease and hosts sex-toy parties. What would it be like to grow up with that? And how do you keep your boyfriend from lusting over your mom? I thought that this situation was full of both dramatic and comic possibilities.
I was also interested in exploring how Ginger would come in to her own. After all, every daughter must at some point rebel against her mother. Ginger can see that being conservative and repressed is no fun, but what’s the daughter of a stripper to do—become a nun? It sort of reminds me of when Madonna became famous. I wanted to hate her for being so free and successful and sexy and aggressive, but then I realized it was much more fun to just enjoy her.
Coco and Ginger have their problems, but they’re really very close. Ginger tries to understand her mom without judging, even though Coco’s lack of boundaries can be threatening and bit scary—which makes understanding a challenge. Actually, I think they have a very sweet relationship, especially after Ginger decides to learn from her mother rather than resist her. When I started it, The Art of Undressing was about the situation—a bashful, insecure woman with a sexually extroverted mom—but it ended up being a story about any mother and daughter learning to love and accept each other. It was also a lot of fun to write—the research was particularly enjoyable—and I hope it’s fun to read.
Archival Interview: A.S. Byatt
A.S. Byatt uses fiction to describe the life of the mind. Taken together, her novels amount to a survey of modern and postmodern intellectual disciplines, and Possession is, of course, a masterpiece of intellectual inquiry and lyrical invention. Her short works, however, reveal a more playful storyteller, one who enjoys a hint of magic. Little Black Book of Stories—just out in paperback—is a lovely collection of wised-up fairy tales.
In 2001, when The Biographer’s Tale—a sly synthesis of her academic expertise and classically romantic inclinations—had just been published, I got the chance to talk to Byatt. She’s one of my very favorite authors, and this interview remains a career highlight.
Paperback Interview: Lev Grossman on Codex
During its inexplicably long run on the bestsellers list, The Da Vinci Code has garnered a lot of comparisons to The Name of the Rose. I read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it in an infuriating sort of way, which is to say that I could not stop reading it even though I wanted to very much. Dan Brown has clearly mastered the particular alchemy of the page-turner, but any novel that revolves around a Harvard “symbologist” is obviously complete bullshit. It has little of substance in common with the impossibly, playfully learned concoctions of Professor Eco. Codex, on the other hand, is a book that deserves all the accolades—and none of the reprobation—piled upon Brown’s breakthrough hit. It’s a wonderfully absorbing literary mystery—reminiscent of A.S. Byatt’s Possession—and, unlike The Name of the Rose, it won’t make you feel like an idiot or weep because you seem to have forgotten all the Latin you ever knew.
Lev Grossman is a very fine author. Not only did he craft a fast-paced, thoughtful thriller, but he also created a strange and fascinating story-within-a-story. The eponymous book at the center of this novel is a masterpiece of medievalism. Talking to Grossman was an absolute pleasure—we chatted about Chaucer, Tetris, and the dangers of reading. This interview remains one of my favorites.
Paperback Interview: Plum Sykes on Bergdorf Blondes
A friend of mine was very eager to get her hands on Bergdorf Blondes. I managed to get an extra galley so that we could both read it at the same time. She called me up when she was finished and said, “Jessica, it’s like I went to the bulk-foods store and got myself a giant bag of candy. I ate some, and it was good. Then I ate some more and felt kind of sick. I wanted to stop eating it, but I just kept sticking my hand back in the bag and eating candy until I was ready to puke.”
I said, “I know! That is totally what it’s like!”
She could tell by the enthusiastic tone of my voice that I had misconstrued her metaphor: “Uh, Jessica, I didn’t mean that as a compliment.”
Look, I know that almost nobody besides me liked this book—or wrote about liking it, anyway. I also know that some interviewers found Plum Sykes to be a bit off-putting. Myself, I found her generous and charming when I talked to her, and, as someone who reads books for a living, I feel that I have a clear understanding of just how irredeemably shitty books can be.
Bergdorf Blondes is not perfect. Sykes, bless her heart, is not a born novelist, and her book would have benefited mightily from a vigorous editorial scrubbing. Nevertheless, the novel is often entertaining—sometimes very—and it features that rarest of rare birds in chick lit: a heroine with no body-image problems. Golly, that was refreshing. This giddy, goofy little roman à clef is also blessedly free of any wishy-washy self-help crap, which cannot be said of 99.9% of “women’s fiction.” Indeed, that’s why I praised Bergdorf Blondes when I wrote about it for Bitch. If you skipped it hardcover and need something silly to stick in your beach bag, you may wish to consider the highly portable paperback edition of Bergdorf Blondes.
“He’s all crushed out, obvs.”
What a sweet little story.
[CELEBRITY PHOTO BY UNCLE GRAMBO OF WHATEVS.ORG]
James Joyce and the Nature of Collage
BLOGGER’S NOTE I’ve taken my chem final and my Spanish exam. I think I did all right on both. I just handed in my James Joyce term paper—entitled “Stephen’s Vampire and the Ghost of Mrs Dedalus: Revenants in Ulysses”—and I am ready for a nap. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with on of the many Joycean meditations I composed this past semester.
How does collage work? I’m pondering this question because of Wolfgang Iser’s very helpful suggestion [in “Patterns of Communication in Joyce’s Ulysses”] that Joyce uses a kind of verbal cut-and-paste in Ulysses. It’s true that one generally thinks of collage as a visual technique, but the real Dubliners and snippets of newspaper stories Joyce inserts in his text are really no different from the advertising images appropriated by Hannah Höch or the comic strips détourned by the Situationist International.
Iser argues that, in most realist novels, verifiable details support the (implicit) stylistic claim of authenticity—they help create a world that the reader recognizes—but, in Ulysses, “realistic” details are decontextualized—they refer only to themselves, and they “revoke the normal assumption that a novel represents a given reality”.
This idea—which I find inspired and inspiring—seems to negate the purpose of a lot of Joyce scholarship, the kind that is concerned with tracking down each and every butcher, milliner, and casual acquaintance mentioned in Joyce’s work. Myself, I haven’t found the encyclopedic references to the Dublin phonebook (or whatever the equivalent would have been) all that enlightening, just as my feelings about L.H.O.O.Q. would probably not be changed were someone to discover the newsstand where Marcel Duchamp bought his Mona Lisa postcard. Indeed, this approach seems a little obsessive-compulsive to me, and maybe a little desperatre—as if Ulysses can be fixed, as if its single, true, objective meaning will be revealed as soon as the precise location of Stephen Dedalus’s dentist’s office is identified. Iser argues that following such leads is a dead-end. I can understand how it might be fun and occasionally even interesting, but I’m inclined to agree with Iser.
So, collage. Nebeneinander. What happens when an image or a word is removed from a familiar context and placed in a strange, new one? Does it acquire new meaning or meaninglessness? If the former, does the new meaning contain vestiges of the old one? With some collage—and I would include Joyce’s use of real Dublin places and personages—the content of the appropriated material doesn’t matter so much as its form. Here he seems allied with other modernists—even postmodernists—in his willingness to use ostensibly worthless artifacts in the service of art, a move which offers an implicit critique of existing modes of art and art production. Joyce’s literary quotations and references seem like a different kind of collage, one in which old material retains its old meaning and acquires new ones, and this differs from a more straightforward kind of allusion, one in which existing literary material is cited without irony.
I think I’m wandering into the woods now, and it’s almost time for class, so I close with these words from Raoul Hausmann, which may or may not be relevant—I can’t tell anymore:
Seeing is a social process—we banalize things through visual allegory which takes from them their multiplicity of meaning… Our perception appears to be blind to the background, the space between things—and it is precisely this that the photomonteur lets us perceive and recognize. He creates his photomontage out of the insignificant inbetween-parts and uses the unperceived optics.
“Cosmetic Chemistry: A Brief Historical Survey”
BLOGGER’S NOTE It’s finals week at CMU, and I am busy studying for exams and working on my James Joyce term paper. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with excerpts from my education. Today’s offering is a passage from my Chem 101 project.
Egyptians were not unique in using lead as a cosmetic ingredient. Ancient Greek women used lead-based face paints, and similar products were used to create the lustrous white complexion seen in portraits from 16th-century England. It’s not altogether clear what the chemical compositions of these cosmetics were, but powdered cerussite (lead carbonate, PbCO3) is one suggestion—certainly there was a product called "ceruse" in use at this time—while a cream created when lead is reacted with vinegar (impure dilute acetic acid, C2H4O2) has also been proposed. Many Elizabethan pictures also show hair-loss characteristic of lead poisoning. In fact, court ladies were forced to shave their own foreheads to match the queen’s receding hairline, since the monarch set the fashion. This toxic compound also took a toll on the very face it was meant to beautify: ceruse ate pits into the queen’s complexion, and these blemishes inspired her to slather the mixture on even more thickly—which, of course, only made matters worse. The effects of lead poisoning continued to erode the queen’s beauty to the point that stylish ladies had to blacken their teeth as well as shave their foreheads. Ultimately, Elizabeth banned all mirrors from her palaces.