Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over should be read for many reasons, and one of them is a prediction that marketing and similar activities are going to grow in importance over time. At first I thought the claim was bullshit: shouldn’t the Internet make substance win over style? In many ways it does, but I keep seeing evidence that supports Cowen’s point. The latest example: a few years ago I became interested in photography. Thom Hogan wrote an essay called “What’s Your Biggest Problem?“, in which he says something compatible with Average is Over:
I’d say that the biggest problem I find that most photographers have is a really fundamental one: what is it they’re taking a photo of? And why?
Ironically, pros didn’t use to have this problem. If you were working for a client, generally they were directing you towards what you were taking a photograph of and why. Back in the film days just mastering the technique of getting proper exposure and focus and all the rest was generally enough to set you apart. These days of ubiquitous and cheap stock photography and digital cameras with instant feedback on the basics, for a pro to stand out they need something more than the basics: generally a recognizable and unique style.
Indeed, that is one of the two primary problems pros have these days. Problem 1: standing out amongst all the good imagery that exists, much of it near “free”. Problem 2: marketing yourself so that people know your work. Unfortunately, solving #2 means that you have to be highly visible, which makes more people attempt to copy you, which eventually increases problem #1. Pros have to keep moving, keep reinventing themselves, and above all be great marketers and salespeople.
Machines (cameras, in this case) are getting so good that even relatively unskilled photographers (like me) can take pretty good shots most of the time, and marketing distinguishes a lot of the pros from uncompensated amateurs who share their work online.
A lot of high-skill / low-income photographers disdain Terry Richardson for “boring” shots, blown-out highlights, and other technical flaws, and they say that they could do what he does (there is also probably more than a little jealousy animating those attacks, since Richardson appears to lead a very active, varied sex life). But Richardson has something important almost no one else does: people know his name and to a lesser extent his work. Not many photographers have strangers who know their name, let alone have strong opinions about their work. Whatever his flaws may be, Richardson has what people commenting on the Internet don’t.
There are probably more very good photos being taken today than ever before, and, as I wrote here, I’m a small but real contributor. Writing is still the main focus of my life but I still manage to get some decent shots; like anything touched by computers and Moore’s Law cameras are getting better all the time. I shoot with an Olympus E-M5 that originally retailed for about $1,200 and now goes for half that used.* The E-M5 is better in many respects than most of the professional cameras that cost many thousands of dollars in 2006, and in a year or two it’ll be cheaper still.
At the same time tools like Adobe Lightroom are also making pictures easier to enhance (or “save”) through simple parameter adjustments. Most people who learn about photography learn to shoot in their camera’s raw file format, which gives much greater latitude in processing. It’s possible to get a very professional look by changing a few parameters.
So what’s going to separate the pros? Marketing. Money in what’s called “stock” photography has already basically disappeared, and journalistic photographers have seen their ranks dwindle along with newspaper subscriptions. This guy took professional-caliber shots for his friend’s website. What’s left is finding a way to make people think you’re better than the race-to-the-bottom, even if some people still think some heavily marketed / known photographers are the bottom.
* The people in charge of camera naming and marketing are complete idiots: most cameras are named with a baffling array of impossible-to-remember letters and numbers, and only obsessive nerds like me take the time to figure out what they mean. The only camera with some mainstream name recognition is the Canon Rebel line; while the name is nonsensical—what exactly is one rebelling from?—it is at least memorable.
The Innocent is deceptively brilliant: for at least the first half of the novel it seems slight, thrillerish without the thrills, about a weakling and pushed-around fool. In the second half it explodes. The character violations that would normally damn the book instead make sense yet aren’t anticipated in advance, at least by me; much of the story is shockingly tense in ways that shouldn’t be. McEwan is very good at delayed resolution and gratification in a way most literary writers aren’t.
There are many essays to be written about The Innocent’s subtleties: about secrets, about sexuality, about the role of the unexpected, about fear, about pride, about loss, about the collision between fantasy and reality, about the instability of personality and its unpredictable development.
Firework sentences—the ones with elaborate metaphors or epiphanies or rhetoric—are relatively few, but almost all of them hum along and even the mundane sentences like “Maria reached for her skirt and blouse” are often given menace by their context. “Relatively few” does not mean none and some of the obvious ones stand out: “Leonard Marnham [. . . ] had never actually met an American to talk to, but he had studied them in depth at his local Odeon.” An Odeon is a great way to study foreign cultures, of course, a sort of science lab for the soul. Of Maria’s parents, she thinks or explains that “They still resented their daughter for the marriage she had made at twenty against their wishes, and took no satisfaction in the fulfillment of all their worst predictions.” Most of us find our prophecies wrong of failed.
Leonard is the innocent of the title, who discovers emotion at the behest of a woman. He is beset by apparently important work that conflicts with an inner life newly freed from his parents and the constraints of home, and after he meets Maria he thinks that “He knew that if only he had a little more leisure and were a little less tired he could be obsessed, he could be a man in love.” As if he plays a role: he could be “a man in love,” instead of more directly saying that he loves Maria. He needs that mediating, cultural desire to feel his own at this early stage of his development. As the novel proceeds things naturally change.
Without giving anything I’ll also note that the novel uses McEwan’s characteristic end-stage “zoom” effect, in which decades elapse in the final pages. Such a change is disconcerting, disconsoling—yet appropriate. It is brutal but in an acceptable way, or maybe just melancholy.
* Particle Fever is surprisingly and pleasantly tense, even for me, who knew the “outcome” in advance. There is more at stake in this movie than most thrillers about murders and bombs, etc.
* The axing of the SSC is one of the great political and technological travesties of our time and almost no one appreciates it. Relatedly, financial questions are among the dumbest and most common that can be asked of basic science projects, perhaps because asking intelligent questions requires knowledge.
* No one wears suits and Particle Fever could be an ad for Apple, since almost every physicist uses Mac laptops and iMacs peek from desks (Steve Jobs would be proud). In the larger society almost everyone has access to the same machines but what people choose to do with them differs greatly. One could even say there is a story not about income inequality but about intellectual inequality there, and if I were a certain kind of writer I would launch myself from that topic into a screed.
* What matters more than knowing stuff? And who is working on something really important?
* It is not easy to make documentaries that go beyond “this happened, then this happened,” which may be why most people don’t care much for them.
* That humanity can build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is itself amazing and more amazing than most monuments. Same with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). There may be a great documentary at ITER too.
* There are many status hierarchies to be climbed and the most commonly climbed ones may not be the best. Which one are you climbing? If you don’t know that’s not a good sign and someone else has probably determined the answer for you, without your consent.
How to Sell works, or at least the first half does while the second descends to melodrama. It’s a novel of surfaces and not an easily quotable book. The narrator notices but doesn’t do up the descriptions:
I should have known that as soon as the pitch started Jim believed the lines he was throwing me. It’s like being an actor or prime minister, you get all worked up with the audience and you think can can say nothing false or unbelievable.
One could say many professions involve lying as a central component of the work; one could say that science does the opposite and is one of the only fields in which lying, while possible, is at least also discoverable. In How to Sell the narrator and his brother, Jim, work the jewelry business in a pre-Internet age, though I’m not sure how much the Internet has changed that business.
How to Sell starts with an Elmore Leonard-esque word slide: “Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother’s black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old.” He “told it?” To who, when, how? It doesn’t matter since we don’t find it, but it and that weird “scarcely” tell us that the narrator isn’t quite level and maybe the story won’t be either.
It isn’t, not really, and much of the discussion revolves around who is lying (everyone) and who isn’t (no one, not really, including the narrator). Yet a lot of people want to be lied to and put themselves in a position to be lied to and then others do the lying and justify it, as Jim explains:
Look, Bobby, the appraisal is not a lab report. [. . .] We are not calculators, we are people and so are our customers.
W’re people and we want to be lied to. The people who want the truth take the time to learn how jewelry works and the rest take the bullshit the salesman tells them. But information has a cost and so in some circumstances it’s easier to just do it without paying attention to the niggling gaps between details; a lot of romantic relationships function on the same principles as selling jewelry, as the novel makes clear since it is about how the one activity is a metaphor for another. Jewelry is a potent metaphor here because it’s also unnecessary: no one dies because they can’t wear it. As a pure luxury item it is sold as glamor, and one element of glamor is a lie plausible or well-presented enough to be believed.
No one in this book should be married or in a monogamous relationship, yet many characters are and their dilemmas would go away if they could undergo that simple change. But they can’t, or won’t.
Characters are constantly giving bad advice. One, a man named Kizakov, says “In this business, always trust your eyes.” Except that eyes can be deceived, which is why humans build so many tools to augment what we can see. Our senses should be verified rather than trusted; in this way do they also resemble lovers? In that domain broken promises may not be the norm but the evolutionary and other pressures are so strong that everyone at least knows stories about crumbling and breakage and base metals.
Jim gives brotherly advice: “Sometimes it’s better to stay on the surface with somebody.” People who say that often mean, “Stay on the surface with me.” Jim is a man of surfaces more than most people, and when he stays “on the surface” he means that he’ll do what he wants, when he wants it, and you’re only “in” with him to the extent you can do something for him. For men that means selling and for women that not surprisingly means something else.
The owner of the store, Mr. Popper, has a post-modernist view of the truth, as when he says that “It don’t really matter [what's real and what's fake], so long as she’s done right.” The similarities to love are again obvious; the bad outcome for Mr. Popper is also not surprising.
A few other points: Clancy knows enough about the jewelry business to describe it or learned enough about the jewelry business to fake it. There is substance amid the love lines and too many novels forget that. The second half of the novel is less about the technical facets of the jewelry business and that’s part of why it is weaker.
* There is more in common with selling jewelry and religion than is commonly supposed.
* To some extent no one knows anyone and that fact continues to drive fiction.
“the rapid exit of the highly quality-conscious customers [. . .] is tied to the availability of better-quality substitutes at higher prices” (51). That’s from Albert Hirschman’s brilliant Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.
In other words, those with the best alternative options, even if the “price” of such options are high, tend to leave declining situations first. That’s essentially what is happening in academia: the people who can get real jobs leave and the ones who can’t stay and put up with geographical mobility and other problems. The result is plain to many grad students and smart, aware undergrads.