Monday, March 06, 2006

Not Shoes, Manolos

I know there's some debate (don't ask me where, just trust me that there is) about the use of name-brand items in contemporary books. And I extrapolate that to include any vocabulary that would be specific to a certain group of people or time period. So, for example, going on and on about the heroine's fixation on the Spring 2006 line of Manolos would be a no-no, as would referring to the hero's uber-thin cell phone as his Razr.

The argument for using specific brands/names/references is that it grounds the story in reality. It gives readers reference points they may be familiar with to help form images and impressions, and it contributes to the story by being specific. A woman who wears Manolos is quite different than one who shops at Payless. If the heroine stays home to watch the season finale episode of American Idol, many will nod their heads in understanding. And in both examples, there is something about using the words "Manolos", "Payless", and "American Idol" that fleshes things out more fully than the more generic "expensive shoes", "cheap shoes", and "reality TV program".

On the negative end, though, using specific names immediately dates the story. Granted, romance novels have fairly short shelf lives unless they become Classics. Even so, if I pick up a book in five years that goes on and on about Survivor, I'll immediately know that the story is set in the early 2000s. Which then would bring to mind other early-millenium trends that the writer may or may not want to invoke. Kind of like referencing anything that happened in the 1980s making me think of mint green shaker sweaters, mall hair, and stirrup pants.

Too, using specific names requires that the readers have the same familiarity with those brands - and all those brands imply - as the writer and the characters in the story. I, personally, have never owned a pair of Manolos. I do know that they are high end shoes, and I know that characters who wear them spend an exorbitant amount of money on something they walk on which gives them a priority structure slightly different than my own. But I have no way of understanding what might drive a woman to spend a week's pay on a pair of shoes. They must be incredibly comfortable, I'd think. Either way, I can now relate to the character who covets Manolos only to a certain degree, which is not very much.

Reason I bring all this up is because my latest read makes liberal use of modern terminology, dropping names of popular movies, television shows, and entertainers in all aspects of the story. The characters listen to modern music, they watch current DVDs and television programs, and all of these things are named very specifically. It does ground the story in today's reality. Except, some of the music I'm not familiar with, so it holds no meaning for me other than as a generic genre. Kind of the way specifying Mozart versus Beethoven would have no significance beyond the fact that the music is classical as opposed to disco or southern rock to anyone unfamiliar with the differences between the two composers.

The story also employs slang for every day objects, words that I myself don't use. It does this a lot. So much, in fact, that it came to the point where whenever I came across this one particular word, I actually stopped in the story to wonder, exactly, what that item must look like. Until finally, I headed over to the Internet to look it up. After which, I wondered why she just couldn't call it what it was.

So, this writer's use of specifics worked in both good and bad ways. Good - I got a very distinct impression of the people and world the story was set in. Bad - the stuff I didn't know took me out of the story. And I kept thinking that if this book stands the test of time, someday people aren't going to have a clue what some of this stuff is.

If a character calls something by a particular slang word or by a specific brand name, then I'm all for using it. Especially in dialogue or in close third-person perspective. But I'm thinking that when the narrative is a little more distant, perhaps being generic to a certain degree isn't such a bad thing.


meljean brook said...

For me, it depends on the POV of the character, and the purpose of the name dropping. It can annoy me when, instead of description, brand names are used as place many cases, I'd prefer "handmade Italian red pumps" to "Manolo Blahniks", especially if the brand name is all that's given. And putting them together can seem like overkill.

But when the brand name has a purpose -- to give a sense of the POV character's class or personality, then I'm all for it.

Lynn M said...

Exactly. If the name brand or slang word is necessary to get across the character, I think using it is very wise. If a heroine *insists* on calling her handmade Italian red pumps her "Manolos", it tells me something key about her.

But when the writer name drops just to be trendy, I'm not so sure it's a wise choice. I'll be a bit more specific later when I do my review, but when my attention is actually diverted from the story because of word choices, that can't be a good thing, right?

the depressed nurse said...

Ditto to both comments.
Enjoyed reading your blog.