Thursday, October 26, 2006

Interpreting Ian Rankin & Thank You For Smoking

You know that guy who could pick up any girl? I’m him. On crack. - Nick Naylor, Thank You For Smoking

If you haven’t seen the movie it’s a black comedy that opens with a number of guests on a daytime talk show. Someone from a mothers against smoking group, an anti-tobacco activist, a politician’s representative…

Cancer Boy. 15 years old, the picture of sympathy with his bleak prognosis.

And Nick Naylor. Who represents big tobacco. About himself, Nick says in the narrative, I don’t have an MD or law degree. I have a bachelors in kicking ass and taking names.

He starts off on the talk show by asking How would big tobacco profit off of the loss of this young man’s life? We’d be losing a customer. The (insert name of activist here) wants Cancer Boy to die because their budgets go up.

Okay, that’s not the whole spiel, but it’s the kind of thing you have to see. I mean, the crowd is booing and jeering when he’s introduced and by the end, Cancer Boy is shaking Nick Naylor’s hand. Throwing in a remark about big tobacco launching a $50 million campaign to prevent teens from smoking was a nice touch.

Now, you might be wondering, What the hell does this have to do with Ian Rankin and interpretation? What, exactly, have you been smoking Sandra?

I read on Sarah Weinman’s blog about a recent interview with Ian Rankin. I’ll excerpt the quote from the interview that’s the focus here:

“The people writing the most graphic violence today are women," he says when I ask what he thinks of them. "If you turn that off," he looks nervously at my tape recorder, but continues regardless, going public about one of the great unsaids among crime writers, "I will tell you that they are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting."

Now, I’m not going to draw anything else out from the article here. You have the link and through it can go back to the source. But I am going to explain why this made me think about the movie Thank You For Smoking.

The brilliance of the movie Thank You For Smoking is that it goes to the heart of one of my favourite subjects… and no, I don’t actually mean Ian Rankin. I mean communication theory. How you convey words is sometimes as important and sometimes even more important, than the words you choose to use. We all know that if someone says “I don’t want to talk to you” and they’re snarling, saliva dripping from their bottom lip, their mouth curled up into a sneer, cheeks red, fists clenched, word pushed out between clenched teeth… They’re probably really angry, and you should back off. And we can appreciate that if someone says, “I don’t want to talk to you” and they’re cowering in a corner, huddled on the floor with their arms over their head, barely daring to peek out at you, they’re really saying they’re afraid of you.

There are several things about that quote that’s being referenced that bother me, and I’m going to get to that. In order for you to see exactly where I’m coming from, I’ll do my best here (without writing a whole thesis on the subject) to reference my perspective, by pulling some quotes from Neil Postman’s brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves To Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

“Beginning in the 16th century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page. “More than any over device,” Lewis Mumford wrote of this shift, “the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local…” (page 33)

That’s one facet to consider. A few weeks ago I interviewed Mark Billingham. Could I relay that to you with smoke signals? Well, certainly not much of it. It would lose a lot in translation. This goes to the heart of what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said The Medium Is The Message.

That’s a concept I got in stages, over time, despite my studies in journalism and communication theory. I could never quite wrap my head around radio as the tribal drum until I was doing an essay on this when I took the psychology of education, but that’s a bit of a side story I don’t have the luxury of time for today. All that matters is that different methods of communication convey different things by their very nature.

Spoken words and written words carry different weight. Postman recounts a story that reinforces this fact in the book on pages 20-21. It’s about a college candidate who uses a verbal statement in support of his thesis. As Postman tells us,

”You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to it’s truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, ‘Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?’

The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute.

What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write.

One of the things I always consider when I interview is that I know the subject in some fashion. I have communicated with them in person or via email. More and more of the interviews I do are with people I’ve met beyond the online context. When I sat down and interviewed Simon Kernick I could see the expression on his face, there were things going on at Harrogate we both knew about and talked about that were interspersed throughout the interview. There were things I cut out, both at Simon’s request and because some of them would have been open to misinterpretation for anyone who hadn’t been present. I don’t editorialize in the interviews much – what you get is what people say.

Part of the reason for that goes back to those interpretations and misinterpretations. A person smiles. One person says they’re giving a wicked grin. Another says it’s a gentle smile. Who is right? Have you ever looked at one of those pictures where you can’t tell if the person is laughing or crying? I know I've had experiences where I haven’t been sure if someone was laughing or crying for a moment.

And I know I’ve had moments after responding to something where I wondered if they meant what I thought they did, or if I misinterpreted.

So, my rule is always to hand back my interviews and at least give people a chance to read them over and remove anything they don’t want included. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. And believe me, sometimes people who know me say things because they’re comfortable with me, but when they see it written down in black and white and think of other people reading it, they realize the comment could easily be misconstrued. I let them rephrase or remove. I have that luxury. My interviews are not about exposing the sins of others or trying to trip people up and make them look bad.

When I was studying journalism, one of the things that happened in our ethics class was that we were taught how to write smear stories. We were also taught about political slant. Specific articles were referenced from magazines like Maclean’s, where journalists had inserted words like, he frowned, snarled, rolled his eyes between the remarks a candidate had made. In the next article, featuring an opposing candidate, he smiled, laughed, chuckled, stroked his chin thoughtfully. It’s the kind of thing I wish I had on tape now, because we were actually taught how to manipulate readers to sway political favour. I mean, should it not concern everyone that newspapers here have declared political biases and are known to support certain political parties?

So, with all of these things in mind, we get back to Ian Rankin and a remark – one remark, I remind you – from an interview.

When I read it, I actually laughed. Now, maybe it isn’t fair. I know Ian. Okay, we’ve never exchanged Christmas cards and we don’t golf on Saturdays. But I’ve exchanged numerous emails with him, I’ve talked to him at length… I know a fair bit about him and I know him.

I know Ian isn’t anti-lesbian or anti-woman.

There will always be people trying to tell you what to do and what to think… You have to think for yourself. Nick Naylor - Thank You For Smoking

I am aware of how the media can manipulate people. I am also aware that, when removed from the physical context and transferred to the page things can come off differently. The medium is the message, and the medium can alter the message by its very nature. Best example I can think of is when you take Bible verses and put it to rap music – any of you ever heard that? A lot of pro-Bible people get bent out of shape when you put the good word alongside that devil music, and it does change the feel of it. I could do a real tangent here and quote the story of Daniel, as told in ‘Where Is God When I’m Scared’ – a Veggie Tales video. The wise men conspire against Daniel, singing, Oh no! What we gonna do?
The king likes Daniel
More than me and you
Oh, no! What we gonna do?
We gotta get him out of here…
And the eventual conspiracies include:

We could give him jelly doughnuts, Take them all away
Or fill his ears with cheese balls And his nostrils with sorbet

We could use him as a footstool Or a table to play Scrabble on
Then tie him up and beat him up And throw him out of Babylon

I suspect most people know that they conspired to have Daniel thrown in the lion’s den, but that’s really not the point here. The point is, a Bible story is a Bible story, right? Not if it’s done Veggie Tales style.

So, when I read this remark, the first basis from which to evaluate it was what I know of Ian. Honestly, something about it sat wrong with me from the moment I read it… It isn’t the first time I’ve read something referencing a comment from Ian that hasn’t sat right. And by that, I don’t mean that I don’t like what Ian’s saying, but that the full truth of the comment isn’t being conveyed because it contradicts what I know of him. My other experiences with this were all before July, so those were based strictly off of what I’d read about him and his own words. But then, it goes to what I know of the possibility of media manipulation, so I am prepared to give someone – even someone I haven’t met – the benefit of the doubt, particularly if I know enough about them to question the context.

The very fact that Ian referenced he wasn’t going to say more without the tape recorder being turned off tells me that he didn’t fully explain his comments here and, since they lacked full context, they can be easily misconstrued. It may not have been the best choice of words, but that’s moot. It appears that the reporter used this baited statement as leverage to expound on a topic on her blog. I haven’t gone over and read the blog post, although Sarah links to it and quotes from it. I don’t think my Irish temper is safe over there.

Now, I do have a luxury some people don’t. I can think about sitting across from Ian, talking to him, and watching his facial expressions. Some people say more in a moment with the half-smile, the glint in their eye, the arch of an eyebrow than they do with words.

And people can smile sweetly and state words that could read on the page as uncontroversial, but the tone of their voice is enough to start a war.

It’s context and how that changes the meaning of the words.

One of the reasons I found Thank You For Smoking to be interesting was watching a person who took insults, found himself being baited and set up, had to sit across people he knew were lying to him and smile, and somehow managed to use spoken words to come out of every situation looking good.

Well, not every. But without that slip there couldn’t have been character growth in the movie.

If you decide to watch it, you’ll see what I mean. How can someone say all the wrong things and come off sounding so right? Actually, one thing the character says is, “These days when someone smokes in the movies they’re either a psychopath or European.” And a lot of my European friends (and even some non-European friends) do smoke, so my apologies to them when I say I don’t like it much. Now, I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and do get sick from a certain level of exposure (extreme migraines) but that’s only important to say, because that movie cracked me up. I was swayed to the point of cheering for a lobbyist who worked for big tobacco. It represents in my mind how words can be twisted to change your interpretation and make you sympathize with what you oppose.

It reminds me of how people can be trained to manipulate. Some might do it just for kicks, some might do it with an ulterior motive (the subject is part of an agenda… hey, just like the journalist in Thank You For Smoking) and some might do it just because they can. I’m not speaking to people who accidentally misconstrue things – that happens too.

But you know another thing that crossed my mind? The scene in Return of the Jedi, when Luke confronts Ben about why he never told him Vadar was his father. Obi-wan tells Luke that what he said was true, from a certain point of view and he reasons out what some would call an outright lie.

You know more than anything what bothers me in this excerpt from the article Ian was quoted in? he looks nervously at my tape recorder How did she know he was nervous? Did she ask him if he was nervous? Did he say he was nervous? There is no evidence of that presented. Now, if she’d said he frowned, his eyes narrowed, he started to tap his fingers on the arm of the chair as he shifted in his seat, his eye twitched… anything like that, and we would have interpreted what he was feeling.

Instead, we weren’t given the context that led to the conclusion. We were just give her assessment of what he was feeling, which lends itself to a specific interpretation of the words that may well have been misconstrued.

I’ve already pointed out I have the luxury of drawing on my knowledge of Rankin when I read him quoted. Without saying anything more that I don’t feel comfortable putting on the record, this is one of those situations where I’d put my confidence in the person first and take the inferences of the quote with a grain of salt.


angie said...

Damn, woman! Are you just trying to make up for not blogging over the weekend?! I can't keep up with you!!!

*Angie, who wishes she had one half of one smidgen of your energy*

John R. said...

How do we know there was a tape recorder there at all, eh? How do we know you weren't recording the interview using a specially trained chimp writing on rice paper? Your entire testimony is RIDDLED with inconsistencies!!!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, when something is on my mind it's just better to get it down. It helps get it off my mind!

John, trained chimps? How cool! I think that would be better, because you'd have a witness! And who doesn't love a cuddly chimp? Unfortunately, a tape recorder can't speak for you. Who uses a tape recorder anymore anyway? I use a video camera. ;)

Christa M. Miller said...

Your point about the "nervous glance" is also a great example of the "show, don't tell" adage in fiction, too. Ahem.

I've always let my sources review my articles. Now, this may just be that I write (as one journo called it) "PR fluff" for law enforcement trade magazines. But I think especially where police and the media are concerned, where media can be such an important part of some operations, a little courtesy is so critical. I've had sources change my quotations (but never context). And I've had them thank me for making them sound better than they thought. I like to think that's a source I can come back to, instead of one I've needlessly antagonized... you know?

John McFetridge said...

This Ian Rankin quote was on my mind, too, Sandra, so thanks for bringing it up here.

I had a slightly different take. I wondered, what's controversial about what he said? Women write about violence. Right. So? He said he found that interesting, he didn't say they shouldn't. Did he? Too often, I think, these discussions of what's in books is so far removed from what's in life that they're pointless (or, well, academic, which might be the same thing).

Maybe we need a David Byrne, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," line here. "Writing about writing is like..."

I remember when the big topic of discussion was "appropriation of voice" and I didn't get that either. We're writers - we look at the world and interpret it in fiction. We write lots of characters, from different points of view. They're going to be different cultures, gendres, classes, you name it. That's what writing is.

Unless it was that he said a lot of women writers are lesbian. Would his quote have gotten any play if he hadn't added that? Howard Stern has been riding the "lesbian" thing for years. He's said it is the key to his ratings success.

Women, men, gay, lesbian, we all "paint what we see," don't we? The problem is that there's too much violence in the world, not that too many people are writing about it. More people writing about it might help more people understand it.

Or maybe this goes back to the category discussion - not only what section of the bookstore, but what gender the writer. Wow, it's hard enough finding the books now!

Anonymous said...

I have Bachelors degree in Communications with a minor in pyschology and I'm still amazed by how few people truly realize the impression they give when out in public. Not just their appearance, which seems to be what everyone focuses on, but their movements, facial expressions, and tone of voice. My biggest dislike of the internet and email? I can't see or hear all of these people I'm "talking" to, because in order for me to effectively communicate, I need that. norby

Sandra Ruttan said...

Christa, 'show not tell' was going through my mind as well. I don't think I'll get in trouble for saying that when Kevin read it, he asked if that was supposed to be a short story...

Norby, I hear you. In fact, you should school people on how to carry themselves. My biggest problem is that my face always (well, almost always - if I try really really hard I can keep a straight face sometimes) registers exactly what I'm thinking. I need to brush up on the old acting skills.

Now, John, you're right. He didn't say that a lot of female writers are lesbians. Further to that, it's common knowledge that Ian is good friends with Val McDermid. And the reason I started reading Val McDermid was because I was reading an interview with Ian where he recommended her books.

So, that's what I mean by the comment not sitting quite right with me from the beginning.

Beyond that, I'm not going to say that women are writing more violent stuff than men in fiction - that would be too much of a generalization. But I have wondered about this. At least on my shelves, when I look at the books by men and the books by women, the books by women do have a tendency to be more graphic. Val is an example, but that isn't even fair, because only some of her books cut to the gritty edge. A lot of her books don't - A Place of Execution, The Distant Echo, to name two. Wire in the Blood disturbed me, but it wasn't that I felt it was gratuitous. It was just unlike anything I'd been reading to that point.

I ask myself all the questions. Do some women feel that they have to try harder to be less feminine in order to succeed here? Maybe some do. I don't know. I mean, look at you John. How many guys come out with such a debut - your book is one part hardboiled, one part procedural, one part thriller and there isn't a damn thing about it that's cozy - and really, your focal character is a woman.

And it's been a while since I'd seen a guy write so much about sex. (The website is everyone, the book is Dirty Sweet and I highly recommend it.)

The way I see it, writers ask all kinds of questions, as you say John, "we look at the world and interpret it in fiction. We write lots of characters, from different points of view."

So, we watch, we speculate, we theorize. Sometimes we're relieved we kept all that stuff to ourselves, sometimes we (well, I) might sound it out on my blog and go either way with it, because writing the mess of thought in my head starts to make it look silly or seem like it has substance.

The most interesting thing about this is that it does make one think.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I second Angie. How in the world do you come up with so much to say?

I was reading along... and then I saw: Veggie Tales.

And a voice in my head went: Veggie Tales!! Wheeeee!!!!

Said voice promptly began to sing:

A great big squash just sat upon my hat,
A great big squash just squished my hat real flat,
He squished my hat, he squashed my snack, my chocolate snack, oh what of thaaaaaat...

And then I remembered this post was about interviews, so I tried to concentrate.

What were we saying?

Won't you join me in my irritating leetle zong?

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, you know what it did to me? It put "God is bigger than the boogeyman, He's bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on tv" running through my head last night as I was trying to sleep.

Damn me and my ****ed up brain.

Now reading, "Won't you join me in my irritating leetle zong?" has made

I've never plucked a rooster,
and I am not too good at ping-pong,
and I've never thrown my mashed potatoes up against the wall.
And I've never kissed a chipmunk,
and I've never gotten head lice,
and I have never been to Boston in the fall.

Cause we are the pirates who don't do anything,
we just stay at home, and lie around,
and if you ask us, to do anything,
we'll just tell you, we don't do anything....

start running through my head.

I need to go listen to some Nickelback or something. Oy.

S. W. Vaughn said...

And I've never licked a spark plug
And I've never sniffed a stink bug
And I've never painted daisies on a big red rubber ball,
And I've never bathed in yogurt
And I don't look good in leggings...

Um, I think I'll put on some Nickelback too. Haven't listened to Photograph in a while. :-)

Thank you for the note, Sandra -- and the congrats. And letting me know my comments are broken!

anne frasier said...

fantastic post, sandra!

my first reaction to the lesbian line was to laugh out loud. my second was to think that he is simply out of touch with books currently published by female writers. he's busy with his own life and writing, and he doesn't have to keep up with what other people are doing. but as writers we are often put on the spot with questions about the writing world that we known nothing about.

Christa M. Miller said...

Here's another perspective: maybe women are "more graphic" because we're "more sensitive."

I tend to write the stuff I'm most afraid of, the stuff I internalize most profoundly. Getting graphic helps exorcise the demons. In the past I've been afraid to face them, so my writing has been too tame; lately I've been going for that show-don't-tell accuracy, writing what it is about the demons that scares me.

Guys deal with their demons in different ways from women. So I'd be interested to find out, of the male writers who are more graphic, how many are more sensitive/internalize stuff; and of the female writers who are less graphic, how many cope more like men. And of course the flip side, too.

Anonymous said...

I just read the article that the quote was taken from. (If you go to Sarah Weinman's blog you can link to the original author's blog) What I find interesting is that that particular comment is in the article for apparently no reason whatsoever. Rankin and the journalist (the article originally appeared in the Independent) were talking about Rebus, general violence in books, world protests, and how after finding out about his son's developmental disabilities Rankin began taking his personal frustrations out on Rebus. That quote is in the middle of all of this out of nowhere (in my opinion anyway).

So the question is, why is it even there? What's more, why did the woman feel it necessary to blog about it again the next day, if for no other reason than to draw attention to herself, using Ian Rankin as a red flag.

Quite frankly, as a reader, I don't care who writes more violent or more graphic books, as long as they're writing good books. There are authors of both genders who have managed to make me cringe and keep me enthralled, and really, that's my only criteria. norby

Reel Fanatic said...

Until going to see the brilliant Thank You for Smoking, I was convinced that great political satire in movies was a dead art .. thankfully, Jason Reitman proved me way, way wrong

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, it isn't just your comments - blogger's being wonky. Again. Either that, or someone's working on Sandrablocker.

Christa, that's an interesting perspective. I never thought of it that way. Huh. Now I have to go think about that.

Anne, you should have been at Harrogate when Natasha Cooper asked Ian if he was in touch with his inner girlie. :) I'm not kidding...

Norby, astute observations. The kind of thing I would have removed because it had no place or connection to anything else.

Reel Fanatic - yes, this was a great movie! I really felt horrified with myself for laughing, but it was exceptionally well done. Definitely worth renting, folks.

Forty_Two said...

Children begin smoking because of role modeling, not advertising. The tobacco industry knows this and probably laughs every time they make a new anti-smoking ad.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And it does give you something to do with your hands, forty_two