Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Name | Fiction | The Co-Authoring Fiasco

An intriguing paradox this week; a man in Oregon had his name legally changed to Captain Awesome, which, logically speaking, means that he cannot possibly be Captain Awesome. But as I Googled this peculiar news item, I found more and more results cropping up for ‘Man changes name’. ‘Man changes name to Buzz Lightyear’. ‘Man changes name to Optimus Prime’. ‘Man changes name to Monster Munch’. ‘Man changes name to Chev Chelios’. ‘Man changes name to God’. I tried doing the same thing with ‘Woman changes name’, and you know what I got? A bunch of results about maiden names. Okay, and one that said ‘Woman changes name to Princess Rainbow’. And another that said ‘Woman changes name to I Hate Thomas Cook.’ But still, there were less of them.

The obvious common denominator here is ‘awesome’. Names which are silly enough for the person taking them to claim that they’re obviously light-hearted and not to be taken seriously, but which are at the same time very, very calculatedly badass. Buzz, Optimus, Chev and the good Captain are all superheroes of a sort. I mean, even though it’s obviously light-hearted and not to be taken seriously, you’d never find anyone changing their name to Shit Shithead (you really don’t. I Googled it.)

Or what about Heath and Deborah Campbell, the New Jersey residents who kicked up a fuss last year because a store wouldn’t provide personalised icing for their three-year-old, Adolf Hitler Campbell, arguing that “Yeah, the Nazis were bad people back then. But my kids are little. They’re not going to grow up like that.” I don’t believe, I’m afraid, that Mr Campbell really was outraged. You don’t give your child that name without weighing the implications and expecting to get a reaction. Incidentally, Wal-Mart later agreed to ice the cake for little Adolf. Birds of a feather…

My point is, names have the greatest associative weight of any word (although I’d rather not get too deep into the semantics of it, seeing as…y’know, words are names). A man who feels he really isn’t all that awesome will call himself Captain Awesome. A man who wants to piss every vaguely intelligent person off and then accuse them of being irrational and unfair will call his child Adolf Hitler. A man who desperately craves attention will call his child Spiderman if 100,000 people notice he exists.

In the fiction world, of course, this leads to dubious advertising.

See this? This is the cover of The Moscow Vector by Robert Ludlum. Another classic thriller by the man who wouldn’t do anything that didn’t have ‘the’ in front of it.

…Wait a second. No, it isn’t. This book was published in 2005, four years after Ludlum’s death. It claims in the smaller print that it’s by “Robert Ludlum and Patrick Larkin.” In which case, it’s not really ‘Robert Ludlum’s The Moscow Vector’, is it? It’s more like ‘Robert Ludlum and Patrick Larkin’s The Moscow Vector’. And anyhow, how did Robert Ludlum co-author a book when he was dead? (Short answer: he didn’t. The novel uses his characters and setting) And if Ludlum didn’t really write it, why is there a critical blurb from the New Yorker on the front saying that he “transcends the genre”? I mean, if Ludlum didn’t write it, then it’s really just an unrelated opinion, right?

It may seem like a cheap trick to you; you may also think that it’s easily seen through. But, on Amazon, there’s at least one customer reviewer saying cheerfully that he thinks it’s “written in a much better tone than the other book of Ludlum’s I’ve read.” Because the eye is drawn to that name, to that damned familiar name. It doesn’t help, either, that the Kindle edition doesn’t mention Mr Larkin’s name as well.

I like to think I’m worldly enough to understand that the airport-thriller publishing business is not necessarily full of martyrs to artistic integrity, but…well, I mean, even Hollywood wouldn’t stoop to this sort of appalling cheating of their own customers. Giving your big name cameo third billing is one thing, but this? Just imagine if – God forbid – Clint Eastwood were to pass away, and a few years later, I directed and produced Gran Torino 2: The Legend of Walt’s Gold, and called it Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino 2: The Legend of Walt’s Gold. And I put underneath it, ‘“Eastwood is a genius!” Time Out’. It wouldn’t work. Partly because Clint himself would almost certainly rise from the grave in protest and put a bullet between my eyes, possibly while playing some mean jazz piano.

Now seeing as how this is Ravel's 'Gaspard de la Nuit', the most difficult piece of piano music in the world, I just got one question.

But also because there’d be a public outcry. People would be well aware that Clint was dead, because he’s famous not in the sense that a novelist can be famous, but really famous. He’s a constant visual presence in the media. Whereas with even an internationally-renowned writer like Ludlum, his name – his brand - is always around, but he has no real public identity himself to speak of. Fran Lebowitz was speaking of this condition when she joked that “the best fame is a writer’s fame. It’s enough to get you a table at a good restaurant, but not enough to get you interrupted while you eat.” It isn’t as pithy, of course, but I would posit that she’s wrong to put the levels of fame on a straightforward sliding scale like that. The writer can get a table by using their name; but they pass through life unnoticed by people who may have read their books because they have no face. Even a cover photo may not be enough.

And I’d argue, too, that increasingly this may not be the best sort of fame. A name can be usurped in a way that a face cannot (Well, maybe apart from that science-fiction film that recycled clips of Orson Welles as a character. But that was dreadful, and it’s been quickly forgotten.). More and more big-name authors who are very much alive – Bernard Cornwell and Clive Cussler, to name a few – are cashing in on this ‘co-authored’ thing. How long before the author’s name really does become the publisher’s brand?

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

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