Monday, 26 November 2012


In 1867 plaques to commemorate notable residents started to be put up on the walls of London houses. At first they were sponsored by the Society of Arts, then by the London County Council (LCC). The second LCC plaque was for Charles Dickens. It was erected in 1903 at 48 Doughty Street, in Holborn.

I enjoy these plaques, and when I spot one I've not seen, I cross the road to read it. As well as the plaque for Dickens, there are plaques in London for writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, John Keats, Katherine Mansfield, George Orwell, Samuel Pepys, Jean Rhys, Mary Shelley—as well as at a different address—her husband Percy Bysshe, and Virginia Woolf.

One of the writers whose houses have interested me is Robert Louis Stevenson. For four years we lived in Edinburgh, on Queen Street (in a flat that used to be occupied by Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review). Just a hop and a skip across Queen Street Gardens, was the house where Robert Louis Stevenson was born and grew up. Twelve years ago, we lived for a year in Hampstead, in North London, and I was please to see there a plaque on a house where Stevenson had lived on the corner of Holly Place. I knew that Stevenson had lived for a while in San Francisco and so, on a visit there some years ago, I went to see where Stevenson's house was. As I was searching for it, I saw a plaque on a side wall in an alley, near where Stockton Street passes through a dismal tunnel under Bush Street. Was it for Stevenson? No. It turned out that he'd lived on the other side of Bush Street. This plaque said: "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy." It's a commemoration of the first significant event in Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon.

Perhaps the idea of plaques to events in fiction is catching on. Since discovering The Maltese Falcon plaque in San Francisco, I attended the unveiling, on the corner of College Street and Manning Street in Toronto, of a plaque—known here as a "bookmark"—to commemorate an event in Anne Michaels's novel, Fugitive Pieces. But what about some plaques in London to remind us of literary characters, places, and events there, parallel to the many that celebrate writers? What about a plaque on the wall of an antique shop in Bloomsbury to say that this is where Charlotte Stant first saw the golden bowl, in Henry James's novel of that name. What about a plaque on London University's Senate House to say that this very building housed the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's Nineteen-eighty-four? What about a notice on a post by some railings in Regents Park, where Septimus Warren Smith, in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, shell-shocked in the 1914-1918 war, heard sparrows singing to him in Greek?

Dashiell Hammett (1930). The Maltese falcon. Current edition New York: Vintage.
Henry James (1904).The golden bowl. New York; Scribner.
Anne Michaels (1996) Fugitive pieces. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
George Orwell (1949). Nineteen-eighty-four. London: Secker and Warburg.
Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.
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Monday, 19 November 2012


Last month in Hollywood, I attended a conference called StoryWorld 2. Looking to the left from the window of my hotel room I could see the famous sign on the hills. The conference was held in this hotel, part of the building complex where the Academy Awards take place. The complex includes The Babylon Court, which features a ten-storey-tall monumental arch, and giant elephants sitting on giant columns, inspired by the set of D.W. Griffiths's 1917 film Intolerance, which apparently employed 1000 extras.

The attendees at the conference were mostly writers, system designers, producers, publishers, and the like. The concept at the centre of the event was "transmedia." The ever-helpful Wikipedia says the term was coined in 1991 by Marsha Kinder to refer to the "technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats."

Here is how to think about it. If you were Thomas Malory you wouldn't just write a book called Le Morte d'Arthur. You might do that, but it would be somewhat incidental to your franchise which would centre on the production of the movies Morte d' 1, Morte d' 2, Morte d' 3 …, a television series, and a raft of video games. It would come with the marketing of slinky Guinevere Gowns and a selection of Round Tables in sizes ideal for every home. There would be a game in which people would spear knights who would ride at them full tilt on the screens of their cell phones. Then, at your theme park, actors trained to play Sir Lancelot would first make the acquaintance of women visitors, and then perhaps make an improper suggestion.

Disneyland, invented so we were told at the conference, by Walt himself, was intended as a place in which not just children but whole families could play. It's billed as a place of the imagination, and I can see why. But my sense when I visited many years ago, with my family, was that the roller-coasters didn't leave much to the imagination. They were carefully engineered sequences of visual, acoustic, and proprioceptive input. A Disney imagineer, to whom I put this, said that this was perhaps right, but that members of the Disney Imagineering Research and Development group are very concerned to make visits more interactive. One interesting idea I heard from a member of this group, was that they were considering how actors might be trained to pick up cues from a visitor they would approach, in order to enact a role with which the visitor might be interested to take a complementary part.

The central idea of this second year of StoryWorld was of audience members becoming participants. A person I was pleased to hear was Tim Kring, writer of Conspiracy for good, in which not only did fans communicate with writers, offering feedback, and influencing how things might go in later episodes, but they took part in a conspiracy to defeat the efforts of a large multinational company that wanted to construct a pipeline that was incompatible the building of a library in a village in Zambia. The story-world included trying to find a person who had travelled from Zambia to London to influence the multinational company, and who seemed to have been kidnapped. Over four successive Saturdays in 2010, in London, participants used Nokia cell-phones to communicate with each other, and photographically to pick up electronic tags hidden on graffiti, each of which would unlock the next clue on their cell phone, in a kind of scavenger hunt, to help discover the multinational company's illegal activities. Actors were hired as employees of the company to hinder the participants, and underground concerts took place. The mode has also become known as social benefit storytelling: five libraries were built.

For a long time, dramatists have conceived modes in which audience members would take part in plays as they unfolded, and even contribute to the stories. Many movies are collaborations between writers, directors and editors, influenced also by audience reactions. Novelists talk about the experience of how characters take on lives of their own. What they mean is that the context of a story can start to guide the actions and development of characters in ways they had not anticipated. One of the interesting attributes of the movement of participant involvement in story generation is that such contexts might include participants' engagement in a story as it develops.

Kring, T. (2010). Conspiracy for good.
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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Marriage Equality Applesauce and the Smell of Care: Food Politics, and Further Thoughts on the Importance of Setting for Stories

After spending the U.S. election day of connecting voters to their polling places and campaigning for Minnesota marriage equality, I spent the lull before voting returns  at home making applesauce. This moment of comforting domesticity -- especially after intense conversations with so many newly met neighbors! -- make me appreciate not only how many of my gay friends are amazing parents, but also, as I thought about this while making applesauce (which I came to think of and label as Marriage Equality Applesauce), how food politics work in ways that recent complaints about there not being enough POLITICS in food politics may not be appreciating.

There has been considerable recent discussion of the problems with the narration of food politics. The California proposition (37) to label genetically modified food, for example, received a lot of support via the fairly straightforward narrative that people have the right to know what goes into their food

The political struggle over this food labeling proposition not only calls into question the authority of the current stories most people use to quell unease about the amount that is unknown about the food they must ingest at regular intervals, whether or not they feel they know enough about it, it also revealed to many people who had not been paying close attention just how much effort is put into controlling the stories used to frame food. 

After late September polls suggested that over 60% of Californians supported the labeling proposition, significant out-of-state funds were assembled to re-message the importance of trusting in the safety of existing food systems.  An election day article reported that:

"In late September, 61 percent of polled Californians supported Prop 37. But just a month later, that opinion flipped upside down, and only 39 percent were in support of the proposition, with 51 percent in opposition of it. ... Prop 37 has received significant national attention and money because of the precedent it could set for the country. Food, biotech and chemical companies have spent over $45 million on the No on 37 campaign, and 93% of that money has come from out of state. Natural food companies and other supporters have spent over $8 million on the Yes on 37 campaign, most of it also coming from out of state."

Spending an hour making applesauce here and there gives one time to think about how much of the story of what it takes to get food is caught up in such struggles over who gets to tell what, and how much of food's story is silenced. As I work in the domain of food, I hear food stories all the time, and I am increasingly struck by the importance of these stories for people, and of the dramatic struggle these stories often embody for people. People feel very strongly about the stories they associate with their food. 

At the same time that I appreciate the value and importance of meaning making around food, however (work like peeling apples leaves a lot of time for talking, and I sometimes wonder what percentage of what I know about my family I learned doing some task like this!), I also sympathize with recent critiques of food politics as being perhaps too much about people exploring food stories to connect more with desirable lifestyle choices than with an alternative set of stories about food that make farm-to-fork or producer-consumer relationships more significantly meaningful -- or actionable. (Looking at the healthy junk food marketed to the wealthy, I can't help thinking that the not-insignificant amount of corporate money that went into supporting the labeling proposition raises additional questions about how much a "market share by labeling vs. control of the market by not labeling" impoverishes our ability to have meaningful discussions of the conditions that make people comfortable or uncomfortable with the risks of food biotechnologies! In encouraging gushing exhibitions of virtuous satisfaction over food efforts or imbibements, this marketing of "good" food with little explanatory depth for its goodness also helps aestheticize the relationship between well-paid people's labor and poorly-paid people's labor embodied in our current food system.)

However again, though, as we start to see the massive resources pouring into the control and silencing of food stories, I think it is worthwhile paying close attention to the work that people's everyday food stories do, especially in contrast to the food stories of corporations struggling to maintain control of our understanding of food -- and, in fact, the meaning of food itself. People use food to open up perspectives on food system connections that may not be easy to apprehend, to make more visible the practical (and political) choices that we could be making, and to remind other people of the possibilities of those choices (and, importantly, support their making those choices), every time they eat.

As people who pay attention to material feminist practices (an author list crossing fiction and social science I would love to start compiling!) have been telling us for a long time, it is in no small part in the way that we experience the everyday practices of care -- the smell of applesauce reminding me how much my mother and father show they love their family in the way they stockpile applesauce for meals, dried apple slices for snacks, apple pies for gatherings, and reminding our whole household that we will be alright across a long Minnesota winter, with hot applesauce for breakfast, even if it's still dark -- that we construct the robust settings of our love stories, stories that are hard to rival in breakfast cereal ads (and I'm sorry, but in any storebought applesauce I've tried), even, I suspect, the ads that cost $45 million.  Bookmark and Share

Monday, 5 November 2012

Dear Annie,

You write, “Are you a mouse or a woman?” A mouse, mostly, but I’ll give womanhood a try. You write “Writing a book, full time, takes between two and ten years.” So six years very part time (which is how long I’ve been writing mine) is really like two years full time, which leaves eight years full time or twenty-four years part time. You write “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world.” I don’t know. For another twenty-four years, it’s something to think about. 

Dillard, A. (1989). The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row Publishers
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