Saturday, February 6, 2010

Got to Read the Labels?

For the record, I have no intention of turning this into a book review blog...however, reading often tends to get me thinking about writing. I read books for the enjoyment of reading, but the writer in me can't be turned off completely (or the English Lit major who still begs me pick up a pen and underline, underline, underline...). 

This isn't a review of Wendy Mass's 11 Birthdays, but an opportunity to discuss writing elements, present in the book. Let me start by saying the book itself is quite fun and the two main characters, and their friendship, is wonderfully written and enjoyable to read. It's well worth the read.

There. That's out of the way.

Now, I want to talk about something that has always bugged me about a lot of upper middle grade and YA books -- the need to include random brand-name objects. In my opinion, this is a literary crime, propagated by either author or editor. I'm guilty of this myself in exactly one instance, from first novel, and I still wish I could edit it out. But I did it because I was describing a specific person that I actually knew, not because I was trying to be trendy. It doesn't justify the crime, but it certainly downgrades it to a misdemeanor. 

A felony offense in this category is when the sole intent is to artificially make the story relatable. Given that most marketing experts think of kids as shallow and superficial, there is this compulsion to include objects in order to make things cool. The thinking when it comes inclusion of these references in books is that it will help the story feel immediate to a fickle of this age are obsessed with having the cool things and are terrified of seeming uncool is the standard line of thinking...therefore, let's do that with the characters. 

Besides the fact that I believe kids are more than easily manipulated consumers, here's my problem with the above line of thinking -- though outward appearances are certainly of utmost importance in adolescences, it doesn't need to manifest itself with brand-names. Books are an inward experience. They don't need to include a laundry list of popular brands because nobody but the reader is witnessing it. In a movie, being a social setting for the most part, I can understand the importance of dressing the characters and styling the set to appeal to standards of hipness. But a book is different. As long as the concept is clear, the reader will visualize whatever objects apply to them. 

Ultimately, I think the brand naming detracts from a book more often than it adds. It quickly dates the book down the road. It can have the opposite impact if a certain reader finds a certain product to be "uncool." And it just isn't necessary. 11 Birthdays is a perfect example of that. The story and human relationships are powerful enough to carry to the book and endear readers to it. Therefore, these objects felt like a gimmick. I suppose the writing lesson I'm trying impart is that detail doesn't need to mean brand names. For example, the Spongebob balloon in the book would have been just as effective it were some other identifying factor. And in ten will that product signifier affect and possibly detract from a fantastic and meaningful story? Something I think writers should always consider.

Once again, I recommend the book. It's a wonderful read. But what is a blog for if not to rant about pet peeves?


  1. Well, hmmm... I don't know about this. Now, on the one hand, if a writer is trying to label some consumer item as having "hip" or "uncool" attributes, that's one thing, but to say a truck is a Ford, or a kid is wearing 501s, or smoking Kool cigarettes, in my opinion, can be elements that contribute essential features to a novel. And I'm not being defensive because I do name "brands" in two of my novels... but where do you draw the line?

    What about naming a song and musical artist? I do that in a few of my novels, and those are no less marketed consumer goods (often targeted at kids) than the more obvious examples you cite.

    In one of my upcoming novels, two boys are looking at a "Penthouse" magazine. Just that name says everything I need to say about what they're holding in their hands... and to skirt around the trademark would be muddling and steeped in overly-careful correctness.


    There's a time and place for everything, young man.

  2. Very good points and I suppose I agree that there is a time and place for such things.

    I see now that I need to clarify:

    I guess the qualifier, as with any detail, is if the specific brand adds meaningful insight. In the book I was talking about, I didn't feel there was a significance to the objects other than to decorate the scenery and make the character "appear" to be just like "you" the reader...when, in my opinion, the character had already achieved that in her voice.

    The Penthouse example is a good one in where I wouldn't mind it or probably even notice it because it would feel natural. HOWEVER, I disagree that not naming it would be an act of overly-careful name it as "porno" would have the same effectiveness. Especially, as I recall with my teenage years, porn is porn, the names don't matter, only the material.

  3. I feel a lot of young adult novels aimed at girls are a little heavy handed on the use of expensive name designer clothing constantly, kind of makes me angry.