Which computer would your character use?

ON TV, EVERYONE OWNS A MAC: one of the most glaring tropes in modern fiction. The more I notice it, the more I notice it.

Despite the prevalence of PCs in real life, most fictional characters — in novels as well as on TV and movies — are banging away on an Apple Mac. It’s completely disproportionate. I suspect it’s to do with the fact that arty types prefer Macs, and arty types are the ones sitting around creating fictional characters. On their Macs, I don’t doubt.

dell computer mac computer

THERE’S A CHARACTERISATION PROBLEM HERE, PEOPLE.

Some characters just wouldn’t be using a Mac. They would not.

I wonder if I’m falling prey to Apple’s marketing hype, absorbing the idea that Mac users really are different from the average PC user:

Apple’s popular commercials have painted the picture in stark terms: There are two types of people, Mac people and PC people. And if the marketing is to be believed, the former is a hip, sport-coat-and-sneakers-­wearing type of guy who uses his computer for video chatting, music mash-ups and other cool, creative pursuits that starchy, business-suited PC users could never really appreciate unless they tried them on the slick Apple interface.

– Popular Mechanics

This advertising campaign hasn’t really done a lot for those PC users who are by now well and truly sick of all those Mac Evangelists out there. (Have you seen them? They come knocking door to door, arriving on bicycles, carrying satchels with wholemeal sandwiches ‘buttered’ with hummus.)

Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper computers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui. [THE MAC USER IS] a superficial semi-person assembled from packaging; an infinitely sad, second-rate replicant who doesn’t really know what they are doing here, but feels vaguely significant and creative each time they gaze at their sleek designer machine. And the more deftly constructed and wittily argued their defence, the more terrified and wounded they secretly are.

– Charlie Brooker

Stereotypes are indeed useful, at least when it comes to painting a character in fiction. There are actual figures on the difference between Mac and PC users. Yes. There are actually people engaged in such meaningful research:

Mac users are more educated, eat more hummus, prefer modern art over impressionist art, and are 21% more likely than PC users to say that two random people are more alike than different.

– Mashable

Some more statistically  likely assumptions about Mac users, from Mashable’s infographic:

Mac users are likely to…

  • be younger
  • value being different and unique
  • be vegetarian
  • consider themselves pretty savvy with technology
  • watch indie films

On the other hand, if your fictional character is a 45 year old accountant who seldom throws parties, likes to fit in, would rather ride a Harley than a Vespa, snacks on sweets rather than salty chips, eats tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, watches Hollywood films and the History Channel on weekends, after consulting the TV Guide, then you’re stretching credibility when you have him typing away on an APPLE MAC.

Statistically speaking, this character needs to be on a PC.

Stereotypes can be challenged in good fiction, but Mac still only have round about 10 percent of the market share. So Macs are appearing way too much in fiction, whichever way I see it.

RANDOM EXAMPLES OF MACS IN FICTION

“…Vivi announced she wanted an outdoor party this year, so we need to have it before it gets cold. I’m doing the invitations on my Macintosh.”

– Caro, from Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Would Caro be using a Mac? Possibly. It’s prudent that this elderly woman calls it a ‘Macintosh’, feeling perhaps that ‘Mac’ implies too much familiarity (and familiar with technology she is not).

When Apple Macs – indeed, when any brand names — pervade a book, it gets to feeling like paid product placement, even if it isn’t. I got to feeling like this reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in which both main characters own a variety of computers, with obvious preference for the Apple products:

In the second week of February Salander’s laptop fell victim to an accident… The rucksack tontained her white Apple iBook 600 with a twenty-five gig hard drive and 420 megs of R.A.M., manufactured in January 2002 and equipped with a thirty-five centimeter screen. At the time she bought it, it was Apple’s state-of-the-art laptop.

– Stieg Larsson

This obviously comes from an author who is into the latest computers himself, and who finds such detail fascinating, but there’s nothing quite like offering up specs of the latest computer to date your work. A kinder interpretation would be to say, ‘There’s nothing like offering up specs of the latest computer to place your work firmly in a particular year’. Which it does.

(I would also bet Stieg Larsson was a coffee lover. I’ve recently given up coffee myself, and noticed it mentioned on every second page. Perhaps the Swedes just love their coffee.)

As for my own computer preferences, any character assumptions will have to go on hold. I have a PC, a Linux running on an old laptop, and I’m currently typing on the Mac which lives beside the fire. I do love Macs, but PCs have their own advantages. They’re cheaper, for starters. And yes yes yes, you do still have to buy all the software, but you can build your own out of parts and use open source software. If it weren’t for the PC fewer people would be able to own a modern computer.

The Myth of Classlessness in Apple’s “Get a Mac” Campaign 

I’d like to see more fictional characters making use of a PC, or simply a ‘computer’, because I’m left scratching my head when I see certain unlikely characters making use of an Apple Mac.

Magical Computers: Computers on TV are not like computers in real life

The Author Is Not The Narrator

An author cannot control every response to published work. One annoying aspect of audience reception: the assumption that your character is you.

I recall a bookclub discussion which dwelt for a short while upon whether Anne Bronte meant for Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be a sympathetic character or not. Markham is a violent man by today’s standards, and it’s doubtful that Helen had a good second marriage.

We ended up discussing the life of the author as we tried to work out what the book meant. But is there a danger in doing so? In a world where author’s lives are increasingly public (due to media and social media), is there a danger that fans will look too closely at an author’s life and neglect to look at the words of the novel itself?

Here are a few excerpts from reader reviews of Freedom, written by Jonathan Franzen. I’m no Franzen apologist, but this is an interesting take on someone who created the dreaded ‘unlikeable characters’:

I thought there were two possibilities: 1) That Jonathan Franzen is a complete douche bag himself and that he actually thought he was creating sympathetic characters. 2) That Franzen has an even lower opinion of people than I do and uses his skill to convey an utter contempt for mankind by creating these pathetic excuses for human beings.

Franzen really hates people and, by natural extension, the reader.

i am sure an argument can be made for his low level semi-misogyny [because i think calling him a misogynist is a bit simplistic] makes him quite skilled at writing 1st person accounts of self-loathing neurotic chicks.

Is this something authors worry about, especially when writing a particularly nasty/racist/sexist character — and most especially when creating such a character who suffers no punishment within the world of the story? What a nasty character, we might think. It must take a nasty author to create such a thing. Whereas in fact, the author may think and act the exact opposite, putting it on the table for us to consider. If you’ve seen some of our greatest living crime writers in interview, you may be struck by how benign they are. Some of them are the sweetest little old ladies. We’re told that when crime writers get together they have a jolly time. If they harboured any nastiness in the first place, it’s all been purged in their fiction.

Are there tricks authors use to make it quietly clear that it’s the characters talking, not the authors themselves? Are some voices/points of view more likely to get the ‘presumptuous mimetic’ treatment?

MIMESIS AND SEMIOSIS

The mimetic way of looking at literary character: Imagining the character is a real person, based on the view that literature is a direct reflection of reality. A mimetic character is presupposed to “mean” or “represent” something. For example, you can give a literary character a Marxist, feminist etc. significance, presupposing that a character is typical for her class/gender.

The semiotic way of looking at literary character: Presupposing that characters, like any other textual element, is made of words alone.

The danger of the mimetic approach to characters is that we can easily ascribe to them features that the author had no intention of providing, merely because “girls always like to gossip”, “boys are naughty,” “schoolteachers are insensitive,” and so on. We can further ascribe to them backgrounds not found in the text, merely on the basis of our experience. … It is equally dangerous, and in my opinion illegitimate, to ascribe to literary characters traits extrapolated from real people, which is easily done when novels contain at least some autobiographical elements. For instance, although there are obvious similarities between Jo March and the author of Little Women, I would not be prepared to search for motivations behind Jo’s behaviour in Louisa M. Alcott’s biography.

– Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

For a New Zealand example, I submit that Janet Frame was the author most heavily subjected to pressure from the press to reveal where her fictional and real worlds overlapped and diverged. I suspect this is a gender problem, though by no means exclusive to women:

We live in an age where perhaps the capacity for imagination in the reader is less than it was. I can think of no other explanation why so many readers seem to be interested in memoirs, which are of no interest to me, and don’t seem to have imaginative capacity for fiction that is, well, more imaginative than most of the memoirs I read, try to read, or don’t read. What’s interesting is this: I can’t think of a specific date, but there came a time — not before the 90s in my experience — when you as a novelist began to hear, almost as a first question, “Is the father in this story your father? Is the sister in the story your sister? Is this character you? Did that happen to you?” When not just the first question but the first assumption from an interviewer was that surely the most interesting or the most credible parts of this novel have to be autobiographical.

– John Irving, who gets annoyed when people ask him if his novels are autobiographical.

I also suspect this went some way in explaining Frame’s aversion to interviews. She gave only a few in her lifetime. Perhaps she wrote her autobiography partly to answer the questions, hoping this would relieve her of the requirement to talk incessantly about her life.

JANET FRAME ON ‘GENUINE FICTION’

This is from one of those rare radio interviews, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.

Janet Frame

Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.

Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.

EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.

JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.

Somewhat Related

From Salinger To Polanski: How can anyone see the work of J.D. Salinger, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski the same way once you know of their predilection for young girls?

A Continuum of Imaginative Powers

I enjoy stories about characters with wild imaginations, and that may partly explain why I love children’s books. From Where The Wild Things Are to highly symbolic fairytales to post-modern off-kilter realities, children’s literature is full of dreamscapes and fantastic journeys. But stories of imaginative power don’t end with childhood — there are many examples from general fiction of characters who create rich fantasies.

We all have three lives after all — our public life, our private life and our secret life. We rarely get a glimpse into other people’s secret lives. We may occasionally get bits and pieces, from friends and from family, but fiction offers the most in-depth explorations about how others might think. Our fantasy world is part of our secret world. We rarely share it with others.

That’s if we even have such a world. I have learned over the years that some people do and some people have nothing as organised and detailed as a ‘world’, but we are all creatures with immense imaginative capacity.

Most people spend between 30 and 47 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering…

Scientific American

CONSCIOUS DEPARTURE FROM CONSENSUS REALITY (COMPOS MENTIS)

Continue reading “A Continuum of Imaginative Powers”

On Hate Watching Stuff You Hately Hate Hatingly

hate watching

Some people call it ‘hate watching’, but I think this mostly refers to the enjoyment of critique.

Separately from that, I sometimes find genuine enjoyment even while consuming something I can see is hugely problematic. Humans are able to hold discordant views in our brains at the same time. That is our great evolutionary advantage; it may also kill us all.

The standout example of ‘hate watching’ for me is Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan blamed his audience for dumping on Skyler all the while championing Walt, failing to see that Walt — not Skyler — was an increasingly despicable character. We weren’t meant to root for Walt, according to his creator, and if we did, that’s on us, the misogynistic audience.

Not true. Vince Gilligan did such an overly good job of creating empathy for Walt that he failed to turn the majority of his audience later. Perhaps it was a simple writing failure — audiences are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. Perhaps Gilligan’s failure wasn’t in the telling of the story, but in underestimating the amount of misogyny out there.

And I know darn well how it worked, because around the time the story wrapped up on Australian TV I happened to be sitting in a doctor’s waiting room alongside some older guy. We got to talking about TV reception, which led to a discussion about TV. Turns out this guy loves Breaking Bad.

“Oh, me too, what else do you recommend?” I ask him.

He recommends True Detective (of course). He’s not interested in my suggestions. He also tells me he’s grumpy about Breaking Bad because Walt should’ve killed the wife in the first season so we didn’t have to keep being annoyed by her.

We.

Him. Many, many hims in this world.

He disappeared into the doctor’s surgery. Meanwhile, I was privately shocked. Turns out I was one of the few avid viewers who liked Skyler as a person.

Sure, Vince Gilligan can blame his misogynistic audience for hating on Skyler, but his writing room went out of its way to create empathetic characters in Walt and Hank, and unsympathetic characters in Skyler and Marie. That will always annoy me.

I’ll still watch Breaking Bad again one day. I still admire it. But all the while, simultaneously, I’ll be seeing the ideological problems baked into it.

Natalie Wynn is especially articulate on this facet of human nature, in which we can understand something but remain somewhat spellbound.

In this video she expounds upon her full understanding of beauty ideals while at the same time wanting to conform to oppressive beauty standards.

I think her tongue-in-cheek phrase ‘Problematize, critique, cancel’ is especially meme-able.

As Natalie says very well:

Critiquing things doesn’t change our desires. But! It can motivate us to change society and this, in turn, can change our desires.

Critique first; changed desire comes later.

So… keep ‘hate watching’? More importantly, keep thinking. If you feel luke warm fuzzies about every single thing that you consume, it’s probably because you’re not thinking all that deeply about it.

WHERE IS THE HATE WATCHING LINE?

Why can I consume some ideologically problematic media but can’t stand others? Where’s the line?

For me, Breaking Bad gets a pass because the misogynistic reading of Skyler is, as Vince Gilligan intended, partly on the viewer. Sure, he overestimated his audience, but a woke, egalitarian audience isn’t going to read Skyler as terrible. They’re going to see a woman doing her best in a tough situation. If Gilligan got his audience wrong, perhaps that’s because he himself is less misogynistic than most people. (I’ll believe that until he turns into a milkshake duck, which he hasn’t yet.)

In contrast, a film like Nocturnal Animals is way past my line of ‘watchable’, for all of these reasons, and because the creators appear to be showcasing an unchecked misogyny that is all their own.