We Like People and Stories

Content Warehouse
Content Warehouse

We continually see references to content. It’s spoken of as if it’s a tangible quantity, something measurable, a thing you can stock the shelves with.

In the case of the Internet, it would be shelves on the web and social media platforms. Posts and tweets and fan pages. We know we have it because it’s in the spreadsheet and we’ve done some number crunching with the data. But what is it?

Content is ideas. Content is ideas presented in a variety of ways. Content is one person saying to another, “What do you think about this?”

Content is always two-way. If you’re on one side of it, the creator side, it helps a lot if you know who is on the other side. You can be as imperative as you like and stress your call to action repeatedly, but if you’re talking about cricket to fanatical hockey fans, you are wasting your time.

Let’s be honest, no business likes content. It’s just that our customers seem to and so we’re forced to come up with some. But it is so mercurial, so difficult to nail down and define, it makes us crazy. It involves creativity. For heaven’s sake, it’s even artsy sometimes. How the hell do you measure that? How do you replicate it? How do you build efficiencies into it?

I think the first step is to stop thinking about it as content. When we say “content,” I believe we implicitly think in terms of our business goals. Counter intuitive as it may seem, that is probably the worst way to think of it. When we talk in terms of movies, books, cartoons, comics, articles and all the other various forms “content” comes in, we start to think from a consumer point of view. A people point of view.

People don’t always think in terms of their goals. Sometimes they like something simply because it’s “neat.” Neat doesn’t necessarily mean gimmicky. An idea or story can be “neat” because it shows us something we tend to think of one way in a completely new way. That isn’t just neat, it’s informative and it’s stimulating.

Sometimes that is all people want. In fact, I’d say most of the time that is all people want.

Do you actually use the web and social media tools? If so, do you use them in the same way your spouse, kids and friends do? That alone should give you some intuitive sense for what people are online for and what they find engaging.

No one is looking for content. Most people are looking for people and ideas. They’re looking for stories and stories come in a wide range of forms: video, pictures, words and sound.

Content is not king. It’s the rabble. It’s us. And we’re not interested in content.

We like people and stories.

(This was originally posted in a slightly different form five years ago in March of 2010.)

See Also:

Come Fly With Me? No Thanks

The following was written on January 24, 2005 at 28,000 feet somewhere above the Canadian Rockies. I had been sent to Vancouver for meetings. I just found this old piece, which was originally written in a notebook, and it made me laugh. It first appeared on an old version of Writelife and it goes like this …

JetI hate flying. I hate, hate, hate it. So whenever our office calls a meeting in Vancouver I jump through hoops in an effort to find a way out of attending.

I’m seldom successful.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the only time I enjoy flying is when I’m drunk. Then, it’s not so much an enjoyable experience as it is a desensitized one. It occurs to me it is often the absence of a quality that recommends something.

I think an absence of turbulence would recommend flying. Not so on my flight.

You may laugh. But try writing longhand when the damn plane is bouncing like an old Pontiac Laurentian over back country roads. (By the way … if you’re in a 737, avoid seat 21A – window seat, right at the back. It’s like riding in that Laurentian’s trunk.)

You know, when you remove the element of speed from the flying equation you find there is little left on the upside. If you were making a list of flying’s best qualities, it would begin:

  1. Transports people between places quickly.

Then the list would end.

There is nothing else good about flying. And given the hold ups these days with security clearances, false alarms, weather delays and so on, flight’s key benefit – speed – is kind of a crapshoot. Your flight may be fast; maybe not.

Even when flying is fast, it feels real slow because it begins and ends with airports, which are Bermuda Triangles of lost time. Airports are the answer to the age-old question, “Where does the time go?”

So why do we do it? Or more to the point, why do we do so much of it? Why the rush? It is as if we were obsessed with terminal tedium (where we seem to spend ages standing around waiting).

It’s because we think flying is fast and we are determined to get to wherever we want to go as fast as we possibly can. But it’s like trying to remove the discomfort of a dull headache by knocking yourself unconscious with a hammer.

(Posted on January 29, 2005 at 09:56 AM)

Scattered

Cover art for To Your Scattered Bodies Go.
Cover art for To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

Very briefly … I read this so many years ago it must have been in another life. I’ve reread the first book now, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and I’m a few chapters into the second, The Fabulous Riverboat. And it is as I remember.

The second is the better book, perhaps because of the Mark Twain character. The first, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, features Sir Richard Francis Burton – a seemingly good figure to use based on his biography but the book ends up being a scattered mess, if you’ll pardon the choice of words.

The book has an interesting conceit (the dead resurrected along an enormous, world encircling river) but its pulp roots make the action/plot just a series of loosely credible fights, battles, and caricatures doing some pretty lame philosophizing. Character depth is not the book’s strong suit.

But it is a good example of old school SF pulp fiction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a particularly engaging read. Hopefully The Fabulous Riverboat holds up better.

(3 stars based on the hope Riverboat actually is a better book.)

Riverworld, the current edition (2015), which contains both To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.
Riverworld, the current edition which contains both To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.

Still Life by Louise Penny: A Review

Cover of Still Life by Louise PennyReading Still Life was a curious reading experience for me. The first three paragraphs had me. The murder victim, the crime, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec are all introduced. Then the scene shifts.

The business of exposition begins and we are given the village and people of Three Pines, the all but hidden and seemingly idyllic community in the eastern townships of Quebec. Louise Penny creates a very vivid image here. And I was immediately put-off by it.

I remember thinking something like, “Oh, heaven help us. It’s one of those earnestly Canadian novels, tediously in love with the landscape and effusive about the gentle, polite people.” (I was wrong.)

The book moves back and forth between the compellingly interesting Gamache and the anything but compelling (for me) evocation of Three Pines. So for about the first third of the book I was a less than willing reader. But I was determined to give it a chance.

It’s a good thing I did because slowly, inevitably, my predisposition to dislike it evaporated as the book’s mystery got its hooks into me. And after a time I realized that the world the author was creating was a deliberate one meant for the contrast of a gentle village against a murder that speaks to something very dark beneath the surface. If I recall correctly, Agatha Christie did this kind of thing all the time.

Three Pines is a community filled with aging baby boomers. There’s a love of food, antiques, art, crafts … not a lot of computer programmers here or accountants or garbage men and women (though they must exist). Perhaps this explains my initial bias against it. Three Pines was a little to artsy for my tastes.

But it is also the heart of the crime, the victim being a woman with a number of mysteries that tend to centre on her art.

Louise Penny
Louise Penny

Given a chance by someone like me, Still Life becomes an absorbing mystery/crime novel with a particularly fascinating inspector (Gamache) tasked with solving the case.

(“He always felt a pang when looking at the hands of the newly dead, imagining all the objects and people those hands had held. The food, the faces, the doorknobs.” This reminds me of the odes of Neruda, a poet who found worlds in the most common of things.)

This is a whodunit of the old school variety placed in a contemporary Canadian setting and it works wonderfully.

In fact, I’ve already made a start on Penny’s subsequent Inspector Gamache books and look forward to reading them all.

Cloud by Eric McCormack: A Review

Book cover for Cloud by Eric McCormackI’m having the hardest time reviewing this book and I know why. I want to categorize it. I’ve all kinds of terms rattling around in my head as I try to write about it but ultimately what I end up with is just thinking out loud on paper.

Everything centres on the narrator of Cloud and this is as it should be as it is essentially his autobiography. Thematically, the novel concerns the nature of memory, to some degree narrative, and also narcissism. The narrator, Harry Steen, is a less than reliable fellow. He’s secretive and self-deceptive though he seems, or at least tells us, he’s quite sincere. He readily admits to his secretiveness – he even explains it as if it is a virtue.

But the question is always there: Can we believe anything about Harry other than his untrustworthiness as a witness?

Harry finds a book in an out-of-the-way bookstore in La Verdad, Mexico. It is a very old, mildewed book with the title, “The Obsidian Cloud: An account of a singular occurrence within living memory over the skies of the town of Duncairn in County of Ayrshire.” The story it tells is bizarre to say the least but what catches Harry’s eye is the reference to Duncairn, Scotland, a place he lived for a brief time in his life, a time that defined him because of a love found and lost and never understood. (Actually, a love misunderstood.)

There is a Dickensian, or at least Victorian quality to Cloud in that it is episodic. Harry’s life takes him around the world. As a young man he begins as a school teacher, becomes a sailor for a time (one that suffers from seasickness), and eventually the head of a Canadian mining company, a position that sends him on trips all over the globe.

Now here’s the thing about Harry: he’s a frustrating ass, so much so you want to kick him in the ass. This is largely due to his secretiveness, his constant caution about how people might react to truth and, because of this caution, his inevitable reluctance to tell it. He is constantly explaining that he isn’t revealing the truth because it’s best for someone else, when in fact it is really because he’s afraid to do so. In most, if not all cases, he eventually finds out that people already knew the truth anyway.

It is also because of his constant focus on himself and how events affect him, his interpreting of the world only to the extent that it relates to him, to see everything in terms of how he feels. And (usually) how he feels is wronged. For much of the book he sees himself as a victim.

This is purposeful on McCormack’s part and in many cases allows for a good deal of humour and makes the story an intriguing, entertaining yarn. But it also leaves the reader feeling a degree of frustration with the narrator because he is such a self-involved ass.

The novel is a mock-heroic one, with a post-modernist sensibility with a few metafictional elements thrown in. It is about the dubious nature of perception and memory and, as a consequence, narration.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, narrator Harry sees people and situations in ways that suit him and his idea of how the world should be. Yet it is seldom, if ever, an accurate world he imagines. Cloud is a comic novel, though it may not strike readers that way. It’s not comic in the sense of a “fall out of your chair laughing” way. It’s comic in form, in the sense that it is a series of misreadings, misunderstandings, misconstructions of people, situations, and events.

Eric McCormackIn his novel, McCormack gives us a peculiar variation on the picaresque novel. However, unlike the traditional novel of this type, McCormack’s hero is anything but roguish. (It sometimes seems as if every character is except Harry.)

Harry is more coward than rogue.

It’s a peculiar book. But that is par for the course with Eric McCormack. I do know two things, however. First, I want to re-read this book. I liked it and want to get a better grasp of the story I’ve read (and enjoy it again).

The second is simply to rewrite this review some day because I feel it is a cobbled together series of impressions.

For now, this is the best I could come up with.

See also:

Westlake, Parker, Menlo and Sydney Greenstreet

The Mourner - coverThis is the fourth Parker book I’ve read in sequence and all have been very good. As one reviewer has said, Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) is all about process and these books are nothing if not mechanistic in the way they unfold – and that is a virtue in books like these.

The Mourner differs from the others, however. In this one, I get the sense that Westlake decided to have a bit of fun. He riffs on The Maltese Falcon.

I couldn’t say whether its Dashiell Hammett’s novel or John Huston’s movie that provides the spark (I’ve seen the movie; I haven’t read the book), but as with The Maltese Falcon, the MacGuffin in The Mourner is a statue that a number of people want. (Granted, it’s a bigger deal in Falcon than in The Mourner.)

I suspect it’s Huston’s movie that Westlake plays cutesy with. As I was reading, particularly in the first half of the book, I kept thinking, “Why does this Auguste Menlo character seem so familiar?” Then it struck me: he’s Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon! Both the speech and physical appearance of the Menlo character are very similar to Kaspar Gutman, the character Greenstreet plays in the movie.

The mechanistic aspect of how Parker stories unfold is as strong here as in any of the books but we also get a sense that, serious about his work though the author may be, he’s also playing.

Having said that, Westlake is too skilled and creative a writer to simply do a Parker take on the movie. Channeling the movie in the book’s first half seems to have delighted him but the novel certainly goes its own way, especially in the second half.

Once Part 3 kicks in with the usual Stark/Westlake switch to a new perspective (here, from Parker to Menlo), he starts adding detail, fleshing out the character of Auguste Menlo with background and motivation. Menlo becomes much more than the Greenstreet character from the movie, and more interesting – even sympathetic.

In the end, we have one of the Westlake’s most interesting and engaging characters. A scoundrel with a cherub smile.

This, along with the strands this Parker novel picks up from the three previous books, makes The Mourner my favourite of the novels I’ve read so far. I don’t like the word best but if forced to use it I would nominate this book while also hedging my bets by adding, “Or maybe The Hunter. It’s hard to choose.”

(And I’ve said nothing about the femme fatale, Bett Harrow …)

Greenstreet as Gutman
Sydney Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman. The template for Auguste Menlo?