Avoiding failed metaphors and missed similes

I was going to call this "when metaphors attack" but the reality is that I'm the one attacking the metaphors, and shaking them like a terrier until they fall apart.

I have already mentioned in other posts how there is a lot more metaphor in people's language than they realize. That the babble of a babbling brook is a metaphor, and the play of a play of light. But it is fairly rare that these clichés fail - we are so used to seeing them describe what they describe, that we don't really call them into question.

Simile and metaphor work by resemblance, which can be strikingly vague, but there is a case where both can fail, and fail quite jarringly.

Consider first the use of a simile to describe an abstract idea:

"His job fit him like a glove."

In this case, we mean that his job is perfectly suited to him, or he to it. Being suited to your job is abstract. "Fit like a glove" provides us with an image of suitability - the glove is the precise shape it needs to be to fit a hand. So we take an image of physical suitability, and use it as a symbol for abstract suitability.

Consider next:

"His car fit him like a glove."

At first, this might not strike you as strange; it is still all about suitability; the author is using the simile to show that the car suits its owner in every possible way. It's meaning is therefore still abstract. But I'll come back to this example.

"The hilt fit his hand like a glove."

This ought to be immediately jarring. But I see examples of this often enough that I suppose there must be some common reasoning behind it, and I suspect that reasoning has to do with the way that we can use simile to describe abstracts, which therefore bear no physical or visual resemblance to the image chosen, because an abstract has no physical or visual characteristics. The author still wants to describe a perfect fit, but has chosen to compare one concrete image — the hand gripping the hilt — with another — the glove fitting the hand — and these two fits are NOT analogous. The glove fits the hand because it is hand shaped. The hilt fits into the hand because it has been designed to be gripped by a hand using it for a specific purpose. Conceptually, both are about fitness for purpose, but the image of a grip and a glove-fit are not similar.

In effect, it is easier to choose a simile for an abstract idea, because it isn't confused by the possibility of provoking dissonant imagery.

Going back, therefore, to the car fitting like a glove. This is an example of the most common problem that I find with figurative language, and it is a form of indiscipline that arises from a lack of awareness both of the way in which figurative language functions and the way that the writer should be consciously choosing his imagery.

The car fits both in the abstract sense - that is perfectly suited to its owner - but also in a concrete sense, in that the owner fits inside the car. But like the hand/hilt relationship, the car/driver relationship is not the same as a glove/hand relationship. The exterior of the car is not driver shaped. The author who has selected this image has got the abstract part right but failed to notice that the simile fails as a physical comparison.

I selected "like a glove" for this post because it is so heavily used that most readers will not notice if it doesn't fit the intended description, ahem, like a glove. Cliché makes simile and metaphor rather more adaptable. But if (as I hope you do) you prefer to make up your own similes, then you don't have the cosy flexibility of the cliché to protect you.

* * *

I'm not sure that this post is completely clear. I'll probably have to revisit this idea at some point.


Why self-pub e-books are not like digital photography

I again found myself faced with the "Parable of the Professional Photographer" in the context of a discussion of the impact/future/durability of e-books and self-pub.

The Parable recounts the story of the appearance of digital cameras and its impact on professional photographers, and, in accordance with the prejudice or intended conclusion of the teller, shows how digital photography:

1. Is here to stay

and either:

2a. Will eventually be used by all professional photographers
2b. Will eventually be used by all except the best professional photographers
2c. Will be an important tool to professional photographers but never completely replace film
2d. Will differentiate between "art" photographers and mere "snapper for hire"
2e. Makes all forms of photography available to everyone, thereby putting all professional photographers out of business
2f. and so on.

People draw whatever conclusions they want from the Parable. But the main reason for trotting it out when discussing the new self-pub landscape is in order to say that e-Book self pub is not vanity pub as is here to stay.

But they are not analogous.

What we do is important. No matter how little you may think of your work, we are creators, teachers, curators, communicators and perpetuators* of culture.

Wedding photographers do not create culture, but they do perpetuate it.
Photojournalists often create culture, but also do a great deal to perpetuate it.
Art photographers are often trying to force culture to change, to give us new eyes, so that we think differently.
Photopornographers might be a special case...

We writers, do much the same thing. There are plenty of (excellent) writers who do exactly what wedding photographers do; they provide a demanded service within an established cultural framework that their customers do not want changed. Those who write non-fiction (whether factual books or journalism) are writing within an existing cultural context (which they therefore perpetuate) into which they want to introduce new information (and therefore drive the evolution of the culture). Those who write fiction with provocative content are trying to challenge culture, in the hope of bringing about change - even if only in very small ways.

Hang on? Wasn't I going to say why writers and photographers were not analogous? No, I wasn't going to say that at all. Writers and photographers are both artists. Always have been, always will be.

What has changed for photographers is that they have new tools with which to create their art. Some artists actively seek new tools. Some embrace new tools as best they can. Some (like my friend Gérard Larguier) have a feeling at the discovery of a new technology that their creative process had been waiting for it all along.

(Gérard combines collage, paints, papier-mâché with "photocopier abuse").

The arrival of digital photography means new processes for photographers, and possibly, therefore, entirely new types of image. And new ways of creating older types of image. It also means (for the professional) a very dramatic drop in the overhead. That might be where the confusion arises. It so happens, by chance, that the new technologies in photography add BOTH a change in the artists tools AND a change in the production costs. But in thinking about what this means to the artists, those two points should be kept apart. Because acceptance of the new technology is confused by the issue. Many artists are reluctant to change their tools. Very few artists are reluctant to decrease their costs. In photography, the technology can reduce the costs AND produce better results. A wedding photographer could take several thousand photos on the Big Day, and then select the best ones. Imagine the cost of doing that with film!

The arrival of digital distribution (for that is what e-book self pub is) DOES NOT AFFECT THE ART IN ANY WAY. These are not new tools for producing stories. You still produce stories the same way you always did, by narrating them. Even your keyboard, dictaphone, shorthand-typist, typewriter, biro, quil, wax-tablet, makes no difference whatsoever to what story you can produce.

This is where the analogy is broken. There is no "technology acceptance" issue for the writers, because the technology doesn't change the art. It is true that many readers have yet to accept this fact. The print and paper fetishists fear that the stories will be less good because the binding is plastic. This is obviously nonsense, so much so that it will fade away. It's been obvious to SF writers for over a century that eventually print and paper would be replaced. It's never been a sticking point for their readers.

The major "technology acceptance" issue is for the same people that we all know it has always been for: the middle men, who are now eliminated, unless (like some agents) they can find new value to add to the process of production and distribution. We may regret the effect that it has on some of the distributors. I feel a nostalgia for the bookshops where I spent so many hours of my youth. I had a particular affection for a little shop in the Oxford Covered Market, and another in Falmouth, Cornwall. But if high-street distribution is going to continue, then it has to evolve. (In-store POD is where I think they should all be going.)

Digital Distribution is not an established market. It's a new market, still in its very early stages. It has plenty more bubbles and crashes to go through, plenty more delusions and peaks, before it can even be said to have arrived.

Whenever something new comes a long we want to reassure ourselves, and others, that it is analogous to something that has gone before. If you want a good analogy, then look at the railways, and their effect on the distribution of farmed produce and (in particular) locally manufactured luxury or artisan goods. There was nothing digital in it. But there was a revolution in distribution that completely changed the economic landscape for producers. It also created new opportunities for unscrupulous middle men. So far, very few of those have found their way into what we do. But they will.

* I'm not sure if this is a word