The Great Chain of Narrative

This is a loose transcript of a talk I gave at Tools of Change, Frankfurt, October 9, 2012, leading into the Frankfurt Book Fair. Its purpose was to demonstrate how the dynamics of metadata for stories are changing both in real life and at Small Demons. Yes, that sounds mighty dry. But like my audience, you might find it compelling. —Valla

Hi, I’m Valla, the cofounder and CEO of Small Demons, a Los Angeles based startup. I’ll tell you more about what Small Demons does later, if you’re not familiar with us already.

First I want to dive into a specific use case for books and the kinds of metadata and supply chain requirements that grow out of that use case. The use case I’m interested in is the person who wants to make the book a part of their world. She or he wants to take the story out from the pages of the book and into the world. Maybe they want to visit a place from the book, maybe they want to dress like a character from the book, maybe they want to listen to the music or read the same books that the characters in the book are listening to and reading. It’s an interesting use case and one that has a broad but disaggregated audience, right now. Lots of people do this sort of thing but in lots of different places.

So the minimum use case here is—I want to take the narrative and make it part of my world. But there’s also a maximum use case, at the other end of the spectrum—I want to take the narrative and use it to remake the world.

Now we have these two use cases that are different in degree but similar in kind. And because it’s always more interesting to look at extremes, we’re going to focus on the second one today—the person for whom the book and its story are the means to remaking the world. And then what we need to provide that person by way of metadata and a supply chain. Because that’s where the magic is happening.

I’ll use a specific story to illustrate this use case. And I’ll start with a very standard approach to book metadata to introduce this story. Here we go:

978-0446391900

So here we have one way of looking at the metadata and supply chain about a book. It’s ISBN, which I will use as short hand for any metadata that thinks about a book as a product. This is useful for helping people—well, not really people, but machines—find a book and tell us a bit about the book as a product. A lot of effort goes into creating, maintaining and distributing this kind of metadata and supporting the supply chain that relies upon it.

But that’s not the use case we’re talking about.

This is the use case we’re talking about.

Here we have Egyptians protesters marching against the now deposed President Mubarak wearing masks popularized by the hacker group Anonymous, taken from the graphic novel V for Vendetta which was influenced by the historical figure Guy Fawkes.

Here we have one narrative being used to undo another. There are no revolutions without new stories—we need new symbols to replace the old—and here we have the extreme case we’ve talked about.

Here we have the world of the book come to life. It has stepped out of the story and into the world and completely changed the world.

So what kind of metadata requirements does this have?

Well, you need to know what’s in the story. In this case, the character, V, and his role, anarchist/rebel. Moving past that, we’re also looking at his fashion sense—what does he wear. A mask. And who was that mask inspired by? Guy Fawkes. 

Ok so now we know all these new things about the story. Things not part of the ISBN construct or its world. We know:

Book

The Character in Book

The Character’s Role/Anarchist, Rebel, Revolutionary

The Character’s Fashion/Mask

The Character’s Fashion/Mask Was Inspired By Historical Figure Guy Fawkes

What else do we need to know? Because we are not dealing with a passive reader. We’re dealing with someone for whom elements of the story have become internalized and live beyond the page. In this case, we need to know how to get to those elements. So here, specifically, we need to know:

Where do I find a V for Vendetta mask?

So now we have a chain that looks like this:

The Book

The Character in Book

The Character’s Role/Anarchist, Rebel, Revolutionary

The Character’s Fashion/Mask

The Character’s Fashion/Mask Was Inspired By Historical Figure Guy Fawkes

Where to Get Character’s Fashion/Mask

So at this point I want to pause and think, for a second, not about the data but about the supply chain.

Over the course of the Egyptian protests, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, also known as 978-0446391900 was part of a Narrative Supply Chain that led to a new Egypt. V for Vendetta was everywhere. The world of the story took to the streets and had a life of its own. This wasn’t about selling more 978-0446391900s. This was about people en masse taking parts of 978-0446391900, parts you cannot get to when all you know about V for Vendetta is what 978-0446391900 tells you, and changing the world around them with it.

I believe many books are capable of this, and that the Next Great Supply Chain is all the connections that allow a reader to explore the world of a book and then make that world part of their ownassuming they want to. And increasingly they do.

And that’s what we let readers do at Small Demons. Every data point listed above—the book, the character, the character’s role, the character’s fashion, the inspiration of that fashion, and where to get it—all of this matters to us and we have built the capability to identify, structure, and relate all of those data points. And we do this for many categories. 

At a high level, the people, places and things in a book, but at a more granular level, the music, the food, the fashion, the neighborhoods. Some we are further along than others, but all of this matters to us because all of this is part of a future supply chain where the story matters most.

We do all this in service of the reader for whom the story is just too compelling, too meaningful, too much a part of her or his world for it to end on the last page. And we call all this, all these data points, the Storyverse. Which while many of the elements come from fiction, they are anything but. They are the building blocks for remaking the world through narrative.

Thank you.
Valla
Co-Founder and CEO, Small Demons

Books That Unlock Other Books

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world.

From Walter BenjaminUnpacking My Library

To me, an unread book is always an unlocked world. It sits on the same shelf as the read books, with worlds that I’ve entered and characters who’s stories have become mine. And sometimes it sits there for years, unread.

Recently I’ve come to realize that there are some books that “unlock” other books—so that this fifth, tenth, fifteenth time that I pick up the unread book, is the last time it stays unread. Because a book I’ve just finished led me straight there and I’m now ready, prepared, to enter that world.

Sometimes there’s a strict logic to the connection between the two books, sometimes there’s nothing more than a feeling.

So I finally read Alberto Moravia’s Contempt after years of it sitting on my shelf and years more of loving Godard’s adaptation, because I’d just finished Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs and something about Thomas Abbey in The Land of Laughs led me immediately to Molteni in Contempt. Prior to this, I’d started Contempt about six or seven times, always stopping after a few pages.

Then from Emmanuel Carrère’s My Life as a Russian Novel to the first book of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Justine. I’ve tried to read Justine about ten, twelve times before, never making it past the first page. Now I’m on my way to book two of the Quartet. Because I’m just in that sort of mood now. Which I wasn’t before My Life as a Russian Novel.

In both those most recent experiences, I didn’t know what would come next—I didn’t start Carroll thinking of Moravia, or Carrère thinking of Durrell. It just worked out that way.

But I’m wondering now if the book that unlocks other books, could work in reverse. If I could pick a book that I’ve never been able to get through, but have always wanted to read, and locate the one book that would unlock its world for me.

Because I’m trying to work up the courage for Musil. For a Los Angeles to Frankfurt and Frankfurt back to Los Angeles flight in October. And I’ve been told I’m just not ready for Musil. Years ago.

Unlocking The Man Without Qualities. There must be a book out there that will.

Valla

Shelving Simenon

A week ago I went to the local bookshop looking for a book by Georges Simenon. I still haven’t gotten to the Magriet stories but I’m a fan of the romans durs and wanted another one of the volumes put out by the New York Review Books.

There was nothing in stock, of course.

I wanted to read only Simenon that weekend. Before I visited the bookstore I’d looked up and down my library at home to see if I could find anything that drew me in. No luck.

I came home with that sense that’s one part disappointment, one part anger that the book you want to read is simply out of hand. 

I looked back in my library. 

Where I found shelved, an unread Simenon. The Strangers in the House.

A story about a man with a house full of books, who doesn’t know what lies under his own roof. 

The right book at the right time—I never fail to find it.

Valla

Max Frisch, Bluebeard pages 62 and 63

  • Naturally I asked myself how Rosalinde could pay for all these things, the comfortable apartment and everything, the smoked salmon and champagne, one knows what all that costs, and all the books lying on her bed.

  • What sort of books were they?

  • I am not much of an intellectual.

  • You considered Rosalinde intellectual?

  • Yes, I would definitely say so.

  • About the books lying on the bed, Herr Stocker, did you have the impression that Rosalinde Z. read such books, or did they simply form part of the ambience?

  • I don't understand the question . . .

"An Unknown Background"

I’ve been thinking a lot about space and stories, lately.  About fictional worlds and lived worlds, and whether the distance between the two is all that great. And how that all ties back to the idea of the Storyverse, something we talk about a lot here at Small Demons.

To us, the Storyverse is the shared space of narrative. It’s where the people, places and things from stories connect. I think of it as a world, really—one with its own history, its own rules, its own future. And what we’re doing right now over at Small Demons is a first step in illuminating and making accessible parts of that world. 

This is an idea that has deep roots in fiction, of course. And with this post I want to trace a few of the writers and books that have shaped my thinking about this, that made it impossible to think of the details from stories in any other way. Where possible I’ll note the date of my first reading of each work, too, with a photo of the last page of the book (where I always mark the date I finished it).

BorgesThe Garden of Forking Paths in Labyrinths. October 1993.

In The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges writes:

Ts’ui Pen must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth. Everyone imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing.

When I first I read this,I passed over this passage without much of a second thought. There were other stories by Borges I returned to over the years more often, like Kafka and His Precursors and Funes The Memorius. But I found a different Borges in 2010, a year in which I spent a lot of time talking to people—my team, our investors—about narrative as a shared world. About the Storyverse as a place you can travel through, one formed by the connections within and between stories. Like a maze. A Borgesian space, where “the book and the maze” are “one and the same thing.” Waiting to be unlocked.

Paul Auster, City of Glassfrom The New York Trilogy. June 28, 2003.

A constant source of inspiration and melancholy for me. I visited City of Glass again in October 2010 when I discovered the graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli.

There’s just so much here. Uncovering a narrative by plotting paths through the city. A language invented from the scattered debris of New York. Identities found, lost, and shared.

Like this quiet moment in City of Glass that brings identity, space, and an obsession with detail altogether:

Once again, Stillman retreated to Riverside Park, this time to the edge of it, coming to rest on a knobby outcrop at 84th Street known as Mount Tom. On this same spot, in the summers of 1843 and 1844, Edgar Allen Poe had spent many long hours gazing out at the Hudson. Quinn knew this because he made it his business to know such things. As it turned out, he had often sat there himself.

Inspiration, because it’s very hard for me to think about space and narrative without returning to Auster. Melancholy, well, you need to read City of Glass to feel it for yourself.

William GibsonSpook Country. September 12, 2011.

Influential in so many different ways. Like this passage, and the idea of resurfacing a past event upon a present space.  

"Scott Fitzgerald’s heart attack," suggested Alberto. "It’s down the street."

She looked at the crowded, oversized, frantically ornate letters inked in jailhouse indigo down both his arms, and wondered what they spelled. “But he didn’t die then, did he?”

"It’s in Virgin," he said. "By the world music."

Or chapter 32, “Mr. Sippee.” Over the years I’ve found myself nearly immune to recommendations, but could not resist this. Narrative context just gets me.

She ate a dollar-fifty-nine barbecue beef rib with broasted potatoes off a paper plate on the trunk of the Passat, waiting for Alberto to turn up at Mr. Sippee, a blessed oasis of peace and mutual respect situated in a twenty-four-hour-convenience store at the Arco gas station at Blaine and Eleventh.

Close to the tents under the freeway, Mr. Sippee catered to an eclectic clientele of the more functionally homeless, sex workers of varied gender and presentation, pimps, police officers, drug dealers, office workers, artists, musicians, the map-lost as well as the life-lost, and anyone in serious search of the perfect broasted potatoes.

Naturally, we made a pilgrimage out to Mr. Sippee’s. Who wouldn’t want to keep company with that group? The potatoes, well, again, you’ll have to try for yourself.

And then there’s the W Hotel, Union Square. At 11 AM on April 3, 2011 I had an unsuccessful investor meeting there.

The meeting started late, and I had Spook Country with me. I was about half way through it, just pages away from a scene set in that same W Hotel:

Tito sped up, Oshosi noting that his pursuer was still gaining. He ran across Seventeenth without slowing. Saw the entrance to the restaurant, a revolving door. He ran on, to the hotel’s entrance, an airy lip of glass protruding to shelter it.

Into the restaurant, darting past the row of tables by the south-facing windows; past the unbelieving faces of diners, who an instant before had been lingering over desserts and coffees.

Tito chased through the W, me lingering over coffee. Story, reader and space connected. This is one of the reasons we catalogue so many Points of Interest mentioned in books, on Small Demons. To eventually be able to tie any place to its multiple meanings.

Kevin LynchThe Image of the City. Late 90s, grad school. Like my dissertation, I never finished The Image of the City—so no last page, just this incomplete page of notes from an indeterminate past:

While my dissertation and notes are boxed away now, I’ve always kept Lynch close at hand (bottom right shelf in the library, where “books that matter but I’ve never finished” go). A few weeks ago in The Image of the City, I found a key to tie this journey through stories and space together. Early on Lynch talks about five “elements” that shape the image we have of cities. Here’s element two, “edges”:

Edges are the linear elements not used or considered as paths by the observer. They are the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts, edges of developments, walls.

Such edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, along which two regions are related and joined together.

"Related and joined together." The physical space we live in, the Los Angeles that’s my home, and the Los Angeles that exists in stories. Related and joined together by an edge, "more or less penetrable." A "wall" between everyday life and the Storyverse. What if you could pass easily between one and the other? What if at any point anywhere in LA, or any city, you knew its other history, its story beyond the edge?

Which brings me back to the inspiration for the title of this post, and one of my greatest passions, comic books. I’ve been reading and collecting comic books for thirty years now. The idea of moving between worlds is so prevalent in comic books, I could have written this entire post just about the comics that influenced me. And while the post would have been shorter—I’m told most people don’t have time to read, these days—it would also have artificially separated how ideas form. Comics, fiction, urban planning—they all come together and live in the same place in my head. So here we go, minus the date on the last page, because I never write in my comics.

Warren Ellis, Planetary. Planetary is amazing, and my describing it won’t do it justice. So much of where I’m hoping we go with Small Demons, in uncovering details that lead to a constant sense of wonder, is inspired by the twenty seven issues of that series. The characters, the narrative, the art, everything.

In the original proposal for the series, Ellis wrote about the relationship between the characters in Planetary, who exist in the background of a shared universe, to their more well known counterparts. The shared universe is the Wildstorm Universe, named after the publisher of Planetary.

PLANETARY just doesn’t work without the Wildstorm Universe there; without a known foreground, there cannot be an unknown background …

I read that proposal last week as I was digging through my Ellis back issues for inspiration. (And some guilty pleasure reading, like Issue 11 and The Last Shot, the platonic ideal of a bar.) The known foreground we live in, its unknown fictional background. The Sunset Boulevard we drive along, the Sunset Boulevard that opens up Spook Country

There’s so much in Ellis about cities and stories, that I’m going to come back to in a separate post. Like Transmetropolitan, where the story begins with a descent into the city, and ends with an exit from it. Like The Authority, “Door,” and Jack Hawksmoor. And most recently, SVK and its London.

Neil Gaiman, A Tale of Two Cities. Issue 1 in Volume 8 in the collected trade paperbacks of The Sandman series, World’s End.

Gaiman’s Sandman deserves an entirely separate set of posts, as well—forthcoming. Even for here, I had a hard time picking between A Tale of Two Cities and Ramadan, the final tale in Volume 6, Fables and Reflections, set in Harun Al-Rashid’s Baghdad.

Here’s the passage from A Tale of Two Cities:

"Where are we?” asked Robert.

"In the city," said the Old Man.

Robert shook his head. “I have walked the city all of my life. This is notthe city, although there are moments when I seem to recognize fragments of the city, in the manner of one recognizing a line from a familiar poem in a strange book.”

The Old Man took Robert by the shoulder.

"This is the city,” he repeated.

Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. 

Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and has its own personality.

"So?"

"So if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams."

"That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are."

"Hover on the brink of recognition." On Lynch’s "edge," the divide between one space and another. 

If a city is a living thing, then the fictions we tell about them are potentially as much biography, as much history, as they are fantasy.

And so we collect, every day, a growing number of details about cities and how they appear in books, at Small Demons. To join together the Los Angeles, London and Vienna we live in, to the Los Angeles, London and Vienna from narrative. Their streets and boulevards, their points of interests, their beats.

Valla