“The Hour of the Wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. The Hour of the Wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”—Hour of the Wolf (via itwonlast)
NEW YORK — Woody Allen examines nostalgia, among other topics, in “Midnight in Paris,” the latest in his string of films set in Europe.
The movie transports its protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, back to the good old days of the Belle Epoque and 1920s Paris, and sees Allen concluding that, really, he would have been miserable during any age, golden or not.
Allen, 75, talked to Reuters about what he longs for, if he gets nostalgic about filming in New York and what he dislikes about technology and other modern pleasures.
Q: You still write your scripts on a typewriter?
A: I don’t own a word processor; I am not a gadget person.
Q: So have you escaped the likes of Twitter and Facebook?
A: Twitter — I have no idea what Twitter is. But Facebook I know, because I saw the movie and I liked the movie. So I know what Facebook is. And I have a website, which I have never seen in my life and have no idea how it works or what the point of it is, but people have done it for me.
Q: So how do you adapt to the world of iPods and iPads?
A: I have a telephone, a cell phone, but all I can do on it is call out and receive calls. I don’t have any other use, I have no, what do you call it, text number?
You ever see old people and their television set has tape over a lot of the buttons so they can’t make a mistake? So they can’t access those buttons, they can only turn it on and turn it off? … I am exactly that way, as long as there is two buttons to press, I can do it.
Q: As a former TV writer, what do you think about the state of TV these days, of reality TV, of Snooki on “Jersey Shore?”
A: I never see any of that. I see the names in the papers and things but I don’t even know what that is. I do watch television but not that. I watch sports almost exclusively.
Q: Your latest film, “Midnight in Paris” examines nostalgia, what do you get nostalgic about?
A: I do get nostalgic in a weak moment … thinking back and thinking, “Gee, it was great to be able to play stickball in the street and go run into the house and take a shower and eat some unhealthy food’ — not having any idea it was unhealthy or caring even if I knew — but I didn’t. It was a simpler life. But then when I stop and think, really? Go back to that life, was it so nice? It wasn’t. I hated school, I did terribly, I had all kinds of problems. It was pretty terrible.
Q: Have your thoughts on mortality changed recently?
A: No, I was against it when I was five when I first became conscious of it. I have remained adversarial. We are hard-wired by nature to resist dying, to be self-preserving, to take care of ourselves, to fight for our lives, so I am no different than anyone else in that way. I may differ in this sense, I may belong to that group of people where it is on our consciousness more frequently. But there is nothing we can do it about it, but we probably suffer more, because we are not able to block it out as easily. Everyone is provided with a denial mechanism; mine is faulty.
Q: Why do you get respected so much in Europe?
A: I think I gain something in the translation … I make a film and all over Europe, all over the world, they love it, because possibly they are not seeing my mistakes.
Q: Are you too much for the Middle American mentality?
A: Yes, we are a very religious country, but to me that is their problem. I don’t subscribe to it. I am not religious or prudish. In that way I am slightly more European, but you will find that a certain amount of that more in New York, I think, rather than the rest of the country. New York is the closest we have to a European city.
Q: Still, critics like this film. Do you think America is ready to forgive you for your past scandals?
A: What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now. There was no scandal, but people refer to it all the time as a scandal and I kind of like that in a way because when I go I would like to say I had one real juicy scandal in my life.
Q: Will your next film in Italy be inspired by Fellini?
A: No. Why Fellini? … Why not Antonioni? No, it is not inspired by anybody. It is just a comedy, not a romantic comedy, but an out-and-out comedy.
IN MAKING THE LIST, his 2001 book about best sellers, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda recalls that the publishing house once commissioned a study of which books made the most money. After a detailed presentation, the consultant said to the editors, “Do you guys realize how much money the company would make if you only published best sellers?” He might as well have told them that they’d do better playing the lottery if they picked the right numbers. Trends come and go, but the best seller remains essentially serendipitous. An editor can be no more certain of finding the next one than a writer can be assured of writing it. “As a rule of thumb,” writes John Sutherland, an English scholar who has studied the phenomenon, “what defines the bestseller is bestselling. Nothing else.”
The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity. The first list of books “in order of demand” was created in 1895 by Harry Thurston Peck, editor of the trade magazine The Bookman. Publishers Weekly started its own list in 1912, but others were slow to follow: The New York Times did not create its best-seller list until 1942. Now, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today also compile national lists, and each of the major regional papers has its own—all generated in slightly different ways. The Times bases its list on sales reports from around four thousand booksellers, which it declines to name (a column by the paper’s public editor a few years ago said only that they change constantly). The Wall Street Journal used to track only sales in major chain stores but now bases its rankings on data from Nielsen BookScan, an authoritative industry source that includes as many as three-quarters of the nation’s bookstores, around eleven thousand. IndieBound surveys only independent bookstores. Amazon.com offers its own list, updated every hour, but—like all the others—it is based on orders, not actual sales (since returns are not taken into account). Thus a writer with a carefully timed marketing blitz can push his book to a relatively high Amazon ranking for a day or so, allowing him to claim that it was, say, a “top ten Amazon best seller.” The system’s vulnerability to manipulation has resulted in the perception that, as Eliza Truitt wrote in Slate, the term best seller on the cover of a book means “about as much as the phrase ‘original recipe’ does on a jar of spaghetti sauce.”
From the start, Peck seems to have had mixed feelings about the arbitrariness of the mechanism he had chosen to anoint books. “The period during which a popular novel enjoys favor is growing shorter all the time nowadays,” he wrote in 1902, lamenting “the flood of fiction that is being placed upon the market and vigorously promoted practically every month in the year.” While there has never been a defined threshold for making it onto the list—there is no guarantee that a book will be a top ten best seller if it sells fifty thousand copies, one hundred thousand, or even five hundred thousand—both the level and the pace of sales have increased exponentially. (For the sake of simplicity, the statistics in this essay are drawn mainly from the annual ranking of hardcover fiction by Publishers Weekly, which is the most comprehensive historical source.) During the list’s first few decades, No. 1 best sellers typically sold about a quarter million copies in the first year after their release. The first superseller, the picaresque novel Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen (1933), sold six hundred thousand copies over its first four years. Its record was promptly beaten by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), the first book to sell one million copies in a single year. In 1956, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious—still one of the best-selling novels of all time—sold sixty thousand copies within ten days of its publication: It was at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for fifty-nine weeks. Now, each of the top five novels easily sells one million copies in hardcover. The best-selling novel of 2010, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson, sold nearly two million copies last year.
No possible generalization can be made regarding the 1,150 books that have appeared in the top ten of the fiction best-seller list since its inception. There are literary novels by Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, and John Updike. There are social-problem novels, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). There are war novels: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (one of the few German novels ever to make the list, in 1929), The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948), From Here to Eternity(James Jones, 1951). There are religious novels ranging from Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe(1942) and Leon Uris’s Exodus (1959) to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s 1970 allegory about a bird who yearns for a higher plane of existence. There are westerns by Owen Wister (The Virginian, 1902) and Zane Grey (who published nearly a novel a year from 1915 to 1924). There are sex novels: Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944), with the tag line “Adultery’s no crime—it’s an amusement”; Peyton Place, which graphically depicts rape and teenage sex; and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966), in which sex comes in second to tranquilizers as a source of pleasure. There are horror novels, with Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, 1967) and The Exorcist (William P. Blatty, 1971) paving the way for Stephen King’s current domination of the field. There is spy fiction and science fiction and—currently the most popular genre—crime fiction. “The bestseller list, from day one, has always represented a reliable mixture of the good and the bad, of quality and trash,” Korda writes.
The best seller is caught in a peculiar paradox: Its popularity can be understood as both proof and negation of its value. If the only attribute inherent to the best seller is sales, then any book that is popular runs the risk of being lumped in with the rest and tossed aside like a candy wrapper once finished—as Jonathan Franzen’s angst over whether to accept the imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club for The Corrections unwittingly illustrated. (The book was a No. 5 best seller in 2001.) For certain elite readers, the best seller is valuable primarily as a means of calibrating literary taste: We know what is good in part by knowing what is bad. But the sheer ubiquity of the best seller makes it impossible to disregard so easily. If some books are good (read: literary) because they don’t sell, others are just as likely to be judged good (read: entertaining) because they do. “If I’m a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have got lousy taste,” Metalious once said.
"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good,’" wrote George Orwell, who was never a snob on literary matters. "Nor is there any way of definitely proving that—for instance—Warwick Deeping is ‘bad.’ Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion." After reading my way through a century’s worth of best sellers, I’m inclined to disagree. Even if we are taught to appreciate Shakespeare in a way that we’re not taught to appreciate Deeping (whose stories of life in Edwardian England made him a household name in the late ’20s and ’30s), it’s nonetheless easy to distinguish their literary worth. Deeping’s works are crudely characterized and bombastically written—qualities we have come to associate with the best seller. But the high melodrama still draws us in. The impulse behind rubbernecking at a car accident is the same one that keeps us turning the pages: We want to watch the disaster unfold.
Best sellers sell, after all, because they provide pleasure, even if it’s mainly the kind of pleasure that comes from the satisfaction of a craving. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed a number of the books I read—from the high Christian camp of The Robe to the desperate sleaze of Valley of the Dolls. Orwell called books like these “good bad books,” writing that “the existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.” At other times I couldn’t help but conclude that Metalious had it right: In some cases, a hell of a lot of people really did have lousy taste. (The once-beloved Anthony Adverse was the only book I found utterly unreadable.) But even the books that hold up less well retain interest as cultural phenomena. If people look to literature to explain themselves to themselves, then the popular novelists of the past, whose books once lined the shelves of every well-appointed middle-class home, can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the people who read them. The story that emerges from the novels that triggered national obsessions constitutes a map of the mainstream—and its changing boundaries over the years.
A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late ’70s and continues today. First, consumers’ shopping patterns changed: Readers who had once depended on the Book of the Month Club to supply them with popular fiction now could find discounted hardcovers at mall retailers like Waldenbooks. Then the “superstores” pioneered by Barnes & Noble began to edge independents out of the market, which made publishers less inclined to publish the quirkier fiction in which the smaller bookstores specialized. Meanwhile, the conglomeration of publishing houses under larger and larger umbrellas meant that profits were often managed by distant executives who prioritized the bottom line over promoting literary culture, making editors less likely than ever to take risks on anything beyond the mainstream. The result was that for a new author, making the best-seller list was more like winning the lottery than ever before—in terms of both payout and probability.
In the past, it was common for a novelist to have a few hits and then fade from view. Deeping, for instance, never made the list again after 1932, though he continued publishing through the ’50s. Now, by contrast, there began to emerge a core group of writers who could regularly sell a million copies in a year and then come right back the following year with a new best seller—a trend that continued through the ’90s and shows no signs of abating. More than half of the fifteen writers who have appeared on the list ten times or more started publishing within the past forty or so years. Danielle Steel—who published her first best seller, Changes, in 1983—holds the current record with thirty-three. Stephen King, whose first hit was The Dead Zone in 1979, comes in second with thirty-two. John Grisham, who started with The Firm in 1991, is third with twenty-three. Rounding out the list are the prolific newcomer James Patterson (seventeen), Tom Clancy (thirteen), Patricia Cornwell and Sidney Sheldon (eleven each), and Michael Crichton and Robert Ludlum (ten each). Some of these writers are stronger than others—both Clancy and Crichton have at least produced readable books—but none approaches the stature even of a Wouk or a Uris. The middlebrow, represented now by writers like John Irving and Garrison Keillor, had become a minority. Meanwhile, the only new literary novelists who made the list in the ’80s and ’90s did so with the help of movie tie-ins (Umberto Eco) or assassination threats (Salman Rushdie). The “flood of fiction” that Peck lamented in 1902 had become a tsunami drowning out outlier voices.
With the regulars bringing out a new book every year or so, the number of open slots naturally decreased. And so a novel by a new writer has a smaller chance of becoming a best seller today than at any other time in history. Korda likens it to “finding an empty seat on a commuter train that’s packed with regulars.” In 1987, only two novels on the list were by nonregulars: one by the legal-thriller writer Scott Turow and the other by Keillor. In 1988, there was only one book by a newcomer: a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales illustrated by Maurice Sendak. In 1990, there were no nonregulars at all. The multiculturalism trend in the ’90s brought success for a few nonwhite writers, who have historically had very few best sellers: Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate), Amy Tan (The Kitchen God’s Wife), and Toni Morrison (Paradise). (Women of color, it would seem, have to either score movie deals or win the Nobel to make the best-seller list.) But during 1997 and 1998 Danielle Steel dominated the list with three new novels each year. The story remained the same through the 2000s, which saw the pendulum of the mainstays swing back to the religious novel: The phenomenally successful Left Behind series and Mitch Albom’s treacly musings about the afterlife were on the list for several years running. There’s only one indication that America spent the past decade embroiled in two wars: the popularity of the Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini, whose novel A Thousand Splendid Suns surmounted the Grishams and Pattersons to become No. 1 in 2007.
Scandinavians are sociopathic, but brilliant and technologically advanced. The justice system might be sentencing innocent people to death. A lot of white people employ black maids, or once did, and feel conflicted about it. You can find new love after making mistakes in your past, but you will have to confront them first. The war on terror will be won by secret intelligence services and brave special-ops commanders. Vampires are scary, sexy, and endlessly fascinating. Marriage is complicated and kind of dull, and the temptations of past lovers can be too much to resist. We really wish that dogs could talk. This summary of our current preoccupations, via the most recent best-seller lists, is arbitrary—if not entirely incorrect. But the question of what our best sellers say about us now seems less important than who says it. Regardless of what the books contain, a list composed almost entirely of mainstays is a depressing marker of national conservatism and complacency. The outliers—those “good bad books,” in Orwell’s words—are the ones that can make change. As his prime example of the type, Orwell gave Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents … [but] also deeply moving and essentially true.” It was all those things, and it was also one of the most influential books in American history. And it was a best seller.
What makes a successful logo? A successful logo is one that endures. It’s got to eventually be honest to the product it describes. It’s got to be simple. It’s got to be functional. And it has to have that other thing: It’s got to have character.
Is there any classic cautionary tale? There’s a number. A recent one would be the Gap, when they rebranded and then reverted. We don’t really go, “Wow, I’m in love with the Gap logo,” until someone replaces it with something we’re not in love with. It’s very hard to rebrand a very established brand without there being kickback.
Online, people are furious when Facebook or Twitter redesigns, but that typically lasts five minutes. The same could be said for a magazine redesign: No matter how good it is, it’s a paradigm shift for the readers. You’ll meet resistance. Truth is, if it’s better, that resistance will quickly die away and everyone will be happy. Less so with a [trade] mark. It’s less about function and much more what we associate with it.
Are there any designs you’ve done that you’re embarrassed by now? Everybody has a drawer of shame. But I won’t open it for you. Discuss creative and corporate clashes. Every creative project I’ve been in has been a compromise between the two parties. If that compromise is developed carefully and communicated well, it will undoubtedly improve the end product. It’s not unlike Michelangelo and the Pope.
Is there a cardinal rule in designing a logo? No. Some of the most dysfunctional logo types can be the most enduring.
Such as? Pirelli [tires] breaks a lot of typographic rules with its overly stretched P; the longer the word, the more horizontal it becomes and the less functional it is. It breaks all conventions. It’s kind of ugly in its weirdness, which probably would have never got through a boardroom now. It’s part of its charm and distinctiveness.
Must be hard to get charm into a logo today. Absolutely. Charm is an attribute that comes about through instinct. It’s not necessarily been organized into vertical chain of thought. Charm comes in from left field. The more anodyne the process, the more it’s going to chop off all the charm.
Penguin is an example. Penguin is interesting because penguins have very little to do with the product. Penguins are illiterate! I suspect that original penguin wasn’t intended to be solidified into that logo. It was much more of an organic mascot like Bibendum, the Michelin Man. But through time it’s become fixed.
I didn’t realize the Michelin Man had a name. If you look at early advertising, he’s this strange tire monster. It’s so idiosyncratic. There’s just no way a committee could have come up with that. You look at the mascots of the 2012 U.K. Olympics, and they’re so anodyne and thought through. No charm.
Is there a logo you wish you’d done? There are many. My very favorite [trade] mark is the World Wildlife Fund. I’d love to have done that. That’s the one. The giant panda is the perfect choice; the way it’s drawn is charming and very enduring.
When I started traveling for work, it meant flying to the occasional event in a smaller city, where I would stand for hours behind a six-foot-long table, smiling and handing out countless pork buns, the dish that—for better or worse—my Momofuku restaurants are known for.
Back then, I thought I had my air travel game down. I’d get to the airport as early as I could in an attempt to score an exit row or bulkhead seat—the first class of the common man. Then I would make a beeline for the departure gate so I could hunt down the best spot in which to wait.
The best seat in the terminal for coach-class flyers is the one closest to an open outlet, so you can charge whatever electronic distractions you’re bringing on board with you. It’s also facing the gate, so when your plane is interminably delayed, and you’re nearly unconscious from a combination of dehydration, frustration and exhaustion, if you manage to open your eyes a slit, you can see if the passengers who still have the ability to decipher the departure announcements are piling up around your gate.
I felt tough, like I’d hacked coach flying. But a few years ago—in part because I had to feed pork buns to a lot more people in a lot more places and in part because we decided to open Momofuku restaurants in other countries—I joined that group of people I used to stare down contemptuously as they breezed through check-in: first-class travelers.
I changed my disdainful tune pretty fast. In first class, there’s acres of legroom and endless Champagne, and they never, ever tell you to stop typing on your BlackBerry—even during takeoff! It’s full of surprises. The first time I flew first class on Emirates, headed to the other side of the globe, I saw that it’s Bye Bye Burkas! at 30,000 feet. Not only did the women on the flight shed their coverings—they were dripping in brand-name accessories. Unbelievable. I celebrated by watching every season of “The Wonder Years,” which was, rather miraculously, available on my private television set. I never wanted that flight to end.
Thousands more miles in the air have made me more discerning. Now that I travel enough—too much for someone who, if there were more justice in the universe, would be kept chained behind a stove—I know that the best part of first class isn’t on the plane. It’s in the airport, in the airline lounges.
When I travel, I don’t actually spend enough time in any place to relax and stretch out. I do meetings and events and maybe have a fancy dinner with people I don’t know, and then I go right back to the airport for hours or even days of travel. It’s at the airport that I have a chunk of free time.
I’ve spent enough time in airports to have learned that domestic lounges leave something to be desired—at least, now that I’ve left behind the days of getting blackout drunk for long flights. The liquor served in lounges in other countries is of far better provenance.
The Virgin Atlantic lounge in Heathrow Airport has its own hot tub, massage therapists and barbershop. I got my hair cut there once, and they made a big deal about some kind of bumblebee being behind it. Later, a friend told me they were talking about Bumble and Bumble, a fancy brand of salons and hair products. Sometimes I don’t even know how impressed I should be.
British Airways has a great lounge in Heathrow, too. I love how the amenities—all of which are incredibly posh—are limited only to passengers traveling at the appropriate level of first-class-ness. They card passengers like they’re 16-year-olds trying to buy beer. “I’m sorry, sir, you didn’t pay $25,000 for your ticket, so you can’t pass through this door.” It’s a pissing contest for the privileged. I bet you can get your monocle repaired there if you’ve got enough miles stocked up.
And the food! I was in a fancy Qantas lounge in Sydney that offered a menu by Neil Perry, who is possibly Australia’s most famous chef. I thought, Why not? And it wasn’t just good for airport food—I wanted to push my way into the kitchen and see if there was a full brigade back there, with chef Perry standing over them yelling at them.
But the best airport eating is to be had in Japan Airlines’ spot in Narita International Airport—also probably the best lounge I’ve ever disgraced the inside of. Hell, the food in Narita’s food courts is better than it is at 90% of Japanese restaurants in the States, but the lounge food is especially worth seeking out.
And the amenities: I showered there once when I was traveling through (not even to) Japan, and realized that I have stayed in hotels boasting constellations of stars that were less comfortable and luxurious than that airport lounge. I also learned never to underestimate the restorative power of a shower while traveling.
It was a practical revelation, but also a sad one: I’ve become a travel snob. All the things I thought I’d one day be a snob about—transcendental authors, sports history, obscure rock ‘n’ roll records—and here I am, a pampered jet-setter.
It’s even sadder that I still look like a bum—frayed black Converse sneakers, bloodshot eyes, a tattered gym bag of belongings strapped to me—and act like a cook.
Speaking of which, I’d like to close with a note to the tall, elegant woman who was dressed in expensive-looking head-to-toe white and who flew KLM first class from the Netherlands to New York during fashion week last year: I have no idea how I managed to board the plane in the Amsterdam-induced fog I was in, or how I was able to knock your cranberry juice all over you even though our seats were so far apart.
My offer to pay for your dry cleaning still stands.