Sunday, 25 September 2011

I Would Like to Complain…

Why do we read reviews?  As always the context will determine the answer.  In the newspapers and the popular magazines they have a particular purpose: to persuade us to buy books.  The odd negative review counterbalanced by the overwhelmingly positive responses to new work; the cultural section given texture and colour by the individual reactions and personal judgements of the writers and columnists.  There is usually an extended essay to give weight this section; and to attract people to the paper and magazine.  In this context the answer is relatively easy: we read the reviews for the judgements they contain – good, bad or nothing special.  Or simply to pass the time.  To fill the hours outside work when we are bored and aimless: perhaps the most important reason, after habit, why most people read the press.  In this industry the reviews serve mostly an instrumental function, part of the advertising fabric, so essential to a newspaper’s health.

As culture becomes commercialised, its success measured by the number of units shifted, one would expect the reviews to become narrower and more judgemental, concentrating solely on the perceived goodness or badness of the books at hand.  Reviews to become simply tick boxes of individual preferences.  One would also expect the nature of the reviewers to change, their social profiles close to the target audience; for with reviews no longer requiring nuanced and sophisticated writing there is no need for the specialist critic or intellectual writer; empathy with the audience replacing literary skill.  And thus the reviews, like the products they advertise, will increasingly reflect the mentalities of the majority, its size continually enlarged and its views simplified,[i] with the content increasingly thin as their purpose is reduced to the commercial essentials – Buy! Buy! Buy! 

Outside of the newspapers in the more academic journals reviews have served a different purpose: as critical engagement with the works reviewed and as participants within a wider intellectual culture.  Historically they have less of an instrumental, purely commercial, role, and have more value in their own right.  Of course, there is movement between the different outlets, and much is unwritten code and custom.  Nevertheless, if you read the TLS or the LRB you can expect a performance that goes beyond a mere statement of a person’s preferences.  And this is unlikely to change, at least for the foreseeable future.

It was thus curious to read a letter complaining to the TLS that a review had not mentioned a book’s abusive attacks on homosexuals.  His complaint was about poor service.  It was as if someone had written to the Radio Times complaining there had been no warning about swearing and cunnilingus in this week’s production of Jane Eyre.  What my children heard and saw!  And all because of you at the BBC!  Mr Johnston seems to have wandered into the wrong building.  Walking around town he has mistaken a library for WH Smith, a university department for John Lewis.

Should all reviews have a section that lists the offences a book could cause? Is that their purpose: to protect the reader from insult?  Should reviews be merely shopping guides for the safe and fashionable?

Mr Johnston letter is instructive, for it suggests how far the intellectual culture has declined under the influence of big business.  In the 1980s there were still big debates about the wisdom of commercial sponsorship of the arts – both artists and administrators were worried that it could affect content. 

Patronage or, better, the giving of donations can be a civilised activity.  Commercial sponsorship rarely is, and the sooner we decide to do without it, the better…  A democracy should meet its own cultural needs, not call in tainted support; or only accept it on entirely untainted terms.  (Richard Hoggart, The Way We Live Now)

Today art is simply another form of commerce; and the intellectuals, it seems, merely consumers, who only buy books they like; cuddly teddy bears they can take safely to bed.

This tendency has always been around; although in the past it was more influenced by politics: liberals read liberal books and conservatives conservative ones.   Though one wonders how many socialists would have complained to the journal’s editor that the reviewer didn’t mention there were a few paragraphs praising the weapons industry in the book he criticised.  Instead there would have been an attack on the writer’s backsliding and unconscious militaristic assumptions.  That is, there would be no complaint about poor service, but an assault on his opinion; two quite different things.

It is all about me!  I must not be offended!  This is the thrust of this letter.  It is the consumer ethos at its most blatant; because it appears in the wrong place, and thus seems so odd, and so clearly wrong.  Do we read the TLS to make us happy?  Surely it is to find out what is going on.

A review is more important than such egoism; the careful stroking of our mental habits and simple prejudices.  The value of the TLS and the LRB is that they offer condensed summaries of the wider intellectual culture, which is now impossible to master through the specialist literature.  While the reviews themselves can be serious intellectual work in their own right – the essays of Perry Anderson in the LRB are tour de forces of historical analysis; of countries as diverse as Russia, Brazil and Cyprus.

This seems not so important to Mr Johnston.  You have hurt me!  And yet the TLS offends me all the time.  I find it a useful intellectual exercise; a workout over my mid-morning break.  Ah! you say, homophobia expressed in strong terms is different from mere insult.  Are you so sure?  What if you are a believer in the 911 conspiracy theories and I call you a nutter; and in a cultural space where you would not expect it?  What if you question the West’s account of Yugoslavia and are called a genocide denier?  What if you criticise Israel and are attacked as a self-hating Jew

Does shopping make us stupid?  It is a question to ponder.  Mr Johnston suggests an answer.  The book under review is by a traditional Catholic, as the original review makes clear.  A person with their critical senses open, alive to the world’s otherness, might have been wary of purchasing a book by a writer so far from their own liberal prejudices.  However, if you spend all the time in the local shopping mall you may start to assume that everything is harmless and inoffensive – we know the managers will allow nothing ugly and alienating into these so familiar franchises.  So we assume that everything is safe for us to read, unless the kindly authorities explicitly tell us otherwise.  We come to rely on others for the judgments we should make ourselves.

Is this the future?  Our highbrow magazines dotted with warning signs?  Danger of Death!  Do Not Swim!  Falling Stones!  Children Crossing!  Neo-Con in the building!

Should Serenity Science carry a health warning?  You think so?  You do?  Really?



[i] Jean Blondel in an old and still very interesting book on British politics noted how the supporters of political parties would mould their own views to fit in with the changing messages and images they presented.  That is, it was the parties that shaped the views and ideas of its members and voters.
            This insight can be widened to the corporations and advertising agencies.  One of the trends at least since the 1980s, but clearly evident before then, is to reduce the cultural differences between classes, so that everyone is a potential audience for the same product – football, Big Brother and J.K. Rowling.  It is the natural tendency in modern capitalism, towards conformity, and its attendant profits, but which was previously obstructed by class differences and their associated status codes: in the 1950s the middle classes either did not have a TV or only watched the BBC; and this was done more or less on principle, as a symbol of their position in society (there is a good example in David Hare’s Wetherby). Today, as Ferdinand Mount makes clear in his interesting book, Mind the Gap, class differences still exist, but they manifest themselves in different ways.

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