Thursday, August 23, 2012

Entertainment culture

At the moment I'm in wild Wales from where the British literary (for want of a better word) scene is looking progressively bizarre and reminiscent of a hall of mirrors. On the one hand we have a panel of Booker judges being avowedly 'literary', passing over names and reputations and concentrating on the books (hooray) (though meanwhile Irvine Welsh at the Edinburgh Book Festival disses the Booker as middle class and colonial), and on the other, the Guardian's Not the Booker, originally set up to challenge, one would have assumed, the very tendencies this year's Booker panel are eschewing, conducting what seems basically a popularity vote, with those authors possessing the gall to rally their mates to vote most likely to end up on the shortlist and those without pretty much guaranteed not to, irrespective of books' merits. (The shortlist turns out to be entirely male: go figure.)

How many people who voted on the Not the Booker had read all of the books on the longlist in the short time time available? How can any vote made without doing so be considered authoritative, and how can any competition run in such a way be considered serious? Ah well, I've read tweets suggesting that we shouldn't  be taking it seriously. It's just a bit of fun, and it gives some books exposure and that's a good thing isn't it? Who cares about the ones who don't get exposure (however good they may be?) Never mind the quality, feel the hype... The trouble is, though, people do take the results of such competitions seriously, and they do have a serious effect on literature and literary production.

And then we come to the new Costa short story competition, in which, it turns out, the shortlist chosen by the judges will be put to public vote. How is an author to decide what to send to such a competition? Once upon a time you simply chose one of your best, most ambitious stories, suiting it perhaps to what you knew of the judges' literary tastes, confident that the criteria would at least be literary. Now you have to consider sending a crowd-pleasing story. But what will make a crowd-pleasing story? One suspects something pretty simple and traditional, or maybe sensationalist. But what kind of demographic is likely to vote? What kind of demographic will the Costa be encouraging to vote? And will they get it right? And how far will the sifters and then the judges have that demographic in mind when they choose? It seems impossible to second-guess all these things. Perhaps then, you may as well just send your best story and hope for the best, in which case the whole thing is more than usually just a lottery. But ah, isn't that what it's all about now, isn't that what we want? An entertainment, lottery culture...

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What sort of writer (and person) do you want to be?

Today, in a blog post entitled What I Won't do to Sell More books writer Nicola Morgan expresses what I think many of us writers are now feeling. Her ten points include: 'cut[ting] back on being a writer and bust a gut to do more marketing. (Because as far as I know there are only 24 hours in a day and I can't stay awake for all of them.)'and 'tailoring the books I write to have a far greater mass appeal, even though those are not the books I really want to write (Nothing wrong with them but they don't beat my heart.)', but I urge you to go across and read the whole post in which she elaborates on her reasons. If she did any of the things listed, she says, she wouldn't be the writer or person she wants to be.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Was Aristotle right?

Another article by Oliver Burkeman on our fascination with horror, in which he seriously entertains new findings by Eric Wilson 'from conversations with psychologists' that it stems not from feelings of power/relief (there but for the grace of god) or sadistic excitement or any of the other conventional explanations, but from a desire to empathise. He cites horror films and people rubber-necking at car crashes - and personally, in these cases I'm not in the slightest convinced - but then moves on to consider tragedy in literature and art:
Recently, researchers at Ohio State University investigated another psychological eccentricity, not unrelated to morbid curiosity: the enjoyment we derive from sad films. On the face of it, this makes little sense. But their work – which involved having 361 people watch Atonement, interrupting them at several points to administer questionnaires – revealed that the film triggered thoughts about the viewers' own relationships. It stimulated empathy, "reinforcing pro-social values". Gratitude for good relationships was part of it, but more generally it just felt stirring to focus on what mattered. We crave meaning and connection, it seems, far more than cheeriness. Neither tearjerkers nor morbid sights offer the latter – but they do offer the former.
I don't think there is a relationship here with morbid curiosity, but I do agree that tragedy works in this way - Aristotle's catharsis: it really is more of a question of identification by the reader/viewer. Which means the current emphasis on the 'heartwarming' and 'entertainment' is short-changing us sadly.