Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The Indifference Engine

IN 1999, journalists at The Mirror put Bernice Rubens’s The Elected Member, the Booker Prize-winning novel of 1970, back into manuscript form and sent it to 17 publishers, all of whom rejected it. Little, Brown, who’d printed the novel eight times, said, “It would be a hard one to sell.” Seventy years before that, the Cambridge literary critic I.A. Richards handed out a selection of poems to his students minus any information about authorship. He asked them to decide which poems were by “the greats” and which were by unknowns. Most of his students got it completely wrong.

What both these cases suggest is that the criteria for judging excellence in culture is far from fixed, essential and objective. What is it really that makes us buy or download music, films, books, etc.? Some yearning of the soul? Or is it more superficial than that? The hype? The glam? This is the age of the Supranational Media Engine driving what it deems ‘cool’ directly into our television (“the drug of the nation”) but mostly onto our computer screens. If we complain, like Theodore Sturgeon, author of More Than Human, that 90 per cent of everything is crud, the Engine-runners use the excuse that they’re only pandering to public taste. We’ll keep feeding it while you keep eating it.

But that’s a gross simplification. All too often, devotion to the green bottom line means fear of producing anything risqué or innovative. The legendary director Terry Gilliam talks about “The censorship of the marketplace ... If [a film] doesn’t make billions of dollars it doesn’t get made ... The people making the decisions are only interested in money—they’ve no cultural remit or interest in anything other than that.”

For the Engine, the ideal consumer (for we are all consumers now and certainly not music lovers, readers or movie buffs) has a one-minute attention span, can only appreciate tiny variations of tried and trusted formulae and can’t handle any issues or ideas beyond his or her personal experience. But it’s worth bearing in mind that when the Engine assumes more intelligence in the public and takes a risk it can (literally) pay off. In early 2008, the film, No Country for Old Men (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel), achieved huge critical acclaim and commercial success despite breaking all the formal rules of a dead-cert commercial film. Its characters were largely unsympathetic, its ending was ambiguous and elliptical, its nagging atmosphere of dread hardly made for a tie-in deal with Disney. The No Country for Old Men experience isn’t a one-off, not in film or in any other art form. But the bigotry of big business means that such projects can struggle to even happen, if they don’t slip under the radar altogether. More likely the studios will play it safe and remake what are essentially the same three or four movies—The Inane Teen Comedy (in which a student almost always suffers an accident to his penis), The Bodybuilder Rampage, The Overly Contrived Torture-Horror, and so on.

This homogeneity shouldn’t be a surprise when we look at the economics of the Engine. Although downloading is wrecking the old cartels, a lot of cultural power is still invested in the hands of tiny elites whose values are usually conformist and conservative. In the 1980s, Noam Chomsky wrote about how the U.S. media was so dominated by corporate imperatives that the fair and accurate reporting of news had been seriously compromised. A major problem was, and still is, conglomeration, where what appears to be a broad range of media outlets are in fact owned by just a few massive businesses. We can be thankful for exceptions like The Guardian, which is run by a charitable trust in an effort to preserve editorial independence.

So, to return to the original question, how much of all this affects what we like and why we like them? The answer might lie in the tactics used by advertising and PR, to appeal to people’s most basic, irrational urges, sex being the primal one. In pop music, the visual was always as important as the aural, and became more so with the advent of MTV. Thus a cult of personality to rival Stalin’s was created. I have an old Elvis Presley vinyl where the King is interviewed by Pathé newsmen who all appear to have been scripted the first question by Colonel Tom Parker himself: “Well, you’re a mighty fine handsome young man, ain’t ya?” We then find out what junior high school Presley went to and what he likes for his dinner—this being the days before he binge-ate deep-fried piglets. The Colonel recognised the value of building an intimate if virtual relationship between the fans and ‘the product,’ and the product’s sex appeal was crucial.

The strategy worked then and the strategy works now: buy a Flake and get it on with Joss Stone. Cynics, often the wisest breed, will say that these days beauty far outweighs talent. People tend not to go to a Robbie Williams gig because they are looking for some acute paradigm shift in the grand narrative of artistic progress, some exploration of the fundamental truths at the core of the human condition. Which is shocking news to all of us.

But again, aren’t we simplifying things? Call me an old-school hippy purist (don’t, because I’ll be offended, I’m just a sensitive flower, really), but shouldn’t art be groping towards something a bit more profound than the gorgeous symmetry of a movie star’s cheekbones? Aren’t there bigger questions about ourselves and the world we inhabit that art should be addressing, bigger than the dreary diktats of the greenback? You decide.

TOM SYKES was born in 1979 and educated at the University of East Anglia. He is the co-editor of the travel book, No Such Thing As A Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named Observer Travel Book of the Week. A North American version of the book came out in June 2008 and an Australasian edition has been planned for 2009. He has published short fiction and articles in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia, as well as in international anthologies such as Small Voices, Big Confessions. His novella, The Blank Space, will be published by Pendragon Press in 2009.

Reproduced from the January-March 2009 issue of Quill magazine


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