Saturday, 17 November 2012

"Like an old man trying to send back soup in a Deli" - The Seinfeld Supremacy

I trust we're not forgetting about Seinfeld? Fourteen years on from when it concluded, it remains unsurpassed, and probably always will be. If you've never seen it, or are starting to think of it as dated, get hold of a DVD right now and start with season 5 (or go straight to the season 6 episode The Jimmy) The first two seasons are good but quite gentle. The third season features some terrific episodes and the fourth even more, but the fifth season sees the show reach perfection, with the plotting and characterisation exquisitely balanced and every line, plot idea and nuance funny in a unique way. Seasons 5 and 6 are probably the show's peak, although 7, 8 and 9 are not very far behind.

Seinfeld is pure comedy: it isn't about detailed and believable characterisation, satire or tragedy. It must be understood in this way; no time for any of that "The Office is painfully real / Steptoe and Son is like a Pinter play / Basil Fawlty is quite a tragic figure really" stuff here. The same goes for the oft-cited "no hugs, nothing learned" rule: although it's true, this is never used to give the show airs of something more than comedy (as it happens, there is an episode of Seinfeld - The Betrayal - based on a Pinter play, but crucially it's a lot funnier than Pinter). Even the death of George's fiancé Susan is never allowed to be anything other than funny. Instead, the show plays with language. Choosing an episode at random for this piece, a glance at The Chicken Roaster reveals two linked throwaway lines with the signature flourish which none of Seinfeld's writers can stop generating but which British comedy writers these days can only dream of. Jerry runs into Seth, an old college buddy, who's got a meeting at work to go to, but Jerry insists they catch up on old times and asks "whatever happened to Moochie?" as they walk off arm-in-arm: "he's dead." "is that right?" Over lunch, Seth discloses that the meeting was rather important: he works for a big investment firm, and it was their first meeting with their latest investors. Seth subsequently loses his job, and stays cheerful, insisting it was worth it to catch up with an old college buddy: "I only knew you through Moochie," replies Jerry. Those two exquisite Moochie lines, almost throwaway by Seinfeld's standards, contain the show's aesthetic, and one that only comedy could have produced. The pleasurable effect of hearing a funny name like Moochie is linked to the poignancy of Seth's predicament and the destructive effect of friendship with Jerry.

 This linguistic playfulness can be found in every episode. "I don't WANNA be a pirate," says Jerry in The Puffy Shirt, adding a child-like high-pitched whine to "wanna" as he reprises a variation of the line in subsequent episodes each time someone demands he take on a role. "You're killing independent George!" wails George in The Pool Guy. "So Biff wants to be a buff," says Jerry in The Boyfriend. The Voice sees Jerry unable to kick the habit of saying "Hellooooo!" in a stupid voice, The Yadda Yadda is based in the idea that the titular phrase can be used to conceal important information, while The Summer of George sees Elaine irritated by men's tendency to make miaowing noises whenever a woman criticises another woman, even if the men made the criticism first. The title character in The Jimmy has an irritating habit of referring to himself in the third person. Lines from the Buddy Rich tapes - "I'm gonna show you what's it like", "this guy - this is not my kind of guy" and "we'll see how he does up there, without all the assistance" - are gleefully inserted into the dialogue of The Opposite, The Understudy and The Butter Shave respectively. Jerry Stiller's performance as George's father Frank - one of the funniest things ever caught on camera - peaks with those moments when what seems like the actor's struggle to remember lines lends them something you could never have imagined: "He had this big smiling face: it was like a pie" (The Understudy). "I saw a provocative movie on cable last bight. It was called The Net, with that girl from the bus" (The Serenity Now). Best of all is this exchange with George's mother (the wonderful Estelle Harris) from The Puffy Shirt:

Estelle: Georgie, would you like some Jello?
Frank : Why do you put the bananas in there?
Estelle: George likes the bananas!

The bizarre staccato roar in which Stiller delivers the last line is as good an example of what an actor can do to a line one could hope for. Phil Morris as the ultimate ambulance-chasing lawyer Jackie Chiles and Steve Hytner as Jerry's least favourite stand-up Kenny Bania also create their own verbal style, but to describe what they, Wayne Knight as Newman, John O'Hurley as J. Peterman and Len Lesser as Uncle Leo can do with a line would render this piece book-length.

   Sometimes it might be a non-verbal gesture that creates the poetry of comedy. The Pie starts off with the simple conceit of Jerry's girlfriend shaking her head when he offers her some pie. This baffles Jerry, but later on they eat at a restaurant run by Poppy (played with gusto by Reni Santoni), and Jerry sees him leaving a toilet cubicle without washing his hands. His girlfriend insists he tries some pie: all Jerry can do is shake his head in an identical way. Later, George is having lunch with prospective new employers and they pass him some pie, but George spots the chef watching furtively and realises he's an enemy from earlier in the episode who has contaminated his food in revenge. As his potential new employers demand he take a bite, warning him that they have no time for those who aren't team-players, George just shakes his head. A simple, funny physical movement, played with and threaded through a neatly-structured plot so that it becomes funnier and funnier: that's why this show is comedy in its purest form.

Other episodes of Seinfeld take a casual allusion and gleefully turn it into a riff. A episode about Jerry being nagged by his parents to see Schindler's List (The Raincoats) sees the episode's other central plotline - Elaine's latest boyfriend Aaron and his overbearing friendship with Jerry's parents - turn into a reenactment of that film's climax, nicely performed by Judge Reinhold:

No, I could've called the travel agency, got them on another flight to Paris, I coulda got them out. [...] This watch, this watch could've paid for their whole trip. This ring, this ring is one more dinner I could've taken them out to. Water, they need some water They'll get dehydrated on the plane! Get the Seinfelds some water. Please! Please!

An episode that has seen Kramer act increasingly like a dog (The Andrea Doria) throughout ends with a full on Lassie parody. An episode about condo elections (The Cadillac) in Florida ends with Jerry's dad recreating Nixon's exit from the White House. The Wig Master is painstaking in its goal to have Kramer become a pimp. First, another of the episode's plot strands provides him with a silver cane, then another one provides him with a Technicolour Dreamcoat from a production of Joseph, then someone's hat is blown away by the wind, then Kramer catches it and puts it on, accompanied by appropriate music and hip members of New York's nightlife exchanging the equivalent of high-fives with him as he saunters along the streets before reaching his car, and inadvertently stumbles into another of the episode's plotlines: prostitutes have been using the carpark in which George and Kramer park their cars to "turn tricks". After a 'John' flees the car and a hooker attacks Kramer for frightening away her trade, Kramer is apprehended by the cops as he is fighting her off. The punchline to this joyous riff - and to the episode - is Kramer's poignant cry as his mugshot is taken: "I'm not a pimp!": a child caught playing at being grown-up.

  Then there are the extraordinary textures the writers can create from playing with the convoluted nature of comedy itself, using its ludicrousness as a strength rather than a weakness. In The Chinese Woman, George spots his father talking to a man in a cape, (a cameo by Larry David, adopting an unashamedly ludicrous posture), who turns out to be his divorce lawyer. After the inevitable Superman comparison (one of the few things Jerry's interested in), we end with a scene in which the subject of the episode's other plot (a woman Kramer has apparently got pregnant) is about to throw herself off a bridge. A caped figure sidles towards her and gently guides her away. "Who are you?" she asks. "I'm Frank Costanza's lawyer," he replies. There are no astonishing moments like this in British comedy these days, and few the other side of the Atlantic. The caped lawyer can't give any other answers because that's all there is to him. In my pieces on Family Guy and Father Ted, I tried to pinpoint those extraordinary poetic moments unique to comedy, in which the gag folds back upon itself, and the writers revel in everything undefinable about it. This is one such moment: the fact that the character has been created purely because it is amusing to have George's father hold mysterious meetings with a man in a cape, and that the only reason for his appearance on the bridge is that it makes aesthetic rather than logical sense as those are the 2 plots left to be joined up, are all allowed to shine and refract as if through a prism. The example from Father Ted I used was Dougal's line, after Ted has raised the question of why they don't just take the rabbits back to the pet shop he bought his from: "It was a travelling pet shop, Ted, they won't be back till spring." Other examples include Sideshow Bob's line in The Simpsons "Well if it isn't my sworn arch enemy Bart Simpson, and his sister Lisa to whom I'm fairly indifferent." and numerous lines in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy such as this exchange:

Arthur: It's not so much an afterlife, more a sort of après vie
Zaphod: Hey, you dead guys! We're missing some ultra important thing here! Something somebody said and we missed it!
Arthur: I said it was more apres vie
Zaphod: Yeah, and Don't you wish you hadn't?

I love how that final line doesn't appear in the radio series, but was added for the TV series and the novel adaptation The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: an afterthought by Douglas Adams and an afterthought for the characters, acknowledging that they have to hear all these gags and don't always find them funny. All four examples use the way the gag works, the requirements of the gag, our expectations of that particular narrative and even the implausibilities it results in as walls to bounce the comedy off. They all parse earlier gags, and render everything funnier.

Other episodes take relish in distorting the shapes that we tend to associate with comedy narratives. The Bizarro Jerry sees Elaine encounter a group with the exact opposite qualities of Jerry, George and Kramer. Jerry makes the natural comparison with the Bizarro Superman. The episode ends with Bizarro Jerry saying "Me so happy, me want to cry" - we've gone from a reference to Bizarro Superman to using his very language, a quintessentially Seinfeld dynamic (the technique is one of displacement: compare it with the aforementioned climaxes to The Raincoats and The Cadillac, or The Jimmy, which starts with the title character's irritating habit of referring to himself in the first person, but by the end has George cathartically responding to his own storyline with "GEORGE IS GETTING UPSET!"). The Opposite sees George do the exact opposite of what he would normally do, resulting in the fortunes we've come to expect after five seasons being reversed. One has to marvel at Joe Queenan's bizarre claim that the sitcom has seen no innovation since the days of I Love Lucy: how can he say that when Seinfeld had such fun playing with the conventions and texture of the sitcom itself?

   Seinfeld is based around four people who aren't nice, demographically friendly or carefully constructed according to current audience interests, as those in Friends and The Big Bang Theory are. The scripts understand that not only are these not wonderful people: they aren't realistic either. What's most cloying about Friends and The Big Bang Theory is the constant insistence that these six people (in the case of TBBT it comes down to 2: girls and boys) are the only ones in the universe. Both those shows believe they are mimetic. Seinfeld, by contrast, revels in the fact that Kramer needs no job and yet has no money, that Elaine can't be bothered to keep up her anti-fur stance, that Jerry's "whole life revolves around cereals and Superman", that Jerry and Newman's enmity is little more than a kid's game that they both abandon when a more interesting game to play comes along. It also revels in the fact that these are not good people. To return to The Chicken Roaster, when Seth, jobless purely because of Jerry but bearing no grudge, is on his way out of Jerry's apartment, he picks up a newspaper and asks if he can keep it for the classifieds. Jerry replies "actually, I haven't read Tank McNamara yet..." and takes it back from him (Note that this occurs immediately after the "Moochie" line I mentioned earlier: in Seinfeld, these character details, grace notes, inflections, allusions to earlier lines and returns to earlier moments in a different key are combined to make comedic rainbows. It's why the delight the show gives never lessens after multiple viewings. You can watch it forever). The ingenious closing two-part episode - The Finale - was based around the idea that these are four odious individuals. They watch a fat man get carjacked with great amusement, and find themselves afoul of a new "Good Samaritan" law. They end up in prison, but the episode's tone is not self-consciously "dark": it's gleeful.

   The oddest thing about Seinfeld is the sublime effects they can get from Jerry Seinfeld's poor-yet-wonderful acting (Similar to the magnificent effects achieved by Larry David's awful-yet-brilliant acting in its sister show Curb Your Enthusiasm). This seems to be part of the same gag-parsing technique: when Jerry has to roar "Manya died - MANYA DIED!" out of a window in The Pony Remark, the phrase is made funnier by his inability to shout convincingly, as if the convoluted nature of a sitcom plot (Manya dies shortly after Jerry and Elaine offend her by saying they hate people who own or ever have owned ponies) is bounced back into the comic mix, strengthening rather than weakening it. It's because of this inexplicable effect that The Blood, in which Kramer has been storing blood everywhere, feels like a collision between Rabelais and Nabokov. When an accidentally-propelled scalpel falls toward Jerry, his whimper of terror sounds like a joke on the ridiculous nature of the moment. When he comes to and learns that Kramer has provided blood for a subsequent transfusion after the scalpel badly wounded him, all he can do is scream, and Kramer had no choice but to scream back. When the same thing happens with Newman stepping in as donor, all three of them scream. There's body horror here (Kramer has to store his blood in Jerry's car engine: it clots), and yet the script and actors are making us laugh at the absurd nature of that horror itself. If Jerry could scream convincingly, this effect would not be achieved. Jerry Seinfeld is actually a brilliant actor.

Jason Alexander as George Costanza gives one of the greatest performances in the history of television. As surely as with James Gandofini in The Sopranos or Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, every little movement, every expression, just the way he walks into a room, tells us exactly what is going on inside his character's head. He brings tremendous rage and suffering to the part, outacting the entire cast of many 'serious' dramas. Consider the scene in The Boyfriend where George has given Jerry's address as his current place of employment, claiming to be a latex salesman for Art Vandelay. The unemployment office ring Jerry's apartment while George is using the bathroom, and Kramer answers. "VANDELAY! SAY VANDELAY!" roars George's voice from the bathroom. Kramer ignores him and tells them that they have the right address, but this is just an apartment. As he hangs up, George bursts in with his trousers round his ankles, and lies defeated on the floor. Jerry enters: "And you want to be my latex salesman...". Alexander's investment in his character is so intense, in the physicality of his rage and in his ability to perform pratfalls and emotion with equal integrity, that moments like this are simultaneously hysterically funny and a point at which we feel we know this person as well as anyone in fiction.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine overcomes all of the stereotypes attached to women in comedy. Firstly, she's a natural clown: think of her and the first image that comes to mind might well be her signature violent shove while exclaiming "Get out...?", her inability to dance or the increasingly ludicrous facial expressions she pulls why saying "You think I have grace...?". Secondly, her character is as obnoxious and as base as the male ones, with none of the gender-essentialism of The Big Bang Theory or Friends. The gag about men who are "sponge-worthy" in The Sponge, her detestation of the sex scenes in The English Patient in the episode of that name ("Give me something I can use!") and her struggle to keep up with the no-masturbation competition in The Contest are the kind of vulgar comedy gold all often seen as the province of men (The Big Bang Theory, by contrast, sees the scenes with its female characters as the space for jokes about clothes-shopping, nail-varnish and Eat Pray Love).

When Michael Richards, as Kramer, made his entrance in the first episode of Seinfeld I ever saw - The Couch - my Dad, watching it with me, remarked, "oh God, there's the standard wacky neighbour: look at his funny haircut..." but a moment later, Kramer collided with a sofa a removal man was bringing in. He fell to the ground and leapt back up in an oddly graceful way. My dad chuckled:'"He did do that fall rather well, I must say -can we just rewind that?". That seems to me to capture the magic of Richards as Kramer, and its effect on the viewer: at first it seems to be standard sitcom shtick, then Richards plays it in a way no-one else could. His performance in The Jimmy is wonderful in a way nothing else has ever been. This imperishable episode sees Kramer mistaken for a mentally-challenged person after he's encountered with one side of his mouth still frozen by Novocaine following a dental appointment. He's invited to a charity dinner, where Mel Torme sings "When You're Smiling" to him. Kramer beams, and what makes this moment so delightful is the lack of deception: Kramer, after all, is indeed a special person, and didn't set out to give a false impression. The mixture of audacious bad taste and sweetness makes even the most po-faced viewer want to hug themselves: this as far away from Gervais-style cruelty as could be imagined, just as The Bubble Boy is interested more in the humour of an angry, raucous Bubble Boy (and in the poetry of saying "Bubble Boy") than in gags about his suffering.

The show's commitment to comedy aesthetics above everything else allows the characters to perform monologues of sustained power. Here's the climax of The Marine Biologist (in which George has been pretending to be a marine biologist to impress a girl, but been confronted by a beached whale which she implores him to save; and in which Kramer has been practicing his golf shots down by the beach):

   George: So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you boys, I was terrified! But I pressed on and as I made my way passed the breakers a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things but I tell you Jerry at that moment I was a marine biologist! [...]
The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup at a deli. I got about fifty-feet out and then suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow. I said, "Easy big fella!" And then as I watched him struggling I realized something was obstructing his breathing. From where I was standing I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!
Jerry: Mammal.
George: Whatever.
Kramer: Well, what did you do next?
George: Then from out of nowhere a huge title wave lifted, tossed like a cork and I found myself on top of him face to face with the blow-hole. I could barely see from all of the waves crashing down on top of me but I knew something was there so I reached my hand and pulled out the obstruction!
(George pulls out a golf ball)
Kramer (looking sheepishly at it for a while): What is that  - a Titleist? A hole in one, eh?
Jerry: Well, the crowd most have gone wild!
George: Oh yes, they did Jerry, they were all over me. It was like Rocky 1.
Diane came up to me, threw her arms around me, and kissed me. We both had tears streaming down our faces. I never saw anyone so beautiful. It was at that moment I decided to tell her I was not a marine biologist!
Jerry: Wow! What'd she say?
George: She told me to "Go to hell!" and I took the bus home.

Only comedy could create the effect that scene creates. The line "like an old man trying to send back soup in a Delhi," scans as gorgeously as poetry, and yet it's something other than poetry: it's irreducibly comedy.

Here's an equally brilliant vehicle for Michael Richards from The Fire:

KRAMER: she ran out of the building and a street sweeper ran over her foot and severed her pinky toe.
GEORGE: That's unbelievable!
KRAMER: Yeah! Then after the ambulance left, I found the toe! So I put it in a Cracker Jack box, filled it with ice, and took off for the hospital.
GEORGE: You ran?
KRAMER: No, I jumped on the bus. I told the driver, "I got a toe here, buddy - step on it."
GEORGE: Holy cow!
KRAMER: Yeah, yeah, then all of a sudden, this guy pulls out a gun. Well, I knew any delay is gonna cost her her pinky toe, so I got out of the seat and I started walking towards him. He says, "Where do you think you're going, Cracker Jack?" I said, "Well, I got a little prize for ya, buddy - knocked him out cold!

GEORGE: How could you do that?!
KRAMER: Then everybody is screamin,' because the driver, he's passed out from all the commotion...the bus is out of control! So, I grab him by the collar, I take him out of the seat, I get behind the wheel and now I'm drivin' the bus.
GEORGE: You're Batman.
KRAMER: Yeah. Yeah, I am Batman. Then the mugger, he comes to, and he starts chokin' me! So I'm fightin' him off with one hand and I kept drivin' the bus with the other, y'know? Then I managed to open up the door, and I kicked him out the door with my foot, you know - at the next stop.
JERRY: You kept makin' all the stops?
KRAMER: Well, people kept ringin' the bell!

This is a show famous for its "no hugging, no learning" rule, yet television has never been more joyous. The only emotion involved here is the warmth we experience when we experience great comedy.
Only two moments in the entire series allow the characters to express emotion towards one another. One is the scene in The Deal where Kramer gives Elaine the bench she wanted as a birthday present, along with a birthday card that quotes Yeats. Even this moment has a sting, though, as it drops Jerry in it for not getting Elaine anything. The second moment comes in The Wallet when Elaine returns after Julia Louis-Dreyfus has taken a few episodes off due to pregnancy. The four cheer and rejoice in a way that stays funny rather than schmaltzy, but there's still an uncharacteristic note of warmth.

Jerry's parents are highly skillful creations in this regard. It's been noted that Jerry is unusual as a protagonist in a sitcom for whom things work out, and crucial to this is his having relatively relaxed parents. They're  necessarily gentler than George's, but the achievement of Barney Martin and Liz Sheridan's performances as Morty and Helen Seinfeld is that they still make them funny. The scene in The Shower Head where Elaine demands that Helen provide a urine sample to help her cheat on a drugs test gains a curious comic edge from the latter's lack of offence, instead getting flustered about which glass she should use.   Even the scene in The Outing where they phone Jerry after rumors that he and George are a couple are circulating demonstrates that they are vexed -  "it's those damn culottes you made him wear when he was five!" - rather than offended. The episode's iconic line "not that there's anything wrong with that" sounds particularly natural coming from Liz Sheridan, setting us up for what it will sound like when Estelle Harris gets to say it. Helen and Morty succeed as creations because they reinforce the idea that Jerry has had irritatingly little to be concerned about (as he says in The Serenity Now, "I'm open, there's just nothing in there") as a source of humour, and so his parents are not demons like the Costanzas (not to mention the comedy gold that ensues when both sets of parents clash). Few comedies would be able to use a mother's unironic "how can anyone not like him?" (The Wallet) for comic effect, let alone as a catchphrase (not that its depiction of older people is rose-tinted - See The Cadillac for a splendidly acid portrayal of bitchiness and political rivalry among the elderly.)

 A more typical moment comes in The Serenity Now, when Jerry decides to try his hand at emotion: "What is this salty discharge?" he says upon shedding his first tears. He then insists upon opening up to George, who eventually relents and tells Jerry " All of my darkest fears, everything I'm capable of. That's me." Jerry stares in horror: "Yikes. Well, good luck with all that. [...] I think you scared me straight." Even eerier is the moment in the season seven finale The Invitations, when George's fiancé Susan, nicely played by Heidi Swedberg who gets us rooting for her, has been fatally poisoned by licking poor-quality envelopes when sending out wedding initiations (George insisted on the cheaper ones). The others react to the news, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivering the line "I' sorry, George...?" as if Elaine is baffled rather than moved. It's the eeriest moment in Seinfeld's history.

Yet, to reiterate, this is not a "dark" sitcom. It's not designed for the "this makes me squirm and therefore it must be funny" school of comedy criticism. It revels in its own artificiality, realising that its characters and plots are driven by the requirements of comedy, not just human observation. This is what makes it the opposite of Friends. Seinfeld acknowledges that Susan's death happens because it's funny, while Friends can't help but see Ross cheating on Rachel as the worst thing in the world. Douglas Adams said of PG Wodehouse "He doesn't have to be serious - he's better than that." Here's a show that was never serious, except in its artistry, and consequently created a world.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Hey Fandom: Any Room For An Opinion?

Regular readers of this blog, particularly its more mature pieces - will have noticed I'm in the tricky but interesting position of trying to bring the language of criticism - heartfelt, individualistic, provocative, unashamed - into the world of fandom, which tends towards the conformist - (did everyone else dislike it?) - the tentative - (of course that's just my opinion) - the anti-intellectual (you're taking it too seriously, how pretentious to use such big words, what are you on about?) the accusatory (you're just jealous, you're just trying to demonstrate your own superiority) the insulting (don't be obnoxious, don't troll, get a life, he's mad, what a strange man) the abbreviated (LOL, TL: DR, IMHO) and the labelling (Hah! Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons! Trainspotter! Geek!)

One of the creepiest trends on both twitter and forums  is the trembling, "don't hit me" use of "IMHO" in an opinion. Why do it? Of course it's your opinion: what else could it be? The only way "that's just your opinion" would work as a riposte to anything on this blog would be if I'd claimed to be able to produce figures backed up by The Lancet. Yet so many are nervous of upsetting someone who liked that show, book or film, they're deliberately removing authority and even conviction from their tone.

This is partly because criticism exists in a separate world from fandom, and perhaps a truce of some kind needs to be called. If you enjoy watching something and only want to share that enjoyment, then understandably you might see any less than adulatory opinion as pissing on your parade. Conversely, though, if you want to be left alone with other positive-minded fans, surely you can leave those of us who are enjoying debating an interesting point alone too rather than coming over to shout "WELL I LIKED IT!" There's room enough for both types, and no need for one to antagonise the other.

What's more worrying is seeing this panicky response to criticism spreading amongst writers themselves. Paul Cornell has written superbly about fandom foibles - this piece on canon and this one about fandom's relationship with drama are essential reads - but this curious conversation about Doctor Who Confidential on the comments section of his blog  provides a typical example of the brief glimpse of humourless, feudalistic threat displayed when one of the readers/viewers, without being rude or offensive, speaks out of turn:

Sourpuss comment coming, for which I apologise in advance: The "family feel" of DW:C is no doubt wonderful to be part of, but it's the single biggest contributing factor to my no longer watching the show. The whole thing is so cliquey and self-congratulatory that it often seems as if an in-house lark has been broadcast by mistake. 'Ave a word, there's a love...

Rob, how many Making Ofs do you know that are scathing attacks on their subject matter? They like what they do! And they transmit that to the viewers, and the whole makes a jolly celebration.

A third poster, SK, had a terrific reply to this:

Some 'making ofs' are actually watchable, interesting pieces which show how various effects (special or otherwise) were achieved, and what the people behind the scenes were aiming at (which is especially interesting if it didn't quite come off, and they realise that it didn't quite come off).

Not all of them are as cloying and indulgent.

A debate like this is surely everything a comments page is for: neither Rob nor SK have been rude: all they've done is criticise a TV programme. But this was Paul's reply:

Excuse me, SK, I rather harumph at your tone, especially at this time of the year, and especially because the people concerned were mentioned here only because they were kind enough to send me a gift. They don't deserve to come here and see that. Which is not to say I don't think you should be free to say it, just not in my gracious abode. Now, have some mulled wine.

And that's it. Discussion quashed. The mulled wine reference doesn't quite disguise the flash of warning: "careful old chap, don't care for your tone." The thing about "jolly celebrations" is that those in a different mood need to be cast out.

It's significant that this conversation should have revolved around Doctor Who Confidential, as that show was a good example of the Pollyannaism and enforced jollity that has taken hold of Doctor Who since 2005. SK's point is strong: compare DWC to the featurettes you would find on, say, the DVD of a Christopher Nolan Batman film. They assume their audience wants to know interesting details, and have enough respect for them to reward that curiosity rather than endlessly praising their own work. Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan and the team behind Seinfeld realise that there's more you can give the audience than a "jolly celebration."

The world of Doctor Who, of course, didn't always use to be like this. In the 1990s, when new content consisted of  novels and fan-produced videos rather than a lavish Caitlin Moran-approved BBC One series, there was a greater belief in the importance of refusing to pull punches in your criticism. Doctor Who Magazine's reviewers at the time - Craig Hinton, David Owen, Vanessa Bishop - were searingly honest if they disliked a novel, video, factual book or documentary, even though this would sometimes cause tension if the author was offended.

 In the same decade, Red Dwarf Smegazine once had a feature called "The Great Red Dwarf debate", in which Steve Lyons and Joe Nazzaro debated whether the show had gone downhill or hit its stride with series 3. Lyons argued that what had made the earlier series work had been lost. Now, I don't agree with Lyons's view- for me Red Dwarf matured from 3 onwards - but I find it interesting: it's the kind of discussion I want to read and enter into. Can you imagine Doctor Who Magazine running a similar debate today? They've run one about whether the brightly coloured Daleks are better than the old ones: that's as controversial as it gets. Turning to the most recent DWM, I notice the latest "debate" is about what is better: horror in Doctor Who or science fiction in Doctor Who? It's interesting, too, that while the stronger reviewers like Vanessa Bishop, David Owen and Gary Gillatt all continue to review releases related to the old Doctor Who  (to the same critical standard as before), the DVD release of series 5 was reviewed by Toby Hadoke of "Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf" fame, while their most prominent reviewer of new episodes is the remorseless Graham "I loved it" Kibble White.

The example I used in an earlier blogpost for the tendency to stomp on any interesting opinion in order to create a sense of critical agreement and unity was Steven Moffat's response to hallor on twitter. To recap, this was the conversation (Moffat had just referred to River Song as bisexual)

appreciate the thought but I don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility when people need to be told she is bi


If people need to be told she's bisexual, she's clearly not contributing to bisexual visibility. How is this hard to grasp?

When did I say I thought I was contributing to bisexual visibility?? Please stop being rude to me, you have no reason to be.

I'm just questioning your portrayal of a character you claim to
Be bisexual. How is that rude? I thought this was a discussion.

How is your rudeness hard to grasp?

I've been nothing but polite. Disagreeing with your opinion on something does not automatically mean I'm being rude.

Tom Spilsbury [editor of DWM]:
The comment that was rude was the 'hard to grasp' one. I know, because I get strangers who talk to me like this too. It is rude.

Good though the response to my blogpost on twitter feudalism was, it's depressing how many people took the view that Hallor's tweets were rude. I still can't see the point of responding to a coherent and civil question with five question marks, nor can I understand how five question marks could denote anything other than a failure to grasp something - what else are question marks for?

Anyway, Steven Moffat deleted his Twitter account in September, which his wife says is due to work commitments, but which Graham Linehan and Ian Levine saw as evidence that the "trolls" had won, and which script editor Andrew Ellard claims was preceded by a series of tweets of Dickensian pathos asking how he could reduce his more negative "@s". (See September 2013 update below this piece)  Those mean, mean fans. Don't they know what it's like to work in the media? Don't they release the damage opinions can do? Hard to grasp: what a cheek. Feel free to say their episode made you cry and that Matt Smith is fantastic and that you hope the Cybermen are coming back, but asking about River Song's contribution to bisexual visibility in the media: that's just out of order. It's sad for those of us who find the latter kind of discussion more interesting.

It's interesting to compare this conversation with a piece of correspondence published in DWM in May 1994, in which a reader from California named Sarah Keller wrote in to protest against the late Craig Hinton's review of Paul Cornell's Doctor Who novel No Future. Here's some extracts:

With all due disrespect to Mr Hinton, I ask that this whining overgrown schoolboy be fired and forced to grow up for a few years before thinking he is equipped to review books.
[...] Another example of Craigie's 'wit' being unleashed is his attack on Paul Cornell's gay characters in Love and War. I felt they were portrayed as people. Interesting people with problems. Which means that they can be "deeply unhappy" and unfortunately die of AIDS! It happens in life. Maybe not in Hinton's worldview, but as I've said, he needs a strong dose of reality. Certainly, honey, gays can be well-balanced and just happen to be gay, but some also dare to have human problems.
[...] This foolish little git is becoming more than I can tolerate. Please, please, please put a nuzzle on his rabid snout and kick him out into reality. He is disgusting.

Here's some extracts from Craig Hinton's reply:

Sarah - you seem to have misinterpreted my criticism of Ace and Benny in Paul's book. I was referring to the complete lack of character development since Love and War.
[...] in the Sixties, the Lord Chamberlain's office in Britain decreed that the only homosexuals permissible on stage and screen had to be "deeply unhappy", tragic people, whose nature meant they were flawed human beings. My comments expressed my disappointment that it's taken a long time for the opposite view to be seen in the series.
[...] Please don't presume that my "world-view" excludes people who have died of AIDS - I only wish this weren't true.

Sarah Keller's letter, like Hallor's tweet, brings up interesting issues. Unlike that tweet, it actually is rude, using wildly abusive language, implying that Craig Hinton was homophobic and wrongly assuming he wasn't gay. What's fascinating is that it doesn't occur to Hinton not to respond politely and intelligently: his reply is admirable and quite moving. The comment made by the editor at the time before he hands over the discussion to Hinton is noteworthy too: not only does he also decline to reciprocate Sarah Keller's rudeness, but his remark that "the 'who's your favourite doctor?' discussions of my youth are now stating to seem like a long time ago"' is actually used as a joke, a rueful acknowledgement that the time has come away to put away childish things. Nowadays it's not at all a joke, it's DWM editorial policy. Keller's letter would not have been published, and the current editor would have blocked her on twitter.

Paul Cornell has praised both the review and the letter in recent years when someone posted it on a forum. A quick look at the posts he used to make on the Doctor Who newsgroup rec-arts-drwho reveals a Doctor Who fan unafraid to challenge dreary received wisdom, frequently using the admirable maxim "dissent is good" (one I'm sorry he used first, as I can't use it for this blog), and raising the valuable point that Doctor Who itself is about someone who loves new ideas (a point he also makes well in the more recent canon piece, and which Lawrence Miles has made about Ian Levine, observing that no-one would detest Levine's closed mind and contempt for opinions different to his own more than the hero of the TV series he has dedicated his life to).

Similarly, Gareth Roberts, another writer for the modern series, wrote a sharp piece in DWM in July 2003 - two years before the show's resurrection. He rightly asks: "if you were coming to Doctor Who for the first time with Trial [of a Timelord], what on Earth would you think the series was about?" and writes of Silver Nemesis "I have no idea what Lady Peinforte, or Herr De Flores, or the Cyberleader want. What does the Nemesis do? The Doctor and Ace are so odd that's almost as hard to figure them out." Isn't this equally true of the recent series, which features as its heroes a girl whose baby has been stolen from her but who doesn't care about that too much, a woman who happens to be that baby grown up into a regenerating, time-travelling, gun-toting archaeologist, the girl's husband, who died and spent centuries watching over her as a plastic android replica, but is back to normal now, and a Doctor that all three have seen gunned down? Given the dream-like opportunity of writing for a wildly successful TV version of the show, a generation of intelligent critics like Cornell and Roberts have blunted their fangs as far as Doctor Who is concerned.

The presence of  writers on Twitter and logging on to forums, leading to them accidentally ingesting criticism, is a complicating factor. It's significant that Paul Cornell's objections to speaking ill of Doctor Who Confidential centred around the possibilities of those that worked on it seeing the comments. The antipathy towards fans Answering Back doesn't stop at twitter "@" etiquette, though. It's fair enough to say that it's unreasonable to send mean tweets on a show directly to its writer (mean being crucial here: not "I appreciate the thought but don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility" or wondering if someone who used 5 question marks is finding what you said "hard to grasp", and the same goes for "didn’t enjoy episode three, but episode two was surely best of the series! Love your shows, and IT I can really relate to, thanks!" which resulted in a lesson in etiquette from Graham Linehan detailed here. With forums, however, the comments are not addressed to the author. Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook's shocking book A Writer's Tale, which unintentionally explains so much of what went wrong with Doctor Who from 2006 onwards, contains an enlightening section where Davies reveals that writer Helen Raynor logged on to Outpost Gallifrey and read what fans had said about her Dalek story. Davies relates that, according to her, the experience was like being ganged up on and threatened by a group of bullying men. He reveals that he had to spend a large amount of time on the phone persuading her that they did indeed need her services. Now, if people had been sending Helen Raynor unpleasant remarks about her work directly to her, or making them to her face, I would agree with Davies's point, but to chastise someone for criticising a TV programme on a public forum because of the possibility of the author choosing to log on and read it is a preposterous as eavesdropping and then saying "How Dare you?" Sending strangers harsh criticism of their work uninvited is unpleasant and pointless but to say that you shouldn't make those criticisms anywhere on the Internet in case the author finds the site is a step too far. None of this is to say that a lot of nonsense isn't uttered on forums, of course, only that those that utter it are not "trolls", as Graham Linehan or Ian Levine would brand them. Trolls abuse people, not episodes of TV shows.

Another Doctor Who writer, James Moran, responded to one of Graham Linehan's anti-forum rants with this telling tweet:

You'd think comedy forums would be funny, wouldn't you? Read one once that was slagging off a mate. Yikes.

Every writer someone criticises is someone's mate and yet the very idea of criticising someone's mate has now become such a palpable fear, it's seen as a damaging enough case to end the tweet there, as forcefully as if Moran had said "can you believe they even drowned a little puppy?"

After the ferocious Graham Kibble-White had unleashed his nervously-awaited critical take on Victory of Daleks (he really liked it) someone asked his editor Tom Spilsbury on Gallifrey Base what he would do if Graham the Jackal loathed an episode. His response was that he couldn't see how he could employ anyone that mad. One thinks here of the response to Lawrence Miles's provocative - and in my view, spot on - argument on his blog that The Unquiet Dead endorsed anti-asylum seeker xenophobia in DWM's Fact of Fiction on that story. The piece summarised Miles's argument, and then simply expressed gratitude that most fans "knew when to stop reading things into" Doctor Who. That was it: no counterargument, no defence of the episode, no refutation of Miles's argument. The cry of fandom: stop reading things into it: we're not going to tell you why we dislike or disagree with your reading of it, nor offer a contrasting reading of our own: we just want you to stop reading. The dreariest conversation I ever had was with a fan who used to tell me I was "overanalysing" whenever I ventured a less than positive opinion about Doctor Who. He subsequently shortened this to just that word with an exclamation mark, which he fell back on whoever I said anything he disagreed with. This is a dangerous fallacy. You can't over-analyse anything or read too much into anything: you can analyse something poorly (in the other person's opinion), you can read or interpret something poorly (in the other person's opinion) but you cannot think too much. If every decoding is anther encoding, then every disagreement should be another opinion: what's chilling about fan language is that it attempts to bring the debate to a halt: arguments are met by insults and denials, but not counter-arguments or defences of whatever was criticised.

When I wrote my piece on The Thick Of It, an obvious aim was to stir debate: no decent writer only writes pieces he or she knows everyone will agree with. On Twitter I had some pleasing debates with admirers of The Thick of It, exchanging contrasting ideas while remaining friends. The comments section of the blog, curiously, was a different story, attracting insults only a few days after the blogpost went up (unlike the pieces on Moffat's Doctor Who and Graham Linehan, which still haven't attracted anything offensive). What was most telling about the first comment, written in a tone of humourless anger throughout, was what it didn't say: there was no defence of The Thick Of It, nor was there any actual rebuttal of any aspect of my argument: instead the piece focused on my stupidity for having written such a disrespectful article in the first place. There was a lot of insults: the piece was "rubbish", it was "egotistical" of me (I actually have to agree with Martin Amis here and say calling a writer egotistical is like calling a boxer aggressive: I'm not sure a meek, diffident essayist would be worth reading) to think that I could "deconstruct" The Thick of It, the piece was "not really criticism at all" but "an impotent attempt to assert your intellectual superiority." Again, note the denial: rather than countering the criticism, a very loud "NO!" is sounded: I don't need to disagree with you or because your opinion doesn't exist. I tried to make some of these points in my replying comment:

Hello angry anonymous comment-person.
Interesting that these panicky reactions to someone saying something critical about your favourite show apply as much to The Thick of It as they do to Doctor Who. (God knows what a Thick of It Forum would be like)

It's not egotistical to deconstruct Shakespeare, let alone The Thick of it. Is your strange idea of deference towards a tv show part of that tired old "when you make tv shows yourself then you can talk" argument, or do you think no-one has any business talking disrespectfully about tv? Would you prefer me to know my place? Are there no tv shows you feel superior too? How intimidating you must find switching on the tv if so. Don't you even feel superior to Jeremy Kyle? Piers Morgan? Frankly I'd rather have an egotistical critic than a diffident or meek one.

There's a slight contradiction between your annoyance at my less than polite tone towards a tv show and your own towards me: apparently it's fine to leave messages on someone's blog saying their piece is "rubbish" and that they are motivated purely by an "impotent attempt to assert you intellectual superiority" (and personally, I've no problem with you doing that) but bang out of order to mock a much-loved tv show on one's own blog. Have a look at The Thick of it on iplayer: there, see? It's still there, the nasty man's horrid little blog didn't hurt it.

The sheep-like attitude you would seem to
prefer to see in viewers and bloggers is depressing. No-one should be afraid to say they don't like something. It will have no effect on the programme/book/film (so if you're of a fan of it: why worry?); what it will do is encourage debate.

What's particularly striking is that you offer no counter-argument or defence of The Thick Of It: you focus entirely on how you hated the post.

The piece IS a criticism of The Thick of It: they exist, get over it. They're not going to cease to be criticisms and stand revealed as the work of "impotent" and "egotistical" fakes because you point at them and scream "that's not real!"

A second commentator named Melissa Naylor posted a brief reply telling me I "came across as obnoxious" and advising me to "work on your people skills". The debate - which could have been on The Thick Of It, comedy satire, fandom and politics - had now descended into insults (again, note the wide gulf between "work on your people skills" and "appreciate the point but don't understand how River works for bisexual visibility"). Rather than post testy replies on the dubiousness of holding forth to complete strangers about their "people skills", I deleted all three of our comments. This was a mistake, and in retrospect I should have kept a copy of the conversation to quote in full.

However, I offer two reasons for this uncharacteristic act. Firstly, if I wanted to swap insults I'd join a forum (although you can approach me on Twitter for that kind of thing). Secondly, I'd prefer to debate the pieces on Twitter rather than on the same blogpage, as my posting a defence immediately below the piece itself seems to me to dilute it: it should stand for itself, and follow-up comments I write within a day are inevitably going to be weaker than something I've spent time thinking over. Many blogs don't enable comments, and I've long wondered if it isn't self-defeating for an author of a long provocative essay to put shorter posts immediately below it, and both of the comments bear this out as the posters are clearly uncomfortable with things that are actually going to be a given in anything I write (of course the essays are going to be egotistical, of course they'll be unafraid to "deconstruct" anything and of course they're not going to worry about "people skills"). Leaving comments enabled makes this more like a forum with the essay as the first post, and that leads to other posters wondering why the first person posted such a long piece, and why they expressed an opinion with the assumption that it was true, with no IMHOs in sight. (If you don't like this piece,by the way, you can tweet me at @richardhcooper)

The same panicky, anti-intellectual tone can be found on some of my favourite responses to my "How Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who" blog, which were posted on a forum  (I quote from them in a spirit of interest, not spite, as these comments are not addressed to me, which makes them opinions, not insults):

This article is nothing more than a long-winded opinion made to sound authoritative and important. Some of us don't like the vapid, cheesy emotionalism of episodes like Love and Monsters and the whole of RTD's time and prefer arc-heavy, mystery laden shows. It's fine to have an opinion. He seems to be confusing "I don't like it" with "It's bad and has no value." I sure as hell disagreed with a lot of what RTD did at the helm, but I wouldn't accuse him of "ruining" the show.

If you look toward the comment section, it all makes sense. He basically tears Moffat apart using pseudo arguments, makes lite criticism of RTD to seem like he's bring fair and balanced, and adamant Moffat hates eat it up as though it were an intelligently well thought out article backing their own opinions. It's persuasion on the most basic level. Appear intelligent by saying things people won't necessarily understand, be assertive in your opinion, and sprinkle in exactly what people want to hear, in this case it's the opinion that Moffat is a horrible writer that has ruined Doctor Who.

After reading through this, I realized I'd read through it before. And Terror is right. It's a long winded way of saying that this person just plain hates Moffat Who. I had written up a list of things to refute points and such, but I just can't be bothered to. People are always bashing the current showrunner and saying tv has degenerated from intelligent material to flashy lights and bangs. I was about to type up more but I had to stop myself. I'm stopping. I remember the first time I read this, it actually convinced me of a few things and I started disliking Moffat. It's articles like these that now force me to require a good slap in the face every time I start to whine about some aspect of the show that is apparently not good. These rants are like commercials- they get in your head.

As others have said. It's too conflicting with itself, ignoring a lot of parts of Classic Who. And far too negative. Why the hell does he even watch this show? He seems like a bit of a negative sod overall too.'s an in-depth analysis...but it's an incredibly picky analysis.

What a sad title for a topic. I don't mind discussing these things here, but in the future, could you please link articles with titles like "An opinion piece on Moffat", etc.? I love visiting this place and I really dislike seeing sentences like these hovering halfway down the page every time I go here.

This is the kind of guy that irritates me the most. He thinks that just because he has a blog, and can write an essay length entry, that he is intelligent and knows what he is talking about.

Claiming that JNT was better than Moffat? The balls on this author.

It's fascinating, endearing and sad to see the lengths the commentators go to deny that they were impressed or saw any merit in the article, whilst describing the dangerous, seductive cleverness of its rhetoric. Exactly how could I "make" a long-winded opinion "sound authentic and important"? That would be quite a skill. The one thing that seems to be absent from these fans' world-view is the conceit that something can be entertaining, well-written, interesting or  enlightening even if one disagrees with it. They seem to soften momentarily, expressing interest in the way the piece is written, (do they not realise that "the balls on this author!" is precisely the kind of compliment an essayist dreams of ?) and then quickly back off.

The third comment is the most fascinating, revealing the palpable sense many fans have that a differing opinion poses a threat. The commentator sees my piece as a potential brainwasher. If anything, that's preposterously flattering to me. Raymond Chandler used to direct people to his bookcase when they asked if Hollywood had ruined his books. "There they are - they're fine." Couldn't someone tell fans the same thing? The distinction the first commentator makes between "I don't like it" and "it has no value" is false, and would only be valid if I had a tendency to wipe master-tapes, burn books and shout "what are you reading that rubbish for?"'at people reading Dan Brown on trains. Only a bigot would: I pose no threat to what you like, even if I happen to hate it.

It''s a familiar set of comments to anyone who's ever observed forum posters respond to a Lawrence Miles piece. Is he mad? What a saddo. Why talk about the show so much if he doesn't like it? Why's he use such clever words to sound clever? Why's it so long? Why's he so pretentious? What's he on about? The notes sounded most often here are a lack of interest in  anything you can't understand, and annoyance at opinions different from your own, neither of which are very Doctorish traits.

One of the most chilling moments I've had on the Internet came when I found out what TL:DR meant (if you don't know yet, google it. If you don't experience any revulsion you may be reading the wrong blog). It's the ultimate expression of the fear of different opinions, the fear of reading, the fear of controversy, reduced to an easily replicable slogan, which doesn't even bother to spell out its own words. The essay is a long form. The freedom it affords its author to develop their ideas comes from its assumption that the the reader can take or leave it. The piece isn't written for your convenience, so its length and the forthrightness of its opinions are not tailored accordingly. It's only aimed at readers who are prepared to consider another's viewpoint. If you can't be bothered to read the piece, is there much point in bothering to take issue with it?

The reaction to Christopher Priest's piece about the Clarke nominations saw the problem spreading wider still. Priest's blogpost was far from perfect, but it was an interesting and heartfelt piece that raised a number of good points. Damien G Walter's curious response piece put it down to jealousy - heaven forbid it might be an opinion:

So why then would a man held in rather high esteem by the community of Science Fiction writers and readers throw a hissy fit about the recently announced Clarke awards shortlist? The immediate assumption one might make is that Priest is somewhat vexed about his own novel The Islanders being overlooked for this year’s shortlist. And no doubt this is one of many straws piled upon this particular heehawing donkey’s back, but in this case probably not the most significant one. A more significant reason might be that Christopher Priest has spent most of his professional career not being J G Ballard. The two writers began their professional careers around the same period of the early to mid 1960′s, among a number of writers who would become known as the New Wave, all loosely connected by their shared agenda of making SF a serious and respected literary genre. Priest is not now among the first writers that come to mind in discussions of the New Wave…which is of course the point. [...] Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down.  [...]And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true

Equally dispiriting was Pat Cadigan's open letter to the Guardian  in which she said she was "really disappointed to see The Guardian has picked up what is an extended tantrum by a disappointed writer and treated as if it should be taken seriously." Just what is the most depressing part of this? Is it the insistence that this must be down to jealousy - a complaint which essentially denies the existence of a criticism instead of refuting or countering it - or the idea, echoed by Cheryl Morgan in her response to Priest, that one thing that SF doesn't need is people taking it too seriously. Stay out of this, Guardian, no controversy here, nothing the outsiders need to know about: now let's get back to praising each other.

As Catherynne M Valente pointed out here: "saying 'he’s just jealous' as a way of discounting everything a person says does not become a critic." Adam Roberts, similarly, suggested that debates are what shortlists are for, not encumbrances to them. One might also recall the reaction to AS Byatt's excellent piece on Harry Potter, dismissed by Salon editor Charles Taylor   - as a "Goblet of Bile":

It’s clear that we’re dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin’. Loath as I am to resurrect the old canard accusing writers or critics who dislike a popular work of art of being jealous, in Byatt’s case it might be true. Remember, this is the same writer who went into a highly publicized hissy fit some years back when Martin Amis was given a lucrative advance against future books. It’s only human for writers or filmmakers or musicians to feel resentful and even contemptuous when what they consider good, serious work is being passed over in favor of some pop artifact. But sooner or later, if you choose the life of a writer, you damn well better be able to make peace with the possibility that in all likelihood you will not enjoy spectacular commercial success. Byatt has it better than most, enjoying a modicum of fame, more than her share of respect, and the distinction of being one of the relative few who has been able to make a living at literary fiction. But success on the scale of J.K. Rowling’s clearly gets under her skin.

As with the reactions to Priest, the isn't a counter-argument but a very loud SHUT UP! Note also that Byatt's piece contains this:

- as they do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.

Perhaps Taylor has never head of Pratchett: a vastly superior writer to Rowling who attracts far more literary snobbery (and whose collected short stories features an introduction by Byatt as erudite and delightful a corrective to literary snobbery as anyone has ever written). Fay Weldon's comments were spot on:

Byatt does have a point in everything she says but at the same time she sounds like a bit of a spoilsport. She is being a party pooper but then the party pooper is often right.

This leads us to my favourite piece about this topic. It's a fine argument for the superiority of anger, contempt, indignation and conviction over mulled wine and forced jollity. How can one have an interesting opinion without negativity, any more than one could have one without positivity? When we get angry about things is often when we care the most, and frequently more things are achieved by people who have had enough than by Pollyannas. Of course "it was the worst thing in the history of television" and "you can't write" are bloody useless criticisms, but only because they're one-note, poorly expressed and, in the case of the latter, personally insulting. We need to judge critiques in terms of quality rather than negativity. As the great Adam Mars-Jones - perhaps the best critic working today - said recently, "the only bad review in my book is one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf" (He also said "a book review is a conversation that excludes the author of the book. It addresses the potential reader", which is a valuable reason why "Amy Pond is one of the most unconvincing and poorly-crafted characters in TV history" is better blogged than tweeted to her creator, why calling the author of a blogpost "obnoxious" is better posted on a forum than the comments section of the actual blog itself, and why you should  never go on the offensive against someone for what they said about your work on a forum).

Tell me Bond films or Doctor Who are crap and I'll be bored. Tell me why you find them dreary, repugnant or troubling and I'll be interested, even if I don't agree. Tweet to me "Read your latest blogpost: God, you're so full of yourself" and I'll struggle to see what you'd expect in reply, tweet to me "your piece is riddled with holes: for instance..." or "that's a preposterous argument because..." and I'll be interested enough to debate with you.

The age of TL:DR and IMHO has left a generation frightened of opinions. Increasingly, the image for the future of interesting critical opinions on SF, fantasy and comedy looks like that of a boot stamping down on a human face, and whatever the owner of the boot might say, that doesn't look like Comic Book Guy's face to me. If it's "people skills" you want, maybe you should join a forum or find a meeker blog. There's no mulled wine here.

Friday, 28 September 2012

How To Write The Thick of It

Razor-sharp. Incisive. Horribly accurate. Fact imitating fiction. Now you can write your very own episode of The Thick of It.

1) You'll need pop culture references: endless pop culture references: "It's like that third Tron movie that no-one's waiting for", "the Scottish Simon Cowell", "Like a fucking Will Self lecture", "we are the Gallagher brothers of politics", "okay, let's Macintyre this - stand up", "then it's just me, the Kindle and Jodi Picoult"', "Fuck off, Bagpuss", "When I've finished with him he'll look like Mel Gibson's fucking Jesus", "Nicola's gone all Jeremy Kyle", "You're the fucking shittest James Bond ever - you're David fucking Niven", "That was a bit annoying. And hilarious. Like Russell Brand. You want to hate him, but he’s just funny", "not the sofa - what are you, Lorraine Kelly?"' "You couldn't keep the cast of Glee out", "it's like when Queen lost Freddie - no-one could replace him, certainly not Paul Rodgers", "Oi, James fucking May, it was you who sprayed the private information about the school, wasn't it? Like Jenson Button shaking up a magnum of piss". Naming things people like is a gift for the writer of dialogue: it saves time.

2) Swearing is automatically funny. This is useful because you can adapt it to any situation: if someone is presenting poppies at the cenotaph and makes a mess of it, you can create lines like "bollocking poppy wank" and "she is officially a cenotwat". Not to forget "Shitehead Revisited", "Fuck off Mr Chips" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Cunt". The trick is to add the swear word at the right moment. This makes it ideal for quoting on Twitter or at work the next day.

3) Another useful technique is to take an established name, and add a twist to make it fit one one of the characters: "how's Martina Luther King?", "where's Hale and Pacemaker?", "Lord Bonnie Longford" "Lucille Ballbag" "Benny fucking Hendrix", "Where's Dame Ellen McArseache?", "Indiana Murray and the bum-dildo of vengeance".

4) Despite the richly talented cast, you don't need to give them too much to work with. Don't bother with the characterisation, nuance and inventive comic detail you find in their other work such as Knowing Me Knowing You, The Day Today or Getting On. What's that got to do with satire? That's just art. All you need in the way of characterisation is the odd reference to how the characters are unhappily married or don't get to have sex very often and have to resort to porn. The character of Phil Smith is a masterful example here.

5) There are two ways of writing dialogue: one is to have a character make references to the other's sexual failures, the other is for them to suggest they are gay.

Here's the first:

Phil: (producing a bottle of champagne)
It was in my desk drawer - I was saving it for something special.
What, like losing your virginity?
I've done that in style, actually - if my penis could talk...
Yeah, it'd say "I'm lonely, where is everyone, let me out of this coffin..."
(series 4, ep 1)

Here's a couple of examples of the other:

While Peter is absent I am his surrogate: the King's hand
Yeah - finish him off with that hand as well, do you? Prick.
(series 4, ep 3)

Malcolm: (interrupting an argument between Ollie and Phil)
I love it, I love it, it's the pre-match sparring for the big supergayweight title fight, eh? (mimes boxing) Ok Oliver, wipe away the precum, you've got some work to get on with.
(series 3, ep 4)

6) if the ad-lib hasn't come off, keep ad-libbing: non-sequiturs are funny, particularly if you keep adding to them and commenting on the fact that they are non-sequiturs. Here's some examples:

What I need to know is, are you solid?
Yes, I'm completely... I'm as solid the proverbial, as a - as a rock, As a a - as a sailor' on shoreleave."
(series 3, episode 8)

You're like the man who fucked the monkey that gave us AIDS, that's who you are!
(Incredulous) I'm like the man who did what - who fucked the monkey (laughs) that gave us AIDs?
That's right: you keep saying "it wasn't me, it wasn't me" and there's monkey shit on your balls, not mine.
(series 3 episode 4)

Great, thank you, Steve fucking "oooh Nicola" Fleming
Yeah... He is a fucking... [pause] ninny isn't he?
(series 3, episode 7)

Glen, you're a marvel, you know - you're like a modern-day're like Jeeves...only not as good."
(Series 4, ep 3)

See how the actors' unhappy way of delivering the dialogue, as if the characters were struggling to articulate themselves well, can be used to excuse what might otherwise seem rather feeble material.

7) Comedy can be created by clinging to the phrase a person has just used:

Fleming: Glen, are you on top of your game?
Glen: I'm, er [splutters] I am above my game, I'm in a geo-stationary orbit way above it looking down going "Hello game, it's Glen!"
(series 3 episode 8)

You've done some pretty awful things to me in my time but this takes the bloody biscuit - and you've pissed on that biscuit and I've got to eat it. Well, here's the news Malcolm, I will not eat the pissy biscuit!
Sam! No pissy biscuits.
(Series 3 ep 8)

The leader of the Opposition is in that room, Malcolm, practicing walking, I mean, baby horses can walk - from the womb. She's one nil down to a pony.
A pony isn't a baby horse. It's a foal: a fucking foal is a baby horse.
Right, our guest tonight on "I don't give a fuck about baby horses is me.
[later in the episode]
shall we get a pony to challenge her?
It's not a fucking pony, it's a fucking foal.
(series 4 ep2)

Everyone knows that's what dialogue sounds like in comedy.

Can you do that? Let's try right now, shall we?:

Teri looks in the biscuit tin) Why do you always have to eat all the penguins?
Why are you always asking me about the Penguin count? You're a Penguin Nazi
You're calling me a Nazi Penguin?
No, I'm calling you a Penguin Nazi
What's the difference?

People will be tweeting " 'penguin Nazi'! lol #thethickofit"' in no time. It could be the new "quiet bat people" (series 4 ep 2).

8) for your plot, you'll need some new initiative, campaign or scheme: let's say: lollipop ladies...

9) There's a photo-op or a lecture to try and launch this initiative, but something goes wrong. Nicola/Mannion makes a speech about the lollipop scheme, but there's a faux pas: a member of the public asks a question that puts them on the spot: they flounder, ad-lib "awkward" non-sequitars, and try and ingratiate themselves with the questioner. Ollie/Emma pulls a face. Malcolm/Stewart watches it live on TV or hears it over the phone and goes ballistic, repeating whatever non-sequitur Nicola/Mannion has just used: "Postman Pat! Did he [or she] just compare the Party to Postman Pat? WHAT THE FUCK...!" Glen/Phil/Teri looks on nervously as he knocks things off the desk and makes frantic phone calls.
10) Mannion/Nicola arrives back and swears furiously: "Thanks a fucking bunch! I was supposed to be the fucking Lollipop Leader now I'm Postman Prick?" Malcolm/Stewart responds with insults.

(11) Shots of punning or pop-referencing newspaper headlines, photo mock-ups, political cartoons (Nicola hanging from a lollipop like a gallows, Mannion with a lollipop up his backside, Mannion/Nicola as Julius Caesar stabbed in the back with a lollipop, Mannion/Nicola as Postman Pat with someone else significant depicted as his cat Jess) are bemoaned by Stewart/Malcolm and sniggered at by Ollie/Glen/Teri/Emma/Phil.

12) As Mannion/Nicola sets off homewards, Stewart/Malcolm continues to make angry phone calls and Ollie/Glen/Teri/Emma/Phil make ruefully amused comments, the lollipop scheme is abandoned for some fairly ironic reason. All is back as it was. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever will. Credits roll over insults.

13) Any good work of fiction has a political aspect to it. All literature is propaganda, as Orwell said, and the same is true of TV. The Thick of It, however, is only concerned with the politics of the ministry and the party: leave that all that "exploring it through three-dimensional human beings, complex relationships, though-provoking storylines, unbearably moving moments, complex acting, harrowing moments that take the viewer out of their safety zone, putting characters you care about in worrying situations, dramatising important political and social questions through a gripping plot dynamic, finding the admirable traits in loathsome people and vice versa, rich dialogue rather than just a stream of insults, asking what the fuck is wrong with the country" stuff to The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boys From The Blackstuff, Cracker and The Sopranos. That's for people with far too broad a definition of politics.

14) No backstory, no characterisation, no emotion, no non-political humour (unless you count the insults and the pop culture references) no subversion of the format, no suggestion that spin-doctoring and ministerial or party politics are banal. This is not designed as a show that supports an "it's about more than just politicians" reading. It's for people who like talking about politicans, and satire. Hence the straight-to-the-point directing and editing, the abrupt opening and ending, the lack of music or logos, the plain credits. Satire is all it is: what it stands or falls as.

15) that said, don't go overboard on the satire: no anger, keep it non-partisan, keep it safe. This must please satire fans and deliver what is expected: it must not ruffle feathers, cause controversy, upset people.

16) your main messages are:
a) politicians are idiots
b) everything in politics rebounds on you
c) it doesn't make any difference which party
d) swearing is funny
e) all scheme, proposals and initiatives go wrong
f) nothing changes, nothing can be done

17) Trust me, this will work: it's tried and tested, it makes people feel safe, all the more so because it makes them feel the Government is being challenged while they laugh at nob gags and references to Gordon Ramsey.

18) One other thing, the first series, like the current one, starred Peter Capaldi, okay? Look at the DVD cover: Peter Capaldi. I don't see anyone else there, do you? There is no Chris Langham, do you hear me? I don't care if it has gone horribly downhill since he left. Look at the DVD cover, comrade. There was no Langham in the Party.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Why I Loathe Confessional Writing

I have a confession to make: I despise confessional writing. I know it's awful of me as a weak liberal, but I loathe pieces in which the author ruefully acknowledges that that it was awful of them as a weak liberal to do whatever slimy thing they've done. When I was reading Lionel Shriver's piece on how, when a friend of hers got cancer, she abandoned her, but isn't proud of herself, I abandoned reading pieces by Lionel Shriver. Awful of me, I know, but I was too weak. I wasn't brave or unflinching, to give two of the buzz-words that are applied to this kind of writing.

A difference between right-wing hacks and liberal hacks is that while the former do little to persuade even themselves that they're anything other than malodorous, the latter think that saying something abhorrent or doing something abhorrent is redeemed if you pontificate upon how abhorrent it was of you in your piece, and how all of us - not just the author of the piece - are complicit in this abhorrence, for this is an abhorrence symptomatic of our times.

Anne Enright's endlessly detestable piece on the McCann family for The London Review of Books - available here but currently subscription-only at its home at (not the first time it's disappeared from there) - is a paradigm. From the words "distancing yourself from the McCanns is a recent but potent form of magic and disliking the McCanns is an international sport", the piece assumes we are all complicit in the author's obnoxiousness. Praised by Sam Leith ( ) as "spot-on" and "darkly funny", it gives us the horrible image of Enright using Google Earth to study the hotel in Portugal in order to work out how the kidnapping was feasible while chatting with her husband about whether the McCanns were wifeswappers and staying up late at night to look for further YouTube interviews with the couple.

I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it). I thought I was angry with them for leaving their children alone. In fact, I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say to go away. In this, I am as bad as people who complain that ‘she does not cry.’

Actually, she's worse: those people who say such foolish things don't put them on paper for others to see, including the victims. 'Literary' prose stands revealed in this piece as no better than corporate jargon or tabloid-speak: it has its own set of cliches, it panders to the expectations of readers used to this sort of thing, it relates only to itself and not to other human beings or the outside world, it occupies a specific slot within the media, it's deeply callous. The final sentence is "Then I go to bed and wake up the next day, human again, liking the McCanns", concluding a pattern that Enright has woven throughout the piece, which is there to tell us this is an essay and not a column, as the smudgy sheen they put on videotape in late-90s-onwards tv programmes is there to tell us this was done on film (perhaps one day the former, too, can be done at the touch of a button). It's those little frowns, those  self-deprecations and qualifications, turns at the corners of  sentences that are so nauseauting: "I'm not proud of it", "I thought I was angry with them for" "it’s part of our mass paranoia" "I am otherwise inclined". "I have never objected to good-looking women". "Maybe I should believe in myself more" "I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check", one-sentence paragraphs (often the sign of a scoundrel) a whole paragraph consisting of "if."  They don't make Enright anything other than a literary rubbernecker.

Forgive me, but let's look at it in more detail:

In one – completely unverified – account of her interrogation, Kate McCann is said to have responded to the accusation that the cadaver dog had picked up the ‘scent of death’ on her clothes by saying that she had been in contact with six dead patients in the weeks before she came on holiday. My doctor friend doubted this could be true of a part-time GP, unless, we joked, she had ‘done a Shipman’ on them. Then, of course, we had to row back, strenuously, and say that even if something had happened between mother and child, or between father and child, in that apartment, even if the child just fell, then Kate McCann was still the most unfortunate woman you could ever lay eyes on.
During the white heat of media allegations against Madeleine’s parents, my husband came up the stairs to say that they’d all been wife-swapping – that was why the other diners corroborated the McCanns’ account of the evening. This, while I was busy measuring the distance from the McCanns’ holiday apartment down the road to the church on Google Earth (0.2 miles). I said they couldn’t have been wife-swapping, because one of the wives had brought her mother along.

‘Hmmmm,’ he said.

She was only a slip of a thing,’ I said.

I did not say that the body might have been made more pliable by decomposition. And I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check (get in there now, sweetheart, and curl up into a ball).

Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me? In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns ‘did it’ swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah. Of course they had. It made a lot more sense to me than their leaving the children to sleep alone.
It is not that we blame them – if they can be judged, then they can also be forgiven. No, we just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass.
Most of the animosity against the McCanns centres on the figure of Madeleine’s beautiful mother. I am otherwise inclined. I find Gerry McCann’s need to ‘influence the investigation’ more provoking than her flat sadness, or the very occasional glimpse of a wounded narcissism that flecks her public appearances. I have never objected to good-looking women. My personal jury is out on the issue of narcissism in general; her daughter’s strong relationship with the camera lens causes us a number of emotions, but the last of them is always sorrow and pain.

We can see all the prejudices of a tabloid mind here: prurient speculations about the McCanns' sex lives; wondering whether they killed their child; the obscenely irrelevent matter of Kate McCann's good looks; wondering why they don't accept their daughter is probably dead; unverified sources; pawing at whatever scraps of juicy new internet gossip you can get; hating someone you've never met because of media coverage, all of them with that recurring note, that constant emphasis, that constant damned assumption that this is the kind of thing we all do. It "makes harridans of us all." Yes, Enright knows her dislike of the McCanns is preposterous, and that expecting them to go away and grieve is nonsensical as well as callous, and she knows you know, but she's only being honest. Yes it's bad to do things like this, but it's the way of the world, our sin not mine. Only that reassuring preciousness in the language -  the "'Hmmmm,' he said" getting a paragraph to itself - distinguishes it as "literary", a step up from Jon Gaunt, and that endless veering from the McCanns to the more important matter of the inside of Anne Enright's head ("I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction. I have an unhealthy trust of strangers.") Good to know that Enright has no problem with attractive women, though. I have one with ugly prose.

Following 9/11, the literary editor Robert McCrum foolishly argued -  in a piece available here -  that:

swamped as we've been with a tidal wave of quite unbear able reality, it's the writers of fiction, contemporary masters such as Ian McEwan in Britain and Paul Auster in the US, who have come up with the words of comfort and clarity we crave in the midst of shock and desolation. People sometimes dismiss fiction as mere entertainment, but at times like this there's no question that novelists at their best have a privileged access to truths about the human condition denied to others. Partly, this is because they have a detachment that reporters, caught up in the maelstrom of events, cannot equal. Journalism is history's first draft, and the journalism of novelists, while not always to everyone's taste, can supply the insights that people need at a time like this.

In Enright's "liking the McCanns" prose we can see the worst effects of that very approach to writing. The belief that you can take a real-life situation and render it "literary" results in sentences about other people's suffering which are more interested in how that sentence should be structured. This is why George Orwell argued that good prose should be like a windowpane. Compare the piece with Christopher Hitchens's report on the victims of Agent Orange, or how Orwell himself writes on those living in poverty, and the latter's account of a hanging. Both are great stylists, but because they care more about their subjects than their literary standing, they leave you caring about the victims and wondering what can done about the situation, rather than nodding at the inevitability of our callousness and insularity, grateful it at least allowed a novelist to alleviate the horror by churning out exactly what literary periodical subscribers expect from literary prose. Martin Amis's non-fiction has moved from one pole to the other. The first three collections of essays by Amis are the work of an alert, interested, empathetic journalist (take a look at his fine, moving piece on the AIDS crisis in The Moronic Inferno). The Amis behind Experience, Koba the Dread and The Second Plane, who writes about others' suffering but cares about nothing other than his own phrasing ("Fred West will only get one sentence from me [...] Here is that sentence") is much less worth having.

Literary hackery, like tabloid hackery, is a factory. The difference is that it's where the alternatives to the mass-produced are mass-produced; where the alternatives to the churned-out are churned out. Novelists are much better at writing novels than anyone else, but the idea that we understand events like 9/11 or Madeline McCann's abduction all the better once we've read Martin Amis describing his "species grief" at the "worldflash" of a terrible future, his replacement of the word terrorism with horrorism and how Anne Enright felt when she woke up trivialises the those events as surely as it overrates those authors (and sadly, Amis's outburst about strip-searching Muslims and not letting them travel until they "get their house in order", his reliance on Neocon sources like Mark Steyn and Amis and Ian McEwan's awesomely daft attempts at political symbolism in their respective novels Yellow Dog and Saturday are just three things out that didn't bear out McCrum's prophecy of an invigorating novelistic response to 9/11).

Confessional writing doesn't wait until violence or tragedy takes place, though. Zadie Smith's inexplicable piece for The New Yorker on the way she treated a poverty-stricken friend she lent money to - - has already been roasted by Edward Champion here
( ) and little more can be said, except that once again Smith thinks that pontificating on bad behaviour stops the reader from gagging on that bad behaviour. Furthermore, she is only aware of half of what she actually did wrong. She seems to think her sins are impatience for the paying of the debt, and thoughtlessness in not realising her friend had no internet connection with which to contact her. She seems unaware of the question of why she needed a loan paid back in the first place if it was, in her words, "no skin off my nose", or whether the friend deserved to have her problems paraded in The New Yorker in this way (as Champion points out, withholding your friend's name isn't sufficient if you're famous: anyone who knew them both could identify her).

Over in Britain, the broadsheet reaction to the killing spree and death of Raoul Moat brought to the mind the storm over James Bulger's murder. In the latter, the pontifications of more liberal, up-market hacks determined to make a career for themselves was almost as vile as that of the tabloids. The career of Blake Morrison owes a lot to it as does that of Andrew O'Hagen. Regarding the latter, have a look at this narcissistic essay for The London Review of Books  - the first piece of writing he ever had published - and the obscene mixture of prurience and facetiousness in the subsequent letters exchange, in which a bunch of people with the time to write long letters to The London Review of Books expand a discussion of infanticide to jokey criticisms of each others' letters (those endless quips about "eating my hat") and the merits of Richmal Crompton's William books. At least they're keeping themselves amused, and O'Hagen's got a career out of it.

Morrison used the same murder (in his book As If, as well as  pieces for The Guardian ( whenever the case resurfaces) to ruminate on everything from the nature of evil itself to his own shortcomings as a parent and as a heterosexual man. His pieces combine deeply distressing details from the murder itself - although they don't seem to distress Morrison as much as they distress me: at one point he mentions a particularly horrific detail and adds that it was withheld at the trial to spare James Bulger's family suffering, but doesn't bother to tell us why he felt otherwise, just as Enright is untroubled by describing Madeline McCann as "probably dead" - with flippant gags like this: "As Larkin might have put it, parental anxiety began in 1993 [the year of the murder], between the Children's Act and Eminem's first CD."

Reading the moment in As If where Morrison, narrating the trial in the present tense, notices both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson are putting on weight; remembers that he and his sister were fat at their age; and reminisces about divebombing in the swimming pool in Majorca in front of derisive holiday-makers, it's not surprising that a few years later we'd reach a stage where Martin Amis, in a non-fiction book on the Stalinist Purges, would compare the screams of his baby daughter to the screams from the Gulag. By the time we reach the chapter describing Morrison's own baby daughter, we're treated to the saccharine prose of Tony Parsons's smarter brother:

 The whorled, Danish Pastry of an ear, the stretched skin above the lobe so paper-thin the sun shines through

the silver seal of a milk-blister on an upper lip

 A gleaming, gappy grin, a last little spit out of pink

where she lies, a dairy squiggle, on the floor

 there she lies, a fizz of cream on the floor.

Prose like this supports McCrum's claim that creative writers address the troubles of the world in a way the rest of us can't: specifically, they cutesefy a troubling issue and reduce it to an opportunity for putting hyper-sugary, comfortingly literary - rather than startling, convincing or moving -  combinations of words together and exploring the author's past. I certainly couldn't write like that. Morrison is right to be horrified at the words of John Major at the time of the killing - "we must condemn a little more, and understand a little less" - but narcissists understand nothing either, not even themselves.

   Morrison was quick to let us know what he thought of the Virginia Tech massacre, too -  this piece appeared in The Guardian just three days later
opening with this absurdly blinkered and impertinent paragraph:

I can't have been the only writer dismayed to learn that Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was a literature student. Few people today believe the idea, passed down from Matthew Arnold through TS Eliot and FR Leavis, that the study of books can civilise and humanise us. But it is alarming to think that majoring in English might have contributed to Cho's problems or even inspired him to become a mass murderer.

The sheer insularity of literary hackery can be suffocating sometimes. As if the subject Seung-Hui was studying was of any fucking relevance. The delusion that literature ought to make people less likely to shoot one another has been around since Joseph Brodsky's claim that it is more problematic for someone who has read Dickens to shoot people than for someone who has not (a recurring bugbear mentioned neither for the first nor for the last time on this blog); here Morrison repeats that thoughtless insult to non-novel-readers and then inverts it. The "only writer" to think this way? We can only hope.

  During the Raoul Moat coverage, one non-tabloid journalist ruefully confessed to finding herself rooting for Moat, wanting him to escape because she found it hard not to think of him as the underdog. When I say I empathised more with the policeman he shot and blinded, the girl he wounded and the family of the man he shot dead, it might seem pious, but let me stress I don't regard this - and the fact that I've never "disliked" the McCanns - as evidence of a high character: I regard them as the norm. Hacks like these rely on assumptions: on the belief that we all inevitably fall prey to the worst aspects of modern culture, that we're all addicted, that we're all obsessed, that we're all complicit. Scummy thoughts and ideas are allowed to become norms rather than embarrassments.

The late Gordon Burn's piece on Jade Goody,
similarly, was barely preferable to OK magazine's tribute, which put "In Loving Memory 1981-2009" on its front cover before she had actually died. Burn's piece isn't interested in pricking the balloon; it attributes the manipulation of Goody to a global cultural state of affairs rather than an unpleasant tv programme. If we took the latter view, we could think of practical ways to prevent demonic circuses like the one that sprang around Goody happening again (not letting Peter Bazalgette become head of the UK Arts Council, not commissioning anything like Big Brother again, boycotting tabloids, working out how to promote such a boycott), but the view Burn takes is that this what life is like the 21st Century, predicted by Roth, Bellow, Foster Wallace and Mailer, and that we are all complicit in making and keeping it that way. It's a piece which expresses no interest in changing anything.

It's time to to start saying No: Every other person doesn't feel this way, it is your fault rather than the cultural climate, and your honesty doesn't redeem it. Why not start checking your behaviour at the time rather than publishing an essay on it a few days later? Ask yourself why you slow down for car crashes.