Thursday, 10 December 2009

Theatre of the Absurd

Can theatre do anything about climate change? There is something so utterly perfect about this question, so completely of its time, that the article from which it comes, written by Steve Waters in the Guardian theatre blog, should be preserved in a time capsule, so that it may be studied by historians of the future.

Waters’ words express the very particular hubris of the political artist. Sure, climate change is already in the news every day; journalists, activists, politicians and experts are devoting themselves to it; sure, An Inconvenient Truth already reached millions of viewers, grossing nearly $50 million; but if only I, the immortal artist, would produce a play about it in a small London theatre, then things could really get moving. Waters even admits, incredibly, that part of him hopes that the effects of climate change will be really terrible, to demonstrate the importance of his play!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

College Writing for Dummies

A successful college essay is like a declaration of love: it doesn’t matter what you say as long as it sounds right. Once you’ve discovered a formula that works for you, you can use it again and again and expect similar success.

As well as being like a declaration of love, a good essay is also like a magic trick. When a magician says to you, “I’ll bet you don’t think I can make this elephant disappear,” you are liable to think that, yes, making an elephant disappear sounds pretty hard. It’s important to remember, however, that only the worst magician in history would set herself a problem to which she does not have the solution already. Likewise, you must set yourself a goal that appears impossible, but to which you already possess the answer.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Shock of the Novel

The folks over at The Millions are making a strong bid for the title of “the VH1 of Books Blogs” with their countdown of The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far). And I thought Sainsbury’s was jumping the gun when they put the Christmas aisle up at the end of August. There’s no detectable humour in the introduction, so I feel relatively safe in assuming that this is an example of our culture’s obsession with hierarchical list-making, rather than an ironic “critique” of it.

The sheer hubris of The Millions’ venture is remarkable. They could have played it safe, and gone with The Decade (So Far), or even The Century (So Far). But the Millennium? Pitting the literary output of the last nine years against almost everything we think of when we think of literature? If Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the best we can find for number one, then all this list proves is that none of the books on it will likely be remembered in 1000 years at all. Perhaps Franzen can compete with the best of the Nineties’, maybe the Eighties’; but beyond that? It’s like forcing a child into a boxing ring because he can beat up his older brother.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups: Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor

‘Great novels are great fairy tales,’ Vladimir Nabokov declared in Lectures on Literature, a work of criticism compiled posthumously from his Cornell University teaching notes. Such a statement might be deceptive, until you are familiar with what Nabokov took a ‘fairy tale’ to be. A devout stylist, Nabokov was perhaps the last great exponent of ‘art for art’s sake’. As writer and as reader, he formulated an aesthetic approach — influenced by the formalist school which was in vogue before his exile from Russia — that enabled him to satisfy his taste for style before all else. He was derisive of the politico-historical theories that had invaded American academia by the time he began teaching, and dismissive of any reader who delved into literature for morality or history, or even for emotion.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Art and Reality in The Wire

I was a latecomer to The Wire. I’d been hearing for years about how it was ‘the most amazing show ever’, but people were saying the same about Battlestar Galactica, and, I mean, come on: it’s about robots or something. But when my wife and I finally started watching, we quickly became hooked. Now, obviously the world doesn’t need yet another person saying that The Wire is the best show of all time (so we’ll take that as read). But just what is it that makes it so good?

Jonathan Jones posted something on this topic on his Guardian blog the other day. According to Jones, the realism of The Wire is ‘in creative tension with its self-consciousness as art.’ Now, it could be argued that this statement is equally true of anything at all except (maybe) CCTV footage. The Wire did not invent the tension between realism and technique. In fact, the question of The Wire’s realism really highlights the inadequacy of the term ‘realism’ for discussing this problem — because, on close examination, The Wire is not a particularly realistic show. Jones is right to praise the inventive dialogue, but there isn’t a single aspect of the show which is not affected, and enriched, by that same inventiveness. The Wire may be the most the most intricately designed series in TV history. Is it ‘realistic’ that the internal concerns of the gangsters and the police should mirror each other so perfectly? That Pryzbylewski should become a teacher just in time for the season devoted to the school system? That Omar Little exists?