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Books of common despair?

Tawfiq Chahboune


In 2004 we saw a hullabaloo surrounding the nation’s favourite books. The predictable result, given the format, was that crass celebrities chose crass books - except for John Sergeant’s excellent choice of Catch 22. Crass book reviewers were then able to write crassly about crass celebrities and their crass choices. Something like this manufactured hubbub envelops the world of books every year: Why has Martin Amis missed out on the Booker yet again? Is Salman Rushdie back to his best? Some cretin will say Dickens can’t write; or Shakespeare’s plays show signs of alien abduction, or were written by Jeffrey Archer (only a matter of time, however, before Archer announces that he is the Bard); or how the Oxford English Dictionary is more useful than Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (a PhD dissertation in Cultural Theory is begging to be written). Some poor soul will splutter: “What’s so funny about Wodehouse? I don’t get it.” Actually, it would be better to play the same game with novelists: Why must we be deprived of the genius of Joseph Heller but left with the imbecilic twitterings of Tony Parsons? Is Tony Parsons an idiot or merely a moron? If I transport Tony Parsons to Guantanamo Bay will I get a medal? Ditto Julie Burchill - but greatly multiplied. Ditto Richard Littlejohn - but infinitely multiplied. All of this, however, masks a more interesting observation: although far more books are published than ever before and with every social group buying books as never before, many homes are nearly entirely devoid of any books. It is a curious situation.

When there are books – an improvement of sorts – they’re invariably of the following variety: something akin to Bravo Two Zero, a heroic tale of derring-do “special forces” giving the darkies a bit of the bulldog spirit; Harry Potter and the Billion-Quid Industry; the miraculous-selling Da Vinci Code, among other Dan Brown titles; a Stephen King horror; a John Grisham courtroom drama; a Dean Koontz or Patricia Cornwell novel (interestingly I’ve never met anyone who has read these authors); some remarkable drivel from the drivelling Tony Parsons, bleating Julie Burchill or hate-preaching Richard Littlejohn; a miraculous fast weight loss book (Gillian McKeith’s bullshit nutrition masquerading as science: looking at excrement; how reminiscent of opening Parsons’, Burchill’s and Littlejohn’s oeuvre); the curiously ever present SAS training manual; a guide on how to improve your love-life (Parsons understood that to mean, “Let Burchill go”); a guide on how to pleasure your lover (Parsons understood that to mean, “Give her a divorce”); etc.

It is difficult to imagine why anyone would want an SAS training manual - although the armchair-commando Littlejohn should have made use of the section entitled “Piano wire: Step1. Put Julie Burchill out of the world’s misery. Step 2. Now Parsons. Step 3. And now, the piece de resistance, yourself, you crypto-fascist moron.” And what exactly was it that was so engrossing about Barbara Cartland’s books? Just as interesting as the books people do have is what books they discard in charity shops for nothing. Who on earth would discard Something Happened? Or Gulliver’s Travels? Or Homage to Catalonia? My giddy aunt, who in their right minds can read Thomas Paine (the greatest Englishman, in my humble opinion, and an outrage that so few people seem to have heard of him, let alone celebrate him) and then discard his work? A pleasant outcome of Jeffrey Archer’s imprisonment, as pleasing as that was in itself, has been the humiliated author’s canon being quickly discarded from respectable homes and making appearances in charity shops, with no possible hope of finding a buyer for fear of embarrassment. With a little diligence one could build a fairly respectable library for a few hundred pounds.

At the same time, however, DVD sales are going gangbusters. Why the chasm in the public’s buying habits? Why do Meg Ryan’s romantic comedies outsell Evelyn Waugh? Indeed, some “comedies” are so bloody awful that one isn’t even aware they are comedies. The two most recent I’ve unsmilingly endured are Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Sweetest Thing. The former was deliberate, the latter was accidental. Not that it made any difference. Perhaps I am devoid of humour, but I had to be informed that the two said films were meant to be funny. Actually, I’d be hard put to explain what these films were about. The latter seemed to be a film almost entirely devoted to Cameron Diaz and her friends dancing and doing all manner of apparently “funny” things, which weren’t funny at all. Similarly with the hugely over-rated Richard Curtis flicks - each film has at best one mildly amusing gag. Although his most recent one, The Girl In The Cafe, had me laughing so much I honestly thought that I was knocking on death’s door (by the way, the Grim Reaper looked like Richard Littlejohn). Curtis’s conceit (deceit?) was Tony and Gordon saving the world from corrupt and unprincipled world leaders. With Curtis knocking around it’s not true to say that satire died when Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Curtis really should give serious consideration to making the true story of Alastair Campbell during his days as a male prostitute. That would be funny and true - the most explosive cocktail (Campbell “providing” the cock, and the tail the “gagging”). It would also ensure more than the one customary laugh: raucous guffaws all round every time Campbell is paid for “providing it” to those apparently “gagging for it”, to quote his description of his former employment.

Why is the ratio of DVDs to books so skewed? Moreover, dire teen “comedies” and mindless action films seem to be hideously over-represented in many collections. Perhaps modern living has put people off books - or, more accurately, certain types of books - and requires the anaesthesia provided by mind-numbing entertainment. This modern condition is best described by the knowing line: “Why read when you’ve got television?” in a film whose title presently escapes me. Are we living in an anti-intellectual age? It’s hard to say. Though with the hilariously stupid Richard and Judy running a book club - what next? Richard Littlejohn explains particle physics? - anti-intellectual would be an improvement. Maybe it is something more serious. Perhaps it is a sign of people not having the time or the energy to dive into a good book but capable of only collapsing onto sofas to take in yet another feel good movie (romantic comedy) or an escapist flick (action, adventure, sci-fi, etc) which transports them away from what they consider to be dreary and monotonous lives.

A cursory inspection of the literary sections of the weekend newspapers detailing book sales is instructive. Sales are dominated by Dan Brown’s weird books, biographies of celebrities, the preposterous Atkins diet or McKeith’s pseudoscientific programme for weight loss, romantic novels for forty-something single women yet to find “Mr Right”, etc.

There are two explanations for this phenomenon. Either the public have taken leave of their senses (a given for the readers of Parsons, Burchill and Littlejohn), or they are a side effect of a consumerist society dominated by tyrannical corporations creating previously nonexistent markets. The very existence of the gormless, racist gobshite Richard Littlejohn - a knuckleheaded fellow who looks like a hideous mixture of tattooed pub landlord, bejewelled bookie and obese leader of a far right party - is confirmation of this drive to create markets in, well, anything that will make a return. (In reviewing Littlejohn’s novel “To Hell In A Handcart”, the novelist Will Self, who must have had to bear trials rivalling those of Job and Hercules on a bad day, mocked Littlejohn’s quasi-fascist literary achievement as “It’s not Tolstoy”, thereby claiming, in my opinion, the prize for finest ever book review.) It’s a wonder that no one has written a book called “Was Hitler a Nazi?”. Perhaps Channel 5 may be interested in such a programme? It’s their most glaring oversight; having done nearly every possible “Was Hitler…”, including the inspired “Was Hitler Gay?” what’s left for Channel 5? “Was Hitler a spasmo gyppo homo kike?” Best not give Channel 5 any ideas. Littlejohn, no doubt, is probably making a Channel 5 documentary entitled, “Was Hitler Too Soft?”

In any event, what is true is that many books play on society’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, fantasies and unachieved dreams. Fast weight loss books are aimed almost exclusively at women who enjoy chocolate but want to be a size 6 with as little effort as possible. The SAS training manuals are aimed at fantasists, brilliantly parodied by Gareth in the BBC comedy The Office, who dream of being able to garrotte an imaginary enemy with shoestring (why not the unfortunately very real Parsons, Burchill and Littlejohn?). Most insidious is the eccentric romantic gibberish aimed at insecure women who have yet to find “The One” advertised by society at large. In case you haven’t yet figured it out, here is the news, gals and Julie, like the “War on Terror”, “The One” or “Mr Right” doesn’t exist; it’s a myth. To clarify, I can never decide whether there are many “Ones” or “Mr Rights” (what is the probability, given how many men there are, that you just so happen to bump into and fall in love with such chappie?), or whether men are simply half of a pretty bad evolutionary dead-end (wrong turn?) called homo sapiens, the boorish and grunting half, that the generally much better half (though they read romantic guff), women, the half with no wish to watch such unbelievable stupidity like wrestling and monster trucks, or burp extremely loudly as if it were a great achievement, are unfortunately drawn to by nature. If you continue to read romantic garbage, which, in any case, is more Mills & Boon than Jane Austen, you’ll never figure it out.

It is all escapism from the world they inhabit to the one they believe they ought to inhabit. In this make-believe world you are applauded for your beauty (not you, Julie), ability to withstand torture, gorgeous trophy husband/wife. Unsurprisingly, however, the real world can be just as fantastical, perhaps even more so: Richard Littlejohn masquerades as a knowledgeable journalist and novelist. Even Marx would have been amazed that people would become so alienated that they would end up reading Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill; he would have been struck dead if he was informed that a market for Richard Littlejohn would exist.

 

October 2005

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