Thinking Aloud – Really, I shouldn’t …

Earlier in the year, I allowed my irritation with John Mullan’s dismissive attitude towards genre and his ongoing sanctification of literary fiction to spill over into my blog, and made an attempt to pick apart his antipathy towards genre, by which he meant, so far as I could see, stuff he didn’t like. In some ways, I’m sympathetic as, on one level, I tend to define genre as stuff I do like; I think, though, that what irritated me then was not so much Mullan’s general defence of literary fiction, which was about as robust as a piece of damp tissue paper, and almost too easy to take down were one so inclined, but the smug pleasure he seemed to take in representing his tastes as the only true measure of literary judgement. It might be that he actually took more pleasure in watching us froth at the mouth as we danced all over his wrongheadedness than he did in being wrongheaded in the first place. On the basis that I couldn’t figure out who among us was being the most jejune, I decided to withdraw from the taxonomy wars and get on with writing criticism instead.

And at this point, I’m not so much taking up the cudgels as sitting on the sidelines, with popcorn, watching drama and literature slog it out in a column in the Guardianearlier this week. This time, Steve Waters is complaining that contemporary theatre gets fewer column inches in the national papers than does literature – you can read his piece here. It is perhaps wrong of me to admit that my attention was piqued mostly when I read:

I found myself troubled by the populist tenor of Mullan’s account of the books market, where the heroes all seemed to be publishers or sponsors, and the end point, “literary fiction”, required to deploy smart narrative tricks and the requisite level of allusion – enough to flatter but not too much to baffle. And then, symptomatically, Mullan – having dismissed James Kelman‘s refusal to smile for the cameras as grumpy bad faith – turned on David Hare’s suggestion that “literary” and “fiction” are the two most depressing words in the language. “What about political theatre?” rejoined Mullan, getting hearty laughs from the Oxbridge audience.

This seemed oddly familiar in some way I couldn’t quite put a finger on for a moment. Well, yes, actually, of course I could!

I don’t particularly disagree with what Waters is saying, except insofar as you can take the phrase ‘contemporary theatre’ and replace it with any one of a number of different words and phrases, and come up with pretty much the same results, in terms of print of visual media coverage. I’m old enough now to have watched my way through two revivals of ‘history tv’, not to mention any number of iterations of other rediscoveries and revivals. It’s a bit like watching Radio 4 rejig its lunchtime schedule again – suddenly, news is sexy and The World at One is being given a 45-minute slot to account for this, overlooking the fact that this is not new and innovative but merely a return to previous practice. One day, drama will be sexy again, and WatO will be cut back to allow for half-hour dramas at lunchtime (though, to be honest, they would be better employed chopping half an hour off the Today programme, as no one would miss it).

It is all too easy for the likes of Mullan to be casually dismissive of theatre, not least when he is in a situation where he can happily ignore it, there’s so much of it immediately available to him. A lot of people do like theatre, if it’s there, even if, and sometimes especially if, it’s small-scale drama, community drama, etc. But I don’t think Waters fully addresses the fact that theatre is rarely as immediately accessible to people, that is literally accessible, in terms of where’s it going on, can I afford to get there, get tickets, etc., and as a result it doesn’t loom on the intellectual radar as much as it should. Theatre doesn’t happen in my own town (we have an amateur company with its own small theatre, but I have no idea what they are doing up the other end of town), and even in Canterbury, which boasts a brand new theatre, plus various university facilities, there isn’t that much going on which isn’t either plain commercial (the pantomime season is upon us yet again) or else so little advertised it is impossible to find out about it. London is close but it’s a major outlay to attend even the subsidised theatre, and right now I just don’t have the spare cash.

I suppose we expect better of Mullan because he is a literature don and we assume that drama also comes under that rubric, but until we get new drama back on tv (Play for Today anyone) and on radio in places other than Radio 3 and poorly trailed slots on Radio 4, it is going to be difficult to foster sufficient interest in people to see it done live, see it done locally. But for now, I shall sit back and reflect that with Mullan, his apparent stupidity is nothing personal, just knee-jerk, and broad-based, and that I’m grateful that people like Waters remain passionate about their causes, even when they sometimes inadvertently make dicks of themselves by protesting without fully grasping the nature of the problem.

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