Sunday, 28 July 2013

What Jane Austen Can Teach Us About Charlie Brooker

BrookerSomebody around here has bought a clown’s horn. I keep hearing eeeee-hhoooonk every 15 minutes or so. However, I’ll press on, even if it does feel like some surreal criticism aimed my way after a night of torrential rains and furious cross-hatching.

I worked a long day drawing on Saturday. I finished two cartoon strips (three panels each) which I’ll eventually post here. I’ve agreed to draw them (and more) for the Liverpool fanzine, Red All Over The Land. I don’t know how many I’ll manage over the course of the coming season but we’ll see…

Honk! I can see this is going to drive me crazy…

This morning I noticed there’s been plenty of talk in the papers about ‘the world’s most savage TV critic’ Charlie Brooker. I don’t read his stuff but my sympathy is firmly with him if the reports are true that he’s trying to get Guardian bosses to turn off the comments beneath his articles. Of course, I understand the criticism aimed at him by those who believe in free speech. Free speech is one of the supposedly immutably good things in the world loved by people who also believe in the cleanliness of Bono’s underwear and the curative effect of Richard Branson’s chin whiskers. But elsewhere, free speech isn’t making as good a case for itself. Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist who campaigned to get Jane Austen’s face on our banknotes, is now receiving threats of rape via Twitter. This time (rightly) there is no talk about free speech yet both stories highlight a difficult dichotomy that exists when people voice their opinions.

But first an aside: I’ve always detested Jane Austen’s novels. I had to study ‘Manfield Park’ for my English A level and, at university, we read a novel of hers every week during the first term (alongside all the other books we were studying). For six weeks, I was reading ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’ (again!), ‘Emma’, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and then ‘Persuasion’. I got through them all but whilst I understood her gentle wit and I admired her prose, she was just a writer whose world didn’t sit easily with my grim working class outlook. It was like being in the company of a journalist who deliberately turns their attention away from the big issues of the day to discuss the rate at which grass grows. There aren’t many English writers whose face I wouldn’t prefer adorning our bank notes.

But how valid is my criticism?

This is the age of the internet so every response is valid (say its supporters). It is the assumption that any act of criticism is of equal importance to any act of creation. I’ve never bought into that myself and it’s partly the reason why I quit academia. I could never buy into concept of failed writers (which many academics are and I would have been myself) opining about successful writers. Nothing filled me with more hostility that witnessing some poindexter standing at the front of a lecture theatre affirming Orwell’s greatness as if Orwell needed the affirmation of a humourless freak in a black turtle neck and sandals.

In the real world, the remarks often aimed at J.K. Rowling by hacks, bloggers and literary pundits are generally about as meaningful as any snide criticism we might make aim at Jane Austen. The best critics (indeed, the only critics I try to read) produce secondary acts of creation in response to their subject. The great Clive James writes criticism infinitely better than the subjects of his criticism rightly deserved. James Wood, one of our best critics, writes as well about great literature as great literature itself speaks about our lives. Martin Amis too is a blisteringly fabulous critic; much better, I would say, than he is a novelist.

To put that differently: there is no value in my writing ‘I think Jane Austen is shit’ but there is slightly more value in my writing ‘Jane Austen gave Julian Fellowes a good career’ or ‘Jane Austen is the Jeremy Clarkson of the veiled aside’ but even these are obviously not a patch on what Austen herself might have written. And I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make. If we want to go on the attack, we must raise our game.

Mark Twain probably came the closest when he said: ‘Every time I read “Pride and Prejudice,” I want to dig [Austen] up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.’

Now that is worth immortalising on our bank notes! Criticism is the act of heckling in written form. Every comedian can talk about the perfect heckle and I think they would recall them with a certain pride. Sometimes comments beneath articles can be better than the article itself. In those instances, a person has raised their game, produced something of value, and that is to be welcomed and cherished.

Yet if people can’t raise their game to Charlie Brooker’s level, then he has a right to ask for the comments to be disabled. Jane Austen belongs in my pocket until that moment I can put some suitable criticism into words as well formed and enduring as her own. In fact, the more Jane Austens in my pocket, the better…

The comments, as ever, are open and hecklers welcome.

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