A curmudgeon returns
Part 2 in my curmudgeon series (don't worry, after this, it's all utopia again). A couple of posts back I mused that "we have seen the demise of any sense of compulsion or quality. There is no more 'should' anymore. Everything is okay." I pondered whether this started with post-modernism and was reinforced by the internet as echo-chamber.
Ain't no echo chamber
I've been thinking more about it, largely thanks to the excellent comments on that post. On reflection I feel that the echo-chamber effect is probably overplayed. Certainly we tend to talk to like-minded people – this is human nature. Sometimes it is a result of preference: I don't need to talk to fascists to know I disagree with them. But it is also a fundamental aspect of what we term community: in academic circles, theoretical physicists don't advance their science by hanging around with people who they have to explain Newton's second law of motion to – they need to assume a base level of knowledge to be able to have the discussions they need.
Even so, my experience of being online is that my network is far more diverse than my face to face one. There is a great deal of variation in the people in my twitter network, without going to extremes. In this sense it is the opposite of an echo-chamber (a diversity chamber?) and almost every day something will come across my path that I wouldn't have encountered otherwise.
But I still feel that, particularly in relation to artistic tastes, the lack of compulsion I mentioned is prevalent in society. I could be wrong about this, and I have no empirical evidence (indeed, what form would such evidence take?). But humour me, and let's pretend I'm not just a grumpy old man, and there's something in it. If it isn't a result of the echo-chamber, maybe it is a result of what I shall, with a frightening lack of imagination, term 'always-right-ism'. We have had two mantras in recent years: The customer is always right, and more recently, the user is always right.
So, us internet users in particular are immersed in an environment where we are repeatedly told we are always right. If we don't get how to use a site immediately, give up, because it's the designer's fault. This is largely true, but coming on the back of the customer is always right attitude, it may start to pervade other areas of our lives.
In education we have seen the customer attitude tainting the student-staff relationship. The student cannot be always right (they wouldn't be a student then) and so the customer approach only works to an extent.
So my hypothesis is that a similar stance has begun to influence people's artistic choices. You struggled to read a book? It's the author's fault. Didn't like a piece of music? They should try and be more accessible. Didn't understand a piece of art? They are being wilfully obtuse. Think Lord of the Rings is the best thing written? That's fine, the rest of the country seems to agree.
Brian Lamb posted a comment on my last piece, quoting Nick Hornby who was bemoaning the notion that reading should be hard:
the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads
that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work,
they’re not doing us any good… If
reading is to survive as a leisure activity…then we have to promote the
joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits…please, if you’re
reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else"
I have a lot of sympathy with this view. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said 'easy reading is damn hard writing.' The curse of making things difficult to read runs through academia – I have supervised PhD students who feel that if it isn't verbose and almost impenetrable, then it isn't academic. I have spent a lot of my time trying to do the opposite (hence this blog) – trying to say interesting things in an accessible manner.
So I don't think books should necessarily be hard to read (often that's just a sign of poor writing), but you can stretch yourself in terms of the narrative style, subject matter, characterisation, structure, etc. Not every book you read has to be written simplistically, with a straightforward narrative. I recently read Jonathan Coe's excellent biography of the experimental novelist BS Johnson, and I have a lot of sympathy with Coe's stance: he likes books with plot and narrative (the Dickens tradition) but also admires those who experiment with the form. He says of Johnson, he wrote as though it mattered, and I think by extension, if we occasionally subject ourselves to art work that is created by people who thinks it matters, then maybe it matters to us a bit more too.