Sunday Salon: Catching up

The Sunday SalonThis is the blog post I intended to write last Sunday night, but I was exhausted from having such a full weekend so I curled up on the sofa with a book and fell asleep. It’s not a bad way to end the week!

And what exactly did I fill last weekend with? Well, I’m going to start with Friday morning because that way I get to mention something I’m super proud of: I ran 8 km before going to work last Friday. That is the furthest I have run yet, and marks the first time I felt actually confident that I will be able to run 10 km by early May, when the Bristol race that I’ve entered comes around. (I tried to repeat the achievement this week and managed 7.5 km, which is not to be sniffed at, but slightly disappointing when I now know I can beat it!)

Last Friday night, we went with my Mum and brother to the theatre to watch the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Othello. I really enjoyed it and thought the acting excellent. The local press have been a bit sniffy, and I do agree that some of the modern touches were a misstep. But I thought the central relationships – between Othello and Desdemona, between Othello and Iago, and between Othello and Cassio – were really well portrayed.

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(Belated) Sunday Salon: Back to real life

The Sunday SalonYou may or may not have noticed a lack of updates on this blog lately. I have been on holiday for two weeks and only had time beforehand to schedule one post, so there’s been a big gap. But I have no regrets, as I had a fantastic time away.

We have been to visit my sister (and her family) in Charlotte, North Carolina and to the city of cities, New York. Both of which were awesome. We relaxed and did lots of stuff. We ate some great food, found hidden gems and were total tourists. One day back at work and I am ready to go back across the ocean already!

Mark Illinois, Twain California Alice Texas, Walker Arizona

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Moral panic and popular culture

Lady Reading in an Interior
Lady Reading in an Interior by Marguerite Gérard (c. 1795).

A while back Tim sent me a link to a research paper by sociologist Ana Vogrinčič that draws a line from the vilification of novels (and their readers) in the 18th century to the vilification of popular culture, particularly television, today. Then I read a blog post (which I can’t find now, sorry!) that asked about the books we happily talk about and the books we hide away, comparing that with the TV shows we discuss and those we don’t admit to being regular viewers of. Which got me thinking…

Moral media panics about popular culture are nothing new (as Vogrinčič’s paper shows) and by their very nature are later proved unfounded (at least on a general, wide scale; there will always be individual examples that can be dug up and repeated ad infinitum). The novel has over the last century gone from being considered low-brow and even damaging to health (yes, really) to being considered one of, if not the, best form of culture to be consumed in large quantities. In fact these days we worry about people not reading. (I’m not talking about literacy here, which is a separate matter, just about people who are capable of reading making the decision to pick up a book for leisure.)

This may be a really obvious link to draw but I found it fascinating:

“People did not stop reading novels. Nor did moral panic in any way weaken novel-writing or the distribution of novels – just as, two centuries later, it did not prevent people from watching television. On the contrary, the success of the genre and the campaign against it run parallel. And readers seem to have gone along with it…People genuinely believed that novels were harmful, but they were at once convinced that they themselves could not be affected. Or they just did not apply the threat to their own individual readings. It was (is!) the same with watching television.”

Right now, I think we’re starting to see the wane of the panic over television, though I wouldn’t call it just yet. Just as certain types of novel were vilified far longer than others (romance, especially) certain types of TV show continue to draw ire (reality TV being the obvious example) while other types, such as drama or documentary, have gone from acceptable to commendable – cultural aficionados will eagerly discuss whether The Wire or The Sopranos is the greatest TV show ever made while denying having seen a single frame of any soap opera (I’ve lost count of how often I hear someone defend their knowledge of a soap by saying “My partner/housemate/kid watches it so I’m in the room when it’s on but I don’t watch it really.”).

The other obvious example of a media panic is computer games, though I think (hope) that one too peaked a few years back and people are starting to acknowledge that games can be works of art/culture. I’m not a gamer myself but Tim is and I have spent many an hour watching him play games with carefully crafted plots and beautiful visuals. And even the games that look rubbish/have little or no plot are harmless fun and have some benefits (cognitive reasoning, stimulation of imagination, etc) just as reading “trashy” books is harmless and can have benefits (improved vocabulary, stimulation of imagination, etc). I read many a Sweet Valley High and Mills & Boon in my teens and it did me no harm that I’m aware of!

I’m struggling to see any benefit to watching reality TV, though, so maybe my argument falls apart a little at the edges. But it’s a topic I find really interesting so if you’ve spotted an article or podcast about this please let me know.

What do you think about moral panics over popular culture? Do you think it’s the same thing as cultural snobbery (high-brow versus low-brow) or are they two different but sometimes overlapping things?

You can read the research paper for yourself in the bilingual Croatian and English journal Media Research, though the poor copy editing (at least in the English version; I can’t speak for the Croatian) makes it a bit of a tough read in places.

Ana Vogrinčič 2008 The novel-reading panic in 18th century England: an outline of an early moral media panic Medijska Istraživanja 14 (2) 103–124
web version
PDF version

Sunday Salon: Celebrating 10 years

The Sunday Salon

Not 10 years of the blog; I’m not that with it! No, this week Tim and I celebrated 10 years together with a holiday in Cambridge. I’d not been before, though I felt like I knew it well from books, films and TV, but it was a real treat to go and soak up the centuries of learning. So much great architecture, culture, science and art. Far too much for a week in fact! At least, it is when you take frequent breaks for pleasant walks, reading books and eating delicious food.

The classic view of the River Cam, complete with punts and bridges, and I think that’s the back of King’s College.
The classic view

Plenty of narrow cobbled streets and a little less plenty of sunshine.
A glimpse of blue sky

Some seriously impressive architecture and interior décor at these colleges, for instance this hall at Queens’ College.
Restored to magnificence

Plus lots of bookshops, lots of green spaces and bikes everywhere (though not that many actually being ridden while we were there; not sure if that’s because it’s outside of term time or because my expectations were skewed by living in the Cycling City that is Bristol). I took approximately a bajillion photos, a lot of which were on film, so my Flickr photo set will grow, if you’re interested.

October bookishness

So I am breaking with tradition (my own self-imposed one-and-a-half-year-old tradition, that is) and actually taking part in a readalong! The Discovering Daphne season is a month-long Daphne du Maurier readalong hosted by Simon of Savidge Reads and Polly of Novel Insights. As a Daphne fan, how could I resist?

Also this month is the first ever Bristol Festival of Literature. It runs from 14 to 23 October in venues all over the city and features some fascinating-sounding discussions about publishing and writing, as well as all the usual author events.

With some crossover with, but organised separately from the literature festival, on 22 October it’s BristolCon11. It’s the third year for the science fiction and fantasy convention, which I only stumbled across thanks to Twitter but am now eagerly looking forward to attending. There will be some big names there including Paul McAuley and Justina Robson.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, this weekend the Royal Society throws open its doors for the One Culture festival where “some of the best novelists, scientists, poets and historians will explore the crosscurrents between science and culture”. I sadly can’t get to London for that – my weekend is busy enough already – so I’ll be looking out for reports on how it went.

Do or die

I accepted long ago that I will not read all the great books in the world before I die and I feel no guilt when I admit to not having read this or that other people discuss. However, I seem to have failed to transfer that rationality to other parts of my life. I want to see every good film, play, comedy show, TV series; I want to visit every country, every city; I want to eat at every great restaurant, ride every classic train line, stay in every top hotel. What I don’t particularly want to do would be a far shorter list. And I often feel a bizarre sense of guilt for not having done many of those things yet, as if I am somehow wasting my life by going to work, socialising, sleeping, spending time in my lovely house with Tim, walking or jogging in the park or any of those other things that constitute the greater portion of my life.

Which is crazy because I’m sure if I have any regrets as I get older it will be that I didn’t take enough time out for my friends or that I didn’t appreciate time alone with Tim while I could. I can’t imagine anyone on their deathbed regrets never having seen The Godfather or never having eaten at the Fat Duck in Bray. (Though I’m sure there’s quite a few who regret not having travelled more.)

So where does it come from, this odd need to cram in life experiences? Is it an awareness of how short life is? Or is it just a need to impress other people? So much of small talk is taken up with this stuff: “What are you doing tonight/this weekend?” “Where are you going on holiday this year?” “Have you seen this film/play/comedian/band?” and it feels a bit lame to say “I’m staying in tonight” “I’m using my leave to do stuff around the house” “No, I haven’t seen it/them” every time. It’s like an admission of failure. I would never tell a colleague that I plan to go home and read and yet that’s what I do more often than not.

And why not? I love reading. I love taking time over cooking and eating with Tim. I love hanging out with friends. I love walking around my adopted city, pausing to take photos or drink coffee. This is not a waste of time, this is enjoying life.

And yet still there’s the guilt.

High culture v low culture

This is a topic that fascinates me. It has been debated over and over whether “low culture” (by which I mean such things as gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, celebrity biographies, trashy romance novels, generic Hollywood romcoms, generic Hollywood action films, reality TV, soaps, graffiti, all-girl pop bands, etc etc) is somehow a threat to “real” art and artists, or perhaps to society as a whole. Is it demeaning to people in general to pitch the majority of culture to the lowest common denominator? Or does popular culture exist because people…want it?

I have no problem with debate but I do get annoyed with the demand that you must take one of two extreme opposite sides and if you don’t you are indecisive, woolly and not worth listening to. I am perfectly capable of forming an opinion. Sometimes that opinion sits squarely, or close to, one side of a debate. But not always. Sometimes my opinion is genuinely inbetween two extremes or a combination of both sides. Sometimes I struggle to see why there has to be division in the first place. But that’s just me (I’m not naive, just peaceloving).

In this case I am a lover of some forms of both high and low culture. I mean, there’s examples of both that I consider to be vile, but we’ll steer clear of that for now. I have read both Ulysses and Harry Potter and did not love either. I am a big fan of the theatre and films but I am also a telly addict and have spent many happy hours watching Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, Black Books and a host of other shows. Not reality TV though. None of that.