Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why Reality Shows Are Good For Us

In 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following letter to Scribner's complaining about the fame he had achieved, compared to the fame of his engineer father and grandfather: "I might write books until 1900 and not serve humanity so well and it moves me to a certain impatience to see the little frothy bubble that attends [me] and compare it with the obscurity in which the better man finds his reward."
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It's always a mistake to try to compare oneself with one's father. My grandfather was a carpenter who could have built a house, my father (right) was a fitter, welder and ship's engineer who could have wired and plumbed a house. I am challenged to change a lightbulb without electrocuting myself. But I take Stevenson's deeper point: how come the writer of silly stories gets the attention whereas the engineer gets none. When my father worked for Harland and Wolff he built ships. Ships! He and his mates went into work every day and at the end of six months there was a great big ship sitting there in the dry dock. Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather built lighthouses all over Scotland that saved thousands of lives and it annoyed him that his grandfather had slipped into obscurity whereas he got fan mail from all over the world.
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The very first prose narratives that have come down to us - Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Tain etc. - were the stories of the ruling elites: kings, emperors and their cronies and foes. Even the sprightly tale of a blue collar carpenter’s son from Nazareth veers into monarchial territory when we discover at the denouement that he’s actually the Son of God. Some Greek and Roman plays and stories have working people and slaves in them but usually as comic foils or fools. It’s not until the realist writers of the nineteenth century that we begin to see ordinary people getting more than a cameo appearance in the written works of the culture. In early Dickens there’s usually a bit of magic that happens to rise the orphan child out of the gutter and reveal him as an aristocrat but in later Dickens books he had the courage of his convictions to stay the magic wand and let his working class character live lives that were in the phrase of Thomas Hobbes: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Some middle and upper class critics however couldn’t bear to read these tales of woe, Oscar Wilde famously epigrammed that “only a man with a heart of stone could failed to have laughed at the death of Little Nell.”
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In the early twentieth century the exploration of working class lives was an increasingly popular genre – Jack London’s People of the Abyss caused a sensation when it appeared and nearly three decades later George Orwell’s Road To Wigan Pier caused a similar sensation when Orwell showed that very little had improved for those at the bottom of heap. The advent of the cheap paperback book allowed an increasing diversity of voices and authors appeared who documented the lives of the working poor (and the downright indigent) from within. The decades following the Second World War were, perhaps, a Golden Age for literature of the proletariat as the GI Bill in America induced many men (and women) to go to college. In Britain too there were new universities springing up all over in the 1950’s in such places as Birmingham, Hull and Coventry.
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But with the growth of television reading books for pleasure began to decline again and by the 1990’s reading novels had almost become a weird cult-like activity of the middle classes. The upper classes and the lower classes rarely read novels and so fiction began to reflect the desires and needs of the suburban middle. After its initial “educate and inform” phase TV began to pitch itself at the working classes quite early on but the crucial thing about these first soap operas and kitchen sink dramas was the fact that they were written by middle class college kids who saw that kind of writing as a stepping stone to the movies or a proper literary career. Working class soap operas such as Eastenders and Coronation Street have been the most popular scripted shows in Britain for the last 25 years but the writers of these shows are usually upper middle class kids and I'll bet their dream is to get to work on a posh show about murders in Oxford or spies in Cambridge. There is a filter between reality and fiction and that filter goes through the brain of people who don't come from the class they're making the programme about. In Britain 6% of the population went to private school but they dominate the media and the culture and its essentially their vision that we read in the papers, or in novels or in scripted dramas.
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But there is an alternative to all these posh boy scripts and that alternative is the plethora of reality shows that dominate the lower (and increasingly upper) channels of your TV remote. It's on reality shows that we get the stories of fishermen and mechanics and lobstermen and builders and duck hunters and carpenters and the toilers at dirty jobs and yes alas also rich housewives. (Of course these stories are edited and shaped by others, but still...) If a TV camera followed me around for a week there would be nothing of interest to put on the box, but if it had followed my dad around while he was working as a welder and boilermaker in the shipyard there would have been great stuff. Or better yet when he was working as a ship's engineer on BP tankers in the early 1960's, getting heckled by Nasser's men going through the Suez canal, experiencing Jim Crow in Texas City, dealing with a boiler room fire in the Indian Ocean, etc.
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I am NOT comparing myself with the incomparable Robert Louis Stevenson (I wouldn't dream of it as Kidnapped is one of my top 10 books of all time) but I agree with RLS when he complains that his life is boring and shouldn't be celebrated whereas the life of his father and grandfather would have made a great drama. Celebrities are dull and authors are dull but reality shows, especially those on the Discovery and National Geographic networks, give previously unheralded people a chance to show how smart, funny and interesting they really are. RLS, I think, would have totally approved.