The Living Death that is Facebook

My name is Judith and I am a Facebook nay-sayer. It’s beginning to need courage to say that, just as I imagine it does to go to AA. But I’ll say it, and again: I don’t get it. What is the point of Facebook? I’ve been there, truly I have. I was signed up (OK, that passive does give a clue that I may not be the market Facebook is looking for). But once signed up, I did my best. I searched for old school friends. I reached out and similar Oprah-ish phrases. I collected a group of ‘Friends’ who included, as per the unspoken rules, a bunch of people I a) didn’t know very well; b) knew well, but didn’t particularly like; and, oh yes, c) were people I like and am in touch with all the time in real life so I didn’t need to ‘poke’ them in cyberspace. The fourth category, d) people I had never met or even heard of, I resolutely did not include.

Maybe that was the problem. I didn’t play by the Facebook rules, because I never really got the point. Why would I collect names of people I didn’t know? Facebook kept encouraging me to make friends with people because we had umpty-ump friends in common. Well, yes, but I still didn’t know them.

And then once you do have a circle of friends, then what? A bunch post all the time (and I mean all the time: when do they work? sleep? have sex? Really, I worry about them), and tell you about their gardens, their kittens, their children/grandchildren/jobs. Or they post links to articles you’ve already read, or would never read. A bunch more never post. And a whole group use it as a publicity engine for their work. I know I’m weird, but this doesn’t sound like ‘friend’-ship to me.

I kind of feel about Facebook the way I think I’d feel about a pet tortoise: it’s perfectly nice, but it just sits there. And? I keep wanting to say. And what do you do? It’s like being stuck at a dinner-party next to a man who not only Bores for Britain, but chews with his mouth open too.

Twitter? Ah, now Twitter is different. I love Twitter. Twitter is the best kind of drinks party. Everything is nice and short and snappy. If a conversation is boring, you move on; if it engages you, you stick around for a while. You meet new people, some of whom are great (stick around), some of whom are dull (move on). Yes, absolutely, just like the dreaded FB people, many post links to advertise their work/themselves. But at 140 characters, the Derrida-influenced bores are neutered and the snappy one-liners enhanced. It’s like the David Mamet line when a producer asks for a summary of a play in two sentences: ‘If you can’t get it in two sentences, you can’t get it in TV Guide.’ My epitaph will, I hope, be ‘She gave good Tweet.’

Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.

Bryan Robertson: a hero for our times

I’m off to a preview of the new Rothko show at the Whitechapel Gallery in a few minutes, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first showing of that artist’s work in Britain, curated by the Gallery’s then-director, Bryan Robertson. I posted a somewhat bilious piece a few weeks ago about the use of the word ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’, so I think that it’s probably only right I post now about ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’ in the greatest sense – the way Bryan Robertson looked after artists – and art.

Robertson was mostly self-educated, without the university education that would have made him the right contacts (and the lack of which probably cost him the directorship of the Tate – that and his flamboyance, and his love of mischief, of which more below), yet by the age of twenty-four, in 1949, he mounted the first British museum exhibition of contemporary French art at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Then, at the age of 27, he beat out the ostensibly more qualified candidates to become the director of the Whitechapel, at the time a shabby gallery in a part of town that was not only unvisited, but unknown by the art world that clung to the West End.

And there, for nearly 20 years, he showed, as well as the great European modernists, Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and some of the lasting names of British mid-century art: Hepworth, Richards, Clough.

I met him in the early 1980s, when he was preparing his great Dufy show at the Hayward (1983). This was a revelation – not only an artistic one. It was a revelation because I had thought I knew what I thought about Dufy, but through the care and love and sheer blazing intelligence that Robertson gave to the show, I realized that I knew nothing. It was a revelation, too, because it took away that adolescent sense of certainty and made me see that aged twenty (or thirty, or forty, or fifty), there is always space for rethinking. That was Robertson’s gift. And he taught me, too, that you can have fun while you do it. He would talk about Dufy, and then leave messages on my grandmother’s answering-machine, claiming to be the Scotland Yard vice squad (all of it, I assume): ‘We have been watching for days, and we’ve seen 37 young men going in to your flat, and all coming out exhausted. And we just want you to know that we think it’s disgusting.’ (She was amused and more than a tiny bit thrilled.)

He got pipped to the Tate directorship, it going to someone who more closely resembled what the trustees thought a civil servant should be like. But he was a hero. And hooray for the Whitechapel for remembering not just Rothko, but 50 years on, Robertson’s brilliance, and foresight, and courage.

Women’s reads, or reading women?

One for the sisterhood. A complaint to W. H. Smith has brought about a change to the way some books are labelled. Books by and for women – ‘Women’s fiction’ – will no longer be labelled as such. Books by and for women, in W. H. Smith, are now, ahem, ‘fiction’.

This separation, this discrimination and ghetto-ization, of course, originally came from good intentions – it was, as the US military would say, ‘blowback’, the law of unintended consequences.

Women were being squeezed out of the market, with books by men predominating. So ‘women’s fiction’ shelves were created. But did that mean that Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, or even Joan Didion and Anne Patchett, were moved there? No, the first two went to ‘Classics’, the second to ‘literature’, or even ‘poetry’. Toni Morrison to ‘Fiction by women of colour’. Others went to ‘Gender studies’. Until, finally, of course, ‘Fiction’ was entirely inhabited by white males (usually heterosexual: don’t forget ‘Gay fiction’).

And ‘Women’s fiction’ had pink covers, lots of gold embossing and the odd picture of a pair of shoes.

Women write more books, women read more books, they make up the audiences at readings by possibly as much as 10 to 1. But they get less space: physical, in the bookstores, and mental, in reviews, both as reviewers and reviewed, and I suspect from a quick look (subtext: don’t hold me to this one, please), many literary festivals.

W. H. Smith has taken a step towards, if not giving them more space, at least removing them from a tokenist shelving ghetto.

A Passive Rant

Last night at the Albert Hall, a concert by the Israel Philharmonic was disrupted by a pro-Palestinian demonstration. (A report on that here.) The rights and wrongs of that are worth discussing, although I’m not going to right now. My beef is the BBC’s reporting, or lack thereof.

All the proms are broadcast live – that’s part of the joy. Last night, listening on Radio 3 as usual, I suddenly heard shouting, then some yelling ‘Shame’, others ‘Out’. What was going on? Well, your guess was as good as mine last night, for Radio 3 after a mumbled sentence about ‘disruption’ cut away to a recording. Then they returned us for the ‘interval’ of a concert that never was, only for more shouting at the beginning of the second half to bring more mumbles of ‘disruption’ and another recording.

This morning, R3’s newscaster said that the broadcast ‘was forced’ off the air. This is where my hackles rise. ‘Was forced’, by whom, oh great BBC? Who forced you? Did demonstrators storm the recording booth and physically make you pull the broadcast? I don’t think so. The broadcasters made a poor decision last night, forgetting that the BBC is (we had thought) a news organization, and zipping into ‘control’ mode by not reporting on what was happening in front of their noses.

One could say that poor decision was spur of the moment, made on the hoof; it was wrong, but someone had to decide fast. But that was more than twelve hours ago. This morning, ‘was forced’ is a weasel way of saying, ‘Nothing to do with us, guv. The decision was imposed on us.’

When I was at school, I was always told to watch out for the passive voice: someone is hiding something. (‘The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066’ probably means the writer of the sentence has no idea who fought the Battle of Hastings.) The broadcast ‘was forced’ off the air is hiding the fact that the BBC did not do its job.

Contempt for skills, Part 2 million

OK, let’s get today’s rant over with, we’re all busy people. According to the Local Government Association and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, libraries are now to be ‘saved’ by putting them in doctor’s surgeries, churches, and other community centres (and let’s not forget their previous genius idea, putting them in supermarkets).

Apart from the multiple reasons that this is a terrible idea, the real reason it’s a terrible idea is that these libraries will no longer be run by librarians. (I know, I know, but bear with me — we need to spell things out for the barbarians not only no longer at the gate, but sitting on our front doorsteps.)

All it takes to realize how necessary librarians are to (duh) libraries, is to look at Google Books. Just look at it. (Go on, I’ll wait.) Do a quick search. Type in almost anything — oh, I don’t know, Moby-Dick. The first title that comes up is, miracle of miracles, Moby-Dick. Or is it? It isn’t (God forbid) the first edition. It is a 2008 reprint published by ‘Forgotten Books’. Its preamble is hugely encouraging:

Forgotten Books take the uppermost [sic, sic as a dog] care to preserve the wording and images from the original book. However, this book has been scanned and reformatted from the original, and as such we cannot guarantee that it is free from errors or contains the full contents of the original.

So, Forgotten Books takes so much care that they can’t actually say if the whole book is there or not. Good choice for the number 1 slot, Google algorithm!

Number 2: another reprint, volume 1 only.

Number 3: an issue of Life magazine from 1956, with an article on ‘How to read Moby-Dick‘ (something you won’t be able to do so far if you’re relying on Google Books).

Number 4: another reprint, volume 2.

Numbers 5 on down: An article in Indianapolis Monthly (really, I’m not making this up) on whale-watching; an essay called ‘Fathering the Nation: American genealogies of slavery and freedom’; an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1950…

I’m at the end of page 2 of Google books, and so far there is not a single reliable copy of Moby-Dick. Let’s ignore that I’ve found Henry James in a search that includes the term a ‘contemporary’ classic; or Hemingway under Edith Wharton; or or or…

Google had a load of cash, and thought that all that was required was unskilled labour. The local councils have no cash, and are relying on unskilled labour too. Are we expecting more than old copies of, if not Popular Mechanics, then its 2011 equivalent?

What I don’t understand is, why are the elements around the act of reading regarded as something anyone can do? The phrase, ‘I would write a book if only I had time,’ has become a sick, sad cliche. No one says to Philip Glass, ‘I would write a symphony if only I had time,’ or to Magdi Yacoub, ‘I would ditto a cranial haemorrhage if only ditto.’ (At least, I’m guessing they don’t.) So why are writing, and reading, considered unskilled? Yeah, let’s ask nursery groups, and doctors’ receptionists, and boy-scout leaders, or even the scouts, to run the libraries. After all, you don’t need to know anything about anything to do that, do you?

I’ll be in my surgical scrubs and operating behind the produce counter at Aldi at 1 p.m. Anyone with stroke-like symptoms, line right up.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

Points for ‘helpfulness’: Boy-scout reviewing?

OK, we’re back on reviewing. Everyone has (rightly) been wary of Amazon’s ‘reviews’ — an agent highlighted one review a few weeks ago where the ‘reviewer’ gave a dismissive one-star review to a book that s/he admitted to not having read. (S/he didn’t like the idea of it, apparently.) But on the whole, many people still skim down a line of reviews, looking at the overall positive/negative feedback, even while accepting that many of the reviews are negative ‘because I couldn’t identify with any of the characters’ or similar reasons that will have no effect on any other reader.

However, it is also worth remembering that the ‘top’ Amazon reviewers are also receiving free books and merchandise, and their position as ‘top’ reviewers is contingent not merely on the number of reviews that they write, as I had previously thought, but on the positive nature of their reviews. Amazon says quite straightforwardly that ‘overall helpfulness’ should be the focus of the reviews. And, not surprisingly from a retailer who makes its substantial pile from selling books, ‘helpfulness’ does not equate to a review that says ‘Save your pennies, this book is a steaming pile of shite.’

So instead, the reviewers, who not unreasonably since they are unpaid, want their free books, beaver away as some sort of literary version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Edwin the Boy-Scout, performing last week but one’s Daily Act of Kindness. The problem is, they are being kind to Amazon, not to the users of the site. Those people are being suckered into spending money on things that the reviewer doesn’t actually like: not kind at all.

I have a suggestion, although it’s an odd one. Why don’t readers rely on reviewers who get paid, and whose reviews appear in independent forums? I know, we could call them ‘book review sections’, and they could be printed in, mmm, perhaps newspapers and magazines? Just an idea.

Nah, probably won’t work.

 

Slutwalks? You (haven’t) come a long way, baby!

Three thousand women turned out in London this weekend for a ‘Slutwalk’. This movement to assign responsibility for rape to its perpetrators, not to its victims, was triggered originally by a Canadian policeman, whose primary advice to women on how to avoid being raped was, ‘Don’t dress like sluts’. As one of the signs so pithily pointed out on Saturday, ‘A Dress is Not a Yes.’

But the policeman was only one in a long line who blamed women and how they appeared, how they presented themselves, for the violence and ‘unwanted attentions’, as it used to be called, inflicted on them, simply for being in a public place.

I have been reading 19th-century books on prostitution in London (well, a job’s a job), and one of the sanest (which isn’t saying much) authors says that he and a friend had ‘counted 185 [prostitutes] in the course of a walk home from the Opera to Portland-place’. Short of accosting each one, it is hard to know how he knew the 185 he counted were in fact sex-workers. Some, perhaps many, of the women may have spoken to him, offering their services. It is just as likely, though, that he was making his judgments based on the women’s dress, manner, whether or not they met his eye: in other words, the woman who dressed or behaved in a way he and other men considered inappropriate were by definition whores. The men got to judge.

Even more closely resembling the ‘slutwalk’ campaigners’ complaints was the story that played out in the pages of the Times in the 1860s. ‘Paterfamilias’ wrote to the editor (letters from members of the public were often signed with only a sobriquet, frequently in Latin, such as ‘Pro Bono Publico’) to complain that on a trip to London his daughters had been followed down Oxford Street by ‘scoundrels’ who stared at them and passed comments. ‘Puella’ replied that she frequently walked down the same street and was never accosted; perhaps, she said, the girls’ country dress or outgoing rural manners had encouraged these men? ‘Paterfamilias’, by return, was indignant: his daughters were not in bright clothing, still being in mourning for Prince Albert. He was backed up by ‘M’, a day-governess (one who went from pupil’s house to pupil’s house). She too was frequently accosted by ‘middle-aged and older men’.

Others joined in, on both sides of the question. So much interest was aroused by this correspondence that the following month the Saturday Review carried an article: because prostitutes frequented fashionable shopping-streets, if women dress nicely, they must expect to be looked at, but nonetheless, ‘the remedy is in their own hands…If they will be seen in the well-preserved coverts, it is for them to be careful that they do not look like game…Let them dress thoroughly unbecomingly. Let them procure poke bonnets, stint their skirts to a moderate circumference, and cultivate sad-looking underclothing. Any woman thus armed, and walking on without sauntering or looking about her, is perfectly safe even from amorous glances.’ (Note that even badly dressed women still needed to keep their eyes down and walk briskly.)

So then as now, unwanted attention is all our fault, ladies — we just need to put on our poke bonnets, take up as little space in the world as possible, keep our mouths shut, our eyes on the ground, and if we’re very lucky, we can go about our daily business. Oh brave new world!

A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

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