I recently wrote an essay about the situation which young people face in the modern world.
It’s been a year and a half since I left university, firmly shutting the essay genre into the past. But then I saw that Bodley Head/The Financial Times were running an essay prize for “dynamic, authoritative and lively” non-fiction works, so I decided to submit.
You can download the final non-winning essay here: Mediated Crowd; perceptions of youth in modern times – by Jonny Aldridge
My premiss is that young people are a “mediated crowd”: all of our media (TV, radio, newspapers, social networks) are run by adults, and as such we can only receive inaccurately representations of youth. I look at
- One Direction – and how other young music artists are mouthpieces for adult nostalgia
- Foyles’ Young Poets of the Year – which is inexplicably judged by adults
- The 2011 London Riots – which I think was the biggest cultural moment for youth in the past 5 years
- BBC crime dramas – which since the London Riots have focussed on younger and younger offenders
If you needed more convincing, here’s a little taster!
If there were to be only one attribute to young people—fat or tall, pimpled or pudding-cheeked—it would be how unknowable they are to adults. Adults find it easier to understand the mind of the murderous psychopath, the experience of a dog who twitches while she sleeps, or easier even to empathise with a thirsty plant whose soil is parched for water, than they do to remember the needs and judgements of their own youth.
I’d love to know what you think?
What was most impressive about Vanessa Engle’s Wonderland: Walking with Dogs (on BBC Two last night, and still available on iplayer) was the way in which it conveyed a message through demonstration as opposed to description.
The documentary about dog-walkers on Hampstead Heath could have easily descended into cutesy stories about puppies and bum-sniffing. Worse, it could have been clumsily steered by the heavy-hand of a producer and director who – through egotism or insecurity – felt compelled to provide voice-over descriptions of “what I realised”, “what dogs mean to us”, or “what I’ve learnt from these people”.
Instead, the show gathered meaning through simple interviews of dog-owners, and the occasional montage-with-music which is obligatory in every TV show. The result was a stark juxtaposition of voices, each with its own preoccupations and situation.
It was, as James Walton says in his review for The Telegraph:
“the TV equivalent of a powerful collection of short stories – most of them melancholy, and all of them linked by firm (and to us canine sceptics, rather shaming) proof of how much emotional support dogs can provide. Like the best short stories, the ones here didn’t divulge all their secrets – but somehow suggested whole worlds lying below their surface. Of course, one reason for this restraint is Wonderland’s commitment to old-school documentary-making.”
This is a clever way of story-telling. It is a sort of collage of subjectivity. En masse, however, these single voices take on a collective wisdom, forming a consensus through no intention of their own. In documentary terms, this also validates the producer; every argument made is made by an outside source, whose opinion is their own.
Most of all, it demonstrates what the best TV producers, novelists, artists and musicians know already: an audience is very capable of analysing events and arguments itself.
The benefits of letting an audience make up its own mind are momentous. This is most obvious when you read other reviews of Walking with Dogs and see quite how convergent they are.
“These dogs don’t just run about and fetch sticks for their owners. They are the sticks, the crutches, that these people need to get along. They are also guard dogs; they protect their owners not so much from other people but from themselves; they fend off demons. They are substitutes too – for people who used to exist, or will never exist, or exist in a different way from how they used to exist.”
“The theme that slowly emerged was of the dog as unwitting social worker, a four-legged crutch that had helped an extraordinary range of people get through difficult times in their lives.”
Somehow, without telling her readers what to think, Ms Engle has led them to the same conclusions. There is no need for more evidence showing that human cognitions are entirely predictable.
Practical Criticism #3: All books think about these days is turning into films, so the yarn goes. Like a caterpillar to a butterfly.
Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was so visual, so unenamoured with using words themselves, that it was actually a screenplay in disguise. Ditto David Mitchell’s One Day, a novel with so little description and so much dialogue that it may as well be a script for the big screen.
Haruki Murakami’s After Dark is the pinnacle of ‘bigscreenliness’. No, screens don’t have pinnacles. After Dark is the blockbuster. Because though it talks about screens all the time, it hates the things.
In the novel, screens are spooky portals. While she sleeps for two months Eri Asai is transported into a TV. The people staring back at Eri’s sister Mari Asai, at the prostitute-beater Shirawaka, linger and move independently. There are CCTV cameras which takes images and put them inside the “liquid crystal monitor” to see. Even “we” – the narrator and the reader – are a “viewpoint which takes the form of a midair camera”, and which we must follow as in a film.
Oh great! ‘As in a film’. Even we, the eager reader of middlebrow literature, are now the viewpoint of a cameraman. We are part of another second-rate cinematic project which, owing to lack of explosions and breasts, no one will go and see. No reader wants to be part of a book which has already deferred to the great movie industry.
Luckily, and unusually, I am wrong. You see, Murakami’s screens are more like the pages in a book than images in the cinema, just as every image and idea that Dan Brown’s narrative alights upon is really a brown sack with ‘$$$s’.
Ah yes because there is always something beyond Murakami’s screens. I don’t just mean electronics beyond the display, not just beyond, I mean beyond. You see?
After beating up a Chinese prostitute in a euphemistically named “love hotel”, Shirawaka goes back to his suburban family home and watches the news. Ah, “but he is actually looking at something deep inside the screen – something miles beyond the screen.”
It is good that you don’t look at Murakami’s screens, that you look through them. It should remind us that every action and thought of ours is an interpretative one, which goes beyond the surface of information we are given on a screen or a page. It also takes the less observant or interested of us into new territory: considering the importance of prepositions.
I love these italicised moments. The looking beyond a screen is so like a big comedy raise of the eyebrow that it’s almost tongue-in-cheek. No, worse, tongue-through-cheek.
I say: but for the comedy value, this beyondness is a great technique. It means Murakami’s screens aren’t conveyors of intended information, they are instead like words on a page which suggest and conjure shapes, lives, emotions which aren’t really there. Nothing is present in literature, it is all in the mind, somewhere.
Thank God they didn’t make a film out of After Dark. That would take irony to new heights, where no screen has gone before.