Will Self writes in defence of obscure words for the Beeb magazine.

He says he’s had complaints about his use of complex language – as well as Anglo Saxon slang. Why should this be?

He has a dig at adults reading repackaged teen (crossover) novels, at Damien Hurst. His thesis seems to be that “now that all formerly difficult subject matter [= pornography] is, if not exactly permitted, readily accessible, cultural artificers have no need to aim high. The displacement of aesthetically and intellectually difficult art as the zenith has resulted in all sorts of sad and interrelated phenomena.”

He draws parallels between fast food and fast culture – greasy, easy nuggets of learning to be dished out by teachers for exam consumption.

Then he undermines it:

// The suspicion that mass media lead to a banal middlebrow culture is as old as the printing press – arguably even older, given that Plato thought that writing was itself an intolerable derogation of the poetry of the spoken word. But from the vantage of each successive wave crest of popularisation, the anxieties of preceding generations seem touchingly premature.//

He talks about our “risk-averse” culture, how cautious we are in all respects – “there’s no doubt about it.” But what about those physical athletes he admires? What about artistic endeavours that unite Arab and Jew? What about poets in China? What about music played on ad hoc instruments in refugee camps?

// Our arts and humanities education at secondary level seems particularly afflicted by falling standards – so much so that universities are now being called upon to help write new A-level syllabuses in order to cram our little chicks with knowledge that, in recent years, has come to seem unpalatable, if not indigestible – knowledge such as English vocabulary beyond that which is in common usage.//

I’m not sure I buy his arguments – nor his selective snippets of evidence. There will always be elements of society that aim for “high art” in whatever form they see it, no matter how “difficult” it may be (with overtones of the emperor’s new clothes in some instances? Posh art for rich connoisseurs?); and there will always be elements who denigrate art of any kind.

For one thing, complaints about falling educational standards have been around ever since education became in some way evaluated. Michael Rosen quotes the Newbolt Report (1921):

// Lever Brothers – “…it is a great surprise and disappointment to us to find that our young employees are so hopelessly deficient in their command of English”.//

and a JMB Examiners’ Report from 1960:

// “The root cause of a serious decline in competence; out of well over 900 scripts all but a small number showed that the candidate could not understand the plain sense of English words singly and in combination (with) weak, loose vocabulary and appalling punctuation”//

I would bet that scriptorium senior monks bemoaned the lack of skill from novices before the Reformation. Plus ça change?

However, I suppose the art society, as an entity, proliferates is part of what defines that society. So I find reality television, game shows and inane celeb interviews depressing. But in the 1970s we had Top of the Pops, Jim’ll Fix It and “comedy” relying on sexual or racial stereotypes (Black and White Minstrel Show, anybody?). We cherry pick what we remember: good or bad.

Is the globalisation of entertainment dragging us up – or down – towards some middlebrow narrow-mindedness? The ‘70s spawned some appalling television but also The Accent of Man and David Attenborough’s first explorations of our world. Are we narrower in scope now? And is the web allowing us to experiment artistically ? or simply giggle at cute cat videos? or over-dose on porn? Where does sponsorship come into art? Government? Commerce? Charity?

A diet of fast food makes us lazy, obese, addicted. Self claims fast culture does the same to our minds. He says we need to celebrate cultural athletes the same way we worship Olympic medal winners and top footballers.

But how do we define our cultural elite? In sports it is simple: there are clear markers – fastest, highest, strongest. Not so in artistic culture which is nuanced, fitted to contexts that even a few years will sweep aside.

Should complexity of language mark a “winner”? Not for its own sake, surely? I’m with the Booker Prize Judges: a novel is, first and foremost, some kind of story. Poetry is another matter but, even there, I would suggest a poet is attempting some kind of communication with a reader, however oblique the ideas or rarefied the atmosphere conjured.

What we should ensure is that art funding – especially that from the taxes that we pay – goes to, in Self’s sporting parlance – raise the bar in the artistic endeavours supported.

As for high art … How about Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin wrapped in her dirty bed sheet shroud and pickled in a diamond-studded tank – on the end of a very long barge pole?

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2 Responses to Sesquipedalian

  1. Martin Vosper says:

    An excellent commentary, Myfanwy. I used to quite like Will Self (being something of a grumpy old man myself!) but I have to say I find him increasingly pompous and elitist.
    The worst thing teachers can do with their students is to create some ideal that art – of any kind – is only good if it’s difficult. Unnecessary complexity turns most people off; appropriate complexity entices, provided it’s offered and not imposed.
    The food analogy is an excellent one; I’m sure that even those who consume vast quantities of Big Macs and KFC know, deep down, that there’s got to be more to food than that. It’s just that no-one’s inspired them enough to explore home cooking – or indeed given them the skills to try it for themselves – so they stay in their (unhealthy) comfort zone.
    What we need are more teachers who inspire and encourage students (of all ages) to venture beyond their ‘fast-food’ comfort-zone and sample some of the gourmet delights that lie beyond – and sufficient freedom of syllabus to allow them do so.
    Otherwise, to pick up on Self’s sporting analogy, we run the risk of giving the message that unless people can play football to Premier League standards, then actually, there’s no point in even having a kick-around in the local park.

    • Myfanwy Fox says:

      Thanks, Martin. I quite agree.

      (Interesting … reminds me of the comments a few years ago from an established poet complaining about the numbers of “amateur” poets dragging standards down. (All I can say is “LOL”. Er.))

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