Reality TV: Brave new world or the end of civilisation as we know it?

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According to Wiki, in Stephen King’s futuristic 1982 novel Running Man:

“The global economy has collapsed and American society has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The government pacifies the populace by broadcasting a number of game shows in which convicted criminals fight for their lives, including the gladiator-style The Running Man, hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian, where ‘runners’ attempt to evade ‘stalkers’ and near-certain death for a chance to be pardoned and set free.”

On the show contestants are routinely killed with extreme brutality to satisfy the public’s growing addiction to graphic violence. History has turned full circle. We’ve slipped back two millennia to the days of the Roman amphitheatre. In a world of cares and troubles and hum drum 9-5 jobs, we demand our human sacrifice. Reality TV delivers.

I have a bone to pick with reality TV. Is it just me, or does anyone else think we’re heading for hell in a handcart of the kind imagined in Stephen King’s dystopian vision? Sky was the Trojan horse, of course, the Greek bearing gifts, not least in its promise of a thousand channels offering ever greater choice with game-changing content. Well, we certainly got the choice. Yet many would argue that 24/7 wall-to-wall telly has led to a noticeable dumbing down of content.

It became a live issue for me the other night when England were stuffed by Uruguay in the World Cup, thanks to the Mad dog of Montevideo, ‘three bites and you’re out’ Luis Suarez. Like a lot of guys, there’s always a period of introspection after your team loses. You just want to be left alone with your thoughts. To grieve, as it were. After the game I was searching for a non-news or sports related channel where I could bury my sorrows without having the national catastrophe replayed to me in slow motion, over and over. For ten minutes I scrolled up and down Sky’s one thousand two hundred and fourteen channels. I couldn’t find a damn thing. Not a single sausage I wanted to watch. The documentary channels which can normally be relied upon in an emergency, were mostly showing repeats of series I’d seen a dozen times. This was something that had never happened to me in the old days of four-channel terrestrial TV. Yet in the age of round the clock telly, even those bastions of reliability the BBC and Channel 4 had been sucked into a spiral of ever dumbed-down eye candy in their desperation to protect their market share from the gaudy neighbours at Sky. I can’t tell you how depressing I found this. To have a thousand channels and not find a single thing worth watching, felt like a black day for British telly. It occurred to me that this was the belated cost we were paying for inviting the Trojan horse of Sky into our homes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. Life without wall-to-wall Premier League and NFL Sundays would be unthinkable for me and millions of other sports fans. And a world without Friends, Sopranos and Breaking Bad could hardly be described as a return to some golden age. But here’s the rub. For every Game of Thrones and Mad Men there now exist a thousand pile-em-high and sell-em-cheap programmes which are cluttering up the airwaves with homogenized garbage. I’m mostly talking about the genre that has come to dominate twenty-first century television as we know it. Reality TV. It’s cheap, quick, and unhealthily addictive – fast-food for the lobotomized masses. Shows like Big Brother, X Factor, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Biggest Loser, Dog The Bounty Hunter, The Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Highway Thru Hell, Swamp People, Swamp Loggers, Hoarding: Buried Alive, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Traffic Cops, Motorway Cops, Night Cops, Cops With Cameras, Street Wars, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Extreme Makeover, Britain’s Got Even More Talent Than Ever Before, America’s Next Top Clothes Horse, Raising Sextuplets, Hotter Than My Daughter, Touch the Truck, My 600 Pound Life, Obese: A Year To Save My Life, Extreme Celebrity Detox, The Only Way Is Essex, Storage Wars, Shipping Wars, Pawn Stars, Meet the Sloths, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, The Real Housewives of D.C., The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of Miami… I mean, WTF? Does anyone REALLY give a flying one about all these fake ‘real’ housewives? Who is watching this garbage? Who is asking for it? Why is it on my TV? Then there’s The Apprentice, Young Apprentice, Six-Week Old Baby Apprentice, Foetus Apprentice (you see where I’m going here?) Once a formula is proven to sell, it is cloned mercilessly. Ad nauseam.

The phenomenon of reality TV may not be the end of civilization as we know it, but the dubious moral precepts it now streams into our homes around the clock should give serious cause for concern. We were all shaped by the telly we grew up watching as kids, and like it or not the moral compass of today’s generation of children is going to be largely set by the amount of junk we feed them. Do we really want our child’s goal in life to be an appearance on Big Brother, or Toddlers and Tiaras? Do we want their ideas of right and wrong based on the Jeremy Kyle Show? Their notions of normality shaped by The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills or 16 and Pregnant? Many of these so-called ‘reality’ shows routinely glamorise greed, vulgarity and materialism of the worst kind. Most worryingly of all are the ones which seek out the weirdest, trashiest people they can find to base a series around, turning bigots, racists and chauvinists into media celebrities.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is about a ratings war. It’s all about the money. Keeping bums on seats. Programmes about Kierkegaard’s influence on the existential philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre are a tough sell. We’re in the middle of a dog-fight for viewers that has led to ever more controversial, provocative content that appeals to the lowest common denominator, to our basest appetites. The Holy Grail for TV producers is to be not just the show everyone’s watching, but the show everyone’s talking about. For that you need some blood on the floor. On franchises like The Apprentice and X Factor where participants are routinely reduced to tears by the savage maulings of judges, humiliation is the name of the game. You end up, of course, with televised wife swaps and celebrities swallowing live cockroaches. You end up with post-modern ironies like Reality Ex-Wives, a reality TV show which profiles women whose marriages have fallen apart after appearing on reality TV shows. And if you’re not careful, you end up with bodies. On sidewalks, in ambulances, in police cells and morgues. In the States, where they’re always a few years ahead of the game, the rising number of suicides among eliminated contestants from reality TV shows is a worrying trend.

If it’s so bad for us, why is it then that we’re so hooked on reality TV? One reason could be the illusion of ‘community’ it conveys. That thing that no longer exists in our modern metropolitan lifestyles, where big city dwellers are as likely to talk to their dogs as the neighbours. Instead we now hang out in cyber-space, where we discuss the latest episodes of our favourite shows. It seems we’ve become a nation more able to relate to people on a screen than in real life. Another reason could be the illusion of power reality TV sometimes gives us, by allowing us to participate in the format. Beset as we are on all sides by recessions, job losses, corrupt politicians, calamitous world events and a whole heap of other forces beyond our control, these shows where the nation decides the fate of participants can provide a sense of purpose in an otherwise disenfranchised and nihilistic daily existence. This is a new kind of democracy, where people vote with their remotes rather than the ballot box, about the things that are important to them now. Like who should stay in the Big Brother house, and who should go. Such shows also hold out the hope that however obscure and humble our origins, however meagre our talents, however little work we put in, we can all be famous one day. One recent survey showed that around half of all teenagers in the UK now hope to gain fame by appearing on reality TV, rather than doing something meaningful with their lives. As Martin Amis presciently pointed out back in 2001, in The War Against Cliché, these days:

“You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.”

When you take away the talent, all that’s left is what’s on the surface. Perhaps that’s why the cast of many a contemporary ‘talent’ show wouldn’t look out of place on a low-budget porn movie, or in a zoo. Mostly they seem to involve clones of empty-headed bimbos flaunting boob jobs the size of footballs in ever more revealing, clingier outfits. Cameras zoom in salaciously on cleavages. Waxed legs grow longer and tanner by the series, skirts shorter and tighter. Chic ankle tattoos are de rigueur. Botoxed lips shimmer with glossy kissability. As for the dudes, those gladiators of hubris who cram their gym-pumped, ripped torsos into crisply-tailored suits or pre-ripped jeans and tees, this new breed of hombres pluck their eye-brows and fuss over strands of immaculately-gelled hair. Popular styles include the Dragged Through a Hedge look, the Wind Tunnel, the Baby Bobby Charlton and the Loo Brush. To borrow a phrase from Radio 4’s John Humphrys, reality TV has provided us with a freak show to gawp at.

I often find it ironic that the genre goes under the label ‘reality’, when it produces some of the most formulaic, stage-managed melodrama on TV. Perhaps the reality lies in the mirror these awful programmes hold up to our increasingly celebrity-obsessed, intellectually-impoverished times. Life for most of us has become a milk-shake of simulated reality sucked through the straw of digital media. Junk food for the brain. The TV equivalent of a Big Mac. It’s the soma drug predicted by Aldous Huxley in his equally prescient 1931 novel, Brave New World. Christ, how that’s come true. The sad thing is we appear to be more addicted to it than ever. We’ve voted with our remotes and got the reality we deserve.

To quote from another Martin Amis book, in his 1985 Moronic Inferno he wondered if one day the book’s title might be more prophetic than he imagined:

“It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality.”

Was Amis ahead of his time? Have we already got there? I’ll leave you to decide.

This is the backdrop against which I’ve set my latest novella, Reality TV, now out on Amazon. It’s a darkly humorous dystopian tale. The story opens with strange goings on in the household of a family of telly addicts in London as they settle down to watch their favourite reality TV show. As the evening goes on and the show unfolds, events get more and more disturbing. I’ve used magic realism to give the tale a surreal twist. Without giving away too much, you’ll find the blurb at the end of this post.

I feel a little guilty about abandoning Smashwords for the launch of this book. I’m a big fan. In my opinion they do a lot more to nurture writers than Amazon. And they actually answer your emails. Whereas Amazon, especially its e-publishing arm Kindle, largely leave you to your own devices (like those other faceless giants Google and Microsoft). They not only don’t answer your emails, they don’t have an email address where you can reach them in the first place. Too big, powerful and greedy to be bothered with mere individuals, they hide behind the internet, and leave their users to stumble around in the dark trying to find solutions in online forums. However, Amazon also dominate the e-book market, so no author can afford to ignore them.

So far I’ve e-pubbed all my previous three titles – Sex on the Brain, Sticky Pages, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII – on both Amazon AND Smashwords. Smashwords kindly distribute to partners like Apple, Barnes & Noble and Sony, which has meant that up to now readers have been able to pick up my titles on ipads, iphones and Nooks. Sales haven’t been huge, to be honest, but every time someone buys one of my books it feels like a miracle to me. I’m so proud and grateful, and just keep my fingers crossed they enjoy it.

Then a couple of years ago Amazon launched KDP Select, an e-publishing platform that allowed authors to leverage, among other benefits, free or discounted promotional days intended to increase book sales. The downside was, KDP Select insisted on exclusivity. You couldn’t join the party if your books were also on sale elsewhere. For that reason I resisted the temptation to join at the time. I have a fairly low opinion of bullies, as anyone who reads this blog will know.

So far, I’ve mostly been watching from the sidelines while the KDP Select debate has played out among e-book authors. While some have enjoyed huge success, claiming to have grown their fan-base and sales significantly, others have said the promotional days just encouraged thousands of people to download their books for free (most of whom would probably never read them) and they never really saw much upturn in paid-for sales when the free giveaways came to an end. Lately, authors seem to agree that Select was more effective in its early days, but the numbers signing up have diluted its effect, which has tailed off some.

I’ve decided the only way I’m going to find out if KDP Select can help me reach a bigger readership, and ultimately sell enough books to make a living, is to try it for myself. So that’s the reason, and the only reason, why I’ve decided to launch the book solely on Amazon at this time. The lock-in period is 3 months at Select. After that, I can opt back out and make it available to more readers on Smashwords and other platforms, tablets and devices if I choose. Ninety days isn’t so long, I figure. (For more info on the KDP Select in/out debate, see this great post by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, on the dilemma authors face and why on balance it’s probably best to steer clear of KDP Select.)

Here’s the blurb to Reality TV. If it sounds like your cup of tea, you know the drill.

“Meet England footballer and walking brand David Crimp. Adore his vacuous bimbo of a WAG Lara. Across the table in The Murderers restaurant sit monocled conceptual artist Damon Twain and his young Chinese bride Chu-Chu, the ravishingly beautiful chart-topping classical violinist. Who will win the big eat off on tonight’s show? Which unlucky contestant will get the mystery food-poisoning dish?

The fare is served up by host Soup Dogg, the black rapper and media darling with enough Michelin stars to fill a page of Amazon book reviews, fruitier language than a compote with Tourette’s, and more moves than a break dancer on fast-forward. He’s sick, he’s slick, and he’s down with the kids.

When these A-listers go head to head on Sty Transatlantic’s flagship Sunday night programme Humili-ATE (think Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares v Weakest Link) it’s about to turn into the reality TV show from hell. Throw in a dash of controversy to boost the ratings – tonight’s guest kitchen crew of category A prisoners from Glasgow’s High Security Prison, HM Barlinnie – and you pretty much have all the ingredients for a recipe for disaster.

Meanwhile surreal things are happening down in West Ham, where avid Humili-ATE fans Gazza and Tanya Mason find their telly taking on a strange reality all of its own.

The steaks are high, the curry’s a dog, and there’s something dodgy going down in the restaurant toilets.”

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In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey – a book review

In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey

In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of Andras Vajda. 

If you only ever read two books in your life, make Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women one of them. I’d certainly have it up there in my top 100. This classic bildungsroman chronicles Vizinczey’s rite of passage from pre-pubescent childhood to sexual enlightenment, through the eyes of his fictional narrator, Andras.  Andras’s desperation to lose his virginity, to find the girl and fall in love, is set against the backdrop of the Second World War and the post-war communist bloc. The tale skips lightly over those momentous events, whose effects on the author we can only guess at. Stephen Vizinczey was two years old when his father was topped by the Nazis. Two decades later his uncle was whacked by the communists. Vizinczey fought in the abortive Hungarian Revolution of 1956 before being forced to flee as a refugee. Starts don’t come much tougher. After a spell in Italy Vizinczey ended up in Canada, where he gave up his job as a hack writer to publish this, his first novel, in 1965.

Andras, Vizinczey’s alter ego, plays down his harrowing childhood as though describing a series of days out in a city park. Never once does the tone descend into self-pity or get in the way of chronicling his journey from puberty to manhood. Much of his education he receives at the hands of older women, as the book’s title and dedication page suggests: “This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women – and the connection between the two is my proposition.” Like a Twentieth-Century Don Quixote, Andras meets each sexual rebuff, each personal humiliation, each fucked up relationship with a philosophical shrug before riding off to tilt his lance at some other woman, a little wiser if sadder for the experience.

Each chapter of this short novel is a mini parable about the war of love and sex that men and women wage. Lessons are hard learned, often repeated. Reading it felt like leafing through one’s teenage diaries in old age, wincing at every naïve, stupid thing you’d ever done or said.

As a Hungarian writing in English, Vizinczey writes with a lucidity and economy of prose that puts most native English writers to shame. For one so wise you won’t find a shred of ego in this modest little book. Only fun poked at himself, and by extension at all men and women, for the fools that love makes of us all.  Vizinczey also manages to write about sex with more class than most writers acquire in a lifetime. Described as one of ‘those foreigners who handle English in a way to make a native Anglophile pale with jealousy’, Anthony Burgess once said of him, ‘he can teach the English how to write English’.

A perfect example is a scene where Andras is left frustrated after necking a girl in the Budapest University library. Andras describes the event as stirring up an ocean of longing in him, setting off a storm that causes him to masturbate at his reading table. Afterwards he reflects sadly, “Of all the children I might have had, few could have been as full of life as the one I should have fathered at that instant.”  What a line.

Many of the lovers’ partings in this book trawled up the face of some girl from my own past, bringing back memories I had thought long buried. Reading it I experienced a melancholy nostalgia for lost youth, for all the loves I’d lost along the way, whose faces reappeared like pages from a fading photo album.

One of the more sobering take-outs from the novel is the idea that true love, til death us do part, is beyond most men and women. That, in fact, trying to live up to the ideal of sexual fidelity is what often causes so much unhappiness in life. When relationships break up, we label ourselves failures at love. When marriages go sour we think there’s something wrong with us. “This idea,” says Andras, late on in the book, “that you can only love one person, is the reason why most people live in confusion.” Like Andras, I wish someone had told me that thirty years ago. For much of the book the young narrator is genuinely in love with the idea of being in love. But by the end the message is clear, while a lucky few may find their soul-mate in life, most relationships will bloom and perish like passing flowers. As Andras himself put it:

“As love is an emotional glimpse of eternity, one can’t help half-believing that genuine love will last forever. When it would not, as in my case it never did, I couldn’t escape a sense of guilt about my inability to feel true and lasting emotions… In this I’m like most of my sceptical contemporaries… We think of ourselves as failures, rather than renounce our belief in the possibility of perfection. We hang on to the hope of eternal love by denying even its temporary validity. It’s less painful to think ‘I’m shallow’, ‘She’s self-centred’, ‘We couldn’t communicate’, ‘It was all just physical’, than to accept the simple fact that love is a passing sensation, for reasons beyond our control and even beyond our personalities. But who can reassure himself with his own rationalizations? No argument can fill the void of a dead feeling – that reminder of the ultimate void, our final inconstancy. We’re untrue even to life.”

This is without doubt one of the wisest books I’ve read in a long time. There’s a disarming modesty in the narrator’s voice that invests Vizinczey’s prose with a rare humanity, often lacking in flashier writers. A humanity hard won from a lifetime of being slugged on the chin by life, and whittled away at like a stick, by a succession of ill-fated relationships with women, from the flirtatious to the frigid, the prick-teaser to the femme fatale. Reading the novel was for me, as I suspect it will be for many, like looking into a mirror of our own experience. Surely the test of any great book.

Vizinczey’s gentle, wise, self-effacing humour is nowhere better personified than in the introspective reflections of Andras, which leaven this hilarious book throughout. “Later that afternoon – I’d felt it coming on for days – I came down with a severe case of self-pity. I’ve been periodically subjected to this illness ever since childhood – in fact, I never recovered from it completely, only learned to live with it. However, this time the attack was more violent than ever before.”

I feel almost embarrassed to have been ignorant of Stephen Vizinczey for most of my life. I must have devoured a trillion books over the years. It certainly feels like it. Only a slam dunk few made it through to my bookshelves today. But I also keep a special shelf, reserved for those wonderful books I’d take with me to a desert island. Old flames I never tire of meeting up with. Settling down into an armchair with one is like listening to an old friend whose conversation I never tire of, whose humour never fails, whose wisdom leaves me feeling I’ve found a ten pound note on the pavement. Discovering Vizinczey was like finding a new wine and wanting to go out and buy a whole case. I have since ordered two of Vizinczey’s other titles, An Innocent Millionaire, and Truth and Lies in Literature. I can only recommend to lovers of literature everywhere that you go out and do the same.

I’ll end with a book-jacket quote from Patrick Kielty, which sums up the book nicely: “A total revelation… a masterclass in the politics of men and women… truthful, erotic and uplifting… joyful… an essential handbook for the modern man. One day sex itself may be this good.”

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