Thursday, 29 April 2010

Sniff the Corpse of Bernard Manning part 2


When it comes to comedy some people claim that nothing can offend them. But the truth is that everyone can be offended - if you try hard enough.

In the same way that everyone has a price, everyone has something they're sensitive about - because everyone has beliefs. Rationalists believe it's stupid to hold irrational beliefs, and you can make them quite angry simply by professing faith in something, especially if you invent it yourself and make it as weird as possible.  But it's sometimes hard to offend people who are so certain of their religious beliefs that they radiate that creepy, contemptuous serenity. With them you might have to get personal. Stuff about their mother often does the trick. But how do you offend a comedian who tells offensive jokes? I'll tell you later.

On May 19th I'm chairing an event at London's Southbank Centre. It's called "No Offence But..." and the panel includes Richard Herring, Brendon Burns, Francesca Martinez and Oona King, Channel 4's Head of Diversity (see link at the end of this post).  We're going to challenge some basic assumptions about comedy.

Why does comedy have to be offensive at all? Why can't we just make nice, silly jokes that make everyone happy? Why do we need comedy that might offend some people? The answer could be in the word 'some'. If everyone in the world found something offensive it wouldn't be funny. But there are some very sick people out there, who find even the most vile, repulsive jokes amusing, if you tell them properly. Thank God for diversity. What one person finds funny, another person finds distasteful. But there can be lots of different reasons why someone takes offence. It could be because of beliefs they hold, or it could be because of something that's happened to them. And even then, two people can react differently to the same experience. Here's an example. It's not strictly speaking comedy, in the sense that it's about someone dying of cancer. But lighten up...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

my brain scan is a bestseller

"Literary critics scan the brain to find out why we love to read"

People have been striving to analyze literature ever since the first campfire story was deconstructed by the first critic, who hit the storyteller with a club, and was then eaten by the storyteller and his friends, setting the tone for literary debate through the ages.

Literary criticism is a wide battleground. At one extreme is the idea that the author is an omnipotent deity, controlling his story, his characters, his readers and pretty much everything else except his bank balance, which seems to remain beyond an author's control whichever theory you use. At the other extreme is the idea that the author is a kind of talented idiot who has no idea what he's doing and whose work can't possibly be interpreted out of context, which can only be supplied by highly-paid university professors. The ground in between is occupied by marauding squadrons of Marxists, social historians, feminists, deconstructionists and supercilious French semioticians who are almost certainly just having a laugh.

Now experts claim that the biology and chemistry of the brain, and lighting up the right neurones, could be just as important as any interpretation derived from gender studies, social context, or painstaking examination of the author's underwear. Some scientists believe that even our genes could affect our response to literature. But how can we understand all this in simple terms? We can't. It isn't simple. And this is where I come in, the author. I will now attempt to explain it, using that reliable literary device, the analogy. 

Friday, 2 April 2010

how to be a writer - part 2

Does writing make you sick?
(Do not answer this question if you suffer from high blood pressure, low self-esteem, or  moderate existential dread)

Some people say that writers are notorious hypochondriacs. But writers have always been genuinely prone to poor health. Think of Proust, Keats, or Emily Dickinson. And I'm not feeling too well myself. If you don't believe me, come and listen to my cough, look at my rash, feel my glands, check out my tongue and tell me what you make of this weird lump behind my knee. It's also a myth that writers tend to destroy their health by drinking too much and taking drugs. Most of us can't afford it. Have you seen the price of absinthe? 

But it's true that writers need to take care of themselves. In many ways, a writer is like an athlete. Except that a writer sits around all day and doesn't get much exercise. Also, athletes tend to be better looking. But writing is essentially a sedentary occupation, unless you do it standing up. Which is how Anthony Trollope produced around seventy novels, putting in a couple of hours every morning at a lectern before going off to work in his job at the Post Office. Maybe that's what my postman is doing - writing a novel. He's certainly got something better to do in the morning than deliver my mail, which arrives around lunchtime. But if you're a writer who spends a lot of time sitting down, how can you stay fit? Try the following simple tips.