Medium of the masses joins debate at Edinburgh Book Festival

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's Festival Blog

17th August

This morning I went to see Stella Duffy, Rodge Glass and Will Sutcliffe at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, promoting their new novels. Each reading was an assured affair, Duffy's in particular. Author discussion afterwards was wide-ranging indeed, with each making individual assertions that lingered in the mind. Glass responded to a question about dsyfunctional families by arguing that he knew of ‘no functional ones’. Sutcliffe pointed out the lack of literature about the relationship between sons and mothers, and he’s right to. Despite the fact that, according to Sutcliffe, a man’s mother will be at least the second-most important female relationship of his life, society makes jokes about ‘Mummy’s Boys’ or else ignores this closest of bonds altogether. His new novel seeks to redress that, but although the extract he read was funny and likeable, with many astute lines, the mother-son character seemed to confirm too many of the clichés that he’d wanted to overcome: the hapless son, the nagging mother desperate for grandchildren. It seems like a very entertaining read though, and is certainly covering overlooked ground.

Duffy – a most engaging and witty speaker, who read a beautiful passage – raised the most hackles when she responded to Glass’s boundless literary ambitions (as well as a new novel, Glass has just released a superb biography of Alasdair Gray) by telling him that if he wants to change the world he’d be better off writing episodes of Eastenders. This felt slightly glib to me. Duffy argued that, since more people watch television than read books, TV constitutes a greater medium for social change. Gay issues being broached on Eastenders and Brookside, she argued, transformed the culture more than Oscar Wilde did. She’s right in some respects: television certainly reaches more people and remains a good barmoter for when an issue has gone ‘mainstream’. She conveniently ignored, however, the fact that it was only because of a debate taking place in print for a century that television networks finally caught up to what had already changed in society. Television merely reflected – not directed – this change. This is before we consider introduce to the debate the notion of television as a wholly corporate medium, or soap operas as an extremely generic narrative form, making their potential to affect radical change far more compromised than a discursive, wide-ranging and fearless literary culture. It would have better if Duffy had positioned books and television as constituents of a larger discourse, in which each perform different functions and reach different audiences, influencing a summative social consensus, rather than eulogising on the awesome power of Eastenders. If it’s just a numbers game, then we’d be as well giving up on books altogether. The existence of the Edinburgh International Book Festival itself is evidence that literature simply goes places television cannot.

A change of place and tone for an afternoon of comedy: Arnold Brown and Ian Macpherson at The Stand. Macpherson has been most in the public eye recently for his hosting skills at Glasgow’s newest and most vibrant performance literature night: Discombobulate at the CCA (and okay, YES, I happen to be a regular performer – not enough interests declared this time of year). Let loose on a stand-up comedy crowd, he was a revelation. The audience cheered every ironically-raised eyebrow. This was slick but nonchalantly-executed patter, which paves the way for Macpherson’s return to stand-up. His critique of the Edinburgh crowd was summed-up when he quipped that: ‘There’s a very important person in the audience tonight. And this being the Fringe you’re probably thinking it’s you.’ Arnold Brown’s slow, still and precise delivery took the audience to even greater heights. His first twenty minutes were as good as comedy gets, but we should expect no less from a man godfather of British stand-up, who once supported Frank Sinatra onstage at Ibrox Park. Each observation, buttressed by perfectly-times pauses, shook with audience laughter. This was a sturdy set, lampooning Catholics, Orangemen, Jews, Muslims and Amy Winehouse in equal measure. The only misfortune was a heckler who loved the sound of his own voice too much, and whose own ‘comedy’ backfired on him when a crowd member shut him up.

Many voices today then, and all of them – save this unasked-for contribution – worth listening to. And what d’ya know? None of them on television!