You Can’t Say ‘Clever’ Anymore. It’s Elitist.

The Arts

Anna Richardson and models

A short while ago I expressed admiration for someone I thought was clever, and a girlfriend of mine told me off for being ‘elitist’. Here’s my thinking on that.

The UK’s low-rent Channel 4, which is government subsidised (outrageously, it still pays no tax) is currently running a dating show in which people decide who to go out with by staring at their genitals and being encouraged to analyse what they (and we the viewers) see in grisly detail. The show may horrify you but it is not, as some critics would have you think, a symptom of our new stupidity. It merely appeals to a base prurience.

In the mid-1980s the UK lost its vocational colleges when Mrs Thatcher rebranded polytechnics ‘universities’ to attract more overseas students. Where careers in home maintenance and construction were perfectly admirable and respectable, suddenly everyone had to show that they were doing something wonderful in the media and being a mere plumber was unthinkably dumb.

It goes without saying that in the complicated world of the portfolio career, your Deliveroo messenger may have more qualifications than you. Once a suit and tie was a used as the sign of an educated man (women being limited to secretaries in the business world) and class was wrapped up with education. With the unpicking of that knot we have a rather awkward new situation. Is that person wandering past you looking for Pokémons stupid or clever? Is that millionaire teenager who invented an app for tying your shoelaces a genius or a moron? Does it even matter?

Well, this is where it gets supremely awkward for the writer. At what level do we pitch our work? The British are famously suspicious of anything too clever, yet we love erudition and make fun of those who lack it. I’m working on a book with a lot of long words in it; it’s part of a deliberate stylistic choice that goes with the subject matter. Stephen King famously says you must never, ever use a word you find in a thesaurus. I say ‘If you don’t know the meaning, look it the f*ck up’.


Is it a crime to be clever, to think clever, to want to unravel a clever book, play or film? The writer does not have to be self-consciously clever – there’s a lot to be said by writing purely out of instinct and allowing others to unravel the meaning. You may not even have spotted it yourself. This happened to me recently when an American professor analysed the meaning in my novel ‘The Sand Men’ and made me re-examine what I had written. Perhaps hidden layers are for others to discover.

So, is ‘2001’ clever or merely enigmatic? Would the book (and film) of ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ benefit from a lengthy explanatory note at the end? How about ‘Memento’ or ‘The Tempest’? Are classical composers clever because they know which note should follow which? More and more novels are being published that have pages of notes and explanations at the end, as if we must verify everything. But do we need everything laid out tidily in front of us?


It seems we do at the moment anyway. Watching one of the most popular films in history, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, for the second time (under sufferance) I was struck by how deliberately unoriginal and unclever it was. Let’s build another Death Star, only a really big one! It’s impregnable except for a huge duct! Let’s not call it a duct, though, let’s call it a ‘thermal oscillator’! This is the thing poor old Harrison Ford falls into, where he can presumably be kept alternately warm and cold forever. Make sure we can tell who the baddie is; he’ll be the one holding the upside-down crucifix who looks like Darth Vader! (Except when he takes off his tin hat and looks like John Travolta’s stunt double).

The film is, scene after club-footed scene, as dumb as a stick, as sharp as a butter knife, it’s DOA, an ex-film, if it hadn’t been put into all cinemas everywhere it would be pushing up daisies. I enjoyed it.

But that’s not all I want.

Bring on the books that I have to put down because they’re making my brain hurt. Bring on the music and films and plays and art I can’t begin to understand because I’m not quite smart enough. I’m of middling intellect, with an enquiring mind. I’m curious, that’s all. But I’ll try and keep on trying, and maybe I’ll get a bit smarter. I want to learn, and keep learning, until the day I die.




10 comments on “You Can’t Say ‘Clever’ Anymore. It’s Elitist.”

  1. Steve says:

    I mentioned Gene Wolfe’s book Peace in the previous post, and I’ll mention it again here.
    If want to read a book that’s simultaneously very well written and more fiendishly intricate than Sudoko, this is it!
    Other books and films are ‘enigmatic’ as mentioned above, and stay in the mund for that reason,but that’s not the same thing.
    Also: The Shadow Line just popped into my head, with the liminal character Gatehouse.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for the recommends, Steve.

  3. Wayne says:

    Its funny really something as dumb as a stump can really be entertaining. You just need to switch off your brain sometimes. I look forward to seeing Star Wars now you have reviewed it so nicely.

    Over lunch on Sunday my Partner and I were listening to Philip Glass and I made a comment about what were had on, I said ‘It must be really hard to write something as challenging as this, its so complex” to most people though they just dismiss his work as repetitive and boring. I would challenge them to really sit and listen to it and go on that journey with the composer.

    This is me and I am not clever, well I guess to some people I am but I am not academically clever. I never went to sixth form or Uni. I did an old fashion apprenticeship went to work and night school. I got interested in books and then music as an adult. I don’t see the need to explain everything and very often don’t bother to look up a word I don’t know the meaning of. There are exceptions and I find myself looking words up in most of your books Admin but thats because I want to not because the work would suffer from not knowing.

  4. Ness says:

    Clever is also regularly an insult. I’m definitely too clever for my own good. At some point I just got sick of hiding my intelligence to make others feel more secure. I admire people who are curious and don’t care what people think of them – nothing to do with intelligence, everything to do with challenging themselves.

    It’s all light and shade though – I watch as much mindless tv and movies as challenging stuff and this is also reflected in my reading habits. The English language is so rich and exploitable. I find a lot of stuff written in the shadow of the displeasure of the Lord Chamberlain is more interesting as it isn’t just F words. Give me Blackadder over Gordon Ramsay on so many levels…

  5. David says:

    Polytechnics were rebranded as universities in 1992 (ie by Major not Thatcher) and they were where you went (and still go) for the training in technical professions not craft skills – engineering, design, computer science, town planning, architecture, business studies. Never for plumbing and plastering. Sorry to be a clever dick.

  6. Brooke says:

    I raise my glass to Christopher’s last paragraph. So bring on Moore’s Law; it just means more knowledge by-ways, highways and alleys for the curious to explore and perhaps learn some things in the process.

    And, yes, “clever” is an adjective which implies a value judgement. The same can be said for “elitist.” I’ll bet Christopher can define and defend his standards for reaching his conclusion much better than girlfriend can explain hers.

  7. Vivienne says:

    Is being clever and intelligent the same thing? I’m not sure anyone is prepared to say. Since humans across the globe are homogenous, it should be possible to take, for instance, a newborn from an uncontacted Amazon people and bring it up in a middle class English family with lots of advantages and it could get to Oxford or Cambridge, perhaps. When we left Africa all those tens of centuries ago we spread very rapidly across the globe- those that arrived in Australia would have had to set off straight away. In this case, I don’t think it’s possible that we evolved any further: we were already adaptable and it there was no imperitative to get more intelligent, it was not somehow the destiny we were all supposed to strive for, and for this to have happened across the globe in an identical fashion is beyond belief. So, way back then, there must have been people as bright as Einstein or Newton, but with different issues to face. Some of us seem to be wired slightly differently and I do think a strong interest in something means you stick at it and thereby seem clever. It’s easy to give up on quantum mechanics or even killer sudokus.

  8. John Griffin says:

    I think you are confusing the polys with the FE colleges, which were privatised in 1991. Up to Sept 91 they did all those engineering courses, plus craft and trade qualifications – within a year the senior staff were driving Mercs and Beamers, the staff were on base wages and all the engineering etc courses had been snuffed out in favour of ‘travel & tourism’ etc.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    John, that sounds so familiar. We had the B.C. Institute of Technology, where you could train as a chef, a licensed nurse, a lab technician, or a transportation professional. The instructors were just that, instructors and graduates found employers standing in line waiting for them. It’s still a good place to train but it’s called a University now and that means a number of the courses have changed somewhat and the faculty have delusions of grandeur. I have always said that the two systems are very different and cater to different kinds of mind. Not better ones, different ones. I described it once as the difference between the weirdie who proposes some far out type of experiment and the technician who makes sure the thing is monitored, regulated and recorded properly – the PhD and the lab tech, who need each other.

  10. Anji says:

    I totally agree with what you’re saying,sometimes it is good to switch off when you have an enquiring mind,although it doesn’t stop when you’re watching a visual feast of a film which requires no great cerebral analysis, you just tell it not to enquire so much. But I love to analyse and think about things much to my detriment at times and would hate to have everything dumbed down to the point of insipid and a lot of TV programmes are being designed this way it seems, to encourage people NOT to think and question. Worrying and disturbing…what is the next step I wonder?

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