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