Don’t Cut Me Short
Can you be bothered to read this article? ROB SMITH tests your patience, by refusing to condense his ideas into an easily digestible chunk.
‘So what have you got planned over the summer?’
This question fills me with dread.
Firstly, it’s a barely concealed pretext for the inquirer to talk at length about their paid internship at BarCap or, worse still, their trip around Asia mopping up the tears of orphans. If we believe in the Dickensian notion of true selflessness going hand in hand with humility, the latter is particularly sickening as it will be plastered all over their CV as indiscreetly as an escort’s number in a phone box.
Secondly, my own plans for the summer usually extend to following this daily routine: get out of bed at 11, watch YouTube clips of toddlers falling over for seven hours and then destroy my overdraft in clubs desperately hoping no one asks what university I go to.
The only thing worse than this question is its younger brother: ‘What did you do over the summer?’ Whereas with the first question there’s always the potential for redemption, by the time the second question comes there is no escape. You hear yourself mumble, ‘I just spent the summer chilling out’, while you die inside. Looking at your interlocutor you see the pride in their own summer replaced with sheer pity at yours. They rattle off the platitude, ‘Yeah, the best summers are the ones where you do nothing’.
Yet again I failed to spare myself from the embarrassment of the first question. Through sheer luck, however, I managed to escape the horror of the second. When all hope of a productive summer seemed lost, I was asked at the last minute to produce a sketch show at the Edinburgh Fringe. The role had induced more people to pull out than during a Catholic couples retreat. Fortunately for me, producing a show requires virtually no specific skills, as I had no previous experience in theatre. Instead, I spent my time at university as a professional procrastinator, habitual journalist and occasional student.
The term ‘occasional student’ brings me to the main lesson I learnt from Edinburgh. Having spent two terms as Reviews Editor at The Tab, I got quite a kick out of seeing my quotes on posters. Sure, the attribution may have been ‘The Tab’ rather than ‘Robert Smith, learned gentleman and all-round amazing human being’, but my ego isn’t particularly discerning and I lapped it up all the same. Seeing that the fantastic Truly, Medley, Deeply had used a quote of mine on their poster, for example, left me giggling like one of their legions of female admirers.
Having your quotes used isn’t always this pleasant, however. Use always brings the risk of misuse, as I was to learn.
The Occasional Students was an utterly forgettable sketch show with a five night run at Christ’s earlier this year. I gave it an incredibly generous two and half star review, mainly out of pity at accomplished performers dealing with such a terrible script. In truth though, I laughed more during my granddad’s wake. That isn’t clichéd hyperbole either: I attended both during the same month so I can make a direct comparison. Given this, I was slightly shocked to see that the show was being revived for a month-long run at Edinburgh. I was even more shocked to see my quote on their posters.
The Occasional Students: avid fans of KISS and being selective with the truth.
If I was to choose a quote from my review it would be the bitchy but accurate ‘The Occasional Students was only occasionally funny’. Of course, this isn’t a ringing endorsement capable of publicising a show to a paying audience at an international festival. Instead emblazoned on their posters was: ‘Very good performers really hitting their stride- The Tab’.
Before you jump down my throat and ask why I even said that if I didn’t like the show, let me explain. The quote had of course been cropped, in this instance from my final sentence: ‘If you’re going to go, leave it to the end of the week, as the already very good performers really hitting their stride could paper over these deficiencies.’
Makes for a very different verdict doesn’t it? The full quote doesn’t state that the performers are hitting their stride, merely that there is the potential for this to happen and this might rescue a fairly dire show. This is the problem with writing reviews; no matter how heavily you qualify a statement these qualifications can be cut. It may be dishonest but it is not illegal. The very definition of a quote is an extract cut from a larger text after all.
This experience has led me to generate a simple rule for assessing poster quotes: the shorter the quote, the greater the suspicion. One word quotes simply hold no value for me now and yet the amount of film posters that simply contain words like ‘Brilliant’ and ‘Hilarious’ is incalculable. ‘Brilliant’ may have been cut from the statement ‘Even the brilliant popcorn couldn’t quell the deep suicidal urges I experienced during this traumatically bad thriller’. Equally, ‘Hilarious’ may have been extracted from the lament ‘Even my wife’s tragic miscarriage can be considered hilarious when compared to this offensively unfunny comedy’.
This is also the reason why star ratings should be unilaterally banned. For me, a three star rating is reserved for productions of a good standard that I enjoyed more than most other things of its type. For others, however, three stars comprise a baseline rating for anything in which someone wasn’t accidentally sodomised on stage. During my time at Edinburgh I heard people say either ‘They gave it three stars but it read like a four star review’ or ‘Why did they give it three stars if they hated it that much?’ just about every day. Indeed, current Tab Reviews Editor Toby Parker-Rees has been humorously toying with the idea of banning three star reviews to counteract this.
‘So what?’ you may well be thinking, ‘everyone knows that review quotes and star ratings can be deceptive.’ Well I think that quotes and star ratings are far more damaging than being merely misleading. By boiling everything down to a few words or, worse still, a discrete number of meaningless symbols, the potential for subtlety and nuance is lost.
Reviews serve a purpose. Reviewers should make clear their subjective evaluation of something to help inform or correct the reader’s prejudgement. Reviewing should also be an art form, however. Reviews can be full of humour and pathos, often employing the deeply unquotable technique of irony to achieve this. The best reviews wrong foot you, following seemingly tangential paths that are unexpectedly given relevance. They also contain pluralities of meaning. Having a star rating at the top of a review means that this nuanced perspective is, all too often, ignored in favour of the easily digestible symbols précising the writing.
Take the work of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated theatre critics, Kenneth Tynan. When other critics were despairing at the lack of any recognisable dramatic structure in Waiting for Godot, Tynan saw this as the play’s very virtue. The quote, ‘It has no plot, no climax, no dénouement; no beginning, no middle and no end’ is actually a commendation, but reads like criticism when taken out of this context. Even if a more fitting praiseworthy quote is taken from the review, such as ‘I declare myself, as the Spanish would say, godotista’, the whole nuance of what poor old Ken was saying is lost. If Tynan had wanted his opinion of the play to be summarised in such a way he would have written ten words instead of two pages. Thankfully, Tynan lived in an age before star ratings. Today his opinion would no doubt be summarised by the quote, ‘Marvellous’, beside five meaningless stars.
This issue runs much deeper than cultural criticism, however. Tynan, a man of wide-ranging importance, is now best remembered by a quote. In 1965 he famously stated, ‘I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden’. It was the first instance of the word fuck being used on British television. Reducing Tynan to this one quote, or worse still simply the word ‘fuck’, captures one aspect of his personality but disregards all the others that made him such an interesting figure. I sometimes fear that in a hundred years’ time his headstone will simply read, ‘Here lies Kenneth Tynan, the man who said fuck on the telly’.
I have this fear because the need to condense everything into easily digestible chunks is, unfortunately, a trend I see growing more and more. The internet is a marvellous invention and only the most trenchant Luddite would try and deny this. I don’t think, as some do, that it’s making us stupid. In fact there’s a considerable amount of research to suggest that it’s improving our ability to juggle multiple information sources simultaneously.
It is, however, stymieing our ability to consider things at length. This opinion piece has now just passed the 1,500 word mark and according to recent research those of you still reading should be given medals for displaying superhuman levels of concentration.
Indeed, any internet comment section is usually littered with the refrain ‘Too long, didn’t read’. The phrase itself is now considered too long and has been reduced to ‘TLDR’. What if the first reviewers of Crime and Punishment had simply written TLDR? What if the Great Reform Bill had been met with a collective shout of TLDR by parliament at its first hearing? TLDR is a four letter word far more damaging than any Tynan could have dreamt up even in his wildest fantasies.
TLDR is the mantra of the moron, to borrow a turn of phrase from Bill Hicks, and pandering to this philosophy can be seen in all areas of life. Take politics for example; all political messages must now be reducible to a slogan that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pepsi ad, or they are invalid.
I’m not trying to be intellectually elitist. As my own confessions of slackerdom in the opening paragraphs confirm, I like my YouTube videos of cats singing karaoke hits as much as the next man. Accessible information and quick summaries have a vital place in our increasingly hectic world. They should not hold the only place, however.
Neither am I ignorant of the fact that this is not an especially new concern. The rise of the printed word meant that some skills were largely lost, memorisation for example, but others were gained to further develop our intellectual abilities.
I only hope that the same method of adaptation will occur in the face of the internet. Although it may sound like a Kenneth Williams double-entendre from ‘Carry on Cambridge’, length should never be a barrier to enjoyment. Some of the most interesting ideas and experiences simply can’t be summarised in a few short words. I can’t really pick any pithy quotes that sum up the message of this article effectively. I’m sure, however, that people in the comment section will gleefully pick one particular quote: ‘TLDR’.
Ed. – Incredibly, this article was cut prior to publishing.