In the Critics this week

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the crisis of Zionism, Stuart Maconie on the Smiths, Helen Lewis on Fifty Shades, Kate Mossman on pop music's nerds and John Sutherland on English studies.

The leader in this week’s New Statesman warns that the window of opportunity for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly imperilled. Many figures on both sides of the debate have moved towards favouring a single binational, secular state. In the Critics section, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, which charts the former New Republic editor’s increasing disenchantment with Israel - typical of the problematic relationship between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft writes: “The settler and Palestinian populations are now so mixed up that a rational and fair partition is practically impossible.” Beinart remains a Zionist who believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land” and as such, Wheatcroft observes, makes for a rather unlikely dissident. But a gulf has opened, Wheatcroft writes, “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official “Jewish establishment””. In many ways, the reaction to Zionism means we have come full circle, Wheatcroft writes. “A hundred years ago Zionism was an esoteric doctrine, little understood by most Gentiles and of little appeal to most Jews”. Wheatcroft notes that Beinart belongs to a line of thinking which believes “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.

Wheatcroft also examines Norman Finkelstein’s Knowing Too Much. Finkelstein writes that the problem for American Jews is that they “can no longer reconcile their liberalism with what they have come to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Wheatcroft finds that Finkelstein makes for a vexing writer, “who treats fraught or delicate topics such as Zionism or what he calls the 'Holocaust industry' in a sarcastic and rebarbative tone”. But Finkelstein does remind us that “the triumph of Israel was once not only a source of healing pride for American Jews but paradoxically made it easier for them to remain American”. “Gradually, from being a boon, Israel has become a burden for many Jews,” Wheatcroft observes. 
 
Also in Books, Stuart Maconie reviews Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance – 20th Anniversary Edition. Rogan’s 1992 biography of the Smiths “astonished most with its Herculean endeavour”, despite having one especially prominent critic – Morrissey. Twenty years later, Maconie still finds the book “the definitive if daunting account of the most romantically mythic band of those times”. Given Morrissey’s mythologising approach to his upbringing, Rogan takes an almost paleontological approach to the Smiths’ prehistory, tackling the group’s family histories in detail. And while Morrissey’s brushes with scandal today border on the absurd, “Rogan reminds us of how genuinely subversive the Smiths were at the time, both musically and ideologically”. Most telling, perhaps, is how the Smiths’ “tortured, arcane financial arrangements underpin the whole narrative”. Far from a story of artistic detachment, “there is much that reads like accountancy here,” Maconie writes, with “many a page given to bank statements, receipts and the labyrinthine ways that the money was (unevenly) split between the members”.
 
Also in the Critics, John Sutherland wonders if change has been good for university English studies. “Centrality is the principal issue,” Sutherland writes. “Departments of English now occupy a position in the university constellation comparable to Uranus in the collar system.” Universities caused political alarm through the 1960s and 1970s as centres of protest. “One way to bring them to heel was to use funding as a short leash drawn throttlingly tight”, Sutherland observes, “less for frugality than to show who was in charge”. Extra-departmental management followed, aimed at introducing “that idolised thing at the time, 'competition'”. The mandatory PhD for entry-level academics and field specialism have produced a shift in which “a subject that had hitherto fostered the undoctored jack of all trades gradually fragmented into a mosaic of doctored specialists”. Heavy undergraduate fees have merely capped off what Sutherland sees as the inexorable deterioration of English studies.
 
In this week’s Critic At Large essay, Helen Lewis looks at how E L James's erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey can be better understood as a throwback to the 18th century. Lewis looks back to 1740, with the publication of Pamela by Samuel Richardson – the first bestseller. Just as James’s work began life in the “slash fiction” genre, with its inferior and feminine associations, Richardson worked “in the upstart novel genre at a time when the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope were regarded as literature’s finest form”. And in many ways, the tame sex and minimalist plotting make Fifty Shades a deeply conventional story. “The “mummy porn” label applied by the media might not be as dismissive as it initially sounds”, Lewis writes.
 
Also in the Critics, Kate Mossman looks at how a generation of nerds is writing music for grown-ups. “Interesting things happen at the point where ambition meets anonymity”, Mossman writes, “you can be a fully formed artistic product before the world even knows you exist”. Mossman examines the Belgian-born Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, responsible for the biggest-selling song in the world this year – “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Gotye spent his twenties living in a former family home in Melbourne “rent-free, tooling around with vintage synths to his heart’s content”. Gotye, along with Kimbra and Monáe – musicians who sound like 1980s pop stars – have been defined above all by an isolated upbringing.  The reach of the internet and laptop technology mean “there’s a new route for the old-fashioned pop star”. It’s all about perfectionism, Mossman argues: “The more nerdy you are, the more artistic control you retain. The penniless, jack-of-all trades musician can take punk’s DIY ethic and reach the world with it now”.
 
Elsewhere in the Critics: Suzy Klein on the great conductors; Yo Zushi on the rise of David Bowie; Leo Robson on Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia; Rachel Cooke on Wallander; Antonia Quirke on the final broadcast from Bush House; Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest Batman film, and Will Self is seduced by his new smartphone.
 
One half of a severed alliance: Morrissey (Photo: Getty Images)
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In defence of the BBC Front Row presenters who don’t like theatre

Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi of the new BBC Two arts show are getting stick for not being playgoers.

When I heard last month that BBC Radio 4’s Front Row will be expanded to a TV slot on BBC Two, I was a bit unsure about its presenters. The restaurant grouch Giles Coren and the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan – both respected commentators but on completely different subjects – didn’t feel the same as the radio version’s current hosts (though The Arts Hour and Loose Ends radio journalist Nikki Bedi made more sense).

Now, all three presenters have given an interview to the Radio Times, picked up by the Telegraph, in which they lay into theatre as an art form.

Coren revealed he hadn’t been to the theatre much in the past seven years, due to parenting duties – and also his stress over the idea that the actors would forget their lines. He believes it “has to be such a good production” for modern audiences to suspend their disbelief, and also complained about the seats:

“In the theatre they’re all so uncomfortable and old, and it feels like they’re trying to throw you out. I’d also like easier access to the loo.”

His co-presenters also didn’t seem particularly enthused. Bedi admitted, “I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes. I want more intervals”, adding that she prefers film, and “tight, fast-paced, creative theatre that moves away from tradition”.

Rajan also mentioned that being a father makes it difficult to go (he has a young baby), but he saw the musical Dreamgirls last week and the School of Rock musical two years ago. He added that his favourite place is the Globe, which only seemed to rile the theatre world more.

The Telegraph’s theatre critic Dominic Cavendish seethed:

“What is the BBC doing, given the world-envied pre-eminence of our theatre culture, handing over the invaluable job of informing the TV-viewing public about what’s on stage, what's good, what's not and why, to a Come Dine With Me melange of lightweights who between them seem to have quite liked going to Shakespeare’s Globe and School of Rock IN NEW YORK!”

The playwright Dan Rebellato tweeted:

“Imagine if BBC’s art critics said novels were ‘too long’ or poetry ’too difficult’ or classical music ‘too boring’. Fucking OUTRAGEOUS.”

The editor of The Stage Alistair Smith added:

“It’s great the BBC is putting arts and theatre coverage front and centre, but I’m sure the industry will be hoping it will include some slightly more incisive criticism than ‘the seats are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough loos’.”

But many theatre fans (including this one) won’t feel outraged by the presenters’ comments. Even the theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage Mark Shenton admitted that, “yes, these matters sometimes vex professional theatregoers too – I routinely go to the theatre six or seven times a week – but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences and irritation.”

The first layer of outrage was at the presenters’ focus on practicality: Coren’s comments about the uncomfortable seats and sparse loos, and Bedi’s complaint about duration and lack of intervals. Yes, it might seem banal, but it’s true.

In those old Victorian theatres, try being above average height, below average height, having a disability, elderly, or with children. And for any production, try being someone who works early morning shifts or night shifts. Most mainstream theatre is pretty impractical – both timewise and seating-wise – and that makes it pretty inaccessible to lots of people. Maybe not to BBC presenters, but the programme is for the public, not just for their fellow journos who get press tickets and seats in the stalls.

Then the second, far worse, layer of outrage focused on Rajan’s comments. “The Globe!” The theatre world giggled. “Musicals!” It corpsed some more. This is nothing but snobbery. As if Shakespeare’s Globe is too obvious and musicals are too low-brow to be critiqued on, uh, an entertainment show. But then they can’t stomach Bedi’s enthusiasm for more avant-garde pieces. So which is it?

If the presenters’ comments give away a little too much about their attitude to the arts, the theatre world’s response says far worse about its own.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.