It's finally acceptable to cast off the shackles of TV snobbery

Who knows, Bim Adewunmi might even give the next series Big Brother a go.

Oh, I don’t watch Big Brother.” A harmless admission, right? It looks like a simple statement of telly preference, a brief glimpse into the personal habits and quirks a person has formed over years of watching the box in the corner.
 
But lurking behind those words is an unasked question, hanging invisibly at the end of that sentence. It is laced with mild incredulity and it goes a little something like, “But you do?!” You know what that is? That’s basic telly snobbery and we all engage in it.
 
Before you begin to protest a little too strenuously, take a hard look at yourself. If you watch television, you will have a show that you love, a show that you hate and a show that you’re a snob about. Come on. I’ll start with one trio that fits: I love The Good Wife; I hate Britain’s Got Talent and I look down on Big Brother (and all those who watch it). There is always a programme on the air that we feel is the very nadir of human civilisation, an insult to the riches that technology has brought to our lives, a waste of time and effort and a stain on the televisual landscape. That’s TV snobbery at its finest and don’t you deny it.
 
Television is a tribal medium. Clear evidence springs up in our own lives: the adults who were not allowed to watch ITV as children, because it was “common”, what with its advertisements and sense of fun. Or those of us who will not watch Coronation Street until forced to by extended family consensus at Christmas. Or even those people who exclusively watch box sets of HBO dramas that feature lashings of sex and black comedy and death. You pick your tribe and stick with it, because it is deft shorthand for the person you are, or perhaps the person you want to be (or be seen as). If you watch the Elmore Leonard adaptation of Justified, what does that say about you? If you love a nerdcom such as The Big Bang Theory, what are you projecting to the world? If you enjoy Sex and the City so much that you unashamedly call yourself a “total Carrie” in real-life situations, what is the world supposed to think?
 
I once worked alongside a man who very proudly and somewhat sniffily told me that he didn’t watch television. He said it – just like that – in that practised way that suggested to me that he had come to expect an awed gasp and a request to elaborate on his charming quirk.
 
So I obliged him – why, I asked, do you hate fun? And he gave the usual spiel that people like him give: oh, there’s never anything good on, I’d rather read a book and let my imagination soar free, it rots your brain and stunts your mental growth . . . On he went, ad nauseum, emphasis on the “nauseam”.
 
I thought about arguing the point – there I sat, an avid viewer of television, having imbibed hours of it a day every day since I was a child, and I was no less engaged in the world, no more stunted than any child of the 1980s, holding down jobs and paying taxes – but then I saved my breath. If you don’t want television, I thought, then television doesn’t want you.
 
And that sentiment is largely true of the programmes I (and you) hate. They’re not specifically looking for you, hankering after you to love and adore them. Television as it was in the days of one channel, then two, then five channels is gone, replaced by hundreds of channels, DVR (digital video recorders) and PVR (personal video recorders) and the king of bingeing, the box set. Shows are finding their audiences and growing with them, content to have found one at all. Nobody is really pushing to the front, shouting “like me, like me!”
 
In turn, that frees us to watch more things and cast off the shackles of the TV snobbery. Every autumn for the last few years, I’ve found myself engaging in energetic bouts of tweeting about the singing competition, The X Factor. I used to get a few people expressing surprise, mild dismay and disappointment when they saw my tweets but that’s largely stopped now; I’m allowed to like Frasier and The X Factor. Earlier this week, I watched the former contestant Rylan Clark presenting Big Brother’s Bit On The Side. My snobbery was no contest for his charm – the guy was no singer, but as a presenter? Boy, can he work a room.
 
Who knows, next series maybe I’ll give Big Brother a go after all. Another one bites the dust.
The set for the finale of last year's Celebrity Big Brother. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism