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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

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