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Tracey Thorn: Every angle, every light

Elizabeth Taylor is an unfairly underrated writer. Her novels of middle-class manners are much more complex than they look.

It was Virago Modern Classics that introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor, just as Virago had introduced me to so many other women writers years earlier. At Hull University in the early 1980s, I’d had a shelf-ful of green-spined books and they marked me out as a “rad fem” student just as surely as did my side-shaved haircut and big, clumpy boots. My education up to that point hadn’t fully alerted me to the existence of something called “the canon”, but a year or so in to my degree course, I was happily challenging it at every turn, thumbing my nose and waving my Virago paperbacks in the face of the literary patriarchy.

It would be another 30 years before I discovered Taylor when Virago reissued her novels in a set of chic new covers resembling 1960s film posters. On each was a black-and-white photo, full-face, extreme close-up, with a band of bold colour below. They looked simple and modern, with a vintage twist. In 2010 I bought one to take on holiday and within a day I was hooked.

She wasn’t necessarily the kind of writer I would have liked all those years ago in Hull. Back then my taste veered more towards the “madwoman in the attic”; I was fiercely feminist and wanted my reading to reflect this. Subtlety was not always top of my list of requirements. But by the time I read Taylor for the first time I was in my mid-forties, no less feminist, but perhaps differently feminist, and more receptive to the kind of wit and wisdom her novels offered. Her voice seemed to be a voice of experience, the insights those of a woman who had lived a few years, watching and listening, taking notes. I felt I was ready for her.

I started with A Game of Hide and Seek, her fifth novel, first published in 1951, which traces the arc of an intense but thwarted love affair. It is a finely detailed and perceptive book, constructed with a discreet skill that you hardly notice. As part one ends, the young lovers, Harriet and Vesey, seem doomed to be parted for ever, their love for each other undermined by his indolent flippancy, her timidity. Yet you turn the page and begin part two with something of a jolt – Harriet is in Vesey’s arms at a dance. “Has it all come right after all?” you think. But no. Twenty years have passed in the blink of an eye. Harriet is married to someone else and has a teenage daughter and Vesey has returned like a spectre from the past to threaten all the calm and respectability of Harriet’s adult life. What follows is a kind of tortuous non-affair, a not-quite-above-board friendship that can’t fail to be slightly sordid, while never being properly illicit.

They make a funny pair of romantic leads – he is half-hearted and she, frankly, is a bit of a drip, forever blushing and bursting into tears – but their plight is moving for all that. Nothing much happens; there’s a walk in an icy park, a Brief Encounter-style meeting on a foggy station platform, passion that goes mostly unexpressed. Yet Taylor has you believe in them as lovers, by first making you believe in them as people. As in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation, the eye for detail. Taylor writes of Harriet that “In her diary, she walked right round Vesey and viewed him from every angle and in every light” and in just such a way does Taylor scrutinise her characters. Hers is an unflinching eye that does not glance away from an insight just because it seems cruel – “He knew that she was a good wife, though a bore.” Relatively narrow in focus, she homes in on the middle classes in a domestic setting, but though she writes about “nice” people, she is not particularly nice about them.

After A Game of Hide and Seek I went on to devour her other novels. I found out that she had shied away from publicity during her career, keeping her writing and her family life in a perfect and fiercely guarded balance. Elizabeth Jane Howard, in her introduction to A Game of Hide and Seek, writes of interviewing her on a television book programme, during which she answered monosyllabically and looked “like a trapped and rather beautiful owl”. I realised she was a woman after my own heart. She was shy, and she understood the shy. In The Soul of Kindness (1964) two of her characters agree: “ ‘I could never tell anyone how terrible it is. The dreadful awkwardness and embarrassment.’

‘They are under-rated forms of suffering.’” This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtlety, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise, capturing moments when characters believe they are unobserved; as if she were eavesdropping on private conversations.

In A Game of Hide and Seek, for instance, she pinpoints the way shopgirls talk when men are out of earshot, a wonderful mixture of the genteel and the bawdy – “Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly enquiring after it, as if it were a sick relative.” She is the kind of writer you long to have had as a friend. How witty she would have been to talk to, with that sharpness that misses nothing, that wry acceptance of the way things are.

This acceptance extends to all her characters. Despite the acuity of her observations, she is never cold towards them, seeming rather to understand and forgive her most monstrous creations. And some of them are outright monsters – Flora in The Soul of Kindness is a manipulative, passive-aggressive nightmare (“she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine”), while Angelica Deverell, the heroine of Angel (1957), is a hilarious personi - fication of self-delusion (“she saw nothing as it was, everything as it should be”). I think “Angel” is my favourite of all Taylor’s characters. Proud, arrogant, ambitious, mad and lonely, she is every fictional artist rolled into one, the twist being that she is completely talentless. Hers is an  archetypal struggle – the portrait of the artist as a young woman – rewritten as comedy, even farce. It’s like reading the early-years story of Jeanette Winterson only for her to end up writing the novels of Barbara Cartland. It’s terribly funny, and terribly sad.

I think when I was younger I liked my books to have heroes, or, even better, heroines. One of the great things about getting older is you don’t need that so much; you don’t look to every book for self-verification, or confirmation of your identity. I find I don’t care so much whether or not I like the characters in a book. I just want them to seem true, and for a writer to show me things that seem real. Elizabeth Taylor does exactly this; she finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details to us so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.

Tracey Thorn’s memoir, “Bedsit Disco Queen”, will be published by Virago in February “Complete Short Stories” by Elizabeth Taylor is published by Virago (£14.99).

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something better suited to your tastes).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?