27 July 2009

Public service broadcasting in New Zealand (and why we need it)


The drug of the nation

Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation…

- Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

TV Philips 21-inch

A degenerate state?

On Monday last week the NZ Herald published an opinion piece by a distinguished expat New Zealander, zoologist Ian Bayly, who had spent some time holidaying in the country of his birth recently.  After reacquainting himself with local TV Bayly felt compelled to draw attention to 'the degenerate state of TV programmes’.  His article, entitled ‘TV One descends to mind-numbing stupidity’, resulted in a swarm of follow-up criticisms from viewers over the following days, as disgruntled viewers queued up to put the boot in to TVNZ and its inability to provide quality public service broadcasting (PSB). 

Bayly criticised the endless flood of Michael Jackson news that resulted from the singer’s death in Los Angeles, needless sexploitation fare masquerading as news, and the ‘mind-numbing stupidity, frequency and duration of commercial advertisements’.  His article concluded as follows:

New Zealand excels in so many fields.  In many respects New Zealand makes a disproportionately significant contribution to the good of humanity and the elevation of the human spirit.  Why has New Zealand TV been allowed to slide into such a degenerate state?

I agree with Bayly, but perhaps a little devil’s advocacy is in order.  What does TVNZ do well?  For a start, in the wake of the commercialisation of state broadcasting in the late 1980s and particularly following the abolition of the compulsory TV licence fee by the National government in 1999, TVNZ has produced its programming on a commercial basis and returned a sizeable dividend to the Government.  Competition with TV3 has helped to encourage TV1 and TV3’s rival newsrooms to generate some vigorous and lively news journalism.  (Whether or not that’s synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘reliable’ news is debatable).  There have been some success stories in TVNZ’s programme schedules, notably the long-running consumer interest programme Fair Go* and the local soap Shortland Street.  And if viewer tastes run to lifestyle programmes like cooking programmes or home improvement shows, or American drama shows, then TVNZ offers plenty of those.

(* Featuring fellow former MA Politics student Ruwani Perera, proving that MA Pols graduates can actually get a job in the real world.)             

The problem is that these offerings don’t provide an actual alternative to the programming appearing on TV3, Prime or Sky.  Viewers certainly have a large number of programmes to choose from, but the overwhelming tendency is for networks to offer ‘more of the same’, so if ratings shows that viewers like home improvement shows then there’ll be half a dozen of those to choose from, but if viewers want programmes about history, photography, modern dance, literature, paintings, or serious discussions of important issues, then they’re probably out of luck.

While TV offers a range of commercial entertainment programmes, what’s missing in the New Zealand TV market is the other two aspects of famed BBC chairman Lord Reith’s triumvirate: public service broadcasting should ‘inform, educate and entertain’, not just the latter.  TV forms a major part of many New Zealand households’ recreation activity and acts as the focus of considerable amounts of family interaction time.  I would argue that two decades of commercial broadcasting without a public service alternative has changed New Zealand society, and the consequences of these changes are mostly negative.

Our stories

PSB helps to preserve and enhance the individualism of small, isolated societies like New Zealand.  Certainly, the cheapness and ease of availability of huge volumes of US TV programming has meant that New Zealanders have been exposed to a more cosmopolitan worldview, and are au fait with American pop culture to a great extent.  But the question remains: could the same be said about New Zealanders’ command of their own culture and heritage?  Home-grown broadcasting is always going to be more expensive than simply importing a ready-made programme from overseas.  But if those overseas programmes supplant New Zealand equivalents, and if we assume that the most prominent sources of public culture in New Zealand are the TV sets in our living rooms and elsewhere, then New Zealanders will continue to become less and less familiar with their own stories and their own history.  Maybe it’s just a sign I’m getting older, but it seems to me that the cultural references of Generation Y, the first to grow up in New Zealand without non-commercial broadcasting, are absolutely swamped by American influences.

Programmes that speak with an authentically New Zealand perspective are supported by funding from the grants agency New Zealand On Air, which does a decent job with the resources at its disposal.  But in real terms, New Zealand spends next to nothing on its public broadcasting.  A BBC report on PSB around the world noted that:

In 2000 a report commissioned by the New Zealand Television Broadcasters Council found that the amount of public money New Zealand spends on television per capita is amongst the lowest in the western world – NZ$12 in New Zealand, compared to NZ$45 in Australia and NZ$144 in the UK. While in 2000, a Canadian Report found that out of the 25 OECD countries, New Zealand was second from bottom, above the USA, in terms of public funding for public broadcasting as a percentage of GDP.   

Non-commercial news, drama, comedy and events coverage are all vital parts of the delicate art of nation-building, helping to foster a greater sense of nationhood and common identity.  Certainly, there will be some who have no concern about the lack of such programming, and who point out that the proliferation of TV channels has meant that New Zealanders have more choice when it comes to TV programming than ever before.  But this ignores the potential benefits of the numerous types of programming that mainstream New Zealand audiences are missing out on, and how these programmes can act to foster a greater sense of nationhood and unity.  

Modus operandi

It is interesting to note the tentative return of public service broadcasting to New Zealand ‘underneath the radar’ through the programming of Maori TV, the state-sponsored TV network designed to promote the use of the Maori language.  Maori TV has displayed commendable initiative in creating a body of programming that reflects contemporary Maori society and entertains its viewers.  The question remains: if Maori viewers are able to enjoy PSB, what about the rest of us? 

Granted, TVNZ made a gesture towards PSB by opening up the digital channels TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, and these networks do offer some non-commercial programming of interest, like political shows Back Benches and Media7, and book programme The Good Word.  But I wonder if 20 years of commercial broadcasting and the almost complete exclusion of the public service ethos has made it almost impossible for TVNZ to properly get its head around non-commercial programming and the idea that the maximisation of ratings and advertising revenue should not be the sole goals of state-owned broadcasters.

One slightly tongue in cheek suggestion I have to make is that TVNZ could do a lot worse than simply look to the public service model still operating at Radio New Zealand.  Its news programming is of a uniformly high standard, seldom succumbing to the hype, hysteria and out-and-out spin that overwhelm TVNZ’s news bulletin.  RNZ is not afraid to feature intelligent and in-depth discussions designed to get to the bottom of an issue rather than skate over the surface.  Its political interviews test the honesty and consistency of figures across the political spectrum.  And it even offers an entire network of that resolutely un-commercial concept, classical music!

I’m no aesthete, and I know next to nothing about classical music.  My point is that how would New Zealanders know that classical music existed if all they did was watch TVNZ?  Perhaps an annual glimpse of the Last Night of the Summer Proms from the Albert Hall?  And to take the example further, how do young New Zealanders making their way in the world of classical music, sawing away at violins or hammering away at concert pianos, know that society truly values their efforts?  Rather than, say, preferring to only celebrate the talents of boys who play rugby. 

And now, the weather

The commercialisation of TV news in New Zealand has been written about at length in the nation’s universities for years.  TVNZ shifted to a ‘Californian-style’ magazine format in which serious discussion is avoided at all costs, and complex issues are reduced to trivial soundbites.  Furthermore, TVNZ and TV3’s news bulletins are vital linchpins for the remainder of their evening schedules, so many peculiar habits are ‘locked in’ despite making little sense.  For example, both networks’ evening bulletins are 60 minutes long and start at the early hour of 6pm, despite the fact that there simply isn’t enough easily-packaged news occurring in New Zealand to fit into an unchallenging news hour.  There are already plenty of advertisements to pad out the hour, but in addition the sports and weather segments are hugely inflated, each anchoring a full ad-break to ad-break segment of the news. 

This style of coverage means that the dominant opinion-setting forum of national political debate is subject to the whims of the medium.  Any complex issue not capable of being reduced to easily-digestible soundbites is guaranteed to struggle in a world where the 5-second quote is king.  ‘Voxpops’ of passersby on Queen Street or Lambton Quay are preferred to in-depth discussions with experts that might get to the bottom of issues.  Reporters, pressed to fit stories into brief snippets of airtime, often fail to explain issues in appropriate depth, omitting some of the basics of the journalistic craft: the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how?’ questions.  They also frequently fail to provide alternative, contrary views on matters of political debate, thereby giving viewers only half the story or potentially even less when there are multiple interpretations of an issue.  And because TV is a visual medium, political debates can end up being dominated by issues of personality and presentation rather than substance if presenters are not careful. 

The strength of the PSB approach to TV news is that it provides a more trustworthy alternative to commercial news bulletins.  With the requirement to court ratings minimised or at least reduced, PSB can perform a role as the ‘conscience of the nation’, asking unpopular questions and avoiding the pack mentality that dominates much of the commercial news broadcasts.    

Looking forward

It may be drawing a long bow, but I would argue that 20 years of commercial broadcasting has changed the cultural outlook of New Zealanders.  Certainly, we are no longer as isolated as we once were, and for those who are giddy at the prospect of following celebrity gossip, there is no shortage of material in our TV news bulletins.  But as the level of public debate has increasingly been dominated by TV and the ability of politicians to manipulate its reportage, we have lost the ability to approach complex issues in a complex and nuanced way.  As the level of public discourse has become increasingly dominated by talkback radio-style outbursts, we have fallen prey to a dominant trait of New Zealanders throughout the ages: as Finlay Macdonald observed on a recent nostalgia programme on C4, ‘we are a nation of whingers and dobbers’.  So our news bulletins have become dominated by scandal-chasing and muck-raking, and if important issues cannot be reduced to simplistic soundbites then the public does not get the full story.  Of course, there are other sources of news available, particularly the print media, radio news and online journalism, each of which offers its own opportunities and drawbacks.   My main concern is that as the leading forum of political discussion, the absence of PSB-derived ethics in the presentation of TV news on TVNZ, still the most-watched news bulletin in the country, sells New Zealand short and results in an under-informed electorate.  This, alongside the corrosive cultural effects of the absence of an independent, non-commercial TV voice at the heart of New Zealand broadcasting, means that public service broadcasting is definitely needed in New Zealand: now more than ever.

20 July 2009

From sea to shining sea

Although I lived in a fair number of places when I was growing up, Onehunga and the slopes of One Tree Hill always held the strongest sense of home.  I spent a great deal of time as a kid wandering around One Tree Hill, up and down its volcanic craters and the earthwork terraces of its former Maori inhabitants.  The summit is adorned with a simple grave and a prominent obelisk memorial to founding father Sir John Logan Campbell (1817-1912), with an inscription pointing out:

This monument was erected in accordance with the will of the late Sir John Logan Campbell Kt. who visualised and desired that a towering obelisk be erected on this site, the summit of Maungakiekie, as a permanent record of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people.

The obelisk still acts as a beacon to travellers across the Auckland isthmus, and is often the first city landmark spotted when flying in from the south.  The image below, taken just below the summit, is from a sunny but breezy winter’s day in July, and is a composite of three separate triple-shot HDR images merged into a panorama using AutoPano Pro.

[2] Ethan, Desktop, 3 images, DSC02341_2_0 - DSC02346_7_8 - 4689x1327 - SCUL-Smartblend  

Writer Gordon McLauchlan describes the scene from the summit itself in his book The Life and Times of Auckland (Penguin, 2008):

Standing near the ‘towering obelisk’ that Sir John asked in his will to be constructed on the top of the now treeless One Tree Hill, you can see the Waitemata stretching out into the Hauraki Gulf.  Turn a half-circle and the Manukau Harbour from Onehunga moves out towards the Tasman.  Late on a lovely summer’s day, the view is magical and remembered words creep into my head: that line from ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘from sea to shining sea’, or perhaps Keats’ ‘stout Cortes when / He stared at the Pacific – and all his men / Look’d at each other with wild surmise – / Silent, upon a peak in Darien’.  The gift to New Zealand of Cornwall Park with its crowning One Tree Hill is certainly the greatest ever accorded Auckland and its people.  He and his partner, lawyer and fellow Scot William Brown, bought the property in 1853.  The volcanic cone was called Maungakiekie by Maori, and, for a while, Mt Prospect by Pakeha.  In 1873, Campbell bought Brown out and farmed the property.  The lone totara that earned the mountain its popular name was destroyed in 1876.  But lesser trees replaced it until the last of them was destroyed by a Maori protestor in the twenty-first century.

McLauchlan is right of course: the vista from the summit is superb, with 360-degree views across the whole city.  The following two images form part of the northward view, taking in the CBD with the showgrounds in Greenlane in the foreground, and a harbour scene of North Head backed by a sliver of Rangitoto and the looming bulk of Little Barrier Island on the horizon.



Cornwall Park, the 120 hectare reserve that adorns the slopes of One Tree Hill, is a rare example of a working farm in the centre of a major city.  The park also hosts Auckland’s oldest building, Acacia Cottage (1841, originally owned by Campbell and Brown), which was moved from downtown Auckland to retire in greener pastures.  Having seen the number times the cottage has been refurbished in my lifetime, I imagine there’s not all that much left of the original timbers, but it’s still a rare link back to the earliest days of European settlement in Auckland.

Acacia Cottage

Probably my favourite part of Cornwall Park is Horseshoe Crater, where a build-up of solidified volcanic rock at the summit caused a massive sideward eruption out of the volcano’s flanks many centuries ago, carving a huge gouge out of the hillside and flattening a swathe of terrain as lava flowed down to the Manukau Harbour.  The nearby dirt caves in the crater walls were great for exploring when I was a kid, although I knew they weren’t particularly stable.  Nowadays it’s home to flocks of grazing sheep that often form the backdrop for photos taken by excited Asian students, keen to show their parents back home that despite its big city pretentions, Auckland definitely lives with the spirit of the countryside in its midst.


Lastly, there’s no harm in mentioning the song U2 wrote in honour of their New Zealand roadie Greg Carroll, who was killed in a road accident in 1986.  The song ‘One Tree Hill’ appeared on their mega-selling Joshua Tree album in 1987 and was released as a New Zealand-only single, achieving chart-topping success and cementing the widespread popularity of the band in the country.  Here’s an excerpt from U2’s Rattle and Hum concert film: 

15 July 2009

Serious computing

In an earlier posting I discussed the state of the art in the consumer electronics field in 1984.  Having explored the archives a little further in recent weeks, I’ve dug up a few more relics from the 1980s to remind us what we had to get by with a quarter of a century ago.

Computer Input Magazine (1984) The August 1984 edition of Computer Input magazine (‘New Zealand’s No.1 Home Computer Magazine’) included several pages of the mainstay of such publications at the time: full printouts of game programs for readers to type into their home computers and play at home – assuming they typed it all in correctly, that is. 

These programs, and other advertisements in the magazine, remind us that at the time there were a broad variety of computers vying for market share.  One game, ‘Subhunt’ by Deane Whitmore, offered two and a half pages of ASCII text - ‘a great game for the Spectrovideo 318 or 328’, while a tuition page offered continuing lessons in machine code for the Sinclair Z80.  A full-page advert for Sinclair computers reminds readers of the political upheavals going on in New Zealand in 1984, drawing attention to the fact that its offers are ‘still at pre-devaluation prices!’  On the magazine’s back cover, a full-page advert promotes the long-dead Sega SC3000 home computer (retailing for only $399) with the tagline ‘What good is the latest technology if you can’t afford it?’

The magazine’s lead story is Martin and Faye Hall’s mostly favourable review of the new Apple II-emulating CAT computer offered by Dick Smith.  (Dick Smith was a major advertiser with Computer Input; the CAT also featured in my earlier post).  Here’s an excerpt to remind you what computer users were being offered in 1984:

The CAT is one of the latest and more impressive computers to join the Dick Smith personal computer range.  It offers to the potential buyer many enhanced facilities and features, a wide range of software, along with a capability for system expansion.  Many of the features offered are not found to the same degree in other similarly priced computer systems.

The CAT uses a 6502A microprocessor with an operating clock speed of 2MHz.  The basic computing unit comes complete with a 64K byte on-board RAM and a 32K byte ROM.  Of this ROM, 24K bytes are used to provide the user with Enhanced Microsoft BASIC language.  The CAT can be expanded up to a total of 192K bytes of RAM […]

The CAT is being marketed with its primary competitor as the Apple IIe and from our study of the CAT we found it a worthy competitor.  It should be acknowledged though, that the CAT is very much a newcomer in the computer market and still has to stand the test of time and many users.

As a computer system in its own right the CAT offers many advanced features not seen in other similarly priced computer systems.  The CAT, priced at $1295 for the basic unit, has bridged the cost gap between serious computing and pure entertainment.  It offers an impressive alternative for potential computer users who have a limited price budget, but want a serious computer not just a toy.

The specifications listings go on to recount the CAT’s ‘80 or 40 character display’ and ‘560 x 192 HI RES colour graphics with a choice of 8 colours’.  That sound?  It’s the future knocking at the door.

12 July 2009

In the lair of the Goblin King

51bM6oQOWrL._SS500_ On my most recent journey back from Wellington to Auckland I stopped in at Catherine’s place in Paraparaumu and we watched Labyrinth for old time’s sake.  I loved Labyrinth when I first saw it at the cinema – probably at the beautiful Civic Theatre in Auckland’s Queen Street in 1986 or 1987.  In fact, my geekish fascination with the movie led me to take fulsome notes throughout the screening, such was my keenness to fix every aspect of the plot in my mind, despite the cinema darkness transforming my handwriting into demented semi-legible scribbling.  We didn’t have a VCR, so I never got round to re-watching Labyrinth, but I did own the soundtrack on vinyl, and this got many plays in later years until I got my first ‘proper’ stereo and moved on to CDs around 1989 or 1990.

Jim Henson’s imaginative puppetry married with the traditional fairytale plot distinguished Labyrinth above other similar films of the time.  The script was written by former Monty Python member Terry Jones, and his fertile imagination resulted in a pleasingly unsentimental and slightly subversive take on a well-worn genre. 

The overall theme of the film is young Sarah’s quest to reclaim her kidnapped baby brother from the Labyrinth belonging to Jerath, the Goblin King, but despite the potential for gruesome monsters and battle scenes Jones and Henson were careful to avoid dwelling on conflict and violence, unlike many other films for younger audiences of the time.  Instead, themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and the fleeting innocence of youth are at the forefront.  Even when the penultimate major scene of the film depicts a major battle in the Goblin City, the tone is consciously whimsical in nature rather than bloody.  In this scene the essential silliness and pratfalls of the multitude of goblin defenders are no match for the camaraderie and teamwork of Sarah and her puppet entourage.            

The film also benefits greatly from its casting.  Young Jennifer Connelly (who went on to win an Oscar for her role in A Beautiful Mind in 2001) is perfect as brave Sarah: clever but not smarmy or wise-cracking; pretty but not insultingly immaculate; brave but not all-knowing.  The character acts as the archetypal fairytale heroine whose exploits both entertain and enlighten younger viewers, who can identify with Sarah’s frustration at being left at home baby-sitting her little brother but might also arrive at the conclusion that Sarah’s bravery and ingenuity in solving the riddles of the Labyrinth are worthy traits to emulate.  Younger viewers might also have noticed that Sarah’s initial petulance and sulking (“It’s just not fair!” is a repeated fuming refrain) are replaced by a more mature outlook by the end of the film.

Indeed, aside from the multitude of obstacles the Labyrinth places in Sarah’s path, it is ultimately the tension between the comforts of childhood innocence and the temptations of the grown-up world that gives Labyrinth its surprising moral complexity, as Sarah finds herself torn between the safe embrace of her childhood fantasy world and the looming responsibilities of adulthood that the Goblin King uses to both tempt and taunt her.  He conjures a fantasy world inside a glass bubble, with Sarah decked out in stunning ball-gown finery and a frankly legendary hairdo, and then to cap it all off and probably make legions of ‘80s schoolgirls weep with envy, she gets to execute a stately waltz with pop heart-throb David Bowie himself.  It’s a seductive and artfully portrayed test of Sarah’s character and priorities – after all, the dream-like masked ball in the bubble offers the prospect of a gateway to the mysterious and tantalising sophistication of adulthood that adolescents so crave, but the underlying quid pro quo is that the bedazzled Sarah would have to abandon her baby brother to his fate.  It’s a beautiful scene, perfectly staged, and exactly in keeping with the swooning melody of Bowie’s ‘As The World Falls Down’, that accompanies the dance.      

Of course, no film released in 1986 and featuring a major pop star in a leading role could fair to attract attention, and Henson apparently had David Bowie in mind for the role of the Goblin King from quite early on in the project.  Bowie was an experienced film actor before Labyrinth, notably appearing in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Julian Temple’s Absolute Beginners.  The advantage of casting Bowie in the role is that it lent his fame to promote the film – while Bowie’s star may have dimmed somewhat since his 1970s heyday, in the mid-80s he was still a major figure in the pop scene.  It also meant that Bowie’s song-writing could boost sales of the soundtrack, and in this work Bowie excelled, creating some of his best material of the mid-80s, working against the usual tendency for artists to lower their standards considerably for soundtrack work. 

Nicholas Pegg’s comprehensive book ‘The Complete David Bowie’ (published in 2000), describes the Labyrinth soundtrack, with its six Bowie compositions accompanied by Trevor Jones’ incidental score, as follows:

‘Jim [Henson] gave me a completely free hand,’ Bowie explained of the Labyrinth songs, which he recorded in mid-1985 before filming commenced.  One track, ‘Chilly Down’, features the same core musicians as ‘Absolute Beginners’.  Typically of Bowie’s work of the period, the recordings teeter on the precipice of disastrous over-manning, as a cursory glance at the appropriately labyrinthine credits will testify.  Co-produced with [Bowie album] Tonight’s [producer] Arif Mardin, the Labyrinth soundtrack is destined to remain on the periphery of Bowie’s recorded legacy, which is a pity because its better tracks, like the same year’s ‘When The Wind Blows’, hint at a fresh and energetic synthesizer-led sound of real passion and depth, far worthier of David Bowie than most of the overheated noises he was making on his official albums of the time.

Bowie’s soundtrack compositions are integral to the film and display a real affinity for the film’s ethos.  The theme track, ‘Underground’, appears in two versions on the soundtrack and boasts a powerful gospel backing choir including Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan, and Bowie secured the services of veteran blues guitarist Albert Collins to play lead guitar.  ‘Magic Dance’, performed in the film with a mass ensemble of goblin puppets (plus one human baby), allowed Bowie to display his talent for mimicry, as he provided the ‘baby gurgling’ noises that were required when a real baby clammed up.  ‘Chilly Down’ suffers from indistinct vocals provided by four voice artists (one of whom, Danny John-Jules, went on to appear as ‘Cat’ in cult TV sci-fi series Red Dwarf), with Bowie only singing backing vocals.  ‘As The World Falls Down’, mentioned above, perfectly complements the ballroom scene, while ‘Within You’, an ominous statement of defiance by Jareth against the threat posed by Sarah’s ever-increasing confidence, heightens the drama as Sarah encounters Jareth in a eye-bending M.C. Escher scene of garbled physics and confused perspectives. 

In the early 1980s Bowie had feared his career was operating on borrowed time, and launched into a series of more pop-influenced chart-focused releases designed to secure himself financially in the face of possible musical obscurity.  He needn’t have worried, given the ongoing popularity of his back catalogue continues to secure him new fans even as he enters his sixth decade in the pop music business, and his new album releases and tours still attract plenty of attention.  But at the time work like the Labyrinth soundtrack was seen by the so-hip-it-hurts music press as lacking in credibility: Pegg quotes the Melody Maker poking fun at Bowie by exclaiming ‘Eye of newt and tongue of mole, David Bowie has become a troll’. 

Despite this cynicism, the fact remains that the Labyrinth soundtrack is a solid piece of music in its own right, coupled with a strong acting performance by Bowie and others in a clever and warm-hearted movie production that has stood the test of time.  And on a personal note, I should probably offer the disclaimer that the Labyrinth soundtrack was the first Bowie album I ever owned.  Without it, I might not have gone on to discover the magic of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust… (etc.) and the multitude of other Bowie albums that now form a sizeable section of my music collection.  Not bad for a soundtrack from a puppet-based kids’ movie. 

01 July 2009

Under the covers

41qnpS01NwL._SS500_ When it comes to reading fiction, I tend to align my own experience with that of comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said, ‘some people are widely read. I'm thinly read’.  Much of what’s produced in modern fiction seems to me to lean towards pseudish over-writing, and while I’m not the sort who will go so far in search of a good story that I’ll resort to mass produced airport page-turner novels, it does seem strange that the most highly regarded writers in the world are often so very different in style and output from the renowned writers of previous decades.  I’m not well-read enough to establish whether or not the art of story-telling has ebbed out of modern literary fiction, but at times it certainly seems that way.  Nevertheless, now and then I pick up a tome of modern fiction that I think I’ll be able to remain interested in. 

It came as quite a relief when I took out a modern reissue of a volume of short stories by the American author Richard Yates (1926-92), who is these days best known as the author of Revolutionary Road, which became a successful film last year.  The short stories, collected under the title Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, were originally published in 1962, the year in which Yates was nominated for the National Book Award for Revolutionary Road.  Yes, there are eleven stories in the collection, and yes, in a way each of them deals with society’s outsiders.  But this is not a volume of tortured souls beset by loneliness and engaged in a never-ending cycle of piteous complaints.  Rather, it shows Yates’ skills as an expert chronicler of contemporary urban lifestyles. 

The subject matter of the eleven stories illustrates Yates’ background and interests.  ‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’ and ‘Fun with a Stranger’ are schoolroom tales, ‘Jody Rolled the Bones’ and ‘The B.A.R. Man’ allow Yates to explore his time in the Army in Europe after the Second World War, and ‘A Wrestler with Sharks’ and ‘Builders’ evoke the world of struggling young writers in New York.  Tuberculosis wards provide the scene for two of the stories, indicating that Yates was familiar with the debilitation and soul-sapping power of TB.  And in several stories the protagonist has a young family and must struggle with reconciling the responsibilities of a provider with his ambitions as a writer.  The stories are all good examples of the ability of a deft writer to work the random nuances of everyday life into what would otherwise be mundane tales.  Having read these examples, I’d certainly track down more of Yates’ funny and unsentimental writing. 


The act of picking up this collection of stories in the library got me thinking about the difficult art of book cover design, and how it influences our reading choices.  Sure, in an ideal world we’d not ‘judge a book by its cover’, but realistically speaking, I can’t pretend to be sufficiently knowledgeable to merely spy an author’s name on a bare spine and know instantly if it would interest me.  (I’ve leafed through the TLS and the NYRB, but in general their dense intellectualism defeats me). 

A book’s cover is a vital part of its saleability.  When I worked in a Whitcoulls bookshop as a student, I heard that an edition of Jostein Gaarder’s then-voguish Sophie’s World was being published with a pink dustjacket, to appeal to younger female readers.  (I think it may have been this one).  I could see the business sense of that – I mean, teenage boys are hardly devotees of philosophical novels these days.  But as a male reader, my main reaction was that the publishers were discounting the possibility that virtually any male readers would pick up this novel with its garish pink cover.

There are important stylistic differences in book cover design between British and Commonwealth publishers and those in America.  The graceful understatement of the Vintage Yates edition published in Britain, above, can’t be compared with its American equivalent, because it appears that the collection hasn’t been in print in America since 1989.  But look at the cover of the three-in-one 2009 American hardback in the Everyman’s Library series, containing Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.  ‘This is a very serious book for serious people,’ this cover says.  Gloomy colours and functional text offers the requisite information, but fail to entice all but the most persistent reader to leaf through the book.

Another example of this different approach to salesmanship can be seen in a non-fiction book I read a year or two ago: Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.  On first impressions this might sound dry, but Diamond manages to be a scientist and a storyteller as he dissects failed societies throughout history and tries to establish what brought about their end.  The British paperback, which I read, has a smart, clear and punchy cover, while an American hardback edition of the same book is all dreary grey (pics from Amazon.co.uk):

516WFHoC-aL._SS500_   5112WE7VFWL._SS500_

So I guess the question remains – why so serious, America?  Surely you’re not afraid that someone might have fun reading one of your books?