Stephen Fry was always a precarious national treasure. His persona embodies what is perhaps the ultimate paradox of Britishness, that one can seamlessly combine arrogance with self-deprecation and call it a personality. This is just about tolerable when his didactic tone is being put to use teaching us about giant tortoises or the Battle of Hastings, but he can also veer into the uglier side of pomposity, as we saw in his controversial interview with David Rubin.
Infantilism of culture.
But between patronising university students and the victims of child abuse, Fry did raise one point about the "infantilism of our culture" which deserves further attention because, aside from his comments on what we eat and wear, how we entertain ourselves also seems to be following this path. Adults make up 55% of the market for YA and teen #Fiction, whilst so many of us binge-watch Netflix shows before bed that a Cambridge professor warned it's causing couples to have less sex.
Good vs. evil.
Teen fiction doesn't have to mean Twilight: just as all teenagers are not, in fact, vacuous and apathetic, nor is all teen fiction necessarily bad literature. But it is generally simplistic in tone and language, often adopting a basic good-versus-evil model as in Harry Potter (I have to agree with Lord Voldemort that there is no such thing) or sickening levels of sentimentalism as in The Fault in Our Stars.
The fault lies in us.
John Green's romanticisation of one of the world's most horrifying diseases can be read in a couple of hours. But whilst it is clichéd, trite and utterly predictable, it might hold some merit to a twelve-year-old moving on from Jacqueline Wilson. And that's just the point: the fault is not in The Fault in Our Stars but in ourselves and our choice to ignore the millions of #Books, from Ovid to Orwell, written for us, for the sake of nostalgic dabbling.
Libraries are closing as we neglect our reading. And even more disheartening is that, according to one survey by the National Literary Trust, only a quarter of our children read outside school despite efforts the contrary and its many benefits. But the problem does not end with our relationship to reading: what we are substituting our evening novels with is, at best, mind-numbing dross and, at worst, an evil Capitalist plot.
I'm talking of course about clickbait. Clickbait is clever not only because it preys on human curiosity to generate revenue from almost literally nothing, but because it gives us the impression that we're reading and keeping ourselves informed. Articles promising quick-hits of gossip and news swamp social media but, unlike longer pieces of journalism or fiction, they do not call upon our powers of analysis or appreciation. Rolf Dobelli compared our obsession with catchy headlines to gorging on sugar.
Netflix also guilty.
Netflix is guilty of virtually the same trick. Human curiosity cannot resist a cliffhanger and nor we can resist gossip, gore or Game of Thrones. What we're watching is not, ultimately, a visual art-form because so many Netflix shows are willing to sacrifice convincing plots and consistent characters for melodrama, each cliffhanger keeping you gripped from one series to the next as money you don't even see drains from your bank account.
The irony of all of this is that books are offering everything we hope for from clickbait and Netflix: information, entertainment and engagement with our curiosity; Thomas Hardy published his novels chapter by chapter to keep readers hooked. There is room between forcing yourself to read some turgid tome from the eighteenth century simply because it's a 'classic' and letting yourself off with The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
It would be an infinite shame to see bookishness become associated only with the elite. A reading revolution in our children and in ourselves is needed for a new generation of thinkers to engage with new ideas: let's not leave it all to the likes of Stephen Fry. #Internet