If you can’t say something nice…

One of my earliest movie memories is of Thumper the rabbit in Disney’s Bambi tapping his foot laconically and saying, “If you can’t say sumfin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

I read a lot of criticism and meta-textual analysis. I have two English degrees, one pre- and one post-theory, and occasionally feel I’ve seen it all. Before I give anyone the impression that I am some sort of cultural titan, most of my critical activity has been focussed on two areas – Shakespeare (the subject of my recent MA) and Doctor Who. I was a late arrival in that odd Internet-driven constituency known as “fandom”, drawn there by the emotional power of David Tennant’s performance as the heartbroken Tenth Doctor in the 2006 episode, Doomsday.

Up to that point, I’d always thought of people who wrote fanfiction as rather odd and a bit sad, definitely in need of Getting a Life. What surprised me was what an intelligent, informed and academic community at least one subsection of Doctor Who fandom turned out to be. Many fan-fiction stories are in fact meta-textual analyses in disguise; they posit alternative plotlines, speculate on what might have happened in between episodes or seek to make the subtextual overt; this leads naturally to discussions of the subtext itself and a variety of possible interpretations. It was in fandom that I gained the confidence to tackle postgraduate study, something I’d been vaguely planning to do for decades.

This essay is not, as it happens, a defence of fandom itself. If anything, it’s a defence of the right of creative people to express themselves, regardless of their limitations. Because we all have them. Dickens, as Stanley Wells, the Shakespeare scholar, notes in his piece for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, “…can be sentimental, diffuse, sententious, preachy, muddly in his plotting, overlong. But I value him for the abundance of his imagination, the variety and warmth of his characterization, his inconsequentialities, digressions and irrelevances, the resonance of his prose, the vitality of his dialogue, the piquancy of his observation, his depth of human feeling.”

The writers of the past often express, overtly or indirectly, political and social views that are now unacceptable to us. For example, the argument that The Merchant of Venice, though possibly liberal for its time, is now unacceptably anti-Semitic, is well documented. If I were a Holocaust survivor, I might well feel that this limitation was too serious a matter for me to appreciate the serious messages Shakespeare’s vision carries about love, loyalty and money, themes that still resonate today. There are critics who feel that The Taming of the Shrew is simply too offensive to be staged, since it presents a reductive view of gender politics that no production, no matter how imaginative, can make acceptable.

All writers have their limitations. These may be cultural, or there may just be things that they don’t do very well. This may not necessarily preclude them being very successful. At the moment the TV series Sherlock has propelled Stephen Moffatt, the current show-runner of Doctor Who, into the stratosphere of popularity. In the blogosphere and indeed in the general press, people have pointed out that his view of women is decidedly lacking in subtlety, and this affects his ability to write convincing characters, particularly female ones. (I won’t go into details here, being reluctant to commit the unforgivable sin of spoiling people who have yet to view the latest episodes). But here’s a link to a piece in the Guardian, written before the Sherlock finale aired, for those who would like to probe into this further.

I happen to agree with these charges and I’ve contributed to more debates than I can remember on whether the last showrunner of Doctor Who did a better job than Moffatt. Both writers had their blind spots and hypothetically there is a perfect text somewhere that lacks them all. However, we live in the real world. I’ve got my views, like everyone, but one thing I would always defend is the right of writers to have a go at something difficult, preferably in public. That doesn’t given them the right to be offensive without being called to account, and close reading of the subtext of any cultural artefact, coupled with the right to discuss it publicly and freely, is essential to a civilized society. For that reason alone, I find it unutterably depressing when armchair (or should that be keyboard?) critics use the Internet as a platform for their own particular versions of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch [insert sexist/racist/insult of choice] to live.” By all means talk about it. Hopefully, the writer under discussion, if s(he) is still alive, will take genuine criticism on board and either up their game or, where possible, call in help. There is evidence that Moffatt does that. On both his high-profile TV series, he tends to delegate the emotional heavy lifting to other writers.

By all means point out a writer’s limitations. It’s fun, if you enjoy the activity as much as I do, and it’s important to do so. Let’s try to avoid the blacklist, however, the fannish flounce that declares, “I’ll never watch this show again!” To return to the example I know best, Moffatt has a vision for Doctor Who that is stronger on myth, symbolism and intricate plotting than it is on the convincing depiction of personal relationships. He doesn’t write very well about how it feels to have your baby abducted, for example. He probably knows that, but it was a story he wanted to tell and he had a go. I admire him for that, even while his portrait of Amy Pond makes me roll my eyes in despair. We make allowances for writers who were professionally active years ago, without suspending our critical faculties. Contemporary writers deserve the same civility. Let us endeavour to celebrate what they manage to do well, whether it’s Our Mutual Friend or Sherlock, and be grateful that they stick their neck out and enrich us all. In their position, our own prejudices would be equally noticeable to others, and probably invisible to ourselves.


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