Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Disappointment Prizes

There are, I think, too types of disappointment. The disappointment of hope, and the disappointment of inevitability. Of the two, the first is the worst, but I'd take it every time. Let us take the disappointment of inevitability first. This is where the world is as we expect, and because of that expectation we should be contented, and many people are. It is the town where it always rains or the resort where it always sunny, or "My Family" or "The One Show" or Andrew Marr or Kasabian. You will never be truly disappointed, because there is so little other than the expectation. The hope is that there will be an above-average episode of "My Family" or a Kasabian record that doesn't sound like a Primal Scream b-side, or Andrew Marr asking a difficult question. It is a shooting fish in a barrel disappointment.

The first type of disappointment is worse: the disappointment of hope. Because it comes with a possibility that the world might change. It's Ghana vs. Uruguay, it's the 2nd Elastica album, it's Saxondale, it's Michel Houellebecq's novels after "Atomised." But these are merely aesthetics - the real difference between the two types of disappointment is exemplified by Prizes. This week, we have the announcement of shortlists for the Forward Prize for Poetry and the Mercury Prize for music. There's something disappointing (the first kind) about Seamus Heaney on the first, and Paul Weller on the second. It doesn't matter whether either book or album is good, bad or indifferent, since there is nothing, I think, new or surprising that either Heaney or Weller will come up with. However "good" these books or records are they are the product of artists for whom "good" no longer has meaning. I've never read or listened to much by either, and so I think I just feel a little bit of tiredness when I see them on a shortlist. It would be easy for someone to say "give them another chance", that it's more "me" than "them", but it's not like I've never read/listened to them.

I much prefer the possibility that I might like something... that I will be challenged, that my expectations will be "met". I've still a strange desire to listen in full to what may be the worst record of all time, Duran Duran's covers album "Thank You" if only because their version of Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke" is so remarkably unexpected - a bad record, but an interesting bad record. I know that a book of Patti Smith's poetry interests me more than a new Seamus Heaney - because I approach it without expectation. Like when Marie Osmond recites a native American poem on television (preserved on the CD of "Lipstick Traces") or T.S. Eliot comes up with "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," things being merely "good" or "bad" are rarely as fascinating as things being "different."

This years Mercury list is a middle-of-the-road collection of worthy, but probably uninteresting albums, that seems a shock reaction to the poor sales of last year's Speech Debelle; whilst the Forward list maybe had to have the next collection from Heaney who won the prize with his last one, if only to generate column inches. I've enjoyed the latter's essays and the former's recordings with the Style Council, but that's not how either of them prefers to be remembered. I praise by slight damning. I'm not going to buy records or books by artists I'm indifferent to just to change my opinion, not when there's so many lovely books and records out there - and to be fair to the Forward, it's sister list of "first collections" always opens up names that I want to look out for.

I choose hope over inevitability every time, and I'm trying to be honest about it - though honesty has it's limits. I wrote this late last night - and looking at it in the cool light of morning I was a little barbed, a little more damning than is strictly necessary, so I've rewritten the post slightly than the one that Jim Murdoch comments on below. There are plenty of poets and musicians who I'm indifferent to, and I don't particularly want to write about indifference - but it must be possible for an artist, for a critic, for a blogger to mention likes and dislikes. Proust and Joyce met at a party and famously said to each other, "I know who you are, but I haven't read you." It might disappoint the students of modernism, but it's an anecdote that delights me. Better not to have read a great poet, than be underwhelmed by him, I guess.

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