February 16, 2009KR Blog

“This Program Contains Language“”

One of the pleasures of spending a year in England is having BBC Radio 4 in the kitchen whenever my wife and I make coffee, do laundry, or start dicing up bits of Devon for dinner. Yesterday, we had Stephen Fry in for Sunday lunch, talking about clich??. Take a few minutes to listen, and you’ll learn that clich?? originates as a French printer’s term for pre-set blocks of type that one can “click” (clich??) into place whenever a familiar phrase turns up, saving precious seconds in typesetting.

That’s what our brains do when we use clich??s, of course, snatching a familiar phrase out of memory and pounding it into place in our writing or thought, whether it fits or not. It’s the mental equivalent of a beach chair and a margarita: for a moment, the brain doesn’t have to work, so it’s tempted to sprawl out and admire the postcard view. Are our minds lazy, or just efficient? Like the printer, we’re always looking to save a few clicks. A relative of mine used to end every account of a social event or family occasion with the words, “And a good time was had by all.” (For full effect, say it in a broad New York accent, lingering over that final awl.) It was the rhetorical equivalent of shutting off the lights when you leave a room. But then you can find those phrases in Homer too. How many scenes of combat in The Iliad end with the phrase “and darkness veiled his eyes”? Oral epic relies on this kind of repetition as both a guide to memory and a signal to the audience that an extended sequence has ended, like the fade out in old silent movies.

What’s funny in Fry’s brief history of clich?? is the cultural specificity of some of the examples. “Sick as a parrot,” anyone? Fry describes this bit of Brit as “a pestilentially successful clich??,” but it might puzzle anyone who doesn’t follow Tottenham Spurs. But then sportswriters are the Hectors of our ongoing struggle against clich??, forever fighting, and forever falling. As one of Fry’s guests observes, how do you say something original about men chasing a ball? It’s like poets writing about autumn. Bad sportswriters lean on the verbs, and the effect ??? “Lords Thrash Quakers In Pool” ??? is a bit like Spinal Tap turning the volume up to eleven.

Perhaps the best moment in Fry’s program comes near the end, when he turns to Hugh Kenner’s argument that writers like Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett elevate clich?? to a kind of tragic grandeur as their characters try to live their lives by these scraps of well-worn language. “All clich??s, poetic and otherwise, start life as metaphors,” Fry grandly intones, and their fate is to be either ground into the mind’s mulch, or, like sand, refined into the glass through which we gaze out at the world.

But it’s where Fry ends his piece that has me, as a writer, feeling…, well, green with envy.

“They always say, though this is a bit of a clich??, that radio has the best pictures,” Fry says, and he’s right if the picture you want to contemplate is what a literate culture can do with a little public funding and no fear of talking over their audience’s heads. Take a moment to clich?? on the Radio 4 schedule, and you’ll see a wealth of literary programming, from Book of the Week to Andrew Motion’s Map of British Poetry and Poetry Please. Admittedly, we always seem to end up making dinner to The Archers, which I secretly believe is a bit of British sadism designed to torture their American guests, but there’s more poetry in the shipping forecast than you’ll hear on all of American radio. Radio is an ideal medium for the written word, so why aren’t there more programs produced in the US, or even imported from the BBC, devoted to the pleasures of writing and reading? It’s true that NPR broadcasts Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Selected Shorts, but would anyone dare to serialize Middlemarch or Sense and Sensibility as BBC Radio 7 is currently doing?

It’s striking how much more access to broadcast media writers have in England, just as it is how much more space in national newspapers is devoted to literary subjects. Literary panel shows like The Book Quiz feature teams of writers competing on prime-time television to show “who knows their Chaucer from their chick lit and their Wuthering Heights from their Malory Towers.” When I saw my first episode, I thought my head was going to explode. Writers? On television?!? (After seven weeks of competition, winners receive “a fine edition of one of their favourite books.” Will Self! Come on down!) Of course, money is part of it ??? I pay a television tax to fund the BBC, which allows them to broadcast more cultural programming than you???d find on commercial stations ??? but that’s only half the story. British broadcasters assume a literate audience, or at least as many readers as gardeners, and the idea of bringing on a poet or a literary critic is no more absurd than bringing on a celebrity chef. Less, if you consider that the show’s audience can actually experience the results of that poet’s artistry, while all the celebrity chef can give us is the hiss and spit of kitchen drama and a carefully staged flashing of knives.

So is literate radio too much to ask, especially in an age when the book industry is sick as a parrot? Perhaps, but it strikes me that simply dismissing books as somehow uninteresting to radio audiences is a kind of clich??, a sign of unimaginative thinking. I wasn’t the only one listening to Stephen Fry hold forth on clich?? while I made lunch this past Saturday. And all it takes is one click to realize that a good time was had by all.

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