Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….

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21 thoughts on “Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

  1. Lovely to see you back, and I did enjoy this post – I smiled particularly at the different attitudes you both have to the news. Like you I’m deeply skeptical about the media, what they report and how they report it. OH is too, but the difference we have is that I ignore it – I figure it’s so flawed I don’t want anything to do with it. OH however insists on watching it all then complaining about it and pulling it to pieces. I wonder why he puts himself through such pain…

    On a more important note, good luck with the novel – fingers crossed for you!

  2. How nice to read a post from you, and good luck with finding someone to take the novel on. We’ve curtailed both our news consumption and our discussion of it in this house and feel all the better for it. It’s not been easy – I grew up talking politics around the supper table and my partner is a contemporary historian – but we’re sticking to it. I hope you can find a compromise agreeable to both you and Mr Litlove.

  3. Happy 2017 to both of you! I don’t know about your experience of academia but mine suggests that outside of the narrow (usually) specialist areas that individuals have spent years training themselves to understand and then to push forward the field, the likelihood of arguments based on nothing but Tarot readings is often extremely high! Anecdote, prejudice, assumptions based on “when I was a student” etc. appear to abound more often than you might think (certainly more than I would hope).

    Surely your works party (sounds quite fun to me) should have had a least three “people” or is your cat no longer extant. Invite some of your satisfied clients along at the end of this year 🙂

    Very much looking forward to seeing you soon, I promise not to bring up chairs or the media (though I might mention another small project …)

    Peter xx

  4. Lovely to hear from you and fingers crossed on the agent front! I think you hit the nail on the head, with your customary wit: the vast majority of people believe what chimes with their existing collection of beliefs, or what they want to believe, and no amount of facts, evidence, emotional arguments will convince them otherwise.
    Then again, moaning about politics was the last thread which bound my soon-to-be-ex (I have to find a more elegant expression for this, any suggestions gratefully accepted) and me.

  5. Hey, good luck with your search for an agent and congratulations on having a novel to market.
    I quite liked Channel 4 News when I used to watch TV. They used to cover more out of the way stories. I have just started subscribing to The Guardian, only because I want to climb out of the morass of ignorance on current issues that tends to swamp me when I get very busy. I just find Today a parody of itself now. I imagine John Humphreys asking interviewees “What’s your name?” and then “But how can we know that’s your name?” “Are you asking us to believe that’s your name with no evidence?” etc etc

  6. “I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting.” A brilliant line. I keep a spreadsheet charting my daily mood, self-scored on a 1 to 10 basis. The days with particularly low scores have normally featured at least one painful meeting.

    From reading a history of the Today prog published in 1997, I vaguely recall that they have different terms for the various interview formats they run. Terms like “donut” and “disco” seem to stick in my mind. I just found the book, but it is not indexed in a way that helps me find that point. Clearly not an academic history then!

    Radio Four news was my main source of information in the pre-internet era. I’ve listened to less and less of it in recent years, for a whole raft of reasons (more to do with my preferences rather than any perceived failings on their part). There’s so much more to the station than news though (or The Archers which I also avoid). A recent reading of Persuasion has been lulling me sleep in recent weeks. Other current favourites include Round Britain Quiz and John Finnemore’s sketch show: I particularly like the Pachalbel sketch in the latest episode which I particularly recommend to classical music fans.

  7. ALSO millions of congrats on finishing your novel and sending it off to agents! Hopefully that will be me in a year or two, and the prospect sounds quite scary, and a bit lonely—few things are more dispiriting than an empty inbox. You could, if you fancied it, subscribe to some TinyLetters? That way you’d have some more regular inbox material! There are some quite good ones out there, including one called Friday Poem which I very much enjoy.

  8. That made me laugh, Victoria. Many years ago, I used to flirt with Tarot cards (at the height of my fantasy fiction addiction), and almost managed to convince myself (me – a scientist too!) that there could be something in imposing your order on a deck of pretty cards. I had a proper tarot reading and it was scarily accurate – but I know now that I was being cold read – just like Derren Brown does so well. I can live without fake news and new age fakery, but can’t live without Radio 4 though.

  9. What an innovative way of overcoming – or helping Mr Litlove overcome – rocking-chair fear! And I have a potential solution for your news-reading (and listening) difficulty: try Prospect. In case you’ve never come across it, It’s a monthly magazine of ideas written in essay form by those who fit (I think) your a) – e) categories and who are willing to debate with each other. I also have a suggestion that might help with the literary-agent search (my inbox is similarly deserted for the same reason): if you’re free and felt like travelling to London for a series of workshops on 4 March run by Writers Workshop and focussing on submitting to agents (costing just shy of £200.00) see here: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/events.html. If you’re not but would like to know what use it was I’ll happily tell you about it afterwards. I may only have things along the lines of, ‘Good thing you didn’t waste your money,’ to say. But then again I may not.

  10. I don’t mind having meetings as long as they are goal-oriented and everyone stays on task. When I was a brand new publishing employee, I interned with a press that had the most efficient meetings I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of, and it gave me a totally unrealistic idea of what meetings in the publishing world would be like. Someday when I am in charge, I will run efficient meetings and nobody will ever get off topic. What a great day that will be.

    It’s really, really hard to find trustworthy news sources these days. I’m almost reluctant to seek out news these days, both because it’s depressing and because I always feel afterward that I’ve got to go on a hunt for more information to clarify what’s real and what’s hyperbole and if important facts have been left out. I guess this means I am lucky to live in a world with so many information streams — in former times I’d have had three television networks and my local newspaper and that would be it — but it does get tiring and overwhelming. Sometimes I just want someone I can trust to tell me what’s what.

  11. You should ask your Tarot card reader for advice on how to deal with Mr. Litlove and his media diet 😉

    Seriously though, your household discussions sound as infuriating as mine do. I tell Bookman, I read this really interesting write-up about this scientific study today about black holes. And Bookman responds that he doesn’t believe a word of it, that black holes doesn’t exist and no one can prove that they do, that everyone is wrong, that Einstein was wrong, that expert XYZ is wrong and it’s all a bunch of manure. Then while I am gawping at him he has the audacity to float his own personal theory that has absolutely no evidence and will not accept argument. I asked him once if he was yanking my chain and trying to make me angry on purpose and he claimed to have no idea what I was talking about! Drives me nuts!

    • It is hard to “prove” that Black Holes exist though we have such good observational evidence that I think they are established beyond reasonable doubt. Regarding Einstein’s theories, does “Bookman” make use of satnav (or order a taxi or parcel delivery etc.)? He might wish to reflect that the ultra-precise clocks on board the GPS satellites have to be corrected for the fact that they are in a different graviational potential (due to their orbit altitude) than we are on earth and without the appropriate corrections our navigation errors would be huge! Same goes for aircraft navigation systems.Show him this: http://physicscentral.com/explore/writers/will.cfm

  12. My response to not knowing what is true and what is less true has always been to read more. As other commenters point out, though, this is getting increasingly difficult. I’ve settled for subscribing to The Washington Post and The New York Times. I mean to subscribe to The Chicago Tribune, too, but haven’t done it yet. Maybe I should go do that now.

    • Good for you, Jeanne. It scares me to death that so many people are refusing to back the mainstream media and turn to websites that may be extremely opinionated and questionable. If people would take a look at what journalism students study at say, Columbia University, or University of Missouri (two of the best in the U.S.), or at NYU, they might have more confidence in the news. There is no question that the 24/7 news cycle has hurt the credibility of TV news in my view (plus the Internet), but it’s still important to turn to reliable newspapers and commercial news sites.
      Best regards, Judith R-G

  13. Agree with you about Radio 4. I have it on every morning because I can’t stand Radio 2 and I’m too old for Radio 1 but increasingly I’m finding it patronising. Also I don’t see the value of getting two people with polar opposite views to slug it out in the studio – they are never going to agree!

    I always wanted a rocking chair, but when I got one I never sat in it!

  14. Best of luck with finding a publisher, Victoria. I for one would run to the bookstore to purchase your book, so I hope you announce the happy news here once it is a done deal. Also, looking forward to your posts for 2017. Wishing all of us a happy year.

  15. Yes, Ms. Litlove, I do congratulate you for trying to get your book published. That’s wonderful. And I also congratulate Mr. Litlove fore continuing to pay attention to the News — a must in a democracy.

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