On Being Asked My Opinion

my opinionTwo things struck me last weekend reading the newspapers. Firstly, an article by Matthew Parris in The Times on Saturday December 29th, in which he spoke about parliamentarians being ‘representatives’ rather than direct conduits of what the people want. This was, of course, in relation to Brexit. Secondly, I read an article by Decca Aitkenhead in The Sunday Times Magazine (December 30th) about Charlie Brooker’s latest Black Mirror episode, which admittedly I haven’t, and can’t watch as I don’t have Netflix. But it is an interactive TV experience – every so often the viewer has to answer a question as to how the plot spins next. Exactly like, and based on, the Choose Your Own Adventure stories that were published when I was a child – turn to page 42 if you want to walk through the deep dark forest, turn to page 38 if you want to stay sitting on the sofa in front of Netflix…

In everyday life, I’m often asked my opinion. Every time I buy something, or even have my haircut, I seem to receive an email asking how my experience was.

The funny thing is, I’m a critic. I review children’s books and love giving my opinion (advice/recommendations). That’s what I do, and in happy times I’m paid for this ‘expert’ opinion.

But, and here’s the rub. I don’t want to be constantly asked my opinion – I’d like other experts to decide things for me (most of the time), and especially in fiction.

choose your own adventureThe problem with the Black Mirror interactive TV drama, as mentioned by Decca Aitkenhead, is that it’s hard to suspend disbelief – to buy into the authenticity of the character and plot of a fiction – if you’re making the decisions, if you’re imagining the ‘what ifs’. I’m happy to do this when I write my own fiction, but I like other people to decide the endings of the fiction I read. I might not like their chosen ending, but that’s part of the joy of reading – being a discerning reader. The opinion of the fiction you consume will be vastly different if you’ve chosen the ending yourself.

Reading children’s fiction (and any fiction) holds its own wondrous delight. The stories are escapist, or reflect a mirror back unto yourself; the authors shining a light on a thought, an issue, a type of character, and the reader understanding that and allowing themselves to be led through the story. The more unobtrusive the leading, the better the fiction.

So there are massive future implications of choosing your own adventure. Charlie Brooker must have sussed this out himself – if the consumer of the fiction is making all the key decisions on the plot strands, why have an author at all? Once lots of possibilities have been written into the algorithm, it’s just a case of rejigging them enough times to create new stories. The author, as Barthes said, will be well and truly dead.

In some cases, the author has already died. And the reader can see the downside to this. Although I’m all for a brief stint for children on the Rainbow Fairies stories by fake author Daisy Meadows or the Beast Quest series, by fake author Adam Blade, (spoiler – these are collaborative works of fiction by an editorial team), they fail to spark the same joyfulness in depth of plot, character and theme that books by real authors do. By their very nature the series are supposed to be formulaic, designed to contain familiar tropes because young readers like the repetitiveness of them. They promote confidence in reading and instill habit reading, an important stop on the pathway to creating readers for life, but it’s just a stopgap – readers then feel confident enough to progress to fiction with multi-layers and nuanced thought.

If there’s too much ‘collective’ fiction, then plot and characters become distilled and limited. There might be a new confidence in reading, but not a surge in imagination, or empathy.

Indeed, what’s most frightening about Charlie Brooker’s interactive Black Mirror is that the idea for the interactivity didn’t come from him, but from Netflix execs. I’d almost trust it more if it came from the author himself. But, it seems that they wanted him to execute their idea to see if it worked.

In my dystopian future, carrying this concept through to the end, does this mean that it’s not the death of the author so much as the complete obliteration of him? An author isn’t needed if publishers or TV execs can just regurgitate from their bank of story vignettes. Mixing and matching. Pick’n’mix adventures. A murder mystery could turn into a vampire zombie romp simply because you, as the viewer or reader, decided to take a certain pathway, choosing a) vampire rather than b) Sherlock Holmes.

However, limiting our choices as readers and consumers is just as bad. As Haruki Murakami said, ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’ In this time of division, perhaps people want more homogeneity in terms of the way we think. I would argue the opposite – we need more diverse opinions, together with an understanding and tolerance of them.

So it’s particularly depressing to see the bestseller charts for the books sold in 2018. In terms of children’s books Walliams appears 11 times in the top 100, dominating the scene by a long way. Before the celebrities pounce upon me, I’d argue that even if it was Hilary McKay or Katherine Rundell appearing 11 times to the exclusion of many others, that would be stifling and a pity. In terms of interest, eight children’s authors who aren’t celebrities are on this top 100 list, but I’m including Jeff Kinney, JK Rowling and Julia Donaldson as non-celebs. Two of the others are due to film tie-ins (Paddington and Wonder).

We’re not doing a great job as a society when we limit children’s accessibility to different books by closing 130 public libraries in 2018. I’ll say it again, if the only place children have access to books is their local supermarket or WHSmith we’re severely limiting their choice. Of the 18 children’s books at Tesco online, eight are Walliams and six are JK Rowling.

Perhaps we need greater choice on what we read, but not in choosing how the story ends.

I dread the day when I have to make the decisions on everything. It’s bad enough being asked ‘what’s for dinner’ everyday – if I have to choose what the characters in the book I’m reading want to eat too, I’ll have to give up reading fiction (and giving my opinion on it).