Tom Sutcliffe: Let's rediscover the art of boredom

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Ioften think that we need a bit more boredom in our life – and last week two things sharpened the sense that this modern terror ought more properly to be considered as a valuable asset. The first of them was hearing extracts from Susan Maushart's book The Winter of Our Disconnect, in which she described a six-month experiment in which she deprived her three teenagers of all forms of electronic technology, including mobile phones, the internet, television and video games. Naturally they hated it from day one, and naturally boredom was their biggest complaint. By the end of their ordeal, though, they'd discovered two things: that boredom had far less power over them than it had at the beginning, and that it gave previously negligible pleasures (such as reading) enough space to make a case for themselves.

The second thing was reading Paul Bailey's new novel, Chapman's Odyssey, a book which had itself wandered abroad in search of home before finding lodging with Bloomsbury. That Bailey's book should have been on the road at all was taken in some quarters as a sign of the times. Here was a writer, after all, who had been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a writer of established literary reputation, who was having such difficulties making ends meet in the current publishing climate that he'd been obliged to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance. And, far from being covetously guarded from poachers, he was having to knock on doors to find a taker.

There's nothing in Chapman's Odyssey itself to justify a publisher's hesitation. An account of the hospitalisation of an elderly writer which drifts from memory to hallucination to sharp-eyed account of medical indignity, it's beautifully written and constructed with great craft. I thought it was funny, too, with the rueful comedy appropriate to a character who hopes to be leaving hospital soon but can have no reasonable complacency about the fact that he will. But even as I was enjoying it, I was guiltily aware that there might be something in the current culture that would justify a publisher's wariness. To put it bluntly: how do you sell a book about an old bloke who's past it and most of whose cultural references are to dead blokes' poems?

We're too nervous of boredom these days, I think, to make such a thing a commercially sensible bet. The publishers who turned the book down weren't necessarily passing judgement on Bailey's prose style. They were just making a cold calculation about whether there were enough people still around to appreciate its subtleties and make the enterprise viable. And this is partly a matter of contrasts, since Bailey's novel, to my mind, is anything but boring once you start reading it. Looking at any quietly literary work in our current culture – frantic with entertainment and diversion as it is – is a bit like trying to read the screen on your mobile phone on a brilliantly sunny day.

Boredom, that is, might more usefully be reconsidered as a kind of mental silence or perhaps the dimness of a movie theatre, which allows images to glow that would barely be discernible in daylight. And you do wonder whether the novel in general (rather than Paul Bailey's novel in particular) is a form that now suffers from its own longevity. It was born and shaped in times of apparently limitless boredom, ages when boredom lay thick on the ground and could be used to underwrite the great Victorian three-deckers as well as works of delicate, withholding nuance. A writer's efforts, crucially, could be concentrated on the demands of the work and less on those of the reader, always greedy for distraction but – before television and tweets and the telephone and YouTube – far less confident that he or she would find it elsewhere.

More appreciative, you could say – a phrase which we generally now yoke with a kind of naivety and lack of discrimination, but which could equally well describe an approach to reading that actually gives discriminations time to arise, in part because we're prepared to sustain a little bit of boredom on the way. Chapman's Odyssey is not a book for an impatient reader and unfortunately, in an age when boredom can always be clicked away (even if only temporarily), the majority of readers are impatient. We need more boredom in our life.

Tom Lubbock – something of a well-kept secret

I'm afraid it's a truism, but you often have to be deprived of something before you properly value it. The obituaries for Tom Lubbock rightly talked of his excellence as a writer and the brilliance of his eye – both as a commentator on art and a maker of it. He also had fiercely devoted readers: when this newspaper hosted an evening for Independent loyalists I was struck by how many of those attending asked for an introduction to him, and how disappointed they looked when they were told he wasn't there. But there was a sense in which he was also something of a well-kept secret, because most of his publication was journalistic. Part of the explanation for the modesty of his "name" lay with Tom, usually too preoccupied with the next deadline (the next idea) to build a showier career. So it was gratifying to see, in the final months of his illness, how readily the diffuse knowledge of his gifts crystallised into a more solid general acknowledgement of them. Later this year a collection of his Great Works essays is to be published, and there are plans for other books too, drawing on both published and unpublished work. And London's Victoria Miro gallery (www.victoria-miro.com) also did him proud with an exhibition of his newspaper collages (including Advent, shown here) which demonstrated they could more than hold their own on a gallery wall. For anyone who missed that show they've now added extra dates as a tribute to him, on Saturdays 15 and 22 January (or, by appointment, between Tuesday and Friday).

Toying at the fringes of film art

The veteran film critic Roger Ebert recently kicked off a blog-storm by reiterating his belief that "video games can never be art", or at least by suggesting that no one alive today would be around to witness the moment of apotheosis when they shift from toy to cultural treasure. Whatever you think of that contention, there's quite a lot of evidence that video-games might be used to make art (or something very like it), the striking recent example being Mathieu Weschler's The Trashmaster, an 88-minute thriller created entirely using the film-making tools bundled into Grand Theft Auto IV. The machinima sub-culture (effectively, re-mixing video-game clips to make your own animations) has been around for some time now, but Weschler's serial-killer mystery demonstrates that a virtual film-set and pixellated characters can produce something remarkably atmospheric, complete with low-level tracking shots and Hitchcockian reverse zooms. Given the raw material of his film, you won't be surprised to learn that The Trashmaster is low on sophisticated badinage and big on slow-motion blood-splatter and bullet impact. And, given his actors, you won't be surprised to learn that the performances are a little stilted. But there's no question that Weschler knows how to put a B-movie together. And since some B-movies do have a claim to the status of art, it surely won't be long before the Abel Gance or the Eisenstein of machinima comes to our attention.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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