Keep calm and carry on tolerating

Christians know how to turn the other cheek. Plus, why modern literary biographies have little to say, and Lady Gaga's roots
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The Independent Online

As an enraged mob surrounded the American embassy in Islamabad, while French consular offices around the world closed in anticipation of reprisals against a satirical magazine which had impugned the honour of the Prophet, and fresh criticism was levelled at Sir Salman Rushdie on the publication of his memoir, Joseph Anton, it was a good week to be an Anglican Christian. What models of sobriety, tolerance and sweet good humour we all are, I thought to myself, as another brick sailed into the embassy compound, and yet how invidious – at any rate here in the UK – is the position in which we find ourselves.

Consider the great paradox of faith – and some of faith's detractors – here in our glorious liberal democracy. Tell a Muslim – a certain kind of Muslim, anyway – that his God is a subject for satire and he will quite possibly firebomb your publisher's office. Venture on to the Today programme, on the other hand, to inform the Bishop of Barchester that he is a credulous half-wit, and you will probably be hailed for your intellectual probity. Christianity, after all, is the softest of soft targets here in the enlightened west, and its vulnerability tends to be exploited by atheist critics merely because of the cheery good nature with which most Christians respond to mockery of their beliefs.

Imagine what would happen if the CofE adopted some of the tactics espoused by Muslims against the Great Satan Obama, if Professor A C Grayling, say, had refuse thrown at him as he strolled out of Broadcasting House or Professor Richard Dawkins were barracked by the literary festival crowds. The only time in recent history that we have come anywhere close to these undesirable scenarios was when the BBC made the mistake of screening Jerry Springer: The Opera; 35,000 complaints were received, and Roly Keating, the executive responsible, had to spend the weekend at an undisclosed location far away from his eyrie in Portland Place.

The anti-Christian attitudes that underlie much of UK public life would be easier to bear if they extended to other religions. Yet most professional atheists are reluctant to criticise Muslims and Hindus on the understandable grounds that a) they tend to have brown skins, and b) some might turn nasty if crossed. I was at a literary festival in Sri Lanka earlier this year when Professor Dawkins was accosted by a black-clad woman who informed him that "Islam is very scientific". To this Dawkins returned the single word "Bollocks". Bracing stuff, but you doubt we shall we shall ever hear it from him on Al Jazeera.


If, as is sometimes suggested in newspaper books pages, literary biography is a genre in sharp decline, then the reviews of DT Max's life of the American novelist David Foster Wallace offer an explanation of this falling-off. It is not that Max's book lacks merit, merely that he has so little material to deal with. Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at the age of 46, turns out – mental illness notwithstanding – to have lived an absolutely typical modern American writer's life: college, followed by grants, teaching jobs and long hours of desk-bound brooding. All he did, in other words, was write (or not write) and any book about him is, necessarily, the chronicle of a great interior.

The recent institutionalisation of the modern literary life represents a dramatic change from the pre-1945 period. Until at least the second half of the 20th century, a substantial portion of writers fought in wars or played at least some vestigial part in the public life of their age. Then came the flight to the study and the university teaching job. The result is that most biographies of contemporary writers tend to be deeply dull.

No disrespect to all the Creative Writing MAs currently peddling their work, but when the time comes for authorised lives to be compiled, what – a little dutiful literary criticism aside – is there to be said?

The institutional factor may also explain the extremely limited coign of vantage occupied by most contemporary fiction. The modern novelist, by and large, can't write about the world of work which most of his readers inhabit as he – or she – has probably never had a proper job. Without his vocation, he would be unemployable. Paul Weller's father is supposed to have glanced disparagingly at his then teenage son as the two of them laboured on a building site and remarked to a friend: "Look at him. If he couldn't play the guitar, what fucking use would he be?" The same point – mutatis mutandis – applies to the modern novelist.


This column has several times had occasion to lament Lady Gaga's lack of originality. Her very name first appeared in Punch sometime in the 1920s. Her celebrated "meat dress" was borrowed from a 30- year-old performance by the artist Linder Sterling. Now a more august commentator has taken note of her derivativeness.

"I'm going to dedicate this song to Lady Gaga," Madonna recently informed a live audience. "Because you want to know something? I love her... I do love her. Imitation is the highest form of flattery." Coming from someone who has built an entire career on the appropriation of other performers' styles – one might remark the influence of Alison Goldfrapp on some of her mid-2000s shows – this strikes me as a colossal piece of cheek.