Drivel that deserved to self-deconstruct

The 'Modern Review' venerated the banal; its editors were permanent adolescents. And it was not alone
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Why did the Modern Review close? Was it (a) because its editor fell out with its contributing editor over the magazine's future political course; (b) because its contributing editor was having a lesbian affair with one of its female staff members who had previously rebuffed the editor's heterosexual advances; or (c) because the magazine was puerile drivel that no one wanted to read?

Since Toby Young's announcement last week that - the views of Julie Burchill to the contrary notwithstanding - the latest issue of the Modern Review would be the last, the national press has been enjoying a frenzy of speculation on this subject, aided and abetted by the feuding parties themselves. There has not been a slanging match like it since a Channel 4 producer locked Peter Tatchell and Matthew Parris in a lift. He has called her "an old dyke". She has called him "a spoilt child".

But in all the furore, it is striking that, of the three possible answers to my initial question, only the first (it was political) and second (it was sexual) have received any attention. The possiblity that the Modern Review folded because it was a bad magazine (ie, it was financial) has scarcely been discussed. Yet the facts speak for themselves: circulation down to 10,000, losing pounds 3,000 an issue, potential buyer (the Guardian) not interested. Wouldn't a single paragraph on the business page have sufficed?

Certainly, there are those who would say that journalists should refrain from writing about journalists, and that therefore the less said the better about Mr Young and Ms Burchill. And I would usually be the first to agree. But to my mind the demise of the Young-Burchill axis has a broader significance which is worthy of comment. For the Modern Review embodied a particular view of the world - summed up in its motto "Low Culture for High Brows" - which, with any luck, is now finally defunct.

The timing of its closure is certainly not without significance. Only a week or two ago, its television analogue - The Late Show - was axed by BBC2, provoking wails from the rag-taggle of arty farties and pseuds whom Mark Lawson has most recently called his guests. (Interesting, too, that one of the most frequent of these was none other than Tony Parsons, the former husband of Ms Burchill.)

What, then, did the Modern Review and The Late Show have in common? A few phrases spring to mind. A fondness for the facile, for example. A taste for the trivial. An appetite for the ephemeral. And, above all, a veneration of the banal. Or to put it another way, a fear of the difficult, the serious, the enduring and the profound.

A typical issue of the Modern Review in its heyday would be made up of lengthy articles with titles like "Man of Muscle: Arnie Schwarzenegger as a Post-Modernist Icon"; "The Immaterial Girl: the Deconstruction of Madonna"; or "From Hegel to Highbury: Arsenal FC and the Nineties Zeitgeist".

It is said by his enemies that Mr Young had plans for a piece on "the Politics of Baywatch". I can well believe it. Had he not run out of money, no doubt he would have had a stab at "The Philosophy of Beavis and Butthead" and "a Freudian analysis of The Simpsons". Or perhaps he did, and I just missed it.

Likewise, The Late Show's seedy gang of professional cultural critics could be relied upon to converse ad nauseam about, for example, the signifier and the signified in the latest Sharon Stone movie; or text and sub-text in EastEnders.

In both cases, the organising idea was simple: to apply the terms and techniques of structuralist and post-structuralist literary criticism to that oxymoronic thing called "popular culture".

Now this would not have been such a bad project if its aim had been to lampoon structuralist and post-structuralist literary criticism, or indeed any of the other intellectual viruses that have emanated from France in the past 20 years. The rampant subjectivism and relativism which threaten to undermine the humanities irreparably deserve to be held up to ridicule.

Alas, for all the talk of "irony", that was never the object of the Modern Review. On the contrary, its editor appears genuinely to have respected the theories of Foucault, Derrida et al. Worse, he and his colleagues seem genuinely to have liked "popular culture". It was indeed a common enthusiasm for "pop" that originally brought Ms Burchill and Mr Young together.

To what are we to attribute this peculiar form of arrested development? For arrested development seems the only way to describe their sad condition. The editors of the Modern Review are not unintelligent people. On the contrary, they have - or once had - exceptional verbal aptitude. But for some inscrutable reason they have been unable to apply their intelligence to anything remotely adult. It is as if a terrible mental paralysis has made their adolescence permanent.

Perhaps the best example of this condition is the writer Nick Hornby, a regular contributor to the Modern Review. Although, like Mr Young, in his thirties and entirely bald, Mr Hornby relies for his inspiration as a writer entirely on his teenage experiences - whether watching football or collecting records.

It may just be, as Ms Burchill herself has claimed, that the real reason for her tiff with Mr Young is that she can no longer endure such juvenile preoccupations. Certainly, there are signs that she would like to write on more serious subjects than last week's soap operas - about politics, perhaps. About feminism. About Tony Blair.

The only trouble is that it is rather hard to write about serious subjects if you have only taxi-driver knowledge about them. As a last resort, all concerned have fallen back on the one subject on which, alone, they are the experts: themselves.

So perhaps all this is really nothing more than a publicity stunt to resuscitate moribund careers (though Mr Young should note that closing down Punch has scarcely catapulted David Thomas to celebrity). But if the Modern Review and The Late Show really have gone for good, I shall have no compunction about rejoicing. Quite simply, it will be a victory for those of us who spent our twenties looking at books instead of the box; writing about Wagner instead of Wham! - in short, a victory for high culture.

To me, there was something contemptible about the Modern Review and all it stood for - something rather wretched about all that intelligence and ink squandered on unmitigated crap. Perhaps decadence makes it sound too glamorous; but that is exactly what it was.

In a famous phrase, Hannah Arendt once referred to "the banality of evil". It may seem incongruous, but whenever I saw the Modern Review the phrase which came to my mind was "the evil of banality". Good riddance to it and all it stood for.

James Fenton is away.