Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Choice is Yours

Reflecting on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, many of us may have indulged in a last-minute artsy pilgrimage to taste the final dregs of whisky and catch the rounds of applause as the sprawling carnival drew to a close. My sister was one of those pilgrims. With a brochure rivalling the Yellow Pages in its dimensions, a website smattered in alluring adverts for shows and a drop-down menu of 10 different performance genres, those planning a Scottish adventure might have found themselves overwhelmed. 2013 was a record year for the world’s largest arts festival, with 2,871 different shows in 273 venues involving 24,107 performers. Of course, we should celebrate that such diversity gives lots of different artists exposure. But all this choice can soon become over-exposure for the eager visitor wading through the gargantuan catalogue.

Choice was once a word that promised freedom. When the Pill was first marketed in the 1960s, it was all about that little word ‘choice’. Able to say no to pregnancy, women’s bodies were liberated, their personal aspirations prioritised. And that kind of choice was powerful. In a world where convenience is king, fast-moving consumer goods are becoming increasingly prominent in our daily lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking that when we thoughtfully select the spice level for our Nandos chicken, we are in a position of power. We might for a moment get a heady rush of authority as we optimise every chicken-eating experience.

The right to choose

The right to choose

Yet, when the American coffee chain Starbucks first crossed the Atlantic in 1998, we were bamboozled by a menu that required expert navigation. We dithered between coffee and crème blended frappucinos, macchiatos and ristrettos in three different Italian sizes and grappled with the dilemma of drinking in or out. Such a bewildering portfolio of beverages can only be expected from America, a nation whose individuals are known to make an average of 70 choices a day. Indeed, I remember all too well a moment from a childhood visit to Florida when my mother struggled in the heat to organise a picnic lunch for a young family of five. I remember her anguished journey through the bagel creating process- did she want onion/sesame/poppy/granary/multiseed/rye or walnut bagel? Lettuce/rocket/watercress/spinach/mixed salad? Jack cheese/pepper jack/blue jack/herb jack? Far from being liberated, she’d been robbed of right to re-fuel with what was supposed to be a meal on the move. And what was then, is now. I find myself having to do mental gymnastics just to work out what qualifies in the Boots ‘meal-deal’.

bagels

A multitude of sandwich experiences

Perhaps what is most interesting is that the vast choice that businesses lay on for us can drive consumers away rather than lure them in. The famous study conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar, a Professor at Colombia Business School and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’ (2010) presented shoppers with two different sample booths of Wilkins and Sons jams. Whilst more passers-by were drawn to the glistening appeal of 24 different flavours to taste, the other stall secured more sales despite being decorated with a mere 6 jars. Faced with less choice, the busy shopper was much more likely to commit. Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us, ‘no longer liberates, but deliberates. It can even be said to tyrannise’. There are 216 brands of facial wash in Superdrug. This is no good to the angsty teenager combing the crammed shelves for a discreet solution. In these moments, old-fashioned soap and water become all too tempting, suddenly transformed into a luxury simply because they are easy.

Brand overload

Brand overload

Choice is suppose to set us free, but instead it leaves us shackled at the counter. We find ourselves drawn in by ‘you want it, you got it’ promises and yet more and more frequently I’m losing sight of what I originally wanted, going along with anything just to move the process forward. ‘The choice is yours’. Or is it?

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Serial Thrillers

1990s culture had lots of perks. Some of us remember the music, the rise of the Pokemon card, the questionable fashion. For me, the 90s was defined by two must-have brands, the Beanie Baby and that ever so slightly creepy, chirping bird-doll-hybrid Furby creature. We might look back on these fads with a fondly nostalgic eye, whilst being quietly grateful that we have moved on to greater things, to smoothies, to micropigs, to kindles. However, in terms of the world of fiction, there is one 90s trend that is still influencing the way we read today, and that is the serial novel.

Furby friend of the 90s

Furby friend of the 90s

In spite of its 1996 publication date, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, first in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is still topping Waterstones’ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror bestseller list. In fact, the list is dominated by other books from the series, the formulaic titles chiming together repetitively, like a meditative chant of words from another world; swords, dragons, kings, thrones. Unsurprisingly, the neat sense of continuity in the A Song of Ice and Fire collection makes it perfectly adaptable to television. Not wanting to miss out on the next link in the chain, the recent third season finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers, making it HBO’s second most-watched programme of all time. Indeed, just as we wait in a reverently carb-free limbo for the next episode of The Great British Bake-Off and relish in re-entering the parlour of Downton once more this autumn, the book-in -a-series format is a sure way to create a classic page turner that has readers suffering from a heady addiction. Let’s not forget the queues and hysteria surrounding the latest J K Rowling effort, as eager buyers grappled to get their hands on the latest contribution to story-time for the children, their Sunday night read or their lunch break.

Game_of_Thrones_title_card

The popularity of 1990s oeuvres such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire and His Dark Materials heralded a new movement in the world of fiction that continues to be felt. Indeed, in cinemas recently was the first installment of the The Mortal Instruments, a series of six young adult fantasy novels no doubt following in the wake of their 1990s antecedents.  And it’s not just limited to fantasy, to a world of mythical battles and politics. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy entranced readers with a slightly different power game. In parallel to our TV routines, as we loyally follow episode after episode of docudramas, talent shows and cookery series, the way we read has been transformed into a question of ‘what comes next?’. As we journey breathlessly through novel after novel to the imaginative parameters of the epic whole, it seems that every-day entertainment now comes in bulletin format. It’s about getting your hand on the latest, the next in line. Reading has become a bit like watching a soap opera.

And yet, delving into the past reveals that enjoying books in episodic format is something that we have a much older figure than George R R Martin to thank for.  Due to the rise of literacy and advances in print technology, as well as efficiency and improved economics of distribution, the serialisation of novels became voguish in the Victorian era. And this was all due to Charles Dickens’ 1836 serialised work The Pickwick Papers. Following that huge success, Dickens’ subsequent works were published in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers, giving the inquisitive reader regular bulletins of another world and heightening their appetite as the latest chapter went to print. In fact, Dickens’ method of serial publication proved to enliven his readership so greatly that he developed an editorial relationship with them, modifying his stories and characters over the weeks and months in tune with their reactions.

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

Say the words ‘Charles Dickens’ to a reluctant reader and they might wince at the thought of a hefty, starchy tome. Yet in reality, his epic character studies were broken down into tantalizing tit-bits, each structured internally like a miniature serial novel of today, with climaxes, twists and turns but just enough of a cliff-hanger to leave us yearning for the next installment. Dickens is credited with creating the caricature, a figure whose quirks are exaggerated to a larger-than-life extent, so that we cannot help being captivated. And that is much the same in today’s serial novels. So no matter how much weird and wonderful characters like Edward Cullen have become icons of 21st century global popular culture and our obsession with serial storytelling and fantastical escapism, they are the products of a literary form rooted firmly in a tradition that is much closer to home. Perhaps when we lose ourselves in a sequence of novels, we are actually finding our way back to the beginning.

Dickens

Dickens

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