Gushing like Brian won't make a show any better
I SPENT a small, but not insignificant, portion of this week being reminded of Cox. Er, Brian Cox, that is.
You remember him. Formerly keyboard player with 90s (feel-good) popsters D:Ream. Latterly floppy-haired physicist who rapturously celebrated the majestic awesomeness of everything on the BBC's Wonders of the Universe.
When it comes to the popularising of tricky astronomical concepts, Cox is perfectly competent. When it comes to looking like a man lost in a permanent state of flabbergasted ecstasy, however, he has no equal.
Wonders of the Universe was big on close-ups of our Brian's awestruck cutie-pie face. As radiant CGI galaxies whooshed past, said cutie-pie face seemed permanently on the verge of tears of cosmic joy. If he'd suddenly blurted out, "Isn't the universe totes amazeballs?!!", you would have barely batted an eyelid.
Yet the universe is (as I understand it) a fairly robust sort of a thing and will continue to plod along even without doe-eyed ex-keyboardists ceaselessly reminding us of how sublime it is.
You could say the same, or similar, about the world of literature. The publishing industry may be facing a time of change and uncertainty, but that doesn't mean we need book shows, for example, to adopt a propagandist tone.
This tendency to be gushingly/uncritically pro-book and pro-writer is something that continues to scupper Newstalk's (otherwise pleasant) Talking Books. On Sunday, guest John Banville invited host Susan Cahill into his Bachelor's Walk studio and what followed reached levels of breathless enthusiasm that Professor Cox (who instantly sprang to mind) would struggle to match.
Cahill introduced Banville as "one of Ireland's greatest writing treasures". An author whose style was "without doubt unique and impressive". And a man, she added, who was "intellectual, critical, deeply sensitive and amazingly precise".
It was a fawning start, that soon gave way to a fawning middle and rounded things off with a pretty fawning finish. Banville himself was, as he generally is, good value for money, telling Cahill that he has "no sense of a legacy" and suggesting that he regards every new book as "another failure, another mortal sin, another blemish".
He also dryly sent up his own public image as a somewhat remote and rarefied (intellectual) cold fish, by saying things like "I never understood pop music", and quipping that he's "probably not" human "in the accepted sense".
Though Banville seemed open to a critical interrogation of himself and his writing, Cahill continued to ladle on the praise. By the time she'd opened a question with, "You clearly have a very brilliant mind and are also very imaginative", we were, alas, in obsequious, "We're not worthy" territory. An opportunity squandered and a show that could do with an injection of critical distance and/or healthy cynicism.
Faring considerably better was RTE Radio 1's new book show, The Book Show, which kicked off on Saturday evening with an eclectic special edition.
Highlights included a report (by Ken Early) on a new volume celebrating the typography of football shirts, and host Sinead Gleeson's lively al fresco interview with writer George Saunders, conducted in New York's Union Square Park.
Best of all, however, was an engaging and revealing panel discussion of the life and work of Irish writer Maeve Brennan, below, who died 20 years ago this month.
Though Brennan (whose family left Dublin for Washington in 1934) became "a prolific contributor to The New Yorker magazine", and a well-known member of the New York literati, her work, Gleeson explained, "was largely unknown in Ireland in her lifetime".
Angela Bourke, whose biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker helped spark a revival of interest in Brennan, spoke of the writer's dedication to her writing, but suggested that "the price she paid for her dedication...was very high".
Her later years (following a disastrous marriage) were ones of mental ill-health and alcoholism. Years when, as Bourke put it, she was "living mostly outdoors...quite confused... not very many steps up from a bag lady."
This very public disintegration has tended, Gleeson suggested, to overshadow Brennan's work, but it was to The Book Show's credit that it resisted the urge to vicariously wallow in the squalid details of these final years.
The focus instead, quite rightly, was instead on Brennan's (unjustly) neglected writings and on their recent rediscovery.
A promising start, then. And one that managed to explore "books and the world of writing" without resorting to the kind of rhapsodic overstatement that's currently hobbling its Newstalk rival.