Is the New Statesman Committing Suicide?

April 24, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

With a wide variety of informed comment and analysis now available online, the internet era has thrown up a singular set of challenges to print publications. As reading habits change and print sales drop, magazine editors are under increasing pressure to position themselves at the very forefront of their respective fields. The price of failure is marginalisation or, at worst, obsolescence. Against this backdrop it is therefore disappointing to see the New Statesman apparently struggling to fill its pages. The magazine, which is by some distance the most credible of the more widely-distributed current affairs weeklies, has begun to show signs of a worrying lack of quality control in some sections.

Of course, the magazine’s regular columns by the likes of Julian Clary and other television personalities are intended as light-hearted reading to offset the more serious content which makes up the bulk of its output; nevertheless, the desperate vapidity of comedian Shazia Mirza’s recent column (New Statesman 20/04/09) is worthy of special consideration, particularly if one accepts the basic premise that some basic minimum editorial standards should obtain irrespective of the writer’s professional background.

Mirza’s starting point is an anecdote about being approached in the street by a group of children who had mistaken her for a newsreader; this then forms the basis for a mini-treatise on the ills of modern culture (“kids are obsessed with fame”, Mirza perceptively observes), culminating in an attack on, of all people, bloggers, for being “shy people” and “narcissistic” and having “mundane lives”. If a certain degree of misanthropic rage is a staple among comedians, one line seems to betray a certain class-based prejudice that is surely out of place in the New Statesman’s pages. One of Mirza’s interlocutors is quoted as saying “I told you she woz famous!” The deliberate mis-spelling of “was” is instructive; phonetically, the word sounds pretty much the same irrespective of whether it is spelt “was” or “woz”, so her decision to transcribe the word in this way is clearly an attempted dig at the presumed illiteracy of the young person in question, a complete stranger whose educational attainment levels would have been completely unknown to Ms Mirza. One can only assume that she had her own reasons for assuming that the youngster in question would have been unable to spell “was” correctly.

Such snobbery is all the more galling in the context of Mirza’s own appallingly stunted prose – indeed her writing is so excessively conversational (the expression “shit scared” features twice, along with a succession of rhetorical question aimed at putative “bloggers”) that there is a fair chance that the offending “woz” was not a deliberate mistake at all, and was merely an aberration which was missed by the magazine’s editors. The general gist of her argument is that bloggers are driven by the same desire for riches and fame that motivates some young women to marry wealthy footballers – even by the modest standards of this sort of flippant social commentary, this is surely way off the mark.

Such on-stage talent as Shazia Mirza possesses is clearly not translating itself to the written word. The defence that the writer is not a writer by trade can only excuse literary shortcoming up to a certain point – and Mirza’s dreary diatribe sailed across that point this week. Her rant against bloggers was based on the notion that it is “boring” to have to read other people’s inane musings. On this latter point she is quite right – perhaps her strength of feeling on this subject might be attributable to a variety of professional territorialism, given that her column is the inane musing par excellence.

In any case there is so much in the online “blogosphere” that is far more worthy of a reader’s attention than this witless drivel. Stultifyingly dull, extremely unoriginal and with more than a hint of conceitedness, Mirza’s prose is as insipid as one imagines John Pilger’s stand-up comedy might be. There are humourists about who are quite capable of writing engaging and intelligent prose; in the absence of anything else to recommend her, one has to assume that it is her profile as a D-list television personality that accounts for her appearance on the pages of New Statesman. There are some signs that this sort of mindless dissipation might actually be attributable to a deliberate editorial policy; elsewhere in the very same issue, columnist Nicholas Lezard devotes an entire one-page article to explaining how generally “bored” he is.

“Who cares?” Shazia asks her fictive blogger, “Why do you feel the need to tell this to the world?” If print publications like New Statesman are not to be supplanted by their online counterparts, these are questions that are well worth considering.

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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr

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