‘The Post’ – A Romantic call to journalism

I recently went to see a new film release called ‘The Post’ starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, directed by Stephen Spielberg. Those are some big big names in film, which is what drew me in the first place. Rarely do prolific actors get behind a bad film. With a rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 88% and 7.4/10 on IMDb it seems to be a great success. And I won’t dispute that – it was a great film and one of my favourites that I’ve seen in a long time.

On a basic film viewing experience alone it was a joy to watch. A small family run Washington Post taking on the Nixon administration during the Cold War – a classic formula of the under-dog fighting against dauntingly heavy odds. The moral overtones throughout resonated in a real and unforced way – should they publish at all costs, the cost even of not being able to publish again? Is sacrificing a family run business for the right to publish the whole point of publishing? The film raises many such questions intentionally, but there are other issues raised more implicitly than the main theme: press freedom Vs national security. I will touch on this issue briefly; which do we value more? Complete freedom for the press to publish regardless of the potential implications for the security of the nation, or a lightly censored press to maintain a safe and competitive position in world politics for the nation in question? This question itself leads us naturally to debates over free speech. How free do we want our societies to be? In America there is a huge pride in the genuine freedom of speech protected under the 1st Amendment, this has allowed for great cultural diversity and political debate. However, it has also nurtured the potential for hate groups such as the KKK, Westborough Baptist Church and neo-Nazis to exist (if not flourish). Furthermore, the phenomena of Trump – would a man like him ever be in the position to run a country such as the UK, where you can be put in prison for expressing certain opinions. Should there be a point in society where we draw a line on freedom of speech and say ‘no, that’s too strongly opinionated’, or is that the same as saying ‘no, that’s too free’? Should we allow people a platform no matter how abhorrent their opinions may be? On the one hand, free speech should mean we allow anyone of any belief to speak their mind. Anyone of any belief, regardless of whether we agree or not. This means we have to listen (or at least hear) people in groups like the ones I have mentioned. This is extremely uncomfortable – but as soon as we deny their right to express opinion then we deny ourselves. We basically say that you can believe anything you want, so long as it’s the same belief we hold. Yet, on the other hand, if we allow certain doctrines and mantras to be upheld then we harbour the potential for extremists and terrorists. We expose ourselves to danger. The choice then is between complete freedom, or a controlled safety. This is extremely oversimplified, but it demonstrates the basic ‘sides’ of the coin.

‘The Post’ seems to tentatively engage in this debate. Should governments allow the media complete freedom to publish no matter the cost to their own integrity or security? Security or complete freedom? It’s almost impossible to answer, both cases could be argued I think. Surely we can’t allow the media to publish sensitive material such as military plans? (A point which ‘The Post’ acknowledges; Hanks dismisses as it is worlds apart from publishing material outlining the failure of military forces in Vietnam). We too must decide upon this distinction, and in doing so trust the media to do the same – we can and should hold the government accountable, but without putting people in harms way. I’m not proposing the media, should they gain such information, publish names of soldiers involved in top secret operations. This similarly doesn’t mean we can’t hold governments accountable through publishing. ‘The Post’ highlights this tension excellently: when does holding the government accountable become treasonous?

This idea of ‘trusting’ the media is an important one. If the government did allow the media to use their own discretion regarding information they should or shouldn’t release, would it work? Can we say that the media we are currently engaging with could operate with this responsibility? With the rise of fake news, decline in print linked with a move towards social media and online based news and previous scandals and betrayals (such as the News of the World phone hacking) – with all these factors taken into consideration, do our media deserve that amount of trust? Twitter Is a huge resource for people now when they want to learn about the news, similarly news alerts on news apps offer a quick and brief update. This new ‘instant’ reporting raises questions over the quality of journalism today. Are journalists out for a quick story, a shocking headline or a damning report – has that replaced serious and judicious reporting? If the answer is yes, how can we let the media hold the government accountable when we don’t really know whether they are being held to the same standards? With snapchat articles being a genuine source of news for some people it is no wonder why genuine newspapers are struggling, everything is so quick and bitesize. People form opinions based on snippets of a news piece without doing proper research. Our own new consumption methods are driving the media in a completely new direction – I’m not sure whether this is positive.

With questions such as these circulating because of a film such as ‘The Post’, yet another question must be asked (I’m sorry for all the rhetoricals): does the media inspire us to hold governments and institutions accountable? Is there something noble in going to write for newspapers? There is certainly a romantic attraction in becoming part of a vast and rich history of print in the UK. It presents an opportunity to progress an industry which started (in the UK) in 1473 with William Caxton’s translation and print of ‘The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’, the first newspaper dating back to roughly 1620. There is a rich and ancient history surrounding the printing press and newspapers. And although completely different, newspapers and media reporting offer us an opportunity to engage in a process which has existed for nearly 400years in some shape or form. ‘The Post’ certainly picks up on this romantic version of reporting – having the opportunity (within the great history of print) to change the dynamic between print and government, inspiring viewers perhaps to try and become the next publishers of the Pentagon Papers, ensuring freedom of publication.

Yet, there is a sense that ‘The Post’ and reality are separate entities. How many times have you heard someone merit the media in the last 10years? We (myself very much included) heavily criticise the media for improper reporting and representation of certain characters. We are wary of the media. Is the media another institution just as oppressive and greedy as any other organisation we mistrust? They are lumped in with the lot of them. They all have hands in each other’s pockets, making money off us; the stupefied public. Obviously this is a deliberately over exaggerated view (or is it?) of the situation, but the media certainly don’t inspire us (or haven’t inspired me) to join the ranks and start reporting. I am part of my student newspaper, but I am doubtful whether my participation with any media body will go any further. Is ‘The Post’ wrong then to depict the media as something moral and inspiring? Because that doesn’t seem to be the case – maybe that in itself is the beauty of the film: it demonstrates how far we’ve come from the integrity which it documents.

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Why poetry should be mainstream again

As an English student it is easy to forget that most people don’t actually read poetry anymore, the only reason everyone in my seminar does is because its on the reading list. I’m in an academic bubble, one not at all indicative of the level of engagement with poetry in our culture today. Of course, people do read poetry still, they even buy it on occasion – but by and large, it is a dying art form (or at least forgotten). Indeed, in the USA, between 1992-2012 there was a 10.3% decline in readership of poetry despite it being arguably more accessible with the internet (sites such as the Poetry Foundation offering a huge variety of poetry). In fact, according to the same study, Jazz is more popular than poetry in America at the moment. But more convincing than statistics (but far more subjective I’ll admit) is the reaction of people when you tell them you read and write poetry. Raised eyebrows (to show that their eyes are there) and an exaggerated backwards tilt of the head (to prove the chin is present) accompanied by ‘ohhh how wonderful’ or an empty ‘that’s really cool’, its amazing how words and body language simply don’t align. There is a definite stigma attached to poetry in the 21st century (in my generation at least), whether it is totally negative is unclear, however it is certainly present and makes it far harder to want to write. I can’t quite work out what this stigma is, maybe poetry is viewed as a useless pursuit or something ‘for girls’ – definitely not for a guy that’s for sure. Both statistics and perceptions match though; poetry is something of the past and it doesn’t seem like it will make a huge comeback – there is little appetite, that much seems clear.

But it is baffling as to why we’ve left poetry behind and forsaken the opportunity for expression which the art form holds. Poetry isn’t just about flowers and pretty things, or about love and sunshine. It isn’t just highly convoluted and old language, impossible to decipher, and it isn’t all old and irrelevant. Shakespeare has probably given poetry a bad name, or at least a skewed impression of what poetry is. That’s not to criticise the man (get back in your box Shakespeare fans), but most people do encounter Shakespearian verse at school. And even if you love him, you have to admit his work isn’t the most accessible or universal. So, the engagement with poetry often ends at school, with people thinking that Shakespeare represents what poetry is. Perhaps the government have a responsibility to design curriculums to be more engaging and diverse – of course covering the canon of literature, but not limiting it to that. Poetry isn’t dusty old books which deal only with Greek and Roman mythology, it is intensely relevant and even poems written hundreds of years ago can connect with readers today. Take ‘In Memoriam’, written in 1850 by Tennyson, it is still almost impossible not to relate to his grief and suffering. Poetry captures an essence and a common condition within every person. It comes from us, so naturally it speaks to us. It gives an amazing insight into people – we all share common emotion and feeling regardless of belief, gender, age, sexuality, race or anything else you can think of. Poetry is a uniting art.

My dad often asks me (playing the devil’s advocate) what the point of poetry is, or art, or sport, or anything like that. He is right to a certain extent – there is no ‘point’, it doesn’t ‘do’ anything visible like a car does, or a mechanised factory. But they all fulfil a human need for pleasure and entertainment. And I think poetry transcends this basic need. If it does nothing else, it evokes an emotive response or simply an emotion from the reader. Everyone feels something when they read poetry. Whether it be happiness or sadness, cynicism or optimism, pain or relief. It doesn’t really matter what (on a large scale) because poetry’s aim is to garner an emotional sensation and response. If it does that, then the poet has made a connection with another person, and this on a huge scale is really important. To cause someone to feel something through art is the ‘point’ of art, to make someone’s day more than just the usual routine of encounters, to create emotion through words. That should be something everyone wants to engage with surely? On a perhaps less universal note, if people read and enjoy poetry they are more likely to want to write it. If reading stimulates writing, then people need to read more poetry. Poetry isn’t just art, its part of social history. Each poem written in some way engages with the present situation of a person, even if not explicitly. Historical readings of literature have huge amounts to offer us; they help us see how people used to view the world, themselves, their future, and their own past. Poetry is small scale history (sometimes even large scale). Poems can be a window into a life; a person’s intimate interior – records and statistics cannot offer us this insight. If we lose poetry as a literary genre then we starve ourselves in the future of huge parts of history.

Poetry also offers a really interesting study on the limits of language to express. Everyone has probably said ‘ahh I just don’t know how to put it into words’, well poetry has this problem at its heart. If we could just say what we feel in straight language we’d only have prose. But the rhythm, metre, syntax, and tone of poetry all help the language along with ‘finding’ the emotion which the poet feels. This is why music is amazing – the lyrics and the music complement one another to cause the listener to feel more intensely what the musician is trying to express. Poetry does this too, just in a far more subtle way. Words are often secondary in poetry, particularly in more modern poetry, where rarely do the words mean what they say. Poetry exposes how words cannot ever capture more than a fleeting essence of what they try to express – but this only magnifies the effect. There is a common understanding that the most inexpressible emotions are often the most powerful – a poem’s imperfection is completely relatable with everyday communication, exactly why it is so powerful.

I understand that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but neither are certain genres of music or art. I think that poetry has been grossly misrepresented in modern culture, and if there was wider engagement with the genre then there would be greater understanding of what it can represent. There will be a poem you read one day which simply resonates with everything inside of you, then you’ll instantly understand why poetry should be mainstream again.

You should never try writing as a career.

The best pieces of writing I have read have been the most genuine ones; books or poems in which I can connect to something human, some recognisable quality in a character or description. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I can only enjoy realist writing. Even in fantasy genres you can express some real feeling and emotion, enough to move readers. This, in my eyes, is the point of writing and reading. To express something which another group of people would be able to identify with – provoking an emotive response to something which moves you. I think this is where we must then make the distinction between writing as a career or as a lifestyle.

The distinction between writing as a lifestyle or as a career is one that has interested me for a while. Should we aim to ‘be’ a writer, or should it just be something we do on a day to day basis, fully part of a wider life? That sounds like I’m demoting it to a hobby, but my intention is far from that. A career entails the need for financial support, which is of course reasonable. We need money to support ourselves and others; having a career as a writer then follows that you must be able to make money from writing. (Plainly obvious I know). There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this. I think it would be a dream to be able to write and get money for it; being paid to do what I do in my free time would be amazing. That’s why I chose English Literature as a degree (it certainly wasn’t for the employment prospects); I read and write for fun, so it makes sense to then fill my study time with what is also my favourite thing to do. I feel lucky to be in that position; a career in writing would be the natural next step.

However, I’m reluctant to pursue that. I think money complicates things – I need to pay bills, and what if I get married or have children? Then I wouldn’t just be providing for myself; I would have genuine responsibility to provide for a family. Undoubtedly, I would then have to write for money; this is obvious and perhaps even harmless. Yet, there is a reticence within me to do this. Surely there must be a ‘sell-out’ moment, where I must sacrifice some sort of artistic integrity in order to make money, to sell that next book or article? If I need the money, I’ll write what sells. Now, it may be that what sells is what I would want to write – that would be great. But that’s unlikely. Look at authors like Simon Scarrow and Bernard Cornwell – both excellent authors with great success in what they’ve written, I’ve enjoyed their books for years. In roughly 19 years, Bernard Cornwell released 24 books and Scarrow did 15 in 16 years. That is an impressive feat, the two sets of books are incredibly popular. They are also very similar; historical fiction. This genre seems to be extremely compatible with long series, suggesting that there is a formula of book which is successful. I am in no position to criticise either author; maybe if I ever get as successful I can. I am not suggesting they cannot qualify as artists, however it is clear they have identified a genre which will sell and make money. This suggests there may be a set of qualities which publishers look for which signify a commercial success. Technique, ability, tone, and style all come into play. But what if a publisher begins to dictate those things? Surely, we would lose some authenticity in the innocent attempt to be successful. Commercial writing must come at the price of some artistic uniqueness and originality; this is something no writer should be willing to do.

Writing for a career means you are far more susceptible to being drowned as an artist by calls from the fans and figures. You end up writing what people want, not what you want or set out to create. That is a sacrifice of integrity I think shouldn’t be made. If a career author must do this then writing shouldn’t be a career. Of course, there are exceptions with authors being largely successful for the merit of their work (and to an extent that is every successful author), so it can be done. But I really do believe that if more people have artistic pursuits as a lifestyle rather than a job, we would be the richer for it. Perhaps less time and resources would be available if another job was pursued, yet if writing becomes more authentic due to less external influence (from commercialisation and publishers) then I believe the sacrifice of time is fully reimbursed.

Perhaps it is easier for a poet to hold poetry within a lifestyle rather than as a career. A novelist must devote far much more time to their work than a poet; the length, depth, and nature of the piece of art is wholly different. But I think even a novelist must have lived a life before they can write and their work should speak of this. The cliché expression of ‘there is a book in everyone’ does hold true. Each day we live out a life worthy of an account. You can’t ‘enter’ writing as a career path. Writing must be an expression of a lived-in experience. The truest originality can only be found once you have had a set of experiences unique to your life. So yes, a poet could pursue poetry as a lifestyle far more easily than a novelist, but the idea of ‘starting’ a career in either isn’t one I buy into.

To demonstrate the danger of writing to a commercial criterion I will use one of the biggest criticisms of English as a subject. I’ve learnt that a modern complaint within the subject is directed towards the canon of English Literature. The works which are deemed as our greatest and most successful – what Schools and Universities have taught for centuries essentially. The criticism is that the canon is not representative of culture and life; that is far too middle class and white (and male). We are then exposed to a narrow portion of society and culture, missing swathes of great work. Only a tiny part of the literature studied within the discipline is translated from other languages – we grossly overlook non-English literature. Now I would argue that career writing similarly excludes vast parts of an experience of life. It is extremely difficult to ‘make it’ as a writer, thus a certain genre or style must have a greater success rate. There simply must be a commercially successful genre and style. However, if people who do other things write, then we see a great and colourful portrait of life. If bus drivers, doctors, nurses, bin men, plumbers, singers, cooks, teachers and cleaners wrote down their expression of the life they live then think of the lenses in which we could look through life. Sure, it doesn’t change what gets published, but it means that one day someone will read about how a cleaner saw the world, how they interacted with changes in economics and society and how they loved and hurt. What an amazing thing that would be; to see a puzzle of life being put together by the different parts of society. As a society, we could leave a treasure trove for future generations, giving an insight into life like never before through literature.

If this leaves you in doubt, watch a film called ‘Paterson’. It sums up perfectly what I am trying to articulate. A bus driver poet writes what he sees and experiences; he hears conversations, sees signs, and parts of the city and spends his life in monotony. But he turns it into something for greater than that through his poetry. I’m not doing a film review though – just go watch it. Each one of us have a unique glimpse into the same world; if writing was an expression of this rather than a means to an end, it could be spectacular. I will use a few authors as example; Khaled Hosseini practiced medicine, Salman Rushdie was a copywriter, Philip Larkin was a Librarian, George Orwell was a policeman in Burma and later lived in poverty in both Paris and London. Their works are all unique and capture completely different perspectives on life, giving us a rare opportunity to see things through different lenses. If we wrote (whether it be poetry, novels, articles etc) as a part of our lives then this vast variety of experience would be amplified. We should want to write down what we know and live, if success follows then great. If not; you’ve still done what you wanted to do all along – express something only you could.

I think our generation is far more at risk of commercialising art and writing. Everything is so instant, there a many more careers and opportunities for money. Of course, there is more competition than ever too. But, and I may be wrong, it feels as if this desire for the instant has come at the cost of some sort of patience (for want of a better word). We want success. I want to write and I want to be an author now; it’s almost too difficult to wait until I have something to write about. This could just be me – but it may also be symptomatic of our situation. Maybe if we were more prepared to wait (meaning seeing out a life instead of career writing) then the fruit of our patience would be spectacular.