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Sweet nothing

Relentlessly entertained kids are missing out on something.

Harry Styles (right): occasional barista. Photo/Thinkstock

•  Writing for Harper’s magazine, novelist Claire Messud observes that her children, aged 11 and 13, are relentlessly entertained, in life and online. “If they’re not on the run from soccer practice to piano lessons, they’re busy with text messages and Snapchat, with Tumblr and Vine. They revere YouTube as the repository of all knowledge – which in some ways, of course, it is.”

Her concern is not so much that they’re wasting time, but that they’re not wasting it: they “know nothing of nothingness. Having no truly empty time, they’re unfamiliar too with the unexpected and exhilarating flowers that can grow there.”

In an essay headlined “In Praise of Boredom”, one in a series on “How to Be a Parent”, Messud says she wishes her children would find cause “to embrace doing nothing, to embrace the slowing of an afternoon to a near standstill … to stop, to be still, and then to wait, and wait, and wait, allowing time to fatten around them, like a dewdrop on the tip of a leaf. And then, only then, who knows what they might imagine or invent?”


•  Late last year, Hossein Derakhshan was released after serving six years in a Tehran prison. The government critic and so-called “blogfather” had been jailed for offences including spreading propaganda, insulting Islam and co-operating with hostile powers – or, to his defenders, for blogging.

Upon his release, the Iranian-Canadian discovered a much changed internet. “Six years was a long time to be in jail,” he writes at Medium, “but it’s an entire era online.”

Where blogs used to be an essential and largely egalitarian mode of online communication, they have been largely supplanted by “the stream” of social media. “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web,” he writes, “a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex – and secretive – algorithms.”

Derakhshan detects a wider shift, “from a books-internet toward a television-internet … linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking”. He laments: “Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: a loss of intellectual power and diversity … In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment.”




•  The entertainingly odd online subculture of fan fiction sprang into the mainstream a few years back with the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel that began as a titillating homage to the vampire series Twilight. It now has its place in academia, too, such as a course taught by Anne Jamison at Princeton University, titled “Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock”.

In an interview with Kirstie Blair for The Conversation, Jamison says part of the genre’s appeal is the way it arrives in online instalments, akin to the serialisation of, say, Charles Dickens. In fan fiction, however, “the Little Dorrit universe” is altogether different. “Sometimes Clennam works in a coffee shop with Harry Styles from One Direction and sometimes Little Dorrit has superpowers besides being pathetic and is also Chinese, and sometimes Mr F’s Aunt is diagnosed with a spectrum disorder and finds love.”

The “digital, globally networked nature” of the form, she says, lends something “that is different from oral or even print culture in ways we can’t yet fully understand”.


•  The genre can certainly boast some of the unlikeliest sentences ever composed. To celebrate this, a Twitter account called @fanfiction_txt trawls the internet for some of the more startling examples. Many are puerile or pornographic, but others address the big issues, such as this, based on Sonic the Hedgehog video games: “‘That’s outrageous,’ exclaimed Robotnik. ‘What happened to my right to privacy?’ ‘The Bush Administration,’ Sonic stated plainly.”

More traditional characters roam too, such as Winnie the Pooh, who “jeered balefully, pouring the last of the Fusion Dew™ onto the ashen ground beneath”.

And best of the lot: “‘God, I really hate Mondays,’ Garfield chuckled with his last breath, killing himself and Adolf Hitler by detonating the explosives.”


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