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Numb to fiction

In the recent EastEnders cot-death controversy, both sides behaved pretty much as you’d expect. The BBC-bashers denounced the ‘offensive’ suggestion that grieving mothers routinely steal other people’s babies.

29 January 2011

6:00 AM

29 January 2011

6:00 AM

In the recent EastEnders cot-death controversy, both sides behaved pretty much as you’d expect. The BBC-bashers denounced the ‘offensive’ suggestion that grieving mothers routinely steal other people’s babies.

In the recent EastEnders cot-death controversy, both sides behaved pretty much as you’d expect. The BBC-bashers denounced the ‘offensive’ suggestion that grieving mothers routinely steal other people’s babies. The corporation itself used words like ‘challenging’ and ‘sensitive’ — before caving in to the criticism. Yet, surely the most (and possibly sole) interesting thing about the debate was the confirmation that we’re in danger of becoming, in Philip Roth’s words, ‘numb to fiction’. And in this, I’m afraid, television has only itself to blame.


Certainly, even at the posher end of TV, you’re hard pressed to find any understanding that fictional characters aren’t meant to be the responsible representatives of an entire social group. Take Newsnight Review. There, the panel judges virtually everything fictional simply by how virtuous it is — as if the point of it were not to create convincing individuals, but to respect contemporary pieties and to make sure the audience do too.

This almost Victorian sense of propriety has some odd effects. John Updike, for example, got a regular kicking for having male protagonists whose views on women, however suitable to the men who hold them, apparently shouldn’t be spoken in polite society. It also means that the key question is always, ‘Did this particular black/gay/female character say the right things about black/gay/female people generally?’ — to which the correct answer is, of course, a resounding ‘Who cares?’ Ironically, this is exactly what the BBC should have said to the idea that EastEnders didn’t say the right things about all cot-death mothers.


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