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A question of questions

Posted on 22 September 2010, 20:48

A question of questions

We’re all looking for answers, but as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot points out to Inspector Japp: ‘To discover the answer we must indeed ask the questions. But more important still is that we ask the right questions!’

I sat with a TV and film agent recently, and we talked about the media landscape. ‘Twenty years ago,’ she said, ‘if you took a book to a publisher, their only real question was this: ‘Is this a good book?’ If it was a good book in their estimation, they tended to go with it. These days, the question is different. Whether it’s a good book is entirely irrelevant. The accountant is now the arbiter of taste and ‘Will it sell?’ the only question in town.

It is good to notice when we exchange one question for another, because it has consequences. Political spin is as old as power itself, but it was New Labour who brought it to our attention mainly because they could think of little else. And so the question uppermost in the minds of the Blair’s ‘sofa cabinet’ was not ‘Will this work?’ but ‘How am I appearing? And how will this play?’ Once the question is changed, all sorts of nonsense is possible. Taking tips from Stalin and Mao, we learnt the art of ‘burying bad news’, for instance, while advisors on drug policy resigned in their droves because their suggestions didn’t ‘play’ well to the electorate. And somewhere along the way, because the question changed, so did the movement; and it may take some time to recover its soul.

Such subtle adjustments are not confined to politics. How often, with a spoken or unspoken change of question, marriages settle for something other than the vision they started out with; with the bar set pretty low. The primary commitment becomes to keep the show on the road; to find an acceptable compromise, and then defend that from attack. I remember a man refusing to even consider his wife’s shabby treatment of another. The marriage pact was more important to him than truth. The question for the couple now was not, ‘What are we creating in each other and in the world?’ but rather, ‘What is necessary for the boat not be rocked?’ Once the second question becomes the law, things both look and feel very different.

Aristotle took 1500 years to make it the Western Europe. The Muslim city of Toledo in Spain, famous for its wonderful libraries, fell to Christians in 1085, and it was only then that these writings from the 4th century BC were discovered. Interest in the books quickly gained momentum, but the University of Paris banned both the public and private reading of Aristotle, for somewhere along the line the church’s question had changed from ‘Is it true?’ to ‘Is it compatible with our present understanding of Christian doctrine?’

As Poirot well knows, it’s all about the question we ask of the material before us. When our question loses its vision, then so does our life. 


Perhaps publishing is following where TV and film have led. Think of BBC salaries today….And as big publishers get all their books from agents, perhaps its them raising the financial bar rather than the publishers -
But there are plenty of smaller publishers and start-ups who are not run by accountants, and publish what they feel is good rather than commercial. There’s not enough money to be made out of them by agents though, so you’re probably not likely to come across them.
john hunt

John Hunt, Sun 24 Oct, 15:46

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