Sunday Times, 17th January 2010

Not a mediocrity-free zone
Claire Bonello

The fuss over Alex Vella Gera’s story Li Tkisser Sewwi has snowballed into one of those Maltese controversies we do so well. The University Rector showed an over-zealous regard for the observance of letter of the law (and a rather poor understanding of the distinction between fictitious works and factual ones) and called in the police.

Instead of concentrating on behaviour which is of slightly more consequence to people’s general well-being – such as cracking down on the under-16s swigging alcohol in the road and seeing to cases of bad neighbourliness – the police swung into action. Again, we had a show of over-zealousness by the boys in blue. They acted with alacricity and questioned Mark Camilleri, the editor of the student newspaper, ir-Realta, in which the story was published. Why they had to do this beats me. Did they ask him if the writer was the misogynist depicted in the piece? Or if he could identify the sex-obsessed individuals on which the story was based?

The Students’ Council, KSU, president – a fourth year law student – gave us a dazzling display of non-leadership by refusing to read the story or to take a stand “because what I say makes no difference”.

Commentators (who were mostly male) declared that they found the story to be degrading to women, perhaps not realising that it was the mind-set and the actions of the character described that were offensive to women. Some bright sparks displayed their illogical reasoning process. If blasphemy is illegal, they asked, shouldn’t writing about it be illegal too? If this were the case, the police would be working round the clock nabbing crime writers, producers of thriller films and basically everyone who featured violent or illegal actions in his work.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for us to take in, the police have confirmed they will be prosecuting Camilleri for the distribution of obscene material. To add a dash of foreign intrigue, BBC Radio 5 has interviewed Camilleri – in a programme about censorship in different countries.

Somewhere along the way, the usual suspects managed to politicise the affair to some extent and we were reminded that all this was only happening because of the repressive regime governing Malta 30-odd years ago.

While trawling through the various reactions to this item of news on the web, I could identify a common trend among a good number of people railing against the author, the editor and “the students who are funded by our taxes to write this rubbish”. This was that the story did not deserve any attention because it was devoid of literary merit.

That it was simply a stringing together of crudely-described rutting experiences and bad language – a piece intended only to stir things up and having only schlock value.

The thinking goes that the story is a puerile attempt at sensationalism, and even if the author and editor do not deserve to be prosecuted, theirs are attention-seeking antics which should be dismissed.

This kind of thinking makes me uncomfortable, partly because I suspect it might be somewhat motivated by annoyance of other authors and commentators at being upstaged by two hairy youths. Then there’s all this pompous prattle about the mediocrity of foreign art and literature and how we should be wary of contaminating the pool of literary and artistic excellence in Malta by copying those transgressive, depraved foreigners.

I actually came across a blog post by a Maltese literary critic where he states that it is a fact that ugliness, vulgarity, and mediocrity attract the most attention and that those people defending freedom of expression seem to be advocating copying the foreign trend prizing these (non) values. I hate to disillusion him and others like him who labour under the mistaken impression that Malta is a mediocrity-free zone. It’s not.

I have read atrociously bad poetry written by local Shakespeare wannabes. Then there are books written by ridiculously pretentious prats which could only elicit a reaction from readers if they were set on fire and placed under their bottoms. Only yesterday I cringed while watching a local talent show where a girl’s pathetically dire singing was praised by the judges.

I don’t know if these were any better than another local offering: a romantic novel, overloaded with clichés, adverbs and convoluted sub-plots. It contained no swear words or mention of genitalia or blasphemy, but I found it even more depressing than Alex Vella Gera’s story – it was so trite and superficial. But it seems that mediocrity is permissible as long as it doesn’t involve a mention of genitalia or sex.

In the 1950s Allan Ginsberg wrote Howl – a poem and discussing the use of drugs, anal sex and the young generation. It contained explicit language. The San Francisco Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee who seized the copies of the poem, said: “The words and the sense of the writing is obscene… you wouldn’t want your children to come across it.”

When the case was brought to trial, three witnesses took the stand for the prosecution: a San Francisco police officer, an English professor and a teacher who found the poetry had no literary merit.

The appeals court judge who ruled that the poem was not obscene defended Ginsberg’s poetic vocabulary as authentic words used by certain community members, writing: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.”

Today the poem which was once regarded as filth is considered a modern day classic. Shouldn’t the Maltese Mediocrity Brigade keep that in mind?

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