Gareth Cliff on nothing much

By Theresa Mallinson 10 November 2011

There's a difference between being opinionated and holding a well-constructed opinion. For all his shock-jock image, Gareth Cliff seems to believe he has some seriously thought-out arguments to share with us. We don't doubt he's capable of this; it's just pity they don't make an appearance in his first book. By THERESA MALLINSON (@tcmallinson).

Everything you need to know about Gareth Cliff on Everything is contained right at the beginning of the acknowledgements. “This book would never have happened if the publishers hadn’t approached me to do it.” Which completely undercuts the last sentence on the same page: “Plato said: ‘Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something’. I hope you will not judge me of the latter category.”

But if you have a book that’s been dreamt up first and foremost by people whose business it is to evaluate it on potential sales, rather than on any more thoughtful characteristics then, most likely, that book will fall into the latter category. And listening to Cliff speak about his book, this dichotomy – of wanting to be taken seriously as having something to say, while in reality having to say something, and something that will sell – is all too apparent.

“In a book it’s quite nice to have something that people can mull over,” he says. “Not that it’s all extraordinary or complex. But it gives you a chance to just get into something. And although the bits in the book are short, they all address things that sometimes you don’t have time for on radio or you don’t have time for on television or that aren’t appropriate for TV or radio.”

Fair point; problem is Cliff hasn’t taken the opportunity afforded by the printed, written word to actually “get into” his subject matter. The blurb in the back cover of the book promises that it will “engage, enrage and derange you all at once”. Not quite. The book doesn’t go beyond preaching to the converted, or railing against the unconverted. Most of the opinions he presents are cast as self-evident (fat people are fat; stupid people are stupid; politicians are politicians, you get the gist) without much examination of the thinking behind his conclusions. It’s difficult to engage with that; and being enraged by it is simply a waste of your time. Cliff is so dismissive of people and opinions he doesn’t like or agree with, that it’s easy enough to be dismissive of him in return.

Cliff iterated time and time again that the book wasn’t about him, but the reality is, if his name weren’t on the cover, nobody would buy it. “If we are bound up in this cult of personality that we seem hell-bent on in this country… I think we’re making a huge mistake,” he says. Touché. Cliff goes on to assert that: “If you can’t argue with someone on the content of their argument… you’re doing yourself an intellectually dishonest disservice.” Thing is, it’s hard to argue with Cliff on his content, simply because it’s so thinly supported. Whether you agree or disagree with him on certain topics, you can’t get your teeth into debating them, because he hasn’t given you much to work with. 

Which is a pity. One can’t help feeling that Cliff could do a lot better than this, and he admits as much himself. “I think if I do another book… I’ll go into things that matter to me with a lot more seriousness,” he says. “And by serious I don’t mean boring, I mean I’ll apply my mind to them properly.” Which implies he knows he hasn’t applied his mind properly to this first project. And why should readers bother to engage with him if he’s not offering his best?

Cliff is candid about the aims of his book. “It’s the first book: it needed to be an easy read, and it needed to be a bestseller,” he tells iMaverick. Already it’s doing well in those stakes – number two on the bestseller list, and number one on Perhaps this writer is just an idealist, but there’s no reason why – if the publishing process had been given just a little more time and care (it’s called rewriting) – Gareth Cliff on Everything couldn’t have been a better read, while still achieving its aim of selling well.

Clearly at least a modicum of editing went into producing the book. Cliff says: “There are whole articles we chopped out, because either they were too heady and too self-indulgent, or they were just not funny.” In our opinion, they didn’t chop out enough, let alone include additions that might have turned Cliff’s musing into an actual book, rather than a collection of blog pieces that just happens to be printed.

Truth is, Cliff’s fans will buy and read it anyway. But they’re being sold short. In the book, Cliff states: “It’s about time that we… start refusing mediocrity and begin demanding excellence.” In your next book, Gareth, and we have no doubt there’ll be one, we urge you to hold your own work to the same standard. DM

Disclosure: Gareth Cliff is an occasional Opinionista for iMaverick and Daily Maverick. Jonathan Ball, which publishes Gareth Cliff on Everything, has advertised the book in iMaverick. If you think this has in any way influenced the opinion expressed in this review, go back and read it again


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