Cuts by Malcolm Bradbury

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Bradbury, Malcolm. Cuts.  Picador, 1987.

A few months ago I read the short novel Cuts by Malcolm Bradbury.  The book immediately caught my attention with its emphasis on budget cuts as a recurring theme.  The novella is a critique of Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s, and for me it immediately resonated with our current moment of austerity in higher education, with talk of slashing budgets, reducing staff and dissolving academic departments.

I have to say upfront that I haven’t yet read the more important Bradbury academic novels, namely Eating People is Wrong (1959) and The History Man (1975).  So I admit that Cuts may be an odd book to write about, and I can’t say that it is necessarily representative of Bradbury’s body of work.  That said, I did find the book interesting enough to jot down a few notes about it after I finished it.

In Cuts, all of the budget trimming is juxtaposed against the extravagant and wasteful spending of the TV and film industry.  Supposedly this book was based on Bradbury’s experience working on the televised adaptation of The History Man.

Henry Babbacombe is a lecturer and obscure novelist who unexpectedly ends up being courted to help write a television drama, though he had never written for television before.  Later, he finds out he got hired for the gig because his literary agent was sleeping with a network executive, and she had goaded the executive into getting one of her writers hired for the job.

The novel works well as a satire of the entertainment industry and it is filled with images of the coarseness of people who work in an industry obsessed with only the most immediately profitable ideas.  (Even when those very ideas are so looney that it is obvious they will never even make a profit).

In this case Babbacombe finds out that writing for television involves little writing at all.  He is constantly bombarded with so many phone calls and couriers and trips that he barely even gets the script started.  He’s called into London to meet with the producer when he only has a skeleton of the script started.  When he gets there he realizes they are not interested in “writing” at all, but in trying to build a show based on marketing and on whatever big name actors they can convince to star in it.

Bradbury shows the disconnect between the isolated writing that a novelist does and the writing-by-committee that happens in TV and film production.  As an academic novel it is interesting in the way that the main character tries to understand the place of literature in a media saturated world.  It brought to mind Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s study The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, a book that deals with the influence of media on literature.  Fitzpatrick actually argues in favor of engagement with new forms of media and she questions whether the discourse of obsolescence (in literary fiction at least) is partly driven by fears that women and minorities and the lower classes are encroaching on the authority and influence once wielded by a few esteemed and well-connected white male writers.

Appropriately enough, I recently watched a documentary about screenwriting called Tales from the Script which included some similar observations that Bradbury makes in Cuts. The film is composed of conversations with several screenwriters who have successfully had screenplays produced in Hollywood.   One of the screenwriters talked about this being a “post-content” era.  Fewer films are being made from stories or scripts composed by writers.  Instead they are often  cobbled together from focus groups, market research, and imitations of previous films that have been successful at the box office.

When Babbacombe is first hired to write the script, he goes back to the small university where he has been teaching evening literature classes and he asks the department chair for an impromptu leave of absence.  He intends to keep teaching there, but knows he will need time away given the demands that the producers are asking from him. The chair bristles at his request and informs Babbacombe that because of budget concerns they were looking to axe a couple of people anyway.  Babbacombe had just made it easier for the chair to cut him since the chair could use Babbacombe’s new gig to justify that he didn’t really need the teaching job anyway.

The novel ends with a ridiculous scene on the set of the production in Zurich, Switzerland.  Babbacombe’s script is hardly a script at all, and he has just been swept along in the mad swirl of activity around the production.

As a brief tale about the state of education in a chaotic age dominated by entertainment and profit, Bradbury’s Cuts provides a rather perceptive look at what it means to be an academic and a writer amid the noise and rancor of the 21st century.

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