I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”

There has been quite a flurry of announcements and papers and policies about “digital culture” in the last ten days.

Particularly:

Taken collectively, these documents indicate a direction of travel for digital arts policy. There’s a palpable enthusiasm for populist arts broadcasting, which stands out amid a more general confusion with the ubiquity of and implications of technology.  A generous analysis is that the emphasis on broadcast and reach is timely when a value-for-money ethos is sweeping through government; a not-so generous one would see the prominence of broadcast as seizing on a known and understandable quantity.

There is also a crisis of vocabulary. Most of these documents are haunted by the idea of broadcast, which becomes reinterpreted as “simulcast”, “live streaming” and “digital distribution”. “Digital” and “technology” become interchangeable, and “data” equates to marketing information about audiences.

This lack of fixed terminology allows non-specific innovation speak to creep in: The Space will be “even more innovative, dynamic and interactive”; in 2.6.1 of the R&D report, the cloud is credited with “improving accuracy” (although the organisation quoted seem to say it’s the data-management tool, rather than the means of storage, that is responsible for the change). Section 2.2 of the same report states “the distinctions between born digital and digital distribution are necessarily imprecise, with the phenomenon of streaming live performances online and into cinemas leading in some cases to new works created specifically for this channel” and the strategic framework promises to “respond to new ways of working, such as creating new digital services, involving communities and assisting digital users” (pp. 55-6). Meanwhile, the PDF of the strategic framework is illustrated by both an infographic and a trailer, but there isn’t a searchable summary, and a whole new bit of jargon – “cultural digerati” – has been coined to describe those organisations who use like to do stuff online.

The emphasis on broadcast is particularly surprising given the evidence of the R&D report: only 15% of the surveyed organisations currently offer live streaming or cinema broadcasts, and there is an obvious bias towards the performing arts. It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896.  Whole new art forms, such as contemporary dance and performance art, have been accepted into the canonical idea of “art” during the same period, yet “things on screens” retain an air of novelty and innovation.

Another recurring theme is the idea that operations and content creation are natural bedfellows. In a physical venue, it would be pretty unlikely that the facilities manager would also be the artistic director, but the lack of nuance in the use of “digital” and “technology” makes it unclear where the responsibility to ensure organisation-wide data-protection compliance ends and creative digital programming begins. And the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Most unusual is that the term “digital distribution” relates to sending filmed content pinging off satellites, rather than to making sure every funded body has a working, maintainable website.

A relatively small amount of the millions spent creating “new kinds of digital art” could be redirected towards useful cost-saving and sustainability measures: perhaps a shared infrastructure to provide reliable, scaleable ticketing systems, non-proprietary CRM and DAMS, or a set of repurposable templates to serve the ten most common use cases. Some policy directives could be introduced: perhaps making all publicly funded software open source would allow a small gallery to reuse the Tate’s codebase, or a commissioning framework that could help arts organisations work productively with small creative businesses.  The intention of this is not to create a new level of bureaucracy, but to share the relatively meagre resources more efficiently, and to create a minimal viable digital arts product – taking inspiration from Government Digital Service to deliver not just financial savings but an exponential increase in the quality of service.

Our funded arts organisations should be equipped with the tools to respond to the modern world. The Tate collections data is available on GitHub and there are 42,000 ebooks on Project Gutenberg, yet the opportunities of networked culture are barely understood. Digital staff shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time a “donate here” button is added to a web site and we shouldn’t assume that every audience member wants to eat popcorn while they watch a former Doctor Who perform Shakespeare. There’s a whole new adventure to be had, and a strong Arts Council digital strategy could help the cultural sector to lead the exploration.

On Going to Conferences

I really like white men who are aged between 35 and 45. In fact, I like them much so that I live with one and number many of them among my best friends. They’re great, some of them are brilliant, visionary practitioners, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m having a downer on them. But – and this may come as a shock to some of you – they aren’t the only people in the world, and they certainly aren’t the only people who work in design or technology.

I know – right?

There are young people, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds – all sorts of crazy stuff is going on in work places all over the country and, more shockingly, all around the Old Street area that either doesn’t include or isn’t the sole preserve of this fairly small group of people. And the thing is that everyone knows that except for some people who organise conferences.

Now, I’ve organised quite a few events and I know how easy it is to ask your friends to do stuff. For a start, your friends are your friends because they’re brilliant. They’re your friends because they’re the best people you know. So it seems quite tempting to think, “I’m going to organise an event and just ask my friends, or people like my friends, to speak, because they are all totally awesome and everyone else will think so too.”

Right?

Well, no. Not right. Or at least, not for me.

I’ve stopped buying tickets to things that are just talks by long lists of guys with one-syllable names. And that’s a shame, because lots of these guys with one-syllable names are completely brilliant, and I want to hear what they have to say. But I don’t only want to hear what they have to say. Obviously I could deal with this myself by going to a wide range of events, but – frankly – who has the time? I say “hurray for established practitioners who happen to be men, but they aren’t everyone in the world who’s doing interesting stuff, so please can we stop pretending that they are.”

Lots of stuff is changing, and I feel that technology events are, slowly, becoming more equal. Or at least, I feel that people in my bit of Twitter who talk about them are aware of the need for equality – but then, of course, I’m friends with people like me, so they would think that. So it’s quite a shock when I see a brilliant looking conference* that I really want to go to and I scroll down the list of speakers and there they are, one after another, man man man man, and then I think – no. I’m not going to go to that. Obviously sexism is only one part of the equality jigsaw, but it’s the part I’m most interested in and affected by. And one of the reasons I won’t go is because it feels as if the vision of the event as a whole will be limited. Clearly I don’t think that all men in the same age bracket think the same thing (I mean, duh) but it may very well mean that whoever has organised the event hasn’t fished very far outside of their immediate pool, and – in my experience – that will make it, in totality, an ultimately less interesting event.

This post is a knee-jerk reaction to seeing it happen again – and again. I’ve been having this debate for so long now that I actually find it quite boring, and can’t really believe I’m having to say the same things again. And lots of other people are saying them as well.

At Caper, we’re working with some partners to do something longer-term about this, which we’ll be announcing later in the year (and please, get in touch if you’re interested in partnering or funding something in this area), and after Playful last year, Greg Povey started a directory of women speakers that people can add their names to if they’re interested in speaking. But in the meantime, I’m going to continue being baffled and confused by this sort of thing, but – more powerfully, I hope – I’m also going to vote with my money and my attention, and stop attending events that don’t even attempt some level of diversity.

*Updated: I was linking to a specific event, but I’ve taken that out, for the sake of even-handedness, as this applies to a lot of events and singling one out seemed unfair.

I Miss The Guardian Editors

I bought The Guardian yesterday for the first time in months. It was a bit like bumping into an old boyfriend and finding that the years have been unkind: recognisably the same, but thinner, less interesting and still going on about the same things it had been five years ago.

My love affair with The Guardian (which, until then, I had read for nearly 20 years) started to wane about a year ago. First, The Observer became a shadow of itself; then the editor of the “Weekend” magazine appeared to go on extended leave, leaving the magazine to replicate the same edition every week; and slowly the newspaper – particularly the Saturday edition – started to lose substance. And by substance I don’t particularly mean pages: it began to feel as if all of the editors had left the building. As if no one was putting care and attention into choosing what went onto the page; no one was returning articles to columnists that had clearly been dashed off over lunch; and no one was thinking anything more than “will this do?”.

The thing that bought the relationship to a staggering halt was the iPad edition. It seemed to have been designed with no thought to what was good about a newspaper. For a start, there wasn’t a crossword. The category headings were strangely ordered, giving – for me – undue prominence to sections like Obituaries, a section I never seek out but often read, because it appears at the right point; an opportunity to reflect and look backwards after the hurly burly of news and current affairs. It appeared to lose the idea of serendipity that a really good newspaper (like a really good radio station) offers as a matter of course: while I will happily continue turning the pages of a paper to the end and allow a Business article to catch my eye, I will almost never click on a tab marked “Business”. My self-identified interests are narrow, and I want them to be challenged by a good newspaper editor who shows me the things I should care about. And, most sadly of all, it didn’t feel as if there was anything to read, the layout of the pages confirming the sparseness of the content. On the ultimately paginating and scrollable device, it felt as if there was nothing longer than three-or four-hundred words.

I still look at The Guardian homepage most days, but I’m clicking through less and less often. While my requirement for rolling current affairs in one place has been lessened by Twitter, my interest in comment and analysis (the sort of article that is still interesting to read the day or the week or the month after an event) certainly hasn’t. My interest in what I will now lazily call Proper Journalism and Good Editing certainly remains, and it’s lack of a sense of an editor that pervades both the website and the newspaper.

A 5-minute visit to The Guardian site on Friday afternoon – while I was putting off the last email of the day at my desk – allowed me to glance at a whole slew of articles that I found again in the main newspaper on Saturday. A rather charming piece by Zoe Williams about the town with the lowest male:female ratio in Britain (not exactly a time sensitive scoop) was on the homepage at 5pm on Friday afternoon and in the newspaper on Saturday. A little bit of scheduling could have sent the online version live at midnight on Friday; putting it there on the afternoon of the day before felt like an admission that there was nothing much interesting to say, that they needed to fill a gap so were doing it with whatever came to hand. Surrendering to the importance of churn without having anything of substance to churn.

I notice I’m reading more of The New York Times, which still publishes longer articles filled with investigative reporting, comment and debate. The fact that I’m a reasonably avid reader of Twitter means, I think, that headlines pass before my eyes throughout the course of most days: I’m absorbing the ebb and flow of the news cycle without often needing to click through, so I have more time to read proper stuff. I don’t need to spend 30 minutes each day finding out what happened the day before, because the intake of that kind of news has sped up to almost the pace of my heartbeat. So I have a spare 30 minutes to engage in proper analysis, compelling storytelling and long-form discussion.

The sort of thing I would like to read needs good commissioners – the sort of editors who challenge their contributors and look at the ways stories unfold over the time, the sort with the courage to sack their columnists and find someone new, the sort who commission long-form articles for the magazine rather than simply take extracts from books. I have spare attention and want to use it up; I want to be challenged and provoked by big crashing waves, not provided with additional flotsam that I need to push out of the way.

I cannot, as yet, bring myself to spend my money with Murdoch or succumb to The Telegraph, so I don’t read a newspaper at all. A Tory government of the kind we have now should provide an easy heyday for liberal journalism, so I hope The Guardian editors come back. I miss them.

Will Ebooks Ruin My Love Life?

Lots of people have been complaining about “frictionless sharing” lately, those posts added to your Facebook or Twitter stream telling you that someone has read so-and-so, listened to something else or checked in at the end of their road. Posts like this are the equivalent of sharing your implicit personal activity bot, and they are made all the more curious by the actual selection process behind every (allegedly frictionless) share. No one ever checks in to say they’ve been to the toilet or read a particularly shaming bit of gossip in The Daily Mail. We only seem to be casual with the good stuff, the things that shape our reputations and build our approved sense of self.

I’ve travelled on a lot of tube trains this week, and have twice been surprised by the books I’ve seen people reading: the first was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and the second was William and Mary, by I can’t remember who, but in the exact same edition that was in my school library. Both readers seemed gripped and delighted, oblivious to the train full of overcoats and commuting armpits, despite neither book seeming likely to be a passport to enthralled escape. Both covers stayed with me, a nice change to the sea of One Day and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Book covers are the ultimate in frictionless sharing, a mixture of the accidental and intentional. After the moment of purchase, it’s as if the cover was made for the people sitting opposite you on the tube to admire, leaving their vapour trails behind them, making a literal post in the activity feed of your life. The choice of what to read, and how to angle the jacket, is created by the same mix of overt and covert intention as allowing Spotify to publish your playlist to Facebook. It’s a very British kind of showing off.

Meanwhile, The Guardian tells us that, “Ebook sales are being driven by downmarket genre fiction”. To my knowledge, the easy availability of paper has never made Bend, Sinister a sensation on The Sunday Times bestseller list, so it would be peculiar if difficult literary fiction was made more popular by the existence of Kindles and Nooks. Difficult books provoke difficult thoughts, and people’s willingness to think those is unlikely to be changed by the surface that the words appear on.

But the popularity of genre ebooks might indicate that one-click purchasing is more instinctive, more closely connected to pleasure seeking; less oriented towards our intention to improve or impress and more aware of our need for gratification. A secret read of a Robert Ludlum ebook doesn’t take up any space on your bookshelf or post to your activity feed. It’s traceless, more intimate, intended only for the eyes of its reader.

Who Reads Exhibition Catalogues?

This presents a challenge for high culture, which has long relied on the status inferred from physical souvenirs.

Since we haven’t installed tracking devices in exhibition catalogues or opera DVDs, we don’t know if anyone ever opens them once they get home. We know they buy them – possibly in a moment of well-meaning excitement, as a souvenir or a promise of future intellectual engagement – but we don’t know if they ever sit at home and watch The Ring Cycle on a Tuesday night. A minority will, but the majority will let the DVD linger reassuringly on their shelf while they watch Downton Abbey. It’s either a comfortable reminder of cultural aspirations or an awkward guilt trip, depending on how you’re feeling that day.

If you’re anything like me, then CDs of difficult modern music and hardback editions of The Letters of ee cummings are the kind of purchases you make for the life you wished you had: the one in which you had more time, were less tired and less interested in who was going to win The Great British Bake Off. In the digital world, these tokens are more difficult to negotiate. In fact, any one who has ever bought a Penguin Classics mug (“look! I can even make literary allusions while drinking a cup of tea!”) is a model of this mode: defining and identifying themselves through cultural products, signifying themselves through a range of overtly stated preference.

This system of signs is difficult to recreate in a world of frictionless sharing. It’s the sort of thing MySpace was made for (“here are all the cool bands I say I like, but really I’m listening to Christina Aguilera”) but which has been lost by the specificity of activity posts, and hidden by the anonymity of digital artefacts. So while we can certainly edit out our trips to the toilet and our glimpses of The Daily Mail, we don’t yet have a way of editing in the things we haven’t done or of motivating ourselves to do better. For instance, while you might allow an unread copy of Sorrows of Young Werther to languish prominently on your bookshelf, you would probably (I hope) draw the line at tweeting, “I’m thinking about reading some Goethe at some unspecified time in the future.”

For arts organisations who trade in high culture, doing a brisk(ish) trade in art books and monographs and six-hour opera recordings is a little like trading in dreams. It’s selling things that people might get round to experiencing in the future, but which in all likelihood will stay wrapped up. It seems possible that that market will get smaller as the intention gap starts to close, as the things we want right now are delivered to us with greater immediacy.

Besides making money out of pretension, there’s an opportunity here to create some new souvenirs. Perhaps a Kindle cover with a built-in LED to show the title of the book you’re reading or a Global Hypercolour t-shirt that lists the playlist from your iPod. Rather than filling your activity feed with drab lists of the coffee shops you’ve checked in to, it might be fun to share small, unimportant details ambiently and accidentally with the people in the coffee shop you’re in right now.

Apart from anything else, if everyone’s reading things in secret on their Kindle, it will be a lot more difficult to develop random crushes on strangers. And if we only share what we think are the good bits, then the real good bits – the things might be charming or funny or pompous or all of the above – might get lost in our ruthless self-curation. If no one can tell what you’re reading on the tube, then we may as well let our implicit activity bots take over. So we should remember to leave more accidental clues.

Vanity Fair

I bought Vanity Fair for the first time at the end of last year – primarily as an alternative to killing myself during a four-hour wait at Atlanta airport. At the time, its principal attraction was that it contained some quite long articles, and – frankly – there was only so much time I could spend rereading the copy on my burrito wrapper.

For a reason I can’t explain, that magazine has hung around my house ever since– just in case I find myself procrastinating so intensely that I want to read “When Margaret Thatcher Wore the Pants in England” or wondering just how sassy Matt Damon really thinks Scarlett Johansen is.

But the thing that has slowly hypnotised me is the magazine’s sense of self, which is reified by almost every piece of writing, every picture, every advert. It’s a master-class in inhabiting a brand. The tone, the content, the glossy Annie Liebowitz photography combine to give the feel of an Upper East Side bluestocking, the kind of girl who might jot poetry in her leather Smythson notebook: bright but not sarcastic; stylish but above fashion; a lover of art who goes to see Leonardo di Caprio films; and – above all – the type to take everything very seriously, but who just might be secretly having a laugh.

For starters, it’s called Vanity Fair. The original Vanity Fair, in Pilgrim’s Progress, was a never-ending sale of meaningless tat, where the pilgrims had a really bad time. It’s the sort of name that wouldn’t get past a focus group these days, let alone on to the newsagent’s shelf.

For seconds, its editor is a man called Graydon Carter, whose hairstyle is a homage to 1980s Margaret Thatcher and who writes sentences like, “Christopher [Hitchens] was the beau ideal of the public intellectual.”

For thirds, it covers an unusually broad range of topics: from celebrity galas to the decline of the Murdoch empire, by way of loooong articles about the Kennedys in the Hamptons and interviews with movie stars. And it uses the same tone for all of them. The cover of this month’s edition bears the baffling “LET US NOW QUIZ LEADING MEN” over a picture of George Clooney, Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. It’s like the strapline to a High Church game show – transfixing in its portentous meaninglessness. An article on Lucien Freud describes the subject of a painting as having “vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits” – like art history through the accidental gaze of John Inman.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of the tiny C19th print of the New York Times, or the Harvard graduate I used to work for, who wore a Homburg hat and couldn’t believe English people with degrees watched EastEnders. But in others, you suspect it might just be having some fun.

My whole reason for writing this is because of the following extract from an article about Ladies Who Lunched. It’s set largely before Second Wave feminism sent the lovely hairstyles of the rich and famous off to work, featuring remarkable photos of socialites with names like “Babe” and “Slim” and “Gayfryd”. It ends on an uncertain note, like an episode of The Simpsons that can be interpreted a dozen ways. And I honestly couldn’t tell if the following was serious or satirical, but either way, it made me laugh out loud.

“This past summer in Southampton, Donna Karan had Peggy Siegel round up 50 women … for a lunch. … ‘Today, it’s very rare that ladies just lunch … Ladies lunch for a reason, for a cause.’ … Before we could eat, Karan spoke at length about her mission, which was inspired by her father’s death from lung cancer 10 years ago: ‘I started Urban Zen because I had so many women I was dressing, but I realized what I needed to do was ad-dress them. It wasn’t what we were wearing on our outside but what we were wearing on our inside … We can no longer sit around and have lunches as we used to. Our lunches have to be proactive, and let’s get things done.’

Karan then introduced Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, the yogis who run the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program at Southampton Hospital … As the waiters bought out bowls of burrata mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, Saidman announced, ‘I’ll just lead you through a little bit of meditation. Set both feet on the floor …. And then maybe, for the first time today, actually go inside and realize you are in fact breathing.’

And at the end of the meal, Karan had a small fashion show of Urban Zen’s latest clothing line, which consists mostly of tank dresses, pajama pants, and tunics in shades of brown, olive and gray. She herself was wearing a khaki-coloured stretch-wool dress, gladiator sandals and a huge necklace made of leather tassels and African masks. ‘My fashion philosophy is: If you can’t sleep in it and go out in it, I don’t want to know from it,’ she pronounced.”

It’s like a ray of sunshine from Planet Zoolander: the clink of Karan’s necklace of African masks heard just above the sound of “real breath”, while everyone lolls around in mud-coloured $800 leisure wear, talking about how they “really have to do something”. I also like to think Karan might have said, “Do you see what I did there?” after her dress/address pun, “I’m playing with words.”

But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps there’s no ambiguity and it’s a straight bit of reportage from the frontline of the super-rich. But I don’t think a proposition that ambiguous would survive in the UK, and it certainly wouldn’t be allowed to take itself seriously or address such a range of issues in such a bizarrely antiquated tone.

And I’m not recommending for a moment that anyone else do the same – I mean, there’s already a Vanity Fair – but it’s a great lesson in editorial vision and brand execution, and a reminder that confidence and firm rules of engagement are often the best  license for breaking the rules.

Notes about Art on Screens

These things may or may not be related, but they’re all buzzing round my head so I thought I’d write them down.

1) I’ve been working as an external advisor on The Space this week, the BBC/Arts Council digital content pop-up that’s about “Great Art For Everyone“. It’s strange to be doing it in the wider context of SOPA and the related protests, wondering what “for everyone” will look like in the coming years.

2) The War Horse film has been released, prompting Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, to say: “I’ll stick my neck out and predict the play will be more profitable to us than the movie will be to DreamWorks.” The Guardian article about this ends with the comment:

 “The National made £70.6m overall last year, of which 48% came from box-office revenue, while War Horse took £13.9m in the West End.”

But £19.6m of the National’s turnover came via a grant from the Arts Council. So while great theatre is undoubtedly generating £50m a year, it’s not running on a profit – it’s subsidised by the tax payer. I’m not particularly worried about that subsidy, more the blunt nature of the reporting: without the subsidy, it’s unlikely that War Horse would have been nurtured into the great success it’s become. Likewise the RSC’s Matilda. So it’s essentially an incubator model, shored up by long-term subsidy.

And meanwhile, the NT is doing it’s best to become a profit-making digital content company, via NT Live – which they’ve approached like an indie: despite being one of the biggest theatres in the UK, it’s still an artist-led organisation, doing its own distribution.

On those terms, the NT doesn’t sound that different to Louis CK. Until you factor in the £19m. But the difference is it’s unlikely that an organization called the “Royal National Theatre” will be asked to become entirely self-sustaining. And so, with this relatively glib piece of reporting, the fact of making £13.9m in the West End starts to look quite easy – setting off-hand analysis in motion that will further distort the value of content.

3) I went to see Shame, a film by the artist Steve McQueen, co-written by playwright Abi Morgan. Because (I assume) it’s about sex, it sold out all over town on Saturday night – which is unusual for any film, not least one made by an artist.

The most striking thing about Shame, to me, is that it’s not very good. I won’t give away the storyline, such as it is, but the plot turns on coincidence and naivety in the same way that my Secondary School composition homework might have done. It experiments with cliché without creating the contemplative or astonishing space that might be achieved by a piece of installation art, and it features a lot of Profound Facial Acting (“Look! I am surprised! I am upset! I am sexy!”) of the kind that might be seen in local repertory theatre or a student film. So, I’m not really a fan.

However, it’s not had a bad review. I think this is because (a) it’s made by an artist, so no one wants to say it’s not very good when there’s a chance that it might be Profound and Meaningful; and (b) it’s about sex, and no one wants to admit to having seen a soft porn film at the cinema, so you have to say it’s good – in the same way that “art house” was once a codeword for “saucy”.

I’m not sure if this relates to War Horse, but it seems to – sort of. It’s leaving another vapour trail of “art and cinema” that will become meaningful in the longer term.

4) And finally, Betfair Poker pay four writers to create their Twitter feed. FOUR WRITERS. And they only have 15,129 followers (I know size isn’t everything, but still). In a strange way, this is a bit more like art – because it’s completely insane. It’s apparently a “brand awareness play” and I can’t work out if I’m enormously depressed or cheered by this: whether it’s cynicism or whimsy of the highest order. Is it an attempt to ambiently recreate things like The Gold Blend ads, or is it an honest admission that – as no one really knows what they’re doing – they may as well do that?

Pressing the Feminist Hot Button

In thinking about my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve realised that lately I’ve become quite a boring, repetitive feminist. I slightly (and very lazily) blame Twitter for this, because it gives me a chance to tut or sigh at pretty much everything I see in public life that I don’t really approve of (See my outraged retweets, hear me roar, etc.).

I’m trying to work out a better approach for 2012, one that might actually make a difference. Should I save it all up and concentrate on actions, rather than words? Should I have infrequent and finely wrought opinions that might change someone else’s mind? Or should I continue to boringly point out things at the kind of low level that makes my response predictable and irrelevant to people who aren’t really interested in the first place?

It might sound as if I’ve answered my own question there, but on the other hand I think that not mentioning things is a kind of complicit hypocrisy – and I find it difficult to stop the twitch of agreement or disdain that so easily fills up my Twitter feed and my conversation in the pub.

This brings me to the fact that I just finished reading Mindy Kaling’s book. It’s pretty good – like sitting next to someone clever and funny who’s talking out loud to herself – and the best bits are extracted in this New Yorker article, which you should read, as it will make you laugh out loud and wonder why so many women in films work in art galleries.

But the most striking thing (to me) is how much of the book is about Kaling being “chubby”. It’s the subject of two whole chapters and a load of self-deprecating comments and asides. In fact, I recently read a Vanity Fair interview with Kaling that, despite taking place “Over Lunch”, went on and on about her eating dessert like it was the most remarkable thing a human woman had ever done in front of a journalist, so she’s not the only one can’t stop talking about her eating habits and her weight.

I would totally agree that I prefer all men/women/animals in the public eye to be nice to look at (whatever they weigh), but I much prefer it when they’re good at what they do and (even better) are good at making jokes. Yet, like Tina Fey in Bossy Pants, Kaling talks about being stitched into sample sizes so she can be in magazine shoots, which just seems mean and boring. I mean, why can’t stylists do their job properly, do some reasearch and bring along correctly sized clothes?

Anyway, at the end of the book, Kaling makes the following excellent point:

Why don’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?

I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be the tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t. It would be the same as addressing the issue of “Should dogs and cats be able to care for our children? They’re in the house anyway.” I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.

And that leaves me in two minds: is talking about Kaling calling herself chubby a “nonsensical hot-button issue” or is it more ingrained and pernicious than that? I think the latter, and that it’s the kind of thing that needs calling out. Losing weight might make her more confident and get her on more magazine covers, but it won’t make her funnier or more hardworking, although it will probably make her more successful and famous. Because I don’t run an American TV network or edit a glossy magazine, there’s literally nothing I can do to make that different, but I still think it needs commenting on, even though it’s hardly news.

So I still don’t know what kind of feminist I should be, but I guess I should be the kind who comments on things that make me feel uncomfortable, while also doing what I can to change the bit of the world that I live in. Mindy Kaling is smart and successful already – she clearly doesn’t need my help – and she certainly doesn’t need turning into a hot-button issue of the kind that bores and divides opinion (for an example of which, see also BBC Panda of the Year). Not every woman who does a thing needs to do it as a representative of every other woman, because life is too short for that kind of self-reflexivity.

But if as many of us as possible continue to comment on girls’ toys being pink, pay and career imbalance, token women appearing “in the second hour”, and all the other tedious things that recur throughout modern life, then surely it will make some difference in the longer term? Or will we just end up talking to ourselves, reassuring ourselves in an echo chamber of humourless feminism while everyone else is getting on with their lives? I feel quite anxious about the second scenario, as reflected by Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books, where she characterises feminism as “overwhelmingly …  a movement of that 13 per cent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble.” Just as I feel anxious about people who say, “well we don’t want to make this about feminism, do we?”, because of a fear of both –isms and tedium, neither of which need to be justified.

But I guess, in my heart of hearts, I know that calling things out to my self-selected group of liberal friends and acquaintances is probably just making me feel better. It’s not changing anything, besides letting me have the odd brief pompous thrill of looking down from the high ground. I should do more, comment less and remember that being boring is the worst crime of all. So in the spirit of popping my own reflective bubble, I’ll end on this from Caitlin Moran, which advocates – I think – not overthinking it, being rather than saying. and generally, just getting on with life:

 If the things that concern you, as a modern woman, are the bewildering rise of the Brazilian, the pressure to have a baby, and the unfairness of the Daily Mail constantly printing pictures of Christina Aguilera where she looks a bit fat when she’s only a size 10 FFS, then start your feminism right there. You don’t need to do all the gnarly bits you’re not really interested in.

After all, it’s not like men are walking around going “I’m only going to declare I’m equal with women when I’ve gone on a march to prevent all war and suffering.” Feminism isn’t a competition for the moral high ground. It’s just a piece of ground that’s usefully above the flood. There’s a difference.