Non-fiction is going through a renaissance in Australia, particularly books of social and political commentary and analysis. The resurgence of non-fiction is Australian society reflecting on itself and has served as an antidote to the complacency that came over the country for many years. It also represents a challenge to political power, which is becoming all the more important as the media industry goes into freefall.
The extraordinary rise of writers’ festivals over the last seven or eight years, celebrated in the publishing industry, has paralleled the rise of non-fiction. Attendances have grown sharply. Unexpectedly, the festivals themselves became major political events, as well as literary ones. Authors of social and political comment have become as popular as novelists, reminding us that there is a substantial intelligent and engaged reading public out there. The flourishing of writers festivals coincided with the Howard years when many felt alternative opinion was discouraged, especially with the Labor Party adopting "me too" and small target strategies.
Although these are good signs, we are still beset by a lack of intellectual depth in this country, something observed by Australian academics returning home after stints at universities in Europe and the United States.
This shallowness is due in part to our size and in part to the narrowing of the intellectual scope of our academics, who have become more time pressured and enslaved to the publish-or-perish rule. Following the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s and the corporatisation of the 1990s, universities have been transformed. No longer devoted to seeking the truth they have become service providers for educational consumers. The incentive structure of the "enterprise university" requires intellectual effort to have measurable outcomes, ones whose value is calculated by bureaucratic procedures in Canberra. Risk-aversion and specialisation in arcana naturally follow; so does withdrawal from public debate.
The narrowing of intellectual life is reflected in the parlous state of Overland, Australia’s foremost literary magazine that also publishes articles about politics and culture. In the 1950s and 60s a typical academic in the social sciences or humanities would be familiar with developments in political and social theory and be au fait with the latest literary trends and controversies. Few today can comfortably straddle both domains.
I think this is part of the long-running anti-intellectual tradition in this country, one that always strikes those who spend time abroad. Anti-intellectualism rules in the United States too, reaching a pinnacle under George W Bush whose neocon and theocon bedfellows extended it to attacks on the physical as well as the social sciences.
In the United States intellectuals are viewed with suspicion by much of the populace because they are suspected of being insufficiently patriotic. In Australia, by contrast, intellectuals are viewed with disdain because they are seen to be up themselves. Ridiculing and dissing intellectuals is a lamentable aspect of our great levelling tradition, which is why to identify oneself as an intellectual is almost an act of defiance.
This attitude adds to the reluctance to enter into public debate. It is too risky. Our philosophers, for example, are regarded as world class in academic circles, but we rarely see them venture into the public domain. Peter Singer is an exception, but he fled the country. Where is Australia’s AC Grayling or Martha Nussbaum or Bernard-Henri Levy?
Intellectuals who do venture into the public domain can expect to be attacked mercilessly, a phenomenon that reached new depths during the Howard years. The Howard government specifically targetted academics and others who criticised it, a strategy detailed and documented in Silencing Dissent, a book edited by Sarah Maddison and myself. Tactics included personal vilification (often under protection of parliamentary privilege), pressure on university administrations and coordinated ridicule and abuse by certain conservative attack dogs in the press.
The Australian newspaper was at the centre of this debasement of public debate in Australia. In relentless pursuit of its ideological agenda it launched personal attacks on anyone left of centre who dared put a position it did not like.
The Murdoch broadsheet has not eased off since the defeat of the Howard government. Its most recent campaigns of vilification have targeted Associate-Professor Tony Burke at the Australian Defence Force Academy, characterised as a terrorist sympathiser, and Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne, characterised as an unreconstructed communist.
For many years Robert Manne was the bête noire of The Australian editorial staff. Early this year editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell decided the paper had gone too far and was looking obsessive. The order went out and the attacks immediately stopped. Just like that.
The Australian also continues to wage war on science with its unrelenting promotion of every crackpot climate sceptic, recycling the latest piece of denialist flim-flam without allowing the real scientists space to point out the errors and absurdities. The real climate scientists — and Australia has some of the world’s best — despair at this relentless attack on their professionalism and credibility. The Australian shares with its mortal foe, the post-modern academic, and religious fundamentalism, a disdain for the scientific worldview, the essence of the Enlightenment.
Some media analysts believe that the days of quality journalism are numbered and that broadsheets cannot survive after the internet stole their advertising revenue. Cost-cutting means less support for investigative journalism, the stuff that takes time and requires technique, experience and contacts.
At Fairfax, there is a big question mark over the future of Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. God help us if the only broadsheet left standing is The Australian. Fortunately Rupert Murdoch has lost interest in it and, when he passes on, his successors will cut it adrift.
These changes to the serious media in Australia render the strength of non-fiction even more noteworthy. While academics are reluctant to join the fray and investigative journalism is in jeopardy, all is not lost. A cadre of writers who are not academics or journalists have taken up the cudgels.
This third force of independent scholars, often former journos or academics, write because they are passionate about their topic, because they want to make a difference and because critical and well informed voices are hard to find. They certainly don’t do it for the money.
As if acknowledging their own withdrawal from the field, the news media now compete fiercely for extract rights for the more newsworthy and interesting books written by independent scholars. They have become the ballast for weekend editions and accompanying magazines, which is one reason we can expect well written books of social and political commentary to continue to find publishers in Australia — even as the field of fully employed journalists shrinks.
This is an edited version of a speech given at the short-list announcement for the Walkley award for non-fiction, in Sydney on 10 November 2008.
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