Australian politics, society & culture

Ken Nielsen

Gideon Haigh takes Andrew Keen and his book The Cult of the Amateur too seriously. It seems to me that it is part of a growing genre of books whose main purpose it is to provoke and irritate. Norman Lebrecht's The Life and Death of Classical Music is another example and, though I have not read them, I suspect Dawkins' The God Delusion and Hitchens' God is Not Great belong on the same shelf. These days much of the marketing of books is done through chat shows on radio, and such books provide lively material for interviews and subsequent talkback. Lebrecht recently did the rounds of the talk shows following his visit for the Melbourne Writers' Festival. What other book on the future of classical music would get such publicity?

But as Haigh has taken Keen's book seriously, his review deserves an answer. My worry is not about a "culture without a hierarchy of talent, expertise and authority" but about a mainstream media that is peopled with columnists whose regular writings are as consistent and predictable as a McDonald's burger. You know what Phillip Adams, Tim Blair, Kenneth Davidson, Janet Albrechtsen, Hugh Mackay and Miranda Devine are going to say about any issue. And with several, you know what issue they are likely to write about: some react to the previous day's headlines, others cycle through the same five or six topics. Few surprise or make us think hard. It seems that editors do not like readers to be surprised by a columnist. They prefer us to nod solemnly when our opinions are supported or grind our teeth when reading someone we always disagree with. Columnists have become brands and are subject to the same quality control. I see little "talent, expertise or authority" among them.

Among the bloggers on the internet - Keen's amateurs - I find much stimulating, thought-provoking and informative material, as well as a lot of rubbish. I have been persuaded to change my opinion on something fairly often after reading a blog. I cannot remember when that last happened after reading a newspaper column. I will not give examples of excellent blogs because part of the fun of the internet is finding them for yourself. A good starting point is the aggregator site Arts and Letters Daily. It also lists columnists, and a quick scan will confirm what I have said above, as well as provide a more accurate contrast between mainstream media and the internet than Keen or Haigh have offered.