October 2011


The Book Show and Ramona Koval

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

For Tolstoy, art was not a place to look for pleasure, but for communion  with each other. Art was one of the conditions of our existence, “necessary for life and for the movement toward the good of the individual man and of mankind, uniting them in the same feelings”. It is  not a definition that will satisfy everyone. Will any feeling do? A crass feeling? One crassly conveyed to a crass audience? The idea raises as many questions as it answers and Tolstoy surrounds it with a good  bit of prescriptive moral nonsense.

Still, it might be apt enough for the ABC. What nobler ambitions does the national broadcaster have than uniting Australians in their feelings? The corporation’s charter talks about broadcasting “programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity; and … programs of an educational nature”. Same thing; different dialect.

Of course, not every member of the board and management will agree with Tolstoy. When they think of art, some of them will think of pleasure, some of pain, some an enlarged sense of being, some enlarged boredom and some of the ‘network alignment process’. Alert readers among the last category will be alarmed by a definition, which, on the face of it, treats both fiction and non-fiction as art. For Tolstoy, if a boy comes upon a wolf and later re-tells the tale and describes his feelings in such a way as to make his audience “relive all that the narrator lived through – [this] is art”. By this definition Naipaul’s novels and his travel writing are both art. Ditto Chatwin and Twain. Ditto Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia. Any prose work in which the author infects readers with her experience is art by this measure.

Whatever logic lies behind the ‘network alignment process’, it cannot allow this. Not if changes proposed for the The Book Show are anything to go by. The Book Show has been running on Radio National every weekday at 10 am for six years: its predecessor, Books and Writing, ran weekly for a decade before that. The host and chief interviewer in both incarnations has been Ramona Koval. Such is the reputation for excellence Koval has gathered on the show, from all over the world the most exalted writers of all fiction and non-fiction genres submit themselves to her questioning, not only on the radio but at the Edinburgh, Cheltenham and other festivals.

Now it is true that most writers will knock each other over for a chance to talk to someone in public; but the record shows that even the shy ones believe Koval is as good as the chance gets. Her interviews have depth and intimacy, intelligence and wit. Much in the spirit of Tolstoy’s longed for ‘communion’ with others, her disarmingly amiable seriousness very often yields more than her subjects might be expected to give and her listeners expect to receive. A talk with Les Murray or PD James will go well beyond the business of poetry or writing English crime fiction, and yet shed intense light on those two forms. Her regular chats with the American essayist and editor Lewis Lapham might range from Herodotus to Beethoven to Obama, and capture much of Lapham’s disenchanted erudition, his irony and his insistence that nothing can be understood without historical understanding.

The Book Show covers plot and character, metre and metaphor, psychology, medicine, painting, crime, language, sex and animals – anything in books, in other words. What happens to books and what is happening to them now are fit subjects. The Book Show is just that: a show about books. What sort of books, fiction or non-fiction, memoir or reflection, arts or non-arts, matters not, so long as they are good books.

Given this, and that there is no other book show on national radio, and that for all the present upheavals in the trade and the technology the book has an elemental place in civilisation, we have long assumed that the show would go on and on – for as long as, say, The Science Show has gone on, or Singers of Renown went on, which was as long as Robyn Williams and John Cargher were willing and able to go on.

But, in accordance with the ‘network alignment process’, we learn that The Book Show will soon be no more. The show, which used to be The Book Show, will become Books and Arts. Books and Arts will leave out non-fiction and “focus on fiction, memoirs, literary criticism and publishing news”. The manager of Radio National says, “we do want to refocus the program on to fiction … [and] reinvigorate the interest in fiction, so that the voices of fiction writers can be better heard.” This “refocusing” – which includes a proposal to “enhance our Book Readings” by moving them out of The Book Show and filling the spare 15 minutes with “key specialist arts stories or issues of the moment” – means, the manager says, “there will be no decrease in our commitment to books in the 10–11 am time slot.” Therefore, rejoice.

“Non-fiction content,” the manager says, “is covered comprehensively on a range of programs across the network.” Koval’s coverage, we must presume, was an excess. But non-fiction – that part of it at least that is not memoir, literary criticism or publishing news – will also be accommodated in a new Saturday night program, along with fiction, “as well as publishing industry news as part of [the program’s] arts journalism focus”.

Next time a new translation of War and Peace appears, expect Fran Kelly to deal with the politics, Rachael Kohn the religion, Alan Saunders to do the philosophy, Hindsight the history, Life Matters to handle any implications for families and Bush Telegraph the damage occasioned to crops by heavy artillery. Expect all of Coetzee’s next novel or memoir on Books and Arts, but if he comes up with another Diary of a Bad Year, only part of it. It is fortunate, in these circumstances, that WG Sebald will not be writing any more.

I began listening to The Science Show 30 years ago. I came to it through a recording of Dame Clara Butt singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ to an audience in Hyde Park soon after the end of World War I. I don’t remember if Robyn Williams played it out of scientific interest in a voice that Thomas Beecham said could be heard across the English Channel, or for pleasure or communion, but I’ve been listening to the The Science Show ever since: on and off, much as I’ve listened to The Philosopher’s Zone, Lingua Franca, Late Night Live and Singers of Renown. The first time I heard Leonard Cohen was on Singers of Renown – there with Gigli and Schwarzkopf and Melba. The strength of these long-running shows lies not only in the material and the quality of the discussion but in the presenters observing no categorical rules.

I don’t know whether The Philosopher’s Zone has ever dealt with management philosophy, but if it hasn’t it should. It would be like putting Cohen among the stars of opera, except Cohen at least sings. The problem with much management philosophy is that it is less a way of thinking than a means to not thinking. It is ideology, as if its creators read Orwell and thought he described Utopia. For an illustration of what I mean simply Google the ABC’s strategic plan, or any other strategic plan. Or pay attention to the Radio National manager’s phrases.

Among the many things the ABC’s strategic plan shares with other strategic plans is a commitment to the future. (This is natural: what sort of strategic plan would be committed to the past?) But must a plan for a broadcaster – as opposed to a car dealership – be only about the future? Not long ago I read a draft strategic plan for a Victorian university. Sure enough, it declared a commitment to the future, a “passionate” commitment no less: from beginning to end it never let up on it. Nowhere in its many pages did the authors mention what some might think is a university’s natural interest in preserving and passing on to students some knowledge of the past, or a sense of continuity or tradition. The plan gave no indication that our present reality comes from anywhere at all. There is only the moment in which fashion dictates we live; and, of course, the moments moving forward.

Until now this could not be said of Radio National. It has long lived in defiance of the fashion for strategic plans. Its programs on music, history, philosophy, language, science, religion and ideas are eccentric wonders of the broadcasting world. But then, these are good programs that fit happily in the ABC’s charter, and if not many young people listen to them, we can be sure that they will be older soon enough and some will come to them. (Besides, how many young people listen to any AM radio at all?) It makes sense to keep these programs on the radio, and it does a duty to the country.

So why does it not make sense and why is there no duty to keep a show (and a broadcaster) whose premise is the uncomplicated one that books are books, and that there is art in writing a good one?

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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