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Our future thinkers

The search for the next generation of public intellectuals

Cover: July 2006July 2006Medium length read

What makes a public intellectual?

If we lived in a culture which valued the life of the mind and critical thinking, would I need to ask? Would we even use the term? Some people – some intellectuals – consider it an oxymoron; others say that at its best, intellectual work does have, or attain, a public aspect. I have my own qualms about a term that no one claims for themselves, and I don’t think it’s simply the Groucho Marx problem with clubs. There’s something irredeemably pretentious about the term, but that may only be because we live in a political and cultural climate that radically undervalues the critical thinking of an intelligentsia prone to dissenting habits.

It’s a symptom, I think, of the unease we feel that over the last few years there has been sporadic debate about what an intellectual is, and in particular what a “public intellectual” is. At the high end, the literary journal Meanjin gave an issue to it last year. There, the optimists rejoiced at the opportunities for new ideas and expression in the new media, and chided those who keep their sights narrowed down to the universities and book publishing. The gloomsters lamented the commodification of knowledge in the universities, the media bazaar, the abuse of intellectual (though never of sporting) “elites”, as forces undermining a realm that once held a degree of freedom and moral authority. In the press, “debate” degenerated into lists and counter-lists – there was even one of “celebrity” intellectuals – on which there was rarely a person under fifty.

With radical changes in the culture of both the universities and the publishing industry, those critical learning grounds, the question that concerns me here is how the next generation of young thinkers and writers is going to become part of public culture. A gloomier question is whether there will be a thinking culture for them to join.

I am of an age when I increasingly enjoy the company of the young, or, to be more precise and more honest, the critical young, the thinking young, the imaginative young. And knowing the ones I do, and the complexities and struggles of their lives, a good deal of my mental space is given to the question of how the ones now in their thirties (which is young to me) are going to find their way to the work they need to do for themselves – and for us, the public.

It was in this mind that I recently found myself part of a conversation between two writers, one a novelist, the other a non-fiction writer, and neither of them yet 40. They were talking about a mutual friend who’d just had her third book knocked back by the publisher who’d taken the first two. It was “too difficult”, she was told, and the publisher didn’t think it would sell. This is not an uncommon story, and it doesn’t happen only to young writers. The novelist said she thought publishers were panicking at falling sales and competition from MP3 players and the easy pleasures of DVD. “All they want is colour-supplement talk,” she said.

The perception that publishers are becoming ever more ruled by narrow notions of the market is one I hear a lot. And with it, the perplexing question of whether it’s reading habits that are changing, and that is what we should be responding to, or whether it’s the changes within publishing that are causing the grief. Accompanying rejections on the grounds that a manuscript is too hard is often the complaint that it is “not yet ready”. This can be infuriating to a writer, and dispiriting, for any worth her salt knows that a large and complex manuscript will still have distance to travel when it hits her publisher’s desk. Most do, if they’re to be any good, and the last pass over them needs to be made in the company of another mind. The place a writer looks for that mind is in an editor.

The non-fiction writer in this conversation was strong in her defence of readers. She didn’t think that MP3 players have much to do with it. Her view was that publishers think that people want colour-supplement talk, but it’s like fast food: it goes down easily and leaves you hungry. People want something to chew on. If they’re not buying, it’s because they’ve been misled too often by clever packaging. “They want intellectual meat,” she said, musing on the tenacity of Late Night Live, Ramona Koval’s The Book Show, also on Radio National, the success of Quarterly Essay, and the crowds at writers’ festivals. “There are queues to get in to hear philosophers,” she said.

The cynical view is that festival-goers only want to seem to have read the book. The optimistic view is that readers are looking for a mental pathway into a daunting array of choice. It’s certainly a paradox – and one that can have writers foxed – that while publishers keep telling us that not much is selling, “good bookshops” are dauntingly full. So, who’s buying what? And who’s reading what? No one seems to know.

The novelist was gloomy. She put a lot of it down to the specialist academic market, which she saw as competition for an audience a serious novelist like her might expect. She wouldn’t call herself a public intellectual, but she has as much to say as many, and almost certainly won’t spend the rest of her writing life in fiction.

The non-fiction writer, who might be expected to see academics as competition, didn’t. Not at all. She’s published by Text, where editing is not costed against the book – I will come back to this – and where an intelligent readership is assumed.

In 1991, I worked briefly, and part-time, for Angus & Robertson. The venerable firm had been taken over by HarperCollins, and one of the changes that was underway by the time I arrived was that each individual book had to sustain its own costs, including editing, and make a profit on its own terms. What this meant was that there was no longer any possibility of high-selling titles – of which Angus & Robertson had plenty – cross-subsidising or supporting new writers, or poetry titles, or obscure and difficult books.

A decade earlier I had encountered Angus & Robertson from the other side of the manuscript. When George Munster took a punt on me, it was still possible for an intellectual of his standing to spend many hours elbow to elbow with a novice. His pay was not tied to my sales. He took seriously the pages he dropped his cigarette ash on, and offered a structural education for which I remain grateful. He was the first person to talk to me about the architecture of a book. It was from him that I learned, for instance, that there are many ways of ending one chapter and beginning the next, and that while this is part of the skill of keeping readers reading, there are profound implications for meanings that travel through the book.

By 1991 all trace of him had gone. There were good people there, and they worked way over the odds. But economic realities affected the books that were taken on, and the resources that could be given to them. In the marvellous logic of the brave new economy, the greener the writer, the smaller the editing budget. Publishing subsidies from the Literature Board could make the difference between accepting and not accepting a manuscript from an untried writer. This set off a chain reaction, for what happened when policies changed and only first books were subsidised, or when first and second books were subsidised but not the third? Where should the line be drawn? When should the rug be pulled? Who takes responsibility for publishing new writers, for nurturing them, investing in them? When do they have to stand on sales alone? These were thorny questions I met again in the mid-’90s when a member of the Literature Board.

And now, another decade later, I am meeting them in the universities. Where does responsibility fall for the nurturing and training of the next generation of our public intellectuals? Can the universities take up some of the slack, the editing and thinking about writing that is no longer afforded by the publishers? What kind of partnership is possible between university and publisher? Where is the line to be drawn between sales and integrity? And by whom?

For the last two years I have been working at the University of Sydney on writing projects designed to close the gap between the academy and the publishing industry. “Difficult books for difficult people,” a young colleague suggested when we began an ARC-funded “Thesis to Book” project. If a publisher would use a marketing slogan like that, we’d be in a different world. Smart books for smart readers might get through a marketing department, but I suspect it’d be because “smart” has come to say more about style than substance.

At the University of Sydney we offered seminars for people wanting to “write out” from the academy; for a masterclass with 20 places we had 120 applications. For many, probably most, of these extremely bright, extremely interesting young scholars, it was the first time they’d focused on writing – that is, on the practical as well as intellectual issues that arise from the choice of words, the articulations of voice, the projection of self, the power of narrative. Creative-writing students get plenty of this, and in my (possibly jaundiced) view, often don’t have a lot to write about. Sophisticated writing, but not much substance. Here, it was the other way round. Here were young thinkers doing innovative and valuable research, with minds capable of discrimination and judgement. This, surely, is ground we should look to for a next generation to keep alive the connection between “intellectual” and ”public”. From where I have stood these last two years, I can say that there is no shortage of potentially good writers and thinkers. I see them, I know them, I talk to them. They give me hope.

But there’s a snag, and in one way or another it was pointed to at each of these events. Every person in those seminars and masterclasses was acutely aware of what was at stake if they took a path that, in terms of academic advancement, is a byway, if not a dead end. Even those who want a life as a writer as much as a career as a scholar – and didn’t see the two as separate – knew they couldn’t let their standing drop in the contest for jobs and grants. The university sector is where they think, and hope, they’ll find the time and the resources to do the writing as well as the research they want to do; and it’s where they think they’ll get the recognition and authority they need to speak out. Given the bureaucratisation of academic life, these propositions may both be problematic. But think of a better idea. A publisher’s advance for an untried non-fiction writer is unlikely to be more than a very few thousand. There’s always the hope – the fantasy – that one might be picked up (notice the passive voice) by a UK and/or US publisher, but if they’re offering big money, they’ll want to recoup it, and we’re back to the colour-supplement problem. Money, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote in 1929, has a great deal to do with what gets written and by whom.

Unlike writing that’s oriented out from the academy, academic writing is fostered and rewarded within the university system. And with small, specialised audiences, it’s in a position to take full advantage of e-publishing and print-on-demand: academic journals have been given new life by new technologies. In a highly competitive environment, there’s a lot to keep young academics confined in this economy, with its specialised vocabulary and protocols of writing. Fellow academics are not always kind about books that can be dismissed as “paperback” – meaning popular, and therefore compromised. As the humanities find themselves pinched for funding and undervalued – even under threat – in a neo-conservative political climate, the impulse is towards increased abstraction and specialisation, as if worth equates with the abstruse. It is a minority voice within that says both ways of writing matter, and that a route to public understanding and valuing of the humanities might be outwards rather than inwards. Academic writing might have its own very specific ways of proceeding, but this should not take from its significance as intellectual ground we can all benefit from.

From the point of view of the academy, there is the rarely asked question of what it means that this “retreat” into specialisation has happened alongside the “vulgarisation” of the market. If the implications of this double movement don’t get thought out, the humanities risk remaining in a double bind that fuels anxiety about popularising on the one side, and about academic obfuscation on the other – leaving the “public” and the “intellectual” to drift further apart.

Leaving aside considerations that have to do with earning a living and maintaining research standing – let alone the question, which could be an essay of its own, of young women in their thirties wanting to fit babies into the equation – I see talented researchers who have every potential and every desire to become good writers, but may never close the gap between “potential” and “good”. It’s not that they can’t write – they’ve been writing their way through four undergraduate and three postgraduate years – it’s that they’ve been trained to write in ways that use highly specialised vocabulary, that efface the personal and flatten the voice, that avoid narrative in deference to the theories and methodologies of the social sciences. Academic training prepares young people to speak within their discipline, but does not, of itself, give them the kind of confidence that’s required to speak outside, to take those research and analytical tools and turn them in other directions, to engage with readers as intelligent and as critical as them. At its most challenging, this is a readership that might read them alongside Hilary Spurling, say, on Matisse, or Robert Fiske on the Middle East, or an AS Byatt novel. How do you hold your own in that company? How do you even begin?

In his 1993 Reith lectures, Edward Said made the sharp observation that while academics speak from a ground of expertise, the public writer has to speak both as expert and as amateur; it is as amateur that he engages with the reading public through “personal inflection and private sensibility”, thereby leaving himself open to academic disdain (and envy?). It is an unsettled and unsettling role, Said says, and it does not sit easily with academic ideas of professionalism. The complex psychology at play can lead to a turning away from these issues within the academy, as if the question itself is distasteful.

My own experience of the university during the last two years, though working with the best and the most creative, and with colleagues I consider friends, has been double-edged. The thirty-somethings in our projects have been, and are, a joy; I learn more from them than I am able to give. But despite the calibre, even brilliance, of many of its inhabitants, the bureaucratised university is not a creative place: too much is in the hands of those who stand on the bare ground of hierarchy, cost-saving and procedure. Dorothy Green, who taught me a great deal and is insufficiently remembered for the intellectual she was, saw this coming with the first of the Dawkins cuts that ushered in what Inga Clendinnen calls the Age of Iron. “Cuts to education budgets,” Green wrote back in the ’80s, “can be as effective as the nocturnal visits of secret police.”

“The solution isn’t going to come from the universities,” says Michael Heyward, publisher at Text, in answer to my queries. “That’s flogging a dead horse. What we need is more publishers who are independent, more people who regard it as a vocation. It’d be hard to find a culture that cares less about publishing as a career, or the value of imprints. And think,” he says, “how it’d soften the situation if writers in their thirties had publishers who could give them confidence that their work would be picked up, engaged with, read well, brought to readers, believed in, encouraged. People would give up a certain amount of security for that.”

There’s always a risk, he says, in publishing someone new and untried; when he does, he needs to have confidence in the person as both writer and independent thinker. He doesn’t take much from the universities. His list is made up of people who are “dissenters” or ambivalent when it comes to the academy, which Heyward sees as increasingly conformist and unadventurous. He reminds me about The Treason of the Clerks, Julien Benda’s once famous treatise, published in 1927, against the intellectuals who betrayed their vocation for the passions of political interest, the intellectuals who did their masters’ bidding. In a postmodern age, it’s hard to share Benda’s notion of a universal truth and disinterested scholarship, and yet his warnings of “the cult of success” have a powerful resonance.

On a more practical level, Heyward agreed with me that the university has been (and, even in its postmodern incarnation, will continue to be) an essential training ground for the learning of intellectual habits of mind. He once taught Latin at the University of Melbourne. But he became an editor, a writer, and then a publisher, by making the leap and doing it. He edited Scripsi with Peter Craven, he was edited by Robert McCrum for The Ern Malley Affair (1993), and he now has an enviable list and sufficient independence to publish in accordance with his “completely old-fashioned” values, such as not costing editing against books, so that each can have the attention it needs.

His conviction and enthusiasm are contagious. I put down the phone with a cheer. But from where we stand, right now, his vision for a publishing industry based on vocation can seem, on reflection, as much a dream as my fading hopes of the university.

Gideon Haigh, who is 40 and has written more than 20 books, didn’t go to university. At 18, he didn’t want to; he wanted to leave home and get a job. He tells me that he believed in Harry Truman’s motto: ”My advice to young people is to decide what they want to do, and then go out and do it.” So Haigh joined the Age. “Soon after, I was sent to write about business, about which I knew nothing – somehow, though, I wasn’t self-conscious enough to be afraid. At 20, I was approached to write my first book, covering the takeover tussle for control of BHP.” Put like that, it sounds easy, a dream run. The doing of it took guts and initiative (my words, not his), and it also took a lot of reading and a lot of writing. It meant producing (his word) just about every day.

“When I returned from a couple of years in the UK in 1990, I was rehired by the Age and let loose in the newsroom without any particular brief or any editor to account to. I basically indulged all my interests: history, literature, politics, economics. I did profiles. I did investigations. No one bothered me,” Haigh says. “I took that attitude to the Independent Monthly and then the Australian, where I wrote as I pleased, in every section, for every editor, and nobody got in my way, providing I produced – which I always did. In hindsight – I didn’t really appreciate it at the time – these were incomparably rare opportunities. Newsrooms are more rigid these days. Everyone has titles and reporting lines. Headcounts are an obsession.”

Today, Haigh says, he wouldn’t have got the first interview without a journalism or media degree. He is not an admirer of that route into journalism, and dislikes the emphasis on career and individual advancement that he sees in young journalists, and in the system they work for. “The stories,” he says, “are a means to the end of getting noticed, being promoted … cultivating a persona, becoming a name.” Haigh has been freelance since 1995.

Talking to people for this essay reminded me of something Christopher Bollas wrote about the nature of generations as each finds its own mode of expression and idiom. He points to the fact that generations do not fall seamlessly from parent to child to grandchild. In between the (roughly) twenty-five years that separate that lineage, there’s always an intervening half-generation, and it is there, he thinks, that the greatest violence is to be found, and the least understanding. Think of the bad blood between boomers and the half-generation younger that has resented boomers’ numbers and their disinclination to die off. (They’ve got a point.) It is a reminder from an intellectual that the way in which we see is determined by where we stand.

Just about everyone I spoke to who’s in their thirties raised the question of the current state of thinking among those ten to fifteen years their junior – who, they say, do not read. It is no longer a habit ingrained from childhood. Paranoia about Google and the MP3 player, they say, is not so far off the mark. The thirty-somethings who teach in undergraduate courses see a radical shift since their day, when books were still central to their sense of themselves as students and citizens, let alone intellectuals in the making. They ask if we are reaping the fruits of postmodernism. Is truth, even a relative truth, any longer a concept for those who’ve grown up in an era of overt political and corporate dishonesties, the corruptions of language and the hectoring polemic media pundits?

Are we reaping the fruits of an era of affluence and entitlement, when a degree is expected to result in a career and a career in advancement, as if by right? Have we lost the capacity for hard graft and the notion of apprenticeship? Are we losing the concept of a common good, or civic duty? They say my emphasis on structures is misplaced if we’re losing an attitude of mind, a common language that could make use of them.

There’s a lot to support the view of Western culture as increasingly narcissistic, and the question that frightens me is that if, as a culture, we lower our tolerance for the demands we make of ourselves, and that are made of us, in favour of the quick fix of the immediate and the reassuring, what then for the nation’s reading? Those who embrace the new world of the blogosphere say that there’s plenty of reading and writing going on – it’s just not in books. The twenty-somethings, they argue, are making their own interventions into public culture in ways that go against the grain.

Although I share the sense of a tide running out, taking with it ground that once seemed solid, I am not as gloomy as the gloomier of my young interlocutors. And, despite what they say, it’s because of them that I’m not. I see an optimism of spirit in them, and a great deal of energy. They are not nihilists. They are working for and from the ground they recognise as under threat. They are lateral and imaginative in the way they deal with the bureaucratic impediments that have me wanting to throw up my hands and shout. It’s their irrepressibility that stays with me. I think, can the creative and thinking mind be so easily cancelled out? It survived the assaults and book-burnings of the twentieth century, the many announcements of the end of books. It might be a form of cowardice of the no-longer-young to keep faith with the creative impulse in the human spirit. Or the naivety of a boomer who never recovered from the new world built for us; entitlement isn’t new. Or it might be the result of being old enough to see undergraduates grow up.

Age does count for something in intellectual life.

I ask Gideon Haigh about mentors. “Absolutely,” he replies, and immediately names Malcolm Schmidtke, the Age’s business editor when Haigh was starting out. “He focused on one thing only: getting the best out of everyone who worked for him,” Haigh says. “It sounds straightforward, but it’s not. Journalism is an egocentric vocation. Everyone hankers for recognition. Malcolm is an amazing, indestructible exception to this. He put his own needs last in everything he did. He managed downwards, for his people, not upwards, to endear himself to superiors. He was also absolutely honest, never feared to tell you if you were wrong, but stood behind you like Mr Winslow when he thought you were right.”

It’s that combination of toughness and backing that is needed in any form of learning, and most writers and intellectuals will immediately tell you who helped lay the path for them. I know how much is not lost when Haigh, in answer to my next question, says that yes, he’s in contact with younger journalists, and works with younger writers on their books. Or when I see one of the thirty-something tutors in a café, huddled over an essay with an undergraduate. Learning happens in relationships, in the space between two people at different points on the same path. It happens in various relationships, not just one. It may skip generations. Haigh talks also of Geoffrey Blainey.

It happens with those we read as well as with those who sit with us, elbow to elbow, over our manuscripts. It happens especially in reading. It happens with the editor who puts blue lines through your fine works and trusts you with a difficult story. It happens when a publisher takes apart a paragraph and rejoices at what you are saying. It happens when someone you admire picks up your every mistake, as Dorothy Green did for me, and then tells you to trust yourself and not look over your shoulder. The strange alchemy that happens one-on-one can’t be replaced by a course. You don’t learn journalism, and you don’t learn to write in the classroom, unless you’re exceptionally lucky and are taught by someone who has a confident voice beyond the pack, and who also has the time (that rare commodity) to sit with you, page by page.

Time was much on the minds of the over-fifties I consulted for this essay. They learned their trade when there was a spaciousness both in the universities and in publishing. This was a word they used. Some warned against the dangers of lament; others remembered the tough training they got from the literary editors of newspapers who took them on as reviewers, and reminded me that that too, is a harder gig for a postgraduate to get these days. And it’s worth remembering that twenty years ago Australian publishing was a small industry indeed; in bald figures, there were a fraction of the opportunities that there are now. But all agreed that for them there was time; there was latitude in the years that could be taken for research, the journey could be travelled for its own value, with all its detours and byways, and there was rarely the felt pressure of money on the editing process. There was once the possibility – the respected possibility – of a book taking five, ten, or twenty years. Not now, under a regime of publish-or-perish.

Tom Griffiths, who has made his reputation with meaty, readable books, including the prize-winning Hunters and Collectors (1996), is a prominent champion of writing out from the humanities. He’s one of the people who helps me keep some sort of faith in the structures available to us within the universities. He had the good fortune, he says, to be taught by Greg Dening at the University of Melbourne, back in the ’70s. From him he learned a teaching style that he takes into his work at the ANU, where Dening now plays a role of “intellectual grandfathering”. Griffiths thinks that at the Research School of Social Sciences, where he is head of the history program, they are providing a nurturing environment that is better than it ever was.

What he and Dening represent in this debate is a voice for the dialogic and conversational, for a way of conceiving intellectual life that cuts against the defensive and “gladiatorial” tendencies within the academy. Dening makes the radical move, in his celebrated retreats for writers, of inviting participants to begin “by plumbing the depths of our own plagiarism”. A dangerous word. What he means, of course, isn’t our deceitful pinching of other people’s words, but our intellectual debts. Giving them their full due is part of the dialogue of intellectual life, the ground from which a writer can understand, as Dening puts it, the ethnography of our own minds.

The shift of stance that Dening is asking for here is as much emotional as it is intellectual. It raises the larger question of where, as writers, we speak from. What is behind us? What do we carry with us, and what do we make our own? As Judith Brett has noted, “Always seeking the approval of a higher authority, the academic writer endlessly defers responsibility.” It’s a way of avoiding dialogue “as an adult amongst other adults, with all the acceptance of mutual imperfection which this implies”. Joan Didion, writing of her university days before she found what is commonly called a writer’s voice, spoke of travelling on forged papers: that sense that the ways we have been given to speak, the forms of authority and authenticity that are available to us, even if they’re earned, remain somehow borrowed.

It’s the feeling I had as a student, as if I was always on the edge of being found out. For what? In those days we had invigilated exams; the forged papers I was travelling on were not the sort that could be presented in court. I travelled on with them, through a PhD, all the way to my first book, the one edited by George Munster. I learned a great deal on the way, and accumulated many an intellectual debt, but I always had this weird sensation that it wasn’t quite me. It was only with Poppy in 1990 that I felt I understood the difference between a voice that is given and a voice that is gained.

“There’s much pain in finding one’s own style,” Greg Dening has written. “Ask a pianist, a springboard diver. A ballet dancer.”

Dorothy Green, who, as I say, taught me a great deal, used to insist that thinking and feeling must be brought together, that true intellectual work required both: thinking must be fully felt, and feeling must also be thought. It was a challenge she threw in more than one direction. To the old masculinist university of her pre-feminist prime, and to the aspects of feminism that swung the pendulum back towards a valorisation of feeling, as if that in itself was sufficient to understanding. That was the hard lesson, and getting the relationship between thinking and feeling right on the page is one I have yet to achieve to a level of satisfaction that would be hers as well as mine. I think of her often as I watch the strange manifestations of both – or perhaps neither – in a populist climate that has us running on manufactured emotion and closed-down thinking. If ever they were out of balance, it is now; if ever we needed a critical intelligentsia, good universities, a strong publishing industry, challenging readers …

As I try to make sense of these reflections, this essay of thoughts and feelings, and as I try to make connections between disconnection, and understand my own insistent impulse to hold onto the structures that have served us in the past, it’s Dorothy Green I turn to. I have gone back especially to Writer, Reader, Critic, which puts the reader in the centre of the frame, and was published the year she died. Her funeral, by the way, was on the day the ground troops went into Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War. Her coffin was carried from the chapel at Duntroon by the cadets she had taught – in her most important work, she said, talking literature with soldiers – and I swear that at least one of them was crying.

It was Green’s firm belief that it is good readers who make good writers, and not the other way round. She didn’t only mean that a writer learns from reading the great writers who have gone before. She meant that it is in the reading, and in the understanding that readers and reading bring to the intellectual life of a society, that the writers are bred. A dynamic relationship between reader-as-citizen and writer-as-citizen travels both ways.

None of us should forget Sartre’s dictum that reading is the “exercise in generosity”. Good writing, let alone a critical intelligentsia, cannot thrive – cannot exist? – without readers who are active in the exchange, generous in the sense of meeting the writer on, and from, robust ground. The “literary object,” Sartre said, “is a peculiar top which exists only in movement. To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary, and it lasts only as long as this act can last. Beyond that, there are only black marks on paper.”

About the author Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.