A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Public Intellectuals, Book Culture and Civil Society

David Carter

© all rights reserved

To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts one, two
& three


Good taste, good books, good readers
'Good taste' – perhaps the phenomenon I've described can simply be dismissed as an effect of sophisticated lifestyle marketing or of taste being deployed, yet again, as a means for making social distinctions. We can acknowledge the force of both these effects without being dismissive, taking them, instead, as helping to constitute a significant new dimension in Australian book culture: a new reading formation or, more likely, a number of overlapping 'taste cultures'. Let me, then, expand the notion of taste into that of book culture to consider the social utility of taste. 'Taste' is often little more than a sneer word ('mere taste'), but I want to take seriously, with its full social weight, the idea of a new set of tastes being formed and circulating in Australian culture. Tastes constitute a habitus. A new set of tastes means a new set of social relations. The effects are at once commercial and cultural.

I'm referring to the kind of cultures sustained by the unprecedented growth of literary festivals and literary prizes, or by the 'good book stores' which have boomed in the inner cities, middle class suburbs and larger country towns. These are the kind of book stores that are likely to have the full range of Booker Prize listed works, the newest Anglo-Indian novels and Chinese memoirs of the revolution, the latest Latin American and European fiction, contemporary Australian literature too, often alongside cultural studies and post-modern theory, the new best-seller 'boutique histories', and self-help and lifestyle titles, a serious travel and gourmet section (and probably a good children's department for horribly bright kids). As well as the diversity which such a list suggests there's also a significant continuum to be found here, from literature to lifestyle to Lonely Planet.

Here in the book store (and the literary festival), the forces of globalisation and the local meet, as of course do those of commerce and culture, consumption and citizenship. The beautiful, serious, desirable books on display are the products of global badging and niche marketing; the contemporary literary novel, essay and memoir are more eroticised commodities than ever before; part of their appeal is the cosmopolitanism they embody (so airport book stores no longer stock just 'airport novels'). But they also sustain local cultures, and local small businesses. As the store managers have learnt, their customers are the kind of consumers who expect good books and good coffee in the same neighbourhood. These are the book stores, in turn, that often produce reviews magazines and support reading groups, that other booming phenomenon of the nineties.

Let me turn to these groups for a moment as a way of defining the commercial and media structures significant in contemporary book culture. Reading groups, usually gender-specific, meet regularly in book stores, restaurants, cafes or private homes, to discuss books. Some come into being informally among friends, others are sponsored more formally by bookstores or publishers. Their growth was recently the subject of a feature in the Weekend Australian (Hope 2001). This is an international phenomenon, wherever baby-boomers and young professionals cluster, but it has its distinctive Australian shapes. Professionals dominate, as do women, although men's groups are increasing. Probably the over-forties dominate too, but there are also younger groups. The Australian's feature reports on what it calls a group of 'Generation-Xers' which meets in a pub or restaurant in Melbourne's trendy, inner-city Brunswick St. Indeed I suspect there is a major generational divide, with reading meaning quite different things across the division (as in the writing of essays as I'll suggest later).

Mainstream publishers now produce how-to guides for reading groups plus book notes and reviews on their websites. Bookstores are sponsoring groups, up to fifty, for example, in Perth's aptly-titled Bookcaffe. Perhaps even more remarkable has been the success of ABC Radio National's Australia Talks Books, a radio talkback book club which began as a filler and now has an estimated 50,000 listeners across Australia. Alongside the high-brow Books and Writing, this is an interesting democratisation of the literary field.

In terms of taste, the reading group preference is for 'contemporary literary fiction' – Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Murray Bail, Memoirs of a Geisha, The God of Small Things, Eucalyptus and so forth. Together with the occasional non-fiction title, these suggest above all a taste for books that deal (stylishly) with 'issues' or, as one reader puts it, 'deep moral or political questions' (Hope 2001). Certain levels of literary or writerly sophistication are linked with ethical seriousness. Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace have been reading group successes.

The potential snobberies and lifestyle politics of reading groups – the processes of social distinction in Bourdieu's sense – were wonderfully and wittily evoked each month in a column in the Australian's Review of Books ('The Group'). But so, too, was something of the real ethical and intellectual 'work' that they might enable:

Warming to her role as host, Camille deftly shifts the conversation to food writing – our reading this month – ... Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food won over Jasmine. 'It's a fantastic social history as well as a cookbook,' she enthuses. 'I love the labour-intensive food preparation it describes. All those little individual pieces. It meant you were never alone in the kitchen.'
Incensed, Portia lunges for Jasmine's jugular. 'All that romantic mumbo-jumbo just kept women prisoners in the kitchen ...' Jasmine fires back, 'Its better than working at the check-out, isn't it?' Puzzled by this salvo and well-lubricated with sake, the Group moves on to the sublime M. F. K. Fisher...

And later:

Too soon it's time to go and we have to choose a book. Maggie opts for anything by Kiwi writer C. K. Stead. Alex Miller's prize-winning Conditions of Faith gets the thumbs down, as does Heather's nomination of Map of Love, an Egyptian saga about love and a clash of cultures in 1901. Portia wants to jump on board the debate about Oz poet James McAuley and the worth of his writing. My suggestion offers the compromise we need to say goodnight. Edward Hirsh's How to Read a Poem. (Alice B. 2001, p. 26)

That such a fine-tuned reading of taste cultures can exist in the public space of the newspaper makes my argument for me.

It also suggests why the new taste cultures don't operate simply like old cultural capital or old cultural elites – and this is the critical point – for they are precisely the result of the dispersal of cultural capital which has resulted from the expansion of tertiary education, the globalisation of cultures and the relative breakdown of high cultural authority resulting from the spread and sophistication of media cultures. As John Frow has argued, 'high culture ... is no longer the dominant culture but is rather a pocket within commodity culture' (1995, p. 86). The point is not to bury high culture but to indicate the new forms of its public being, its proliferation and dispersal. If we allow the terms for the moment, this is 'new class' or 'professional-managerial' elitism rather than old cultural capital. More interesting, these readers, like the books they consume and the milieux of their reading, are 'post-media' products: this is reading re-invented in the context of television, the web, contemporary cinema, and pop or post-pop music.

What this contemporary development indicates is a new 'specialist' function for literary reading among the array of mediated lifestyle and entertainment choices, a specific kind of ethical training which the process of reading and talking about books enables in distinctive ways. This is not an argument for the superior intellectual subtlety or moral authority of literature compared, say, to cinema or television; that argument ran out of steam fifty years ago. Indeed, for many of the readers involved, literature is probably a rare and rather exotic pleasure rather than an authoritative moral centre. My point, though, is to see this kind of literary reading as a distinct 'technology'; to emphasise, for example, the different temporality involved in reading and how this might be suited to certain forms of ethical exercise or the different ways books circulate as commodities (you can own a book as a personal possession in a way that you don't own a movie – videos and DVDs notwithstanding).

Perhaps the best evidence for (one form of) the new book cultures is the recent appearance of goodreading magazine in July this year. Again this is the kind of thing academics like to dismiss, as it's neither high nor popular enough to yield rich analysis; but we need to take it seriously to understand the real structures of the culture in which we're working. On sale in book stores and newsagents, goodreading looks just like a lifestyle magazine – like Better Homes and Gardens or Gourmet Living – which is just what it is. Its editor Caroline Baum, at once a literary journalist and a media personality, describes the magazine as 'lifestylefocused' (ASA Newsletter 2001). It features celebrity readers ('Jana Wendt's Shelf Confession'), reviews of literary fiction and genre fiction, cooking, gardening and art books, interviews, book news – and a monthly feature reporting on a reading group from somewhere around Australia. This is where Robert Manne's or Henry Reynolds's latest book might well score a celebrity feature. And why not?

Is this high culture or popular culture? Significantly, it's impossible to say. (The Australian Author [2001, p. 4] describes the magazine as 'targeted at the mid-range rather than the literary market' and as 'sure to be a hit with members of the hundreds of book clubs that are such a unique feature of the Australian book scene'.) By contrast, it's striking how many of our public intellectuals still seem to think in simply oppositional terms when thinking of media or popular cultures. This is one crucial reason they misrecognise their own institutional location. In a similar way, the opposition between 'academic' and 'public' through which so much of the public intellectual debate is conducted – as 'academic' versus 'public' – seriously misrepresents the diversity and cross-over of reading cultures.

It would be easy to see the disappearance of the high-brow Australian's Review of Books and the appearance soon after of goodreading magazine as symptomatic of cultural decline under the twin pressures of commercialisation and the media. But dismissal of the middlebrow is just another form of the intellectual snobbery usually directed at the mass media or the populism directed against high cultures. We need to take the shifting patterns of consumption more seriously to understand what's new and positive about them, whatever their relation to our own tastes. I happen to think that the expansion of the 'mid-range' is a good thing – so long as it is not the only thing. This is precisely where a challenging Aboriginal history, for example, would find a wider readership.

Good books and good reading are lifestyle and identity 'accessories'. But by linking literary taste to lifestyle I'm not wanting to sneer. I don't think we should say that the new tastes are 'merely' tastes or, for that matter, 'merely' products of smart marketing, as if there were a pure form of attachment to culture. We can instead conceive of lifestyle and consumption in terms of self-fashioning which extends to a whole range of ethical and political commitments. 'Style', of course, is not just about surface.

To bring my three cases together: what reading groups and the new literary modes of the essay and memoir have in common is that they act as occasions for ethical reflection. They address, as they constitute, readers who want 'history', moral and intellectual sophistication, cultural context, authenticity, and structures for self-reflection (if not necessarily all at once). This is an audience that wants public intellectuals. What's interesting is this new form of an old project, the linking of interiority and public issues of history and politics through reading. 'Life style' is as good a term as any for describing what links the interior and the public self. Thus, across the spectrum that extends from the academic professional to the casual but self-fashioning amateur, the public spaces occupied by the readers I've described as they pursue their individual and class projects of taste and style represent a new form of civil society in Australia. They are, in Inga Clendinnen's terms, 'conducive to civic virtue' (1999, p. 6).

Between ethics and aesthetics
Perhaps. Such a conclusion pushes that particular argument about as far as it can go. But to turn the argument back to face the public intellectual, my point is to note the structural shift that has occurred, relatively recently, in Australian book culture – the structural shift that has sustained, if not actually brought into being, the rise to prominence of our essayists and public intellectuals – and to pose this alternative description of a culture dispersing and regrouping to the notion of cultural decline and disintegration. In the face of all the talk of crisis and decline, I'd point to the expansion, the classiness, the diversity of our reading cultures (the claim is not that they have any particular virtue, merely that they exist). And I'd want to insist on the role of the media and the marketplace in creating the public intellectuals themselves, in defining and refining a new set of niche tastes among its middle-class, professional-managerial class consumers – consumers, in part, of the products that public intellectuals produce.

In this sense the market has been wiser than many of the public commentators in recognising growth rather than decline. Obviously, this is not to say that cultural or intellectual life in Australia is problem-free or even crisis-free. Far from it. Nor is it a hymn to the free market, which kills as often as it creates. With cuts to university funding and to the ABC, and with the institutional vulnerabilities characteristic of the Australian publishing, television, music and cinema industries because of their relatively small domestic market, there are on-going structural and sectoral difficulties. Australian publishers have recently been describing their worst market for book sales in at least ten years, a post-Olympics, post-GST phenomenon (Australian Author 2001, p. 4). But a description of the specific difficulties facing each sector would look very different from the general narrative of cultural decline. [Continued ...]

Continue with part three of this essay.

Bibliographical references, author's biographical note and relevant links can be found at the conclusion of part three of this essay.

(Return to part one of this essay.)