The Great Flat Expanse, Take Two
Last year an official report on public libraries declared that "New libraries should include cafes and chill-out zones where young people can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on listening posts". The justification for this was not market-driven (libraries are not in commercial competition with cafes), but was based instead on the feeling that your average MTV-watching, milk-shake-slurping, chilling-out youth might feel "excluded" by the silence (and, even worse, the books) of a traditional library.
Similarly, Furedi quotes a Professor of Education who argued last year that universities should stop expecting students to write essays, because essay-writing might seem "difficult and alien" to some of them, who would then be "disenfranchised"; instead, they should be given "small-scale writing tasks" with which they would feel more comfortable. Giving students something difficult to do is thus to deny them their rights, just as allowing libraries to look like libraries is to encroach on the rights of those youngsters who would prefer them to resemble their living-rooms.
I've been wondering lately about the intellectual culture in Australia, mainly asking myself whether there is any such thing. I remember reading haphazardly through some Australian literary magazines, when I was taking some writing classes and entertaining thoughts of doing some sort of higher degree in creative arts, and being generally bored by them. In fact, my memory of flicking through magazines such as Southerly and Heat has congealed into an afternoon I spent sitting in a long, narrow, dusty, dimly-lit library corridor, turning page after page of prose that seemed to peel off sentence by sentence into a suspended amorphous mass hanging high, just out of view behind my head.
Since that afternoon I have felt a sort of lingering disgust at literary culture in Australia, even though I don't read any Australian literature, and don't plan to1. Literary magazines aside, there's also the utterly barren state of Arts sections in the major Australian newspapers. The Sydney Morning Herald books section mostly reads like it's journalists writing for people who don't actually read; my main impression of The Australian is a newspaper that consistently has spelling and grammatical errors on the front page. Even The Chaser is best described as a local, less funny version of The Onion, without the intellectual edge. But, curious to see whether I just haven't been looking in the right places, I've bought the latest issue of Quarterly Essay, which has a long essay on Mark Latham. More here once I've read it.
Except maybe Shirley Hazzard and Christina Stead and Patrick White, and even then since mediated by literary culture overseas—Hazzard was recommended by Richard Ford, an American writer; Stead was on a reading list for a course David Foster Wallace, another American writer, taught recently; and White, of course, won a certain Swedish literary award. ↩