31 October 2008

Trashing the brand

The whole idea of a university press is to publish books capable of dealing with weightier matters than are dealt with in today's headlines. Under Louise Adler, MUP books are today's headlines, only with more dead trees to show for them.

There was John Hyde Page's testament to his own silliness, and the fact that Peter Costello's exercise in strident minging could be comprehensively serialised in a few editions of The Daily Fairfax should have alerted MUP to the dangers of the Adler model. Still she ploughs on, raising issues she should have thought about more carefully, raising more questions than she dares to answer:
IN THE past decade or so, the Australian publishing industry has suffered reputational damage from a long line of literary fraudsters ... Authors who fabricate their identity or steal the work of other writers break a contract that is both legal and moral.

Translation: darling! Simply everybody is doing plagiarism these days! The question is to what extent a publisher is obliged to put a book to market knowing that it has been plagiarised. Both the books that Adler refers to there (Helen D's The hand that signed the paper and Norma Khouri's Forbidden love) sold like hot cakes, and on that basis there is no way Adler would dream of pulling Peter van Onselen's All Right, So We Lost: What Do You Want?.
The legal issues are straightforward.

Are you going to sue Julie Bishop, Louise, are ya? Didn't think so. Sabre-rattling is so yesterday.
But the morality of the false authorship brings into question a more profound contract between the writer and reader.

Yes, it sure does. If Adler was concerned about morality she'd pull the book and wear the financial consequences of doing so, to protect the intellectual integrity of MUP. Instead, the next Melbourne Uni student who gets busted lifting an essay straight off the internet should get Adler to brush away any nasty consequences ("so old hat!").
After the 2007 election, MUP agreed with Associate Professor Peter van Onselen that the decimated Liberal Party was an important subject for a book. We certainly did not share the anti-intellectual view of one publishing colleague who suggested books by Liberals were the literary equivalent of a "dog returning to its vomit".

We believed that Liberal politicians would now enter a reflective period, a phase of rigorous self-criticism and reassessment. We accepted this premise for the collection of essays van Onselen proposed to commission.

Adler needs to consult more widely (and so does van Onselen, for that matter). The whole recent history of the Liberal Party mitigates against the premise behind the book, as does the reality of its reception since.

Toward the end of the Fraser government, there were three schools of thought which emerged and began to criticise, in a muted way, the direction of that government: the moderates, the religious conservatives, and the libertarian deregulationists. After Fraser lost in 1983 the gloves were off, especially as preselections were at stake. This warfare continued until 1995.

By 1995 the moderates had gone or been co-opted, the libertarian deregulationists had their go under Hewson and were either gone or pulled their heads in, leaving a sizeable rump of conservatives. The Liberal Party actively sought out candidates for marginal seats who had established networks in their communities but no factional warfare experience within the Liberal Party, who'd accept Liberal candidacy as a franchise and who'd be given all the perks of Parliament so long as they didn't ask too many questions. That was the class of 1996. These people have always been incapable of imagining a Liberal Party without John Howard, in the same way that KFC franchisees can't imagine their brand without the Colonel.

Then, there was the conduct of the Howard government itself: the overarching principle that 'disunity is death' and that any dissent about even the smallest issue is equivalent to outright rejection of everything the Liberal Party stands for. This attitude prevailed to the very end, and had Howard been re-elected last year it would prevail now. There are no schools of thought ready to go in the Liberal Party (I think Tony Abbott's chapter is entitled "Daddy, come back!").

Today, the Liberal Party is in ideological lockdown. The twin global crises of credit risk and terrorism take government into ideologically uncharted waters. Conservative and liberal ideologues are exhausted, as the failure of the Bush Administration shows, providing no help to people like George Brandis who are looking for new ideas to be given a quick spray of eucalyptus oil and adapted for Aussie conditions.
An essay might also be an occasion to display leadership potential to colleagues.

Oh yeah, because the history of the Liberal Party is one essayist after another buffing their intellectual wares. Who's taking whom for mugs now, Louise?
The Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, agreed to contribute an essay. As the deadline loomed, in lieu of an original essay, he suggested we reprint his most recent National Press Club speech. We declined his offer because the criterion for inclusion was that the essays had to be new.

In other words, here was clear proof that the premise under which the book was commissioned was false. Still, Adler ploughed on (I don't blame van Onselen for having a go, but he should have known better).
We certainly did not share the anti-intellectual view of one publishing colleague who suggested books by Liberals were the literary equivalent of a "dog returning to its vomit" ... There is a publishing industry prejudice that Liberals are neither book writers nor book buyers.

Yeah, because what this country needs right now are about half a dozen biographies of H V Evatt, the nutty man of 1950s politics. Mind you, people like that are right to laugh at the idea of bending over backwards to publish Peter Costello's The warm inner glow makes poor light for reading.
It has been disappointing to discover that some politicians are happy to have others do their thinking for them. Even more disappointing has been the cavalier attitude displayed by a few contributors to public debate.

Nobody who has any sort of awareness of Australian politics over the last twenty years has any excuse for coming out with that. It is the mark of a fool to even be surprised at this development, or to describe the norm as the work of "a few contributors to public debate".
Politicians suffering from print-envy but too self-important to tie themselves to the desk for the necessary time display intellectual bankruptcy and contempt for their constituents.

Politicians who enthusiastically accept an invitation to contribute to a book but fail to acknowledge either their sources or their co-authors cross an ethical border. Is it any wonder that the public loses faith in the political process?

Oh please, not again. Here Adler is complaining about a fundamental law of both politics and publishing: lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. Liberals can't see the link between getting published and getting re-elected, and Adler can't see that publishing such a flawed book diminishes her, MUP, the University of Melbourne, and every scholar who might pick up a MUP book and take it seriously.

1 comment:

  1. Ther's not much to add to this, because it's pretty spot on.

    Howard did not promote people for their ability to articulate ideas in an essay. And the constituencies that Howard's promotees want to appeal to couldn't care less about such an ability either.