Where are the Rock Stars?
Lists are always good fun. Top ten this, favourite fifty that, best one hundred the other. A few years ago when a US publisher issued a list of the best 100 English-language novels of the past century, there was quite a frenzy of discussion and disagreement. We all had quite a good time shrieking at one another ‘Tobacco Road?!? Are they kidding??’ Then a few weeks or months later there was a piece in the NY Times Book Review (I think) by A S Byatt (one of the judges) who pointed out how limited the pool of books was they had to choose from, and how further limited their choices were by the rules of the judging. The upshot was that they were forced to pick books that more of the judges had read as opposed to ones the judges thought were actually good. So yes, they were kidding. The Siege of Krishnapur (say) was not chosen because not enough of the panel had read it, and various mediocrities or worse were chosen because a lot of the panelists had read it. So the criterion was (it turned out) not actually best at all, but simply ‘read by the most members of this particular set of people, regardless of whether they’re any good or not’ – quite a stupid criterion, really, and not how the list was billed. So lists can turn out to be even sillier than they look.
But that’s no reason not to discuss them, is it. So let’s discuss the Prospect list of Top intellectuals. Or maybe not so much the list as someone else’s discussion of the list. It starts off well, and goes on for several paragraphs well – simply noting what sort of intellectual is not on the list, as opposed to hand-wringing about it. (Not that hand-wringing about it is necessarily a bad thing – it depends on what sort of intellectual, or indeed ‘intellectual’, is in fact not on the list, doesn’t it.) There’s even one bit of quite good news.
Perhaps even more spectacular is the demise of literary and cultural theory from its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eagleton (again) is the sole survivor on this list. Otherwise, theory remains isolated in its academic tower, cut off from the general culture by jargon and obscurantism.
And by a third thing, perhaps, which is their tendency to think they know quite a lot about every conceivable subject and ought to say so on every possible occasion. Anyway, it’s cheering to find that there aren’t great preening crowds of them on the list.
And this is a good sign too –
Another strong group are the social and political essayists. Again, the variety is noticeable. Instead of “isms” or Orwell’s “smelly little orthodoxies,” we have diverse styles and approaches. The personal voice stands out – Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash, John Gray, AC Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma, Noel Malcolm. They have other features in common: a strong sense of political morality, internationalism and most of them are first-class writers. They are Orwell’s children, taking on big issues in good prose.
I’m not keen on John Gray and don’t know Noel Malcolm, but I like the rest, some of them a lot. And I like the genre. I like essays and essayists, and social and political essays and essayists in particular. I like writers who actually have something to say. I would disagree with the ‘Orwell’s children’ line, because I think they’re better than Orwell. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that Orwell is over-rated. I used to over-rate him myself, but I’ve been re-reading him lately, and frankly a lot of his writing was just plain tired and flat. Hack writing. Hitchens writes rings around him even on a bad day. But that’s a quibble, and I agree with the paragraph overall. But then things get strange.
The list may also seem curiously old-fashioned. It offers little room for the new “isms” that have broken through in recent decades: feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism. There aren’t many young voices: few under 45, hardly anyone under 40. It is very middle-aged, and also very male and very white.
Well is it really all that surprising that a list of public intellectuals is heavy on people over forty? Intellectualism is a cumulative thing, after all, because knowledge is. And for that matter so is fame, and reputation, and the CV. The people on the list have been doing their intellectual stuff for enough decades so that people recognize them as public intellectuals. A few people can manage that by age thirty or thirty-five, but it usually takes longer. (I agree about the male thing though, if only because the first name I looked for was Marina Warner’s, and I was annoyed not to find it. It’s absurd that she’s not there.)
Then it gets worse. A lot worse.
The absence of new cultural forms and the media may surprise some. Why does this list smack of the common room and the think tank and not Britart and cool Britannia? Two names from television, none from advertising and no film directors. Of these, film is perhaps the most striking absence. There are some first-rate British film critics (David Thompson, Mark Cousins and Anthony Lane among them), and major British directors (Mike Leigh and Ken Loach among an older generation, Roger Michell and Michael Winterbottom among the next)…Youth culture is another striking absence. Instead, we have the traditional intellectual: scientists and historians, social theorists and policy advisers. It feels very grown-up and sane, maybe even dull. Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.” Are the criteria which inform this list now out of date, part of a vanishing intellectual culture that disappeared with Noel Annan’s dons and the Third Programme? Is that why there are so few representatives from popular culture?
Advertising? Advertising?? Since when is advertising anything to do with being a public intellectual? It’s public all right, but what’s intellectual about it? It takes some verbal skills, to be sure, but that doesn’t equate to being an intellectual. And advertising’s close connection with lying for profit surely disqualifies it. And as for directing movies – isn’t that an art or a craft or both rather than an intellectual activity? I would have thought so – unless we’ve suddenly re-defined the word when I wasn’t paying attention. And then youth culture. Huh? Again, what’s that got to do with intellectualism or intellectuals? All of this might be mere observation, except for that word ‘problem’. ‘Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.”‘ Or perhaps it doesn’t, because perhaps there is no problem. Perhaps what you see as dull because grown-up and sane, other people see as interesting because grown-up and sane. Lunacy and childishness are not absolutely always fascinating, as a matter of fact they can both be immensely boring. So if you long for the young and the hip and the consumerist, start your own list, and don’t call it a list of public intellectuals.