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The Politics of Reading

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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

The launch of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Australia has attracted a little attention—partly for the two substantial $100,000 awards and partly for the fact that the PM himself has final say.


Most people are unconcerned by this role, but Gail Jones in The Guardian finds it troubling:


But should the Australian prime minister have a say in “his” award? Emphatically not. Judging panels are contentious enough without prime-ministerial opinion inflecting adjudication. The winning text risks being seen as content-endorsed, or in some way charged by political approval.


In part this is a hangover from the previous administration, where PM John Howard was something of “culture warrior” and had a tendency to weigh in heavily on art and literature he considered biased to the left.  New PM Kevin Rudd has shown a more hands-off approach.


The bigger question is surely “What do politicians know about books?”  Politicians will occasionally write works of political science and policy—and at the end of their public life will often write scurrilous memoirs—but few engage in serious literature.


There is some hope here in my state of New South Wales, where the new Premier, Nathan Rees, has a degree in literature.  His predecessor was widely seen as a philistine, although the one before that (Bob Carr) was a self-confessed book nut—so much so that he recently wrote a book entirely about reading.  To tell the truth, I’m not sure that the writers of Sydney have really noticed the difference.


But what of the contenders in the current US Presidential campaign?  Barack Obama has written his own memoir and a manifesto of sorts.  John McCain has written a few books about his life.  McCain’s daughter Meghan has written a hagiography of the Republican candidate.  As for Sarah Palin… well, she’s expressed interest in banning a few books in her time.


I’m not sure any of them has much time for contemporary literature.  Maybe Obama does, but you can bet he won’t be discussing the merits of Junot Diaz as he campaigns for the votes of working-class Ohioans.

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