What makes a good academic book? A response

Guest blogger Tess Lea is an ARC QEII Fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney.

Chris Gibson recently posted a thought-provoking review of my book on Darwin. It was the first review to take up the issue of risk-taking in writing, both from the perspective of writing about a place which is small enough that insults are consequential; and from the perspective of academic metrics. I was awestruck by Gibson’s insights and how he has honed in on my acute sense of vulnerability with this book.

As Gibson notes, Darwin completes a series on the capital cities of Australia by New South Books. I accepted the commission for two reasons. First, I will admit ego/vanity. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else writing about Darwin, my birthplace. But second, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to address the challenge I have set myself in my current research. To wit: presuming I ever find a way to muddle through my current writing block and the thicket of ethnographic fragments I’ve accumulated about Indigenous housing and infrastructure, schools and health clinics, to address the question ‘can there be good social policy in regional and remote Australia?’ –– the question of communication remains.

If we move beyond peer networks, how do we get our work to talk to and with differently literate and differently capacitated people? The Darwin book added to the experiments I have been making in other areas, such as neo-fictional film productions in collaboration with Professor Elizabeth Povinelli and the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation (www.karrabing.com). We have now produced two films (Low Tide Turning and When the Dogs Talked ); another, on what counts as stealing, is in post-production. We are all untrained actors, creating storylines that could be real but are not anyone’s actual life script, ‘faking it with the truth’ to borrow a turn of phrase from my colleague, Dr Jennifer Biddle. I have toyed with cartoons and more recently with infographics. (This is the other risk: writing for free open-access cross-genre journals that are not rated in our research quality indexes).

These little experiments are all, in their own way, driven by a frustration I have in dealing with policy related issues and wanting to share my work around to people in carpet land and people affected by policy shards without losing what it is that I think my work is about in the process. The advice on how to write for policy audiences is particularly insulting. Academics are told to reduce their research to a page and translate complexity into digestible bullet points. But from where I sit, this insults the intelligence of the intended policy audience, mistaking time poverty for neuron deficit. It also makes a nonsense of doing thorough research in the first instance. In my work, which repeatedly finds devils in obscured and microscopic details, stripping the ethnography to make some greater homily point adds little to what a policy person might be able to articulate, given the time to bash words together. Why bother with research if there is no analytic value-add? Then, when it comes to advice on how to reach other types of audiences who tend to avoid academic work—people living in different kinds of residential or organisational communities, say—we are told to abandon dense texts altogether in favour of visually easier devices, which are often also cartoonish versions of the research, stripped of details to become didactic banalities. In short, this issue of accessible communication matters and it is not solved by being told to simplify.

With the Darwin book, I wanted to see if I could use yarning narratives and thick description to freight in theoretical and political points, incognito. I wanted to be disarming enough to show Darwin’s underbelly, without adopting that snide, moralising, exterior tone that so often creeps into academic critiques, when we are insistently telling, instead of sharing and showing our findings. I wanted to use lyrical writing to do analytical work, not quite with the high end literary aesthetics of ficto-criticism but certainly borrowing from that genre. Borrowing too from pot-boilers, books whose pace makes you want to turn the page, not out of professional duty but from a genuine desire to know what happens next. Each sentence should inform or seduce, ideally both.

It was harder than I thought, and not just because there are few guidebooks on how to do this and maintain academic respect (on which, more below). There were punishing timelines (it was written in just over twelve months) and mean space constraints: 50,000 words from front to back; which meant a great deal of selectivity and the dilemma of who and what to omit. As Chris notes, I was born in Darwin and know its extraordinary history, landscape, characters—and as an anthropologist, I also know its multi-layered complexities. For tourists, Darwin is a place to go to escape the southern winter and enjoy drinks by sunset; indulge in a fishing charter; camp by fresh, warm waterways; eat delicious market foods; slump about in thongs, sarongs and singlets; or take organised tours to the waterfalls and catchments of Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks. There are nightclubs and pubs overflowing with backpackers and fly-in/fly-out workers, having fun and throwing fists when the sun goes down and the drugs enter bloodstreams. The place is also now known for its creativity and vibrancy, particularly in the Indigenous art and performance space, so we attract the literati too. The population churn (the town flushes itself of at least one-quarter of its population between any census period) means Darwin is always an interesting mix of old and new, stasis and dynamism, the familiar and the avant-garde. The city and its hinterland are so unique, the place attracts a wondrous share of raconteurs, scholars, polyglots, adventurers, progressives, good people doing good work against multiple odds, carpet baggers out to rip off the poor and the vulnerable.

It is also, right now, still a boom town, brimming with cash, as real estate prices take flight and those with money in the right places can watch their accounts grow nice and fat, amid deep pockets of intractable poverty and suffering—just as wallets are overflowing, Darwin’s jails are brimming too.

For of course, Darwin also has its dark side. Behind the glitz of dry season galas and festivals, stands a history of government ineptitude and policy bungling, development schemes dreamt so far from implementation realities they’re almost admirable for their blithe audacity. In this prosperous, radically unequal city, it is easy for sections of the population to be inured to how their town is stratified and to stubbornly resist any suggestion of mutual responsibility for the many policy deformations and racial injustices. Others do know, and carry that wisdom in their bodies, putting it to dramatic use in legal struggles, song, film, art or stage play. Some simply anaesthetize their knowledge with alcohol and other drugs, punch it out with fists or twist it inwards, adding to high suicide and trauma rates.

In pointing these sorts of things out in the book, I also tried to show the ways in which I too am part of what I describe, co-implicated in the racism and the dispossession, by writing myself in. But as Chris notes, this business of communicating through quasi-biographical and lyrical writing to make theoretical and political analysis more accessible is risky. I was told by a senior anthropologist when I was setting out to write that it would not be taken seriously as ethnography, even though in my mind it represents concentrated ethnography of the most challenging kind. And I was told it was a ‘trade’ publication, which would not win me academic respect. How then to acquit myself when it comes to research metrics? Breaking out of academic comfort zones is not for the faint-hearted: career risks are involved.

Like many of us, I have periodically railed against the genre constraints of social scientific writing and the curse of surnames that burdens our representational politics and initially I relished the opportunity to write as the writing took me, without the dutiful exegesis and cross referencing clutter. At the same time, the liberation from academic conventions removes the security of its scaffolding: our academic conventions may be constraining but they provide comforts and protections. Among other things, the retreat into academic reading and writing encloses response liability within a community that does critique in proper formats: in book reviews, or at conferences. We are not really exposed to the people we write about, not really accountable for how their data is manipulated, even though we use consent forms and some of us even consult carefully on the text (yes, of course I did). With peer-to-peer writing, we can remain elevated from the fray, avoiding the hostilely democratic waters owned by trollers. And when we get to say ‘In this…, drawing on so and so, I will be arguing such and such…,’ we also get to short-hand with set-ups and sign-posts. Without these trademark way-finders, description has to carry a much greater burden, not of showing what theory we have read and our engagement with it, but our enactment of it. If you read the book, I hope you can see the gestures to human-animal relations, to intercultural splicing, to accounts of gender and power, to policy critique and historical revisionism. It would have been easier to tell the reader this is what they were meant to be seeing, if you ken what I mean.

In fact, it is untrue to say this is liberated writing at all. In brazenly calling upon my own family and different other characters I have pulled them into what Lauren Berlant calls ‘the work of exemplification’. She was referring to the patterned way in which only those lives, affects and deaths that satisfy our genre expectations for sensationalism, which meet the tacit norms embedded within ‘an aesthetic structure of affective expectation’, lift off the page or screen to engage and sustain our interest.  Not only has our attention been socio-technologically shaped toward smaller bites but also perception has been shaped around what we consider attention-worthy. Berlant’s work asks us to think carefully about why particular stories affect us, about the ideological work underpinning the staging of suffering or the making of theatrical contexts to make a vignette read more powerfully, to make a story ‘stick’.

In this book I wanted Australians to rethink their subconscious relegation of the north as secondary to the main event of southern settlement. The north does not ‘come after’ the south. That is the perspective of British settlement, not realism. If anything, Australia’s recorded contact history starts in the north. We could also say first human occupation swept down from the north too. And forewarning of what life will be like with climate change, extreme weather events, more mosquito born diseases, box jellyfish blooms…and a necessary creativity and adaptation to survive.  I wanted to jag perceptions. But these narrative tricks that get us to carry theory in a yarn usher in new conventions, new textual crutches, or rather, old ways of making things stick. This includes the way we are required, or at least the way I felt obliged, to narrate the frontier history in John Piligeresque terms, as something of a morality tale.  This is to write like a white, and it is infuriating to find the pedagogical populisms flowing with such ease from one’s keyboard fingers.  And let’s acknowledge too that by invoking my family history I am also asserting an authority of descent—the aristocracy of home town expertise, to add more gravitas and personal disavowal through crafted culpability to push my corrective homilies.

This is why, far from leaving me well-oiled and ready to tackle what I have always seen as the ‘proper’ product of my research, the ‘can there be good social policy’ truly academic text, I am instead frozen, at an impasse where I no longer trust my ability to provide analysis and communication which does justice to the cruel and disjointed ways in which Indigenous worlds afford mine and your lifestyles in the service of drone-protected global markets. I want to draw the connections but find that didactic tone infiltrates every set up, every move to provide a context for my ethnographic fragments. I have lost faith in academic writing but this is what we are expected to do and are judged by.

This is the point of disorientation at which I will stop, hoping I have shared enough of the burden of risky writing to invoke the spirit of suggested cures.





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