What’s wrong with The Monthly?

Louis Nowra. The playwright's attempts at political writing have shown some flair, but little intellectual rigour. Source: The Age.

This is the text of an article I published in Crikey last week. The Crikey article was edited for length; this is the full text of the piece.

What’s wrong with The Monthly?

The highly-circulating magazine used to be genuinely interesting. But under new editor Ben Naparstek, at least for me anyway, much of that interest has withered. What used to be a vibrant little journal, with pretensions to becoming a genuine Australian version of great American mast-heads like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, in recent times seems boring and safe. Unexpectedly, a strange illiberalism seems to have descended upon Australia’s most successful liberal journal of ideas. It’s a phenomenon that could not have been predicted in a journal with a fresh, young editor, still graced by the essays of Robert Manne.

So far, coverage of Naparstek’s editorship has focused on the controversies. A surprise successor to former editor Sally Warhaft, whom most believe resigned in protest over editorial interference by her owner and board, Naparstek began the gig in a climate poisoned by the spat between Warhaft’s supporters, such as Gideon Haigh, and the Monthy’s Manne. There was an early misstep: the decision to commission a review of Jacqueline Kent’s biography of Julia Gillard by the author of a competing biography, Christine Wallace, a decision covered by Crikey’s Andrew Crook last year.

Then there was a brief imbroglio over the spiking of a piece about Sri Lankan refugee camps by freelance journalist Eric Ellis. Naparstek commissioned the piece enthusiastically, before killing it with a haughty “I just decided that it is not up to the standard we require.” Now, of course, there is the controversy over Louis Nowra’s hatchet job on Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch.

The problems of The Monthly under Naparstek are not just sins of commission, like the questionable editorial judgments, or the conflicts of interest (though the conflicts still seem to be in evidence, as a recent favourable review of a Black Inc novel shows). No, the real problem with The Monthly is how slip-shod and reactionary it has become. For evidence, look no further than Louis Nowra himself.

It’s hard to know what to make of Nowra at this stage of his authorial evolution. Beginning as a playwright, Nowra’s early work remains historically important in Australian theatre, particularly as he worked with some of the finest directors of his era, like Jim Sharman. That talent seems to have soured somewhat since the early 1990s, when he was producing works like Cosi and Radiance that were both critically acclaimed and popularly successful.

In recent years his writing has taken a conservative bent, highlighted by his 2007 book Bad Dreaming, which purported to investigate the problem of sexual violence in indigenous communities. Bad Dreaming was panned by many critics for its pop psychology, sloppy referencing and simplistic, moralistic conclusions about indigenous communities Nowra clearly knew little about.

Even so, Nowra still possesses a savage wit and a fine turn of phrase. Indeed, part of the problem is precisely that he writes so well. The oracular artifice of Nowra’s writing conceals the conceptual blandness and second-hand opinions he recycles.

Take Nowra’s recent essay on Australian film. It’s full of well-turned sentences about the various misfortunes to befall Australian actors, screenwriters and directors. Wayne Blair has a “jowly, dignified face” while Bryan Brown has a “a puffy, red, angry face like a diseased beetroot.” Bracing stuff.  But the content of Nowra’s jeremiad is achingly thin. It echoes, shallowly, all the usual criticisms of Australian films – that they are “boring, grim and unsatisfying.” There’s little comedy, Nowra complains, and not enough sex. Hollywood does it better. Australian scripts lack a “second act.” Realism is over. We should make more genre films instead.

None of this is new. Most of it has been bandied about the industry for more than a decade now, generally by critics for the daily newspapers, and often to the exasperation of those who work in the industry. And the criticisms are not even backed up by the available audience data, which Screen Australia had painstakingly analysed last year. The Screen Australia data gives the lie to the theory that “Australian audiences don’t like Australian films.” The truth is far more subtle and complex: while many Australian films flop, so do many American and British films. In fact, on a screen for screen basis, Australian films punch above their weight. But you won’t find this kind of nuance in Nowra’s article. He gets about as far as blaming the distributors, which is not particularly far.

If Nowra’s piece on Australian film was stylish but intellectually lazy, his piece on Tony Abbott a month later was indulgent, even hagiographic. The essay seems to have been cobbled together almost completely from public sources. Did Nowra have any access at all to the Opposition Leader for this piece? If he did, he appears to have swallowed his notebook: there is no new material of any kind. Comments like “he was and is a man who likes being around other people and he’d sooner act than spend time contemplating his own navel” are not even perceptive; they’re clumsy and pat. The stale scent of received wisdom drifts from the nearly every paragraph, and the piece is riddled with pop psychology, like this sentence: “Since he was young he has dreamt of himself becoming a hero.” It’s almost painful to read.

And so we get to Nowra’s essay on The Female Eunuch (firewalled).

This important book certainly deserves a sensitive and critical re-appraisal on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. Nowra’s essay isn’t it. It’s a tissue of insults, full of cheap shots, and only marginally about the text in question. Much attention has already been given to Nowra’s attack on Greer’s looks, but the really disappointing aspect of the essay is its casual, almost callous misogyny, evident in unsupported assertions about Brazilian waxes and young women who “love shopping more than ever.”

Then there are statements such as “one is immediately struck by how much the Western world has changed for women, who now run corporations and are heads of government bureaucracies, as well as being business leaders, film directors and soldiers.” Rudimentary research abolishes this claim: women chair only 2% of top corporate boards in Australia, and occupy only 8.3% of director’s positions; Kathryn Bigelow is the very first woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director; and women are still barred from front-line combat roles in most Western militaries.

Nowra as a political columnist seems to sum up the emerging reality of The Monthly under Ben Naparstek. When arguments are advanced, they are often slap-dash and unsupported by evidence. When controversy appears, it is confected. New ideas are difficult to find. All too commonly, the The Monthly is filled up with potted little essays on everyday life, composed of pretty prose but about very little.

Cast your eye over the last year or so of the magazine and you’ll be struck by nothing so much as the narrowness of the intellectual vision, and the small-C conservatism of the voices therein. There’s Peter Craven, a critic whose glory days are long past, and whose views on things like Australian theatre are nowadays embarrassing. There’s Sebastian Smee, a knowledgeable if conventional art critic, who struggles when given the space to write a wandering essay on disturbed artist and alleged murderer Antony Waterlow. There’s Kristen Tranter, one month reviewing airport novelist Stig Larssen, the next month receiving her own glowing review from Craven himself. The same thing has happened with Anna Goldsworthy: a frequent contributor to the magazine, her novel “Piano Lessons” (published by The Monthly’s publishers, Black Inc) was also reviewed favourably by Zora Simic. With its Cravens and Davies, Goldsworthys and Mannes, its Nowras and Sayers, The Monthly resembles nothing so much as the green room of Adelaide Writers Week.

To give him his due, Naparstek has done some good things. He has brought on Frankie magazine’s gloriously witty Ben Law, and its good to see as fine a writer as Anna Funder in any publication. I’ve always enjoyed John Birmingham’s non-fiction, but here too you can see signs of editorial  indifference, as when Birmingham is allowed to wax lyrical about the future of the National Party on the basis of little more than the perceptions of a few acquaintances.

I think the problem here is a commitment to a certain view of writing, one that values facility with prose over political insight (though Manne himself still displays plenty). What we don’t see are new voices or interesting ideas. Some, like Guy Rundle, have argued these were afflictions that The Monthly already suffered from. But I think matters have got worse.

Much ink has been split over whether the youthful Naparstek is out of his depth. I think the issue is not so much age, as education. Naparstek’s polyglot literary interests reveal no deep engagement with or understanding of the history or current state of political thought. Perhaps this is what leads him to confuse stylish writing with intellectual depth, as when he defends Nowra as a “leading public intellectual.”

The potted and the patchy are all the more remarkable in a publication that still features serious, regular contributions from Robert Manne. As this month’s effort shows, Manne remains at the top of his game as a political essayist. His article “After Copenhagen” effortlessly combines broad erudition with careful argument to produce a stunning short analysis of the current impasses in Australian climate change policy – one of the best, in fact, that can be found currently in the Australian media. If any more proof were needed that Naparstek is not a puppet of his editorial committee, this essay is it: surely a writer with the breadth of liberal vision that Manne demonstrates would not hesitate to veto the shoddy invective of Nowra’s tract.

Some have criticised Robert Manne for re-fighting the history wars. But at least Manne is engaging with real ideas. In contrast, Louis Nowra is fighting a series of straw men and women. Ben Naparstek is letting him.

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