Robert A. Caro’s narrative sociology

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Robert A. Caro in 2013. Photograph: Michael Loccisano.

In recent weeks I’ve been working my way through historian Robert A. Caro’s majestic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Enjoying them is easy. Caro is a hugely readable narrator, is in effortless command of his sources, and has one of the most complex and dynamic politicians of the 20th century as his subject. The result is quite simply some of the most compelling history I’ve ever read.

Unpicking why Caro is so interesting, though, is a lot harder. In doing so, I think we can learn a little about the practice of history, which this work avowedly is, as well as of sociology, which would seem to be further afield from Caro’s core discipline.

Firstly, a little of Caro’s craft. This essay by Chris Jones from 2012 in Esquire gives you a flavour on the man’s work practices and his almost unbelievable dedication. Caro has been working on the Johnson books since 1975. His book The Power Broker on Robert Moses, the New York planner and freeway builder, has just been republished, with revisions.

The essay by Chris Jones helps us understand the sort of historian Caro is: he is a kind of journalist.

Gottlieb has questioned the veracity of Caro’s reporting only once. There was a single paragraph that stood out on what would become the 214th page of The Power Broker. In it, Bella and Emanuel Moses, Robert’s parents, were depicted at their summer lodge at Camp Madison, a camp for poor and immigrant children that Bella had helped found. There, they were leafing throughThe New York Times one morning in 1926, Caro wrote, when they learned of a $22,000 judgment against their son for illegal appropriations. Caro included a quote from Bella Moses, who was long dead: “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life and now we’ll have to pay this.”

How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?

Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. “As the circles grew outward,” Caro says, “there were people who’d only met him once. He wasn’t going to be able to get to them all.” Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert’s relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp’s social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.

“So that’s how,” Caro told Gottlieb.

But Caro is more than simply a reporter, of course, because his books have a subject over and above the men he writes about, and that subject is power. Caro is therefore, in a very real way, a theorist of society, and in particular the power relationships within a society.

A good example is the second half of Caro’s second Johnson book, Means of Ascent. In it, Johnson uses the classic compare-and-contrast structure of the seasoned essayist to explore the 1948 Texan Democratic primary race between Johnson and veteran Texan Democrat, Coke Stevenson. At that time, Texas was a lock for Democrats, so the winner would become the state’s junior senator.

Caro’s biographical sketch of Stevenson and his career — he was the most successful Democrat in the state, and had earned himself the sobriquet ‘Mr Texas’ — is a miracle of historical prose. But Caro uses the primary battle between the two men as a metaphor for the evolution of modern American politics. Stevenson had a reputation as a man of total integrity: he had never taken a dollar of lobbyist money. Stevenson was so old-fashioned he campaigned by turning up in small town squares and introducing himself to citizens;  he didn’t even issue a policy platform, because he believed politicians should run only on their records. In contrast, Johnson poured more money into the race than had ever been seen in a Senatorial primary. He hired a helicopter and barnstormed around the state in it. Johnson also won the support of the Democratic machine in rotten boroughs in the state’s southern counties, which allowed him to capture crucial votes with what were almost certainly stuffed ballot boxes. When Stevenson challenged the result in court, Johnson won — again largely because he was able to manipulate the Democratic Party machine. 

What we see in Caro’s Means of Ascent is therefore a masterpiece of historical narrative. Caro is not merely chronicling a particularly interesting American state election in 1948. He is in fact developing what Daniel Little would call a social explanation of power — an explanation a good deal richer and “thicker” than the descriptions sometimes offered by sociologists and anthropologists when they turn to the nature of power in democratic societies.

A final point is worth making about this remarkable project. If and when Caro eventually publishes the final book in the series — we can only hope that he lives to complete the series — he will have been working on it for nearly half a century.

I think it’s fair to say that a project of such longevity and ambition could no longer be produced by a working academic (the conditions of the publishing industry suggest that it probably can’t happen in trade publishing again, either, though that is a different story). Five books in forty years? No historian would continue to hold employment with such a track record, even if a few papers were churned out to buttress the monographs, even if the books she eventually produced were as successful and feted as Caro’s have been.

And yet, on any meaningful measure of what history and the social sciences purport to be about, the work of Caro is at the pinnacle. It is both deeply serious and widely popular (his book on Moses was a bestseller, for instance). Caro has provided the single most important source of scholarship, both primary and secondary, of Johnson and his political surroundings. Even a specialist historian who merely set out to be the acknowledged expert on a single president would struggle to match Caro’s impact, and yet a professional historian who published as little as Caro would soon find herself bundled out of the faculty.

It’s a sobering realisation for any working academic that the conditions of academic working life are now such that the working academic can no longer realistically aspire to producing the kind of serious, important work that academia claims to be about.

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The Australia Council’s recent Arts and Creative Industries report

The following article appeared in Crikey on February 4th. There’s been quite a bit of debate over at Crikey in the comments pages of this article, so head on over to see the discussion.

The plan to provoke a profound shake-up to the arts

In a week where so much has happened in the world, it’s not surprising a report from the Australia Council has not made the news. But in the rarefied atmosphere of arts policy, the release of a report entitled Arts and creative industries will make waves — the document, if followed to its logical conclusions, implies a profound shake-up to the current status quo. 

Authored by a team of QUT academics led by Professor Justin O’Connor, Arts and creative industries is a long, detailed and rigorous examination of the context, shape and setting of arts and cultural policy in Australia. It’s not quite the Henry Tax Review, but it’s certainly the most academically informed piece of research to be released by the Australia Council in a long time.

Beginning with a historical overview of 19th century culture and the genesis of “cultural policy” in postwar Britain, the report then examines each of the issues that has bedeviled the arts debate: the role of public subsidy, the growth of the industries that produce popular culture, the divide between high art and low art, and the emergence of the so-called “creative industries” in the 1990s. It’s as good a summary of the current state of play as you’re likely to find anywhere, including in the international academic literature.

O’Connor and his co-writers conclude that “the creative industries need not be —  indeed should not be — counter posed to cultural policy; they are a development of it” and that economic objectives (in other words, industry policy) should be a legitimate aim of cultural policy.

Taken as a whole, the argument has big implications for the way Australia currently pursues the regulation and funding of culture. For instance, it argues that “the ‘free market’ simply does not describe the tendencies of monopoly, agglomeration, cartels, restrictive practices, exploitation and unfair competition which mark the cultural industries” and that this in turn justifies greater regulation of cultural industries like the media. That’s a conclusion that few in the Productivity Commission or Treasury — let alone Kerry Stokes or James Packer — are likely to agree with.

The report also argues the divide between the high arts and popular culture has now largely disappeared, and that therefore “it is increasingly difficult for arts agencies to concern themselves only with direct subsidy and only with the non-commercial”. This is an argument which directly challenges the entire basis of the Australia Council’s funding model, in which opera and orchestral music receives 98% of the council’s music funding pie. No wonder the Australia Council’s CEO, Kathy Keele, writes in the foreword: “This study proposes to challenge many of our current conceptions, definitions, and even policies.”

Intriguingly, the report stops short of any concrete policy recommendations. Perhaps this is because some existed, but were excised from the report. Or perhaps it’s because any recommendations that genuinely flowed from this report would imply the break-up or radical overhaul of the Australia Council itself.

As Marcus Westbury this week observed in The Age: ”While the Australia Council isn’t backward in promoting research, reports and good news stories that validate the status quo, there is not much precedent for it challenging it.”

That’s because the real guardian of the current funding model is not the Australia Council, but the small coterie of large performing arts companies and high-status impresarios that are its greatest beneficiaries. It won’t be long before a coalition of high arts types, from Richard Tognetti to Richard Mills, start clamouring to defend their privilege.

Arts journalism is in a sorry state … which is no surprise

The following post appeared in Crikey on January 21st

Crikey recently carried an article by Lucinda Strahan on the dire state of Australian arts journalism. Strahan reported that “a two-week sample of arts journalism in Melbourne newspapers The Ageand the Herald Sun found public relations activity at 97% in The Ageand 98% in the Herald Sun”.

The shoddy state of the profession is disappointing, but hardly surprising for those who have actually worked as arts journalists. Arts journalists — and let’s throw in their even more neglected brothers and sisters, the critics — are a motley crew, to say the least. But what they generally share are precarious, insecure and lowly paid working conditions.

Indeed, it’s getting harder and harder to be an arts journalist in this country, in the sense that you can be a political journalist or a business reporter. The troubles faced by newspapers are felt most keenly in sections such as the arts pages, which are routinely cut back in hard times (probably justifiably, as they are not stellar performers when it comes to advertising revenue). Australia’s arts and creative industries are growing, but are still minnows compared to the giants of banking and mining. In any case, who wants to read about the back office when you can read about Cate Blanchett? The cultural sector contains stars and celebrities, and this is about whom audiences want to read. The only true creative industries reporter in the country is the Financial Review’s Katrina Strickland, and the Australian media is scarcely rushing to provide her with competitors.

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful.

Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money. Nor should we be surprised that arts writers have jobs outside journalism, often in the same industry they cover. As Strahan noted,  “subjective and even crusading advocacy … is considered proper practice in coverage of the arts, something that flies in the face of the cool impartiality of the fourth estate”.

If arts journalism is tough, criticism is even tougher. As a series of talks demonstrated last year at the Wheeler Centre, knowledgeable and passionate criticism again has become an essentially amateur phenomenon. It  flourishes in the blogosphere, for free.

Part of the problem is that no one really likes a good critic in the first place. Artists who pour their heart and soul into a performance get understandably miffed when a critic pronounces their latest masterpiece a dud. This can make the work of a critic lonely and unrewarding. And Australia’s cultural institutions are largely run by arts administrators and former artists, most of whom get quite uncomfortable whenever a critic gets, well, critical.

Nor is there much funding to be an arts writer. While the federal and state governments, through their funded cultural institutions, directly employ thousands of dancers, actors, singers, musicians, administrators and crew — even publicists — there is vanishingly little support for critics or journalists to write about culture and the arts.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect the highest standards of investigative reporting and critical appraisal from our arts writers. Realistically, though, we’re not going to get it as often as we’d like.

All of which sounds like a bit of whinge. But it’s not. Despite the adversity, quality writing about arts and culture continues to thrive in Australia: in blogs, in the small press, and in online publications … such as this one.

The comments at the bottom of my original Crikey piece are well worth a read too.

 

Hollywood’s institutionalised sexism

Several media outlets including The Wrap have carried articles today about the “celluloid ceiling” – the long-term institutionalised sexism of Hollywood’s motion picture industry.

The data is sourced from Martha Lauzen’s recent report “The Celluloid Ceiling:Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2009”. According to Lauzen, the percentage of women involved as directorss, producers, cinematographers and associated roles is low and declining:

In 2009, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.  This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2001

The graph below says it all. As you can see, men still dominate Hollywood.

Historical Comparison of Percentages of Women Employed in Key Behind-theScenes Roles, 1998-2009. Source: Martha Lauzen

The Wrap carried an interview with high-grossing director Catherine Hardwicke, of Twilight fame.

Catherine Hardwicke …  directed 2008’s “Twilight,” the first in the hugely successful vampire franchise, but Hardwicke told The Wrap she was prevented from even pitching to direct “The Fighter.”

“I couldn’t get an interview even though my last movie made $400 million,” she said to The Wrap. “I was told it had to be directed by a man — am I crazy?” said Hardwicke, who also noted she liked what David O. Russell did on the film. “It’s about action, it’s about boxing, so a man has to direct it … But they’ll let a man direct “Sex in the City” or any girly movie you’ve ever heard of.”

 

The long-tail of publishing

The following post first appeared on the website of The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, on October 4th 2010.

When was the last time you bought a CD?

If you’re like most young Australians, the answer is: a while ago. The advent of digital file sharing technologies has completely transformed the music publishing business. Since Napster was invented in 1999, CD sales have plungedmajor record labels are struggling – butconcert and festival attendances have boomed.

Now it’s the publishing industry’s turn to feel the destructive gale of technological change. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal is only the latest of many to chronicle the declining fortunes of traditional book publishers, particularly in fields like literary fiction:

From an e-book sale, an author makes a little more than half what he or she makes from a hardcover sale. The lower revenue from e-books comes amidst a decline in book sales that was already under way. The seemingly endless entertainment choices created by the Web have eaten into the time people spend reading books.

 

Publishers and authors face declining revenues and profits in the digital world. Source: LJK Literary Agents, Wall Street Journal

 

The sea-change in the publishing industry illustrates the new economics of digital distribution. It’s a phenomenon dubbed “the long tail” by Wired editor Chris Anderson. (Anderson borrowed the term from technology economist Erik Brynjolfsson).

The long tail is illustrated in the image below. The “tail” is simply the long rightwards sloping end of the curve. Inside the long tail are all the unpopular and obscure titles that never used to get published – but that can none-the-less sell in small numbers online. Aggregated together by a business model such as Amazon’s, this vast global back-catalogue can add up to real profits. In a nutshell: falling costs of publishing and distribution have allowed an avalanche of content to find new audiences. They are small audiences, but they are real.

 

MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson analysed sales data from Amazon and found that 30-40% of Amazon book sales are titles that wouldn’t normally be found in bricks-and-mortar stores. Source: Erik Brynjolfsson, Jeffrey Hu and Michael Smith (2006) “From Niches to Riches: Anatomy of the Long Tail.”

 

What this means for writers is beginning to emerge. The long tail contains nearly everything that isn’t a commercially-viable proposition: in other words, most writers, bloggers and poets. But these new technologies can also help once-obscure writers and bloggers to connect directly to audiences, and even allow them to make a modest but sustainable living from their craft. As technology writer Kevin Kelly has observed, artists and writers may only need “1000 true fans” to build a career, and cheap and easy access to blogging engines globally makes this easier than ever before.

The ability of technology to put publishing in the hands of writers won’t create many superstars, but we’re already seeing its potential to allow amateurs to reach meaningful readerships and journalists, academics and other literary professionals to add second strings to their bows. Increasingly, writers are making money the way musicians are: bymonetising their speeches, presentations and merchandise. Theinter-connectedness of blogs, which rely on many reciprocal links between a community of interest in a particular niche, help this process.

Bottom-line: the long tail economics of blogging might be unsettling for writers and publishers used to the old models, but it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

Two important new research reports from the Australia Council

With the excitement of Australia’s hung Parliament and everything I have been giving cultural policy matters a back seat for my writing on Australian politics itself.

Indeed, the election campaign has also obscured the release of two important research reports from the Australia Council on the state of artists’ incomes and career prospects in Australia.

On August 17th – in other words, during the last week of the election campaign – the Australia Council released the new reports, which it claims “offer a comprehensive picture of the working lives of Australian artists.”

The first, Do You Really Expct to Get Paid? is the latest in the long-running artists’ income survey conducted by eminent Macquarie University cultural economist David Throsby.  This is an important and extremely rich research research project, as it has been running for nearly three decades across five separate surveys.  The latest installment is particularly rewarding, offering fascinating insights and precious hard data on issues like artists’ basic demography, income levels, working hours, employment patterns, professional challenges and use of new technology. It’s a treasure trove of sociological information which I’ll be exploring here in more detail over the next few weeks.

Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs’ What’s Your Other Job?: A census analysis of artists’ employment in Australia is a very thorough and interesting dissection of available Australian Census data. But it inadvertantly shows up of one of the biggest policy  problems posed by the Australia Council by the methodological definitions it employs. Presumably at the request of the Australia Council itself, census definitions  used are not those the ABS uses in it Employment in Culture series, but rather a subset of those classifications that deal only with the artforms currently funded by the Australia Council: Chiefly literature, music, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance, “cross-artform” arts, and design.

The relevant definitions are carefully explicated – but what it is significant is who is missing. If I read the definitions correctly,  whole swathes of the cultural sector are missing. There are no film-makers, no animators, no game designers or developers, no broadcasters or book or magazine publishers, no librarians or archivists, no journalists and no bloggers – nor any of the related professions that might be snobbishly considerd “non-artistic” but in fact are vital to the production and performance of the arts – jobs like sound recorders and producers, festival promoters, museum curators and film and TV producers.

In fact, the film and television sector appears to have been excluded altogether – a strange and arbitrary decision which appears to have more to do with existing policy ambit of the Australia Council than the relevance or cogency of this definition to the broader debate. After all, what is it exactly makes design more “artistic” than cinematography?

None of which is to criticise Cunningham and Higgs’ report, which still has some really interesting things to tell us – data I’m going to explore over the course of the next week or so.

The best article about freelancing – ever

Richard Morgan has written the best article about freelancing I’ve ever read at The Awl.

Excerpt below, but make sure you read the entire bitter-sweet funny-sad melancholy-hilarious magnum opus.

Heroes be damned; a writer should not model themselves after an editor. That is probably the single best realization I have made as a freelancer.

Moss said the thing that all editors inevitably tell all writers—something along the lines of “I really admire your determination, because I tried freelancing and didn’t last six months.” Editors like to talk about how much they need freelancers and how much they envy our freedom and our work ethic and our Rolodex. Whenever a friend loses his staff job at a magazine or newspaper, his ensuing panic reminds me that they put all their eggs in one basket and that I am cushioned because I have my eggs spread across so many baskets (which is a different kind of panic). Freelancing has great rewards, but trajectory is not really one of them. You do not go from being a freelance writer to a freelance editor to a freelance deputy managing editor. Essentially, I’m doing the same thing I was doing in 2003. The market for my vaudevillian sales of wonder tonic can dry up at any moment. An editor leaves. A magazine folds. And poof! Gone.

For the record, I’ve been freelancing for nine years and I’ve liked nearly all the editors I’ve ever written for. Editors are a writer’s best friend!

How “neoliberal” are the creative industries?

Above: "Creativity" proved an attractive label for the business press in the mid-2000s. Source: Fast Company

Today I’m having a look an important recent paper by Stuart Cunningham and Terry Flew, entitled “Creative Industries after the First Decade of Debate” (it’s a paper published this year in the journal The Information Society 26: 1–11, 2010).

There’s no doubt that the “creative industries” debate is one of the most prominent in the cultural policy sphere. You might remember that in September last year I had a look at Toby Miller’s paper, “From Cultural to Creative Industries” [Cultural Studies, 23(1): 88 — 99]. In that paper, Miller examines the academic claims and policy rhetoric  of the various proponents of the creative industries idea, like Richard Florida and the QUT school, and attacks them for their “neo-liberal” ethos:

[The creative industries discourse] has offered humanities intellectuals already interested in cultural policy - often for reasons of cultural nationalism - the opportunity to go still closer to the heart of power, shifting their discourse to a comprehensively copyright-inflected one that focuses on the language of comparative advantage and competition.

Flew and Cunningham’s paper can be read as a direct riposte to this attack. Continue reading

Shane Homan’s new paper on the Victorian live music protests

I’ve covered the work of Monash University senior lecturer Shane Homan here before, so I was excited when I received an email from John Wardle about a recent new paper from Homan about the Victorian live music rallies.

Entitled “Governmental As Anything: Live Music and Law and Order in Melbourne“, Homan’s new paper is a careful and considered look at the policy background behind the live music venues debate in Australia. As his excellent introduction to the paper obserevs:

Popular music has not historically enjoyed a celebrated place at the policy table of Australian governments. The few strands of popular music policy within Australian arts and cultural infrastructure that have existed have focused on recorded production (small levels of funding assistance for less mainstream recordings) and the protection of those recordings in the local market (radio quotas); or the promotion of Australian recordings overseas (export schemes). Local, live performance circuits, ranging from the large annual festivals and stadium tours to city and suburban bars and clubs, were not considered part of the policy mix for several reasons of history and discourses. Firstly, live, local music performance was not included in the ‘excellence’ criteria determined by successive federal and state governments that funded ‘high art’ musics (opera, classical music, music theatre), where, as Tim Rowse has put it, “funding and a reputation for excellence define[d] each other” (1985: 34). Secondly, governments in turn believed that such an overtly commercial sector of the music industry should exist without assistance, a claim periodically made by the music industry itself, which in the main has detested government interference or subsidy. Thirdly, audience attendance at live performance events has always been strong. And finally, the live music venue has been consistently proclaimed as a successful incubator of jazz, pop, blues and rock acts destined for global success. The Australian pub rock experience in particular has distinguished local product in a global market; the renowned ferocity of bands and ‘punters’ has provided a distinctive regional characteristic to a local industry built upon imported cultural forms.
In contrast, Homan points out that:
… where live music has most often appeared is not in the usual debates about selecting the appropriate cultural forms for subsidy, quotas or funding, but in providing sometimes spectacular moral panics that provoke renewed debate about youth behaviour, the scope of night-time economies and the true place of local performance.

You can read the full paper online. Highly recommended.

Creative destruction in the media industries: Adam Carr on the fall and rise of New York media

The New York Times‘ media writer, Adam Carr, has a great column in the Times about the “fall and rise” of Manhattan’s once-great media empires, like Conde Nast and the Times itself.

Beginning with a parable of the golden olden days of media work, he points out that the new landscape emerging is flatter, more diverse, riskier and more opportunistic:

Historically, young women and men who sought to thrive in publishing made their way to Manhattan. Once there, they were told, they would work in marginal jobs for indifferent bosses doing mundane tasks and then one day, if they did all of that without whimper or complaint, they would magically be granted access to a gilded community, the large heaving engine of books, magazines and newspapers.

Beyond that, all it took to find a place to stand on a very crowded island, as E. B. White suggested, was a willingness to be lucky. Once inside that velvet rope, they would find the escalator that would take them through the various tiers of the business and eventually, they would be the ones deciding who would be allowed to come in.

As we all know, those times are over. Continue reading