Alain de Botton divides opinion. Currently in Australia promoting his book on News: a User’s Manual, he succeeded in insulting residents of Brisbane by describing it as ‘ugly’ (a judgement which, as an Old European living in the Briz, I firmly reject – Brisbane is possibly Australia’s best kept secret, and much prettier than either Sydney or Melbourne).
But back to Alain. He is the kind of popular non-fiction writer you either love or hate. Each new book on such themes as the consolations of philosophy, the art of travel, the pleasures of work, and now the uses of news, infuriates and impresses reviewers in equal measure. Meanwhile, he sells millions of copies, and packs out readings at literary festivals all over the world. So is he bothered what the critics think? He responded to one hostile US reviewer with the promise that “I will hate you till the day I die”. He later apologised for this uncharacteristic outburst of bad temper, though it helped to garner him some publicity for his book.
I’ll fess up to being in the pro-Alain camp, ever since I read an essay he wrote before he was famous about the unnecessary and elitist obscurantism of so much academic writing. At that time I had already established a modest reputation in the UK for writing of the kind I’m doing now – communicating more or less complex ideas about media and culture in plain English, in newspapers and periodicals, for the benefit of an educated and engaged, but not necessarily specialist audience.
I have always been a scholar in the traditional sense. My publications are predominantly books of the type you won’t find in the high street shopfront but on the fourth floor academic section. I try to make my academic writing accessible to a broad range of readers, however, and have always lacked patience for the type of jargonistic pseudo-science one finds in some of the more specialist journals and books.
De Botton’s essay resonated with the way I wanted to write: as a sociologist of journalism, media and communications, but one who wished to communicate with everyone who was interested in those subjects, and not just those with PhDs and Honours degrees in the field. I wanted to be what the Europeans call a public intellectual, regularly crossing the border between scholarship and public debate.
De Botton’s critics accused him of ‘dumbing down’ his subject matter, a term which I detest for its overt contempt for the popular; as if to engage with people who prefer Australia’s Got Talent to Q&A is a betrayal of some kind. Some folk are dumber than others, I always say - merely a statement of the obvious - but they all have a right to knowledge and opinions. Shouldn’t we scientists be able to communicate our ideas to everyone, without being accused of dumbing down the discourse?
I loved De Botton’s books on philosophy and travel. You could call them dumbed down, by comparison with the arcane texts of a Niklas Luhman or a Jacques Derrida. I think of them as stimulating, yet relaxing reads, which educate as they entertain. We need books like that.
But now he’s written about News, my own specialist area, and once again critical opinion is split. One media scholar wrote that De Botton’s user’s manual to News is just a rehashed version of Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic The Uses Of Literacy, and other founding texts of media studies. The author criticised him for:
…a complete lack of awareness/denial of the academic field of Journalism and Media, and Media education.
All true, but rather beside the point. De Botton does what most scholars seem to find very difficult. He translates the theories and concepts of philosophers, art critics, media sociologists into headlines that grab even the tabloid media’s attention. He sparks debate, and dinner table conversations about quite deep and intense topics.
I think that’s a useful service to the public, and if we scholars feel unacknowledged in the process, that’s our problem, not his. If we don’t like it, we should take a leaf out of his book, and get better at communicating our ideas in language that ordinary people understand and engage with.