Saturday, September 11, 2010
where do we go to understand countries?
I am still musing about the apparent paucity of insightful writing about individual European countries - by English writers at any rate. But I have initially to test my hypothesis. First I have to establish a standard or (in the modern jargon) a benchmark. And am I talking about articles, books, blogs or broadcasting? Clearly we are overwhelmed with information about events all over the place – but generally in short pieces of broadcasting or articles. The article in Vanity Fair about the Greek crisis which so impressed me was 11,000 words long – and was a superb balance of technical information and quirky interviewing and analysis (of the Mount Athos monks). Where else can someone write in such length except in journals such as New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, New Left Review, New Yorker. And it is generally specialists (academics) who get through these editorial hoops – and not just any academic but those who have learned the difficult art of writing both clearly and creatively - such as the historians Timothy Garton Ash and Tony Judt. Such people are fairly rare – since communicating with the general public is not a skill which is good for one’s academic career. I am a great fan of all these journals – but have to ask also about how they decide which topics will be of interest to their readers. The mainstream media make judgements about the short time-span and limited subject matter of interest to their readers. The upmarket journals may credit their readers with more intelligence – but make equally questionable assumptions about the range of their interests. So lots of stuff about the economy and education in New York Review of Books – but little about European countries. Italy, of course, is always good for knock-about comedy.
As far as books are concerned - the need for publishing niches has created a good market for travelogues which are generally well-written but which focus on a very narrow aspect of a society –eg construction workers, the fez, carpets, And academics writing on particular countries also focus on such narrow aspects (politics, economics, history) as to leave us with no real insights.
Was there a golden age? France had Richard Cobb and, more recently, Theodor Zeldin; Spain, Gerald Brennan: the USA, Alaister Cooke; Italy, Luigi Barzini. But note - only the countries where the Brits would go on holiday.
The painting is from my collection - L Minkov's Razgrad mosque only 3 hours down the road from here in Bucharest!