Category Archives: other

An open letter to Mr Andrew Robb AO MP, Shadow Minister for Finance

Dear Mr Robb

I write in response to your comments from 7 November this year, in which you criticised the funding awarded by the ARC to a number of Humanities and Social Sciences research projects. Your comments indicate a fundamental lack of understanding about the role and significance of humanist enquiry. While the sciences (and in particular the health sciences) can offer inspiring and meaningful research outcomes that can assist in prolonging life and ameliorating suffering, the end-game result of much scientific endeavour is neutrality. Thanks to medical advances life might go on, perhaps even without pain or illness, but is that really the height of our ambitions? Do we want a research culture in Australia in which mere continuation of existence is the highest research goal?

As a humanist I often find metaphors a useful way to describe and understand complex ideas, and I recently came across two excellent metaphors for communicating the role of the humanities and social sciences.

In the first you must imagine you look out the window to see a man run past. The sciences can explain many fascinating elements of that image. Physics can explain why the running man remains on the ground, and why the particular application of force by each foot results in the forward motion of running. Biology can explain the role of oxygen in his running, and nutritional science can teach us the role of the running man’s breakfast in feeding his muscles. Neuroscience can teach us how his unconscious brain controls those highly complex muscle movements, but none of this explains why.

Why is the man running? Is he running to or from? Should his running be copied – is he running from something I should also run from? Or is he running towards a loved one, recently returned from a long absence? Does running make him happy? This is the realm of the humanities, and this is the reason it is important. Health sciences can keep us alive, but the humanities can teach us why we might want to, and how to make the best out of our existence.

I promised a second metaphor, and you might be pleased to know it is a shorter one. [NB In the email to Mr Robb I wasn’t able to include the image, so I paraphrased it].

*Original image created by Rachel Leiker for the University of Utah College of Humanities.

I write to you, Mr Robb, to entreat you to work towards a little more understanding of humanist enquiry and work. I could provide endless practical arguments in support of this entreaty, but I would rather address your intelligence than your back pocket.

A little time spent looking beyond mere grant application titles and synopses (which are after all written for a specific audience and purpose) would show how crucial, how infinitely necessary, a strong humanities and social sciences research sector is for the future happiness and prosperity of Australia. Let us aim for more than mere null continuation.

With regards, and high hopes

Jean McBain

(Current MA by research candidate, dept. of English, Flinders University)


Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is dropping her publisher because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In other news, Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A 2009 article in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.

Our new digs

This is just a quick post to share some photos of our new flat in Australia. I don’t know about Andrew but I’m missing Europe a lot, and mostly missing all of the friends we made over there.

That said life is really good here, particularly when the weather is as stunning as it was last weekend. Once again we need that two-places-at-once machine!

Number 3, a completely typical Australian flat.

So we unpacked all our boxes and haven’t needed much, which is good as the budget is fairly tight at the moment. Anyway you know, I kind of like the beer mug vase!

The view from outside our gate – doesn’t that ocean just beckon! Oh and that’s our car, she’s called Gwen.

Brighton beach, our local.

Those huge Australian skies were one of the biggest things we missed in Europe. You really get a sense of space here, even in a busy suburb like Brighton.

On a sunny day everything is like technicolour here, I’d forgotten how saturated the colours were.

But we’re keeping the spirit of Italy present.

Oh, and on a side note, I made this apple and almond cake last weekend and it’s yum. I used marmalade instead of apricot jam for the glaze.

Well that’s us, all settled in back in the land down under. We hope to see some of you over here!


life is like an almond tree (at the moment anyway)

Well then.

It’s been a while.

Life has rather emphatically resumed, and blogging and its associated delights have been pushed aside by an influx of real work.

For the first time in over a month I’ve had the time to take a deep breath and think about writing. Since it’s been such a while I though I might get this show back on the road with a little autobiographical aside, a bit of back-story covering the last month or so.

When I came home to Australia I had a plan. Back to university full-time. Six months of income support from The Man and then onto a research scholarship (these are awarded once a year and I’ve missed the round for 2011).

Unfortunately The Man is a philistine and didn’t want to support me in my endeavors to spread the light of learning and enquiry. End result, I had to get a job.

Two weeks after getting home I was ‘back in black’ ‘workin nine-to-five’, and other song references. I was also spending 3 hours a day commuting from the farm to the office. Spare time was taken up with house hunting and looking for a continuing job. Time passed, or rather raced.

Last week everything changed again, as Andrew and I moved into our own house, he started university again, and I started a new job at one of the local universities. I’m now working part-time, am poised and ready to submit my Masters application and life is getting back onto the planned track.

With a more forgiving work schedule I’m now hoping – no definitely planning – on having more time to get blogging again – I mean I’ve barely been cooking over the last two months. I’m also hoping that getting back into research will provide some good topics to mull over in this space.

I’m writing all of this back at the farm (we’re having the internet connected at the flat tomorrow) and I’m current sitting in the middle of ten acres of blossoming almond trees. They’ve been bare and quiet all winter, leaves and fruit both shed in the autumn. Suddenly though, everything is happening, as they burst into flower in preparation for next year’s harvest – I think you see the metaphor!

So, that’s it really. My life to this point, from another point a few months ago, and illustrated with photos and metaphors from the farm in bloom.

I hope – no intend – to see you soon!


franken-biscuits and other baking adventures

I thought I’d share a few baking recipes that I’ve tried out over the last few weeks. Having lived without an oven for four months in Belgium I’ve been making the most of the beautiful one at Liz’s house. Since we got back to Italy I’ve (uncharacteristically) been baking away madly.

The latest bout of baking fever hit after Liz and I bought a big bag of black sesame seeds from an Asian grocery store in Torino. The next day a recipe for Black Sesame Lace Cookies hit my inbox, so I had to try it.

I mixed up the batter for the Black Sesame Cookies and then put it in the fridge for the minimum four-hour resting time. Then, following the ‘while the oven’s hot make the most of it’ philosophy I decided to try a recipe for a healthy fruit and nut slice that I’d found on the website of the Otago Daily Times.

This slice recipe uses oil, honey and mashed dates instead of their evil but charismatic cousins butter and sugar. It was really tasty, but I think the next time I make it I’ll double the amount of date and honey mixture as the slice was just a little crumbly and dry.

With the slice in the oven Liz decided now was the right moment to whip up a batch of Dead Bread. Traditionally a Christmas recipe, these could more accurately be called Franken-Biscuits because the recipe is designed to use up all of the stale biscuits you have in the back of the cupboard. You can find the recipe (in Italian) here.

I’ve translated it into English and added a few notes below. The original recipe has great step-by-step photos though, so do go and check it out if you are planning on cooking these.

Pan dei morti (Franken-Biscuits)


120g Sultanas
100ml Sweet wine or liqueur (e.g. Vin Santo)
100g Amaretti biscuits
300g Savoiardi biscuits
100g Other dry biscuits
120g Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pine nuts etc.)
1 Teaspoon all-spice
250g Flour (all-purpose)
2 Heaped teaspoons baking powder
300g Sugar
50g Cocoa
120g Dried figs, chopped
6 Egg whites


Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Prepare a biscuit tray with baking paper.

1. Soak the sultanas in the sweet wine or liqueur, set aside
2. Process the biscuits in a food processor until they have the consistency of course almond meal (you may need to do them in batches). Remove to a large mixing bowl.
3. Process the nuts in the food processor to the same consistency. Add to the mixing bowl.
4.  Add the all-spice, flour, baking powder, sugar, cocoa and figs and mix all together.
5. Add the sultanas, the sweet wine and the egg whites and mix thoroughly. The mix may take a little while to come together – it’s best to get your hands in and knead the mixture almost like dough.
6. Once the mix is cohesive roll it out to just under 2cm thick (I did two batches as there is so much dough). Cut into shapes and arrange on the baking tray, the biscuits won’t spread much so you can fit quite a lot in at once.
7. Bake for 25 minutes and then cool on a wire rack.

The biscuits turn out firm and chewy, and are absolutely perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. Enjoy!


P.S. You’re wondering about the Black Sesame Cookies right? Well after the slice and the Dead Bread came out of the oven we decided that was really enough snack food for a day or two. The Cookie recipe said the mix could wait in the fridge for up to a week, so I thought I’d leave the baking for a few days.

A week and a half later I finally got around to baking the cookies. I was careful to space the balls of batter out as the recipe warned that it was prone to ‘spread like crazy’. In any case this was the result …

Not my best effort!

crikey they liked my post!

Exciting times, I’ve just had a piece published on! You can check it out here, although it might seem familiar to readers of this blog 🙂

Crikey is an important independent voice on the Australian media scene and I’m so excited to have a piece published by them. I’d really encourage others to check the site out as their analysis and breadth of coverage are impressive.

I also wanted to quickly say sorry for not having done much here over the last week and a half. I’ve been stuck under a pile of proofreading and have just emerged for air! I’ve got some stories in the works though so hopefully next week will be more productive. The best laid plans …


jumping on the blogwagon

With my first post I thought I would share a few notes about why I’m jumping on the bandwagon and starting a blog. There are a few reasons, and getting those straight in my head isn’t that easy, but here they are …

First I wanted to start blogging because, really, I wanted to start writing again. I graduated from University two years ago and since then, for the first time since primary school, I haven’t been writing on a regular basis – mountains of emails aside! All of those short stories, reports and essays that I churned out on a regular basis through school and university seem to have trained me to think through tapping on a keyboard.

After graduating I started to miss writing. I missed shaping my thoughts into sentences and paragraphs, using my full vocabulary, probing for that perfect word – which for me often involves hand-waving and incoherent mumbling until I have the required epiphany; or have to retire for tea supplies, hoping that my subconscious thesaurus will come up with the answer if given time to run the search. I’ve always found an unsuccessful hunt incredibly frustrating, but the rush of success is only enhanced by the difficulty of the chase.

I’ve thought recently of writing the odd article or review for small publications, but I’m totally out of the habit of writing and never seem to find the time or nerve to do it. I’ve also become shy for my little compositions, nervous to let them out into a big mean world that might reject them. This blog, then, is all about jumping off the deep end, getting back into the habit of writing regularly and getting over my obsession with finish and finesse – letting these little parcels out, however roughly formed they may be.

My second reason for jumping on the blogwagon is that I don’t just want to write, I have something that I want to write about. I am really, seriously, obsessed with food. I’m no gourmet or accomplished chef, but I’m hungry constantly, so I tend to think about food a lot. I’m the kind of person who is thinking about what to cook for dinner when just sitting down to lunch.

This food obsession is not my trade or profession, simply something I engage with because it makes me (and my husband) happy, and because it’s delicious! Blogging about food and recipes, then, is a way for me to channel the obsession and use some of the creative energy that I have for food, without committing to any large-scale project.

That said, this blog won’t be all food. I’m equally afflicted with a ravenous appetite for intellectual banqueting. I majored in History and English Literature at University, but my real ‘thing’ is the past, present and future of the book, authorship and publishing. I’m fascinated by the mechanics of the literary world, from the inky details of letterpress to the exciting possibilities being opened up by digital platforms and new media – such as blogs! I’m hoping to start work on an MA this year, looking into blogs from this book history perspective, which brings me to my third reason for starting this little blog.

‘If I’m going to study blogs,’ she says to herself, ‘I must write one myself. How ridiculous would be the spectacle of a musty academic, peering into the brave new world without daring to step beyond the comfortable confines of library stacks to experience this new paradigm first-hand. The world I watch from my study is all about participation, and participate I must’

So that’s the motivation – participate or die (or at least grow mouldy amongst piles of books from a bygone age). I hope you (and I) enjoy it!