08 October 2009

Style and Structure

Authors appearing in The Best Australian Essays tackle a wide range of issues each year in a variety of formats.  In 2008 Don Watson examined the Anzac legend and modern lifestyle values in his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of Anzac” (Watson, 2008) and Kate Jennings discussed the banking world in the context of the Global Financial Crisis in “To Hell With the Future” (Jennings, 2008).  Both Watson and Jennings have a political message to convey but they do so in quite different styles.



In a feature article offering political and social commentary that also ventures into satire Don Watson criticises politicians and others for using Anzac Day to promote particular values and virtues.  It has an authorative tone due to the research supporting his argument, as evident by the many respected figures quoted.  Watson started his career as an “academic historian” (Monash University, 2008) which is evident in this piece due to the historical argument and critical analysis. 

The essay introduces the topic via a football commentator at an Anzac Day match extolling the sacrifices made for lifestyle by soldiers.  By being stated in a public domain, this commentator’s statement is being associated with public sentiment.  Watson ends the opening paragraph with a corruption of the bible verse John 15:13 by substituting the word lifestyle for life: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his lifestyle for his friends” (Watson, 2008, p.21).  This biting sarcasm illustrates both the frustration and wit of the author which can engage the reader through its mocking.

 Watson then moves from the old text of the Bible to the words of the modern day, demonstrating exactly how the word lifestyle is used in the contemporary world in conjunction with emotive words (underlined), “Lifestyle is life accented with dreams, aspirations and entitlements, life with multitudes of choices, life going forward – enhanced life” (p. 80).  He then links it back to the values revered in the Anzac soldier, particularly those spoused by the former prime minister, John Howard, as “courage, valour, mateship, decency…a willingness as a nation to do the right thing, whatever the cost” (p. 81).  Watson criticises Howard and his ilk for “tying sacrifice and slaughter to a prescriptive set of contemporary Australian values” (p. 81), again using emotive words in opposition to the modern ones.

This has not only made the essay personal, it has also established the thesis of Watson’s argument, that lifestyle, values and the Anzac legend do not make a neat mix and could possibly be viewed as an abuse of truth.  The main body of the essay then reduces in sarcasm and uses the work of historians such as Marc Bloch and Bill Gammage to support his argument and expose the true values of soldiers around the world, labelling them as military values to distinguish them from general life (or lifestyle) values (p. 83).  At the end of this section Watson uses inclusive language to appeal to the reader such as “If we want…we need to…” and the words, “us” and “our” in the same paragraph (p. 85).

At this point the essay takes a turn into satire.  Based on the ideas of the philosopher, William James, Watson makes some preposterous propositions to apply the virtues displayed in war to the issues plaguing Australia.  For example:

Let battalions of citizen soldiers answer the bugle calls of climate change and environmental deregulation.  They can fight erosion, salt and evaporation.  Let rabbits, cane toads, water buffalo, mynah birds, carp and pigs be their enemy… By all these works they will be drawn closer to the land from which in legend the Anzacs came…  (p. 86)

For at least two years every maturing Australian will be separated from the supports of dysfunction of family… They will be cut off from shopping.  All other lifestyle addictions, including career resumes, will be abandoned… And all the while they will be coming to more nearly know what they mean when they say ‘Lest we Forget.’  (p. 87)

To ensure it is understood as satire it concludes with “It’s an outrageous idea, of course, and no-one should take it seriously” (p. 87).  The satire addresses many modern day issues like environmental concerns and consumerism, as can be seen in the quotes above.  Through a ridiculous concept it exposes the questionable lifestyle choices made by modern society, some of which is now evident in the Global Financial Crisis, thereby making the ridiculous appear not so ridiculous after all.

Through both academic argument and satire Don Watson featured the values, or lack thereof, Australians hold today in their pursuit of the modern day lifestyle.  The essay criticised leaders for trying to rub the glory and honour of the past onto themselves and the nation, leveraging moral courage for mere political rhetoric.

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story” (Gornick, 2001, p. 13).  Watson used the situation of Anzac Day (the situation) to examine political rhetoric (the story).  In another essay of political and social commentary, “To Hell with the Future” (Jennings, 2008) various people from the financial sector are scrutinised (the story) in the context of the Global Financial Crisis (the situation). 

In 2002 Jennings wrote a novel, Moral Hazard, “set in the world of high finance during the mid-1990s” (Wilkinson, 2002).  In a very clever piece of writing Jennings sets herself up as a credible financial critic at the start of her essay (Jennings, 2008, p. 40) by merely saying she has the reputation of one, “Because I wrote a novel, Moral Hazard, and opinion pieces for the New York Times and the Financial Times that rebuked investment bankers, I’ve gained a reputation as a stern critic of the financial system” (p. 40).  Jennings then further uses her own novel as an introduction to the problems currently facing the financial world in a strange mix of fact and fiction.  She also uses it as an aid for explaining some of the more technical aspects of finance.  Once the references to Moral Hazard are left behind the essay moves to a reasonably standard literary rant.

Like Watson, Jennings quotes various people, but instead of using them to argue her case for her, most of those named are being held up for ridicule, to have them fall on their own swords.  The other perspectives given are those of the elusive readers and friends who conveniently pass comments which warrant a response, such as “Readers…assumed that I thought all bankers were the devil incarnate.  Not so.  Hey, some of my best friends are bankers” (p. 42).  The anecdotes build a picture, as evidence, in the case against bankers.  Jennings then provides a few platitudes about good bankers before identifying the ultra rich bankers as “them” and associating herself with the common “us” through images of how they should be punished through pillorying or some other form of public shame (p. 43). 

This is reinforced by much of the text reading like a passionate speech or a conversation Jennings is having with herself, including many informal phrases such as “The thing is…” (p. 43) and “Poor thing…” (p. 45) and colloquial sayings like “hit…over the head with a cricket bat” (p. 45) and “If…I’m a monkey’s uncle” (p. 45).  There are several attacks on the financial establishment cached in humour to further emphasise the difference between the high-fliers and the rest of the world, some of which were reported by the ubiquitous friends.  These mainly involve parties and other excesses.  At one party Rod Stewart performed and Jennings comments “Rod Stewart?  The rich have no taste.  I would’ve gone for Neil Diamond” (p. 44).  The informal language and witty asides aligns the author with ordinary people, the readers.  As Gornick states, “The ability to make us believe that we know who is speaking is the trustworthy narrator achieved” (2001, p. 17)

Stein describes literary nonfiction as having “precise and skilled use of words and tone” and that “while information is included, insight about that information, presented with some originality, may predominate” (Stein, 1995, p. 223).  Jennings has written an essay that provides insight into the Global Financial Crisis with originality from an insider that was in the system but not part of it, at least according to her author persona. 

Don Watson employs academic argument and farcical humour to express his opinion in the distant third person. His use of sarcasm and satire works well as mockery and is engaging, to an extent.  However, Jennings uses a more personal touch by writing in the first person with acerbic wit, creating a persona for the author and thereby charming the audience.  It makes the text easier to read and seem real and truthful.  Yet upon further analysis it could be construed as manipulation and not as close to fact as it may first appear due to the unnamed readers and friends and references to her own fictional novel.

These two essays in the context of the events of 2008 examine values held in contemporary society.  Watson writes in an authorative and satirical tone, always an arms length from his subject, whereas Jennings writes in an entertaining and engaging manner, attempting to make some difficult concepts relevant and personal.  Both essays bring modern values into question in intriguing ways but they are completely and utterly different in tone, narrative and use of language.


Reference List

Gornick, V. (2001). In V. Gornick, The situation and the story: the art of personal narrative (pp. 3-26). New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Jennings, K. (2008). To Hell with the Future. In D. Marr (Ed.), The Best Australian Essays 2008 (pp. 40-46). Melbourne: Black Inc.

Monash University. (2008, April 8). Monash University Prominent Alumni - Dr Don Watson. Retrieved August 6, 2009:
http://www.monash.edu.au/alumni/prominent-alumni/don-watson.htm

Stein, S. (1995). Using the Techniques of Fiction to Enhance Nonfiction. In S. Stein, Stein on writing: a master editor of some of the most successful writers of our century shares his craft techniques and strategies (pp. 223-231). New York: St Martin's Press.

Watson, D. (2008). The Moral Equivalent of Anzac. In D. Marr (Ed.), The Best Australian Essays 2008 (pp. 80-88). Melbourne: Black Inc.

Wilkinson, J. (2002, March 15). Jennings, Kate. Moral Hazard. Booklist , 98 (14), p. 1212.

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