I generally do two sorts of writing. There’s the academic stuff, aimed at peer-reviewed journals in the United Kingdom and the United States (and occasionally here in Australia, but truth be told you won’t have much of an academic career if you’re not getting published overseas). The readership of these sort of pieces is overwhelmingly other academics. Sure, an occasional judge or practising lawyer will read this stuff, and an even more occasional member of the educated layman’s class. But really this is a rather incestuous activity. And if one manages to produce something that other academics are reading in, say, 50 or 100 years then that’s the equivalent of having achieved academic immortality. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that you can count on the digits of your various limbs the number of academic articles in my line of work that are still regularly read a century or half-century on.
Put more brusquely, this sort of academic writing has a short shelf half-life, bar the very odd exception here and there.
Then there’s the newspaper, magazine and general journal writing that I do. This is even more ephemeral. H.L. Mencken, the great American newspaperman (if that term is still acceptable), used to say this sort of writing disappeared as quickly as one wrote it. Journalism just isn’t meant to last, even the opinion pieces that form a small sub-section of the genre. Yes, we might on occasion pick up some of Mencken’s old pieces, or read through a dozen or two of Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America in written form. But it’s a fraction of a fraction of a miniscule tad of what has been written that anyone ever reads even a decade or two after its publication. If academic writing has a short shelf half-life, this sort of writing has far, far less again. To call it fleeting is about as kindly as one can put it.
There’s a third sort of writing, namely the writing of a book or a chapter in a book, that’s aimed at the general reading public. Books of this sort hope to have some sort of staying power. Usually writers of these books would like them to continue to be read some years into the future. And this kind of writing generally requires a combination of the skills needed for the first two, a bit of the dry academic knowledge and insight combined with an ease of expression and ability to generalise and précis.
Anyway, what follows is a bit of shameless self-promotion. My excuse is simply that I was asked to indulge in it, and succumbed to the temptation. You see some little while back I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book of this third sort. It was to be a book setting out the case against the adoption or enactment of a bill of rights here in Australia. And its intended readership was explicitly to be the general reading public. It was not to be some dusty academic tome, nor some attempted cure for insomnia – to be opened in bed in the hope its dryness might induce sleep.
The list of contributors to this book includes politicians past and present (including one of my favourites Mr. Howard), a former High Court Justice and other lesser judicial eminences, a few religious eminences too (of more than one denomination), plus professors, lawyers, military men, and more, with a foreword from a former Governor-General. As cross-sections go, this one is pretty impressive. And it’s good overall read. From a host of different vantages it sets out the case against a bill of rights here in Australia, and that means a statutory version too as that’s the only sort of bill of rights that will allow proponents to achieve what they want through the back door without having to put the case to the voting public in a referendum or plebiscite.
Anyway, I think this book is worth a read. It’s called Don’t Leave us with the Bill: The Case Against an Australian Bill of Rights, having been published by the Menzies Research Centre. These sort of books that fall on to what might be thought of as the non-progressive side of politics don’t easily find their way into bookshops. They haven’t been funded by some huge ARC grant, doled out to like-minded thinkers. So you might have to order a copy directly. But it’s worth doing, while it’s still around.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland