The Ottoman Intellectual
‘What, him? An intellectual? That thing over there, lying on the ottoman scratching himself? That’s your idea of an intellectual, is it? Well, heaven help us. The only thing he knows about books is how to run them.’ – Tony Hancock talking about Sid James
What now constitutes our idea of an intellectual? The dictionary definitions are broad-ranging but basically suggest a superior mind, or at least a quest for knowledge, to which we can also assume a curiosity and a willingness to learn? The term has become more narrowly used over the last five decades, so that we now only think of bookish classical scholars and grand political ideologues. The Ottoman Intellectual probably arrives with Bertrand Russell, whose essays found a readership his publisher never expected. His abstract ideas created unlikely fans so that he came to occupy the bookshelves much as Yuval Noah Harari does now.
We could certainly use it to describe George Orwell, who spent his life exploring the mutual roots of fascism and socialism, who fought against Franco and relished the thought of combating German invaders while abhorring and condemning violence. And we can link him to other intellectual writers; Orwell’s other huge influence was HG Wells, the inventor and innovator who virtually created science fiction singe-handedly, who was quite capable of writing in the manner of pulp magazines when it suited him.
In America the idea of intellectualism seems more clearly defined. The strength and benefactor-driven wealth of the academic world protects it and allows for the spread and development of clear thinking; I’m always amazed by the range of fine writing that comes from their literary magazines and websites. Last week I had this essay published on Crimereads which requires writers to submit a theme, synopsis and samples. The site is an embarrassment of riches; already the piece is hard to find amid a welter of superbly written new articles.
Most UK sites cannot compete with this level of excellence. Theoretically they should be able to because sites are only limited by the English language and have a potentially enormous market waiting. It is possible to find source your week’s intelligent writing entirely from US publications. Here we rely on the London Review of Books and GoodReads. On some UK blog tours I’ve been shocked by the paucity of writing, a quick synopsis, and repeat of the PR blurb and that’s it, no thought at all, and in many cases bare literacy.
If we treasure the ability to connect conflicting ideas without letting them smash each other to bits, is it asking too much for that to be reflected in British publications? It’s not shameful to know a bit about a lot – but I fear that in the UK every new magazine aimed at making us think harder closes by Issue Three.