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Jan 19, 2011

Smart summer reading: bogans not nationally lampooned

Published by Hachette Australia Things Bogans Like is an example of a relatively new phenomenon: the blog-to-book publishing project.

Things Bogans Like is an example of a relatively new phenomenon: the blog-to-book publishing project. The first blog-based books were easily slotted into conventional publishing genres: confessional memoirs and glossy coffee-table tomes seemed the natural model. More recent efforts have been heavily influenced by the thematic approach popularised by the Tumblr microblogging platform.

These blogs tend to begin with an overarching topic, then collect examples of it, post by post. “Tumblelogs” that have earned book deals include 1001 Rules For My Unborn Son, Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves and Look At This F-cking Hipster. The much-publicised Sh-t My Dad Says began in a similar vein as a Twitter account. Unlike some of its cousins though, Things Bogans Like suffers from the contrasting ways in which blogs and books are consumed.

Online, it’s satisfying to be drip-fed new variations on a theme. However, a book – especially one that aspires to social satire – has to work as a cohesive, stand-alone text. Simply collating online content in a single volume raises the question: what’s the point of this? And Things Bogans Like has you wondering from the start.

I’m not suggesting the book is without its pleasures. Yet, the pseudonymous gaggle of young professionals who wrote it don’t really seem to have articulated their reasons for doing so. It’s as if they tossed around a few quasi-anthropological bogan jokes at the pub, blogged them on a whim, rode high on the internet’s appetite for OMG SO TRUE LOL, and then found themselves being wooed by a publisher who saw Christams gift idea written all over it.

It goes on and on. So many things bogans like, so little meaningful structure. The writing is fluent and often shrewd, and the short entries are organised into categories, from “Multiculturalism” to “Sartorial Splendour”. But in an odd and misguided move, the categories are presented in alphabetical order. Key ideas are introduced without context and repeated between entries; the tone pitches about like The Spirit of Tasmania on Bass Strait (presumably due to the different authors’ writing styles) and the categorisation is loose and inconsistent. (Why was “Uninformed Gambling” filed under “Discretionary Spending”, yet “The Casino” was in “Boganomics”? Why are there separate categories for “S-x” and “Mating and Procreating”?)

The Australian cultural figure being lampooned doesn’t emerge any more sharply as the book proceeds. If anything, it becomes more generic and unfocused; a bogan turns out to be anyone who goes in for aggressive shopping binges, uninhibited public behaviour and mainstream pop culture. There are only so many supposedly quintessential bogan traits you can witness being given the treatment before you ask yourself, “So what?”

The reason it’s a shame is because it’s important for Australians to ask ourselves what we actually mean when we use loaded terms such as “bogan”. It’d also be good to ask these questions now, if only to stem the tide of pointless op-ed pieces that substitute lazy generalisations for cultural analysis.

This is not to say that Things Bogans Like doesn’t ring true quite a lot of the time. But it’s a callous, objectifying book. The pleasures of recognition it offers are pleasures of disavowal. The authors of the book seem to start out with an attitude of un-thought-through contempt for the social forms they mock. And they don’t allow themselves, or us, to do anything with that attitude.

Apart from the anonymity that relieves the authors of responsibility for their snideness, what separates Things Bogans Like from its ur-text, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like, is empathetic use of the imagination. Lander freely admits that he’s white as the driven snow, and there’s affection in the way he mocks his peers for their solipsistic, anxious snobbery.

By contrast, it’s striking that Things Bogans Like constantly refers to its subject using the impersonal pronoun “it”. (Though the rhetorical strategy falters when gender is up for discussion; feminine pronouns often slip into the book’s descriptions of female bogans.) The clinical style is designed to create a rhetorical gulf between “the bogan” and those who so comprehensively have his/her/its measure.

Which leads me to my next party-pooping question: who is this book for? Christian Lander knows his audience. Although he addresses the reader as a “non-white” cultural tourist seeking to understand and befriend white people, he’s keenly aware that white people are awfully fond of reading about themselves.

I’d actually tip my hat to the authors of What Bogans Like and to its publisher, Hachette, if the book were meant to be consumed in the same way as the gaudy merchandise it catalogues: bought by bogans as a display of sophistication and wit, but in fact broadcasting the exact opposite.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case. Though possibly the book might  make an ideal gift to a relative with unknown reading tastes who once did something described in its pages (“Dear Craig, wishing you a maxtreme birthday …”), at a guess, I’d say What Bogans Like is destined to be quietly flipped through and sniggered at, by readers not dissimilar to the authors, as they browse the latest releases at an independent bookshop or get comfortable on an inner-city loo.

Throughout years of trying to participate in intelligent discussion about things bogan, I’ve constantly run up against the “commonsense” belief that bogans aren’t worthy of critical analysis; that they’re simply there to be scorned. This book might claim to illuminate one or two “new” kinds of bogan, but really it’s just more of the same. Where good comedy provokes and unsettles, Things Bogans Like offers nothing but complacent certainties. For this reader, it was disheartening to see how badly the book fumbled its opportunity to turn some of its excoriating wit back on the people doing the name-calling.

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8 thoughts on “Smart summer reading: bogans not nationally lampooned

  1. Holden Back

    What Bogans Don’t Like might give more away about it authors.

  2. Mark Duffett

    Anyone can make a typo, but there’s no excuse for an ‘editor and publisher’ writing “Bass Straight”.

  3. Sophie Black

    Ed: we’ve amended that reference, thanks Mark, we should’ve picked it up

  4. chubbybloodfart

    “a bogan turns out to be anyone who goes in for aggressive shopping binges, uninhibited public behaviour and mainstream pop culture”

    that works out to be about 80% of the dumbed down, ignorant, mindless consuming, xenophobic population.
    there’s your “So What?”
    Bogan proclivities + Marketing genius = New Yacht + Social Sewer.

  5. mattsui

    What ever happened to the ‘westie’?

  6. Dominic Kelly

    Bravo Mel. Very similar to what I’ve been arguing to friends for some time. This rubbish blog/book takes the premise of the brilliant Stuff White People Like and turns it into sneering, elitist drivel shorn of all wit.

  7. Patrick Brosnan

    “the tone pitches about like The Spirit of Tasmania on Bass Strait”
    Is this irony? It better be because as a metaphor it’s crap writing.

  8. Ed

    “usually they call the bogan ‘it’, but sometimes revert to mentioning a gender when a sentence would be confusing otherwise”.

    How mortifying.

    Also, you seem to lambast the authors for errors that happen at the editing and publishing end (such as internal consistency), then your piece is edited in such a way that the TITLE OF THE BOOK YOU’RE REVIEWING changes during the article. The book was a blog, as you say, and consistency is hard to wrangle from 200-odd loosely linked pieces. You can’t seem to manage it in a 1,000 word review.

    You make some potentially valid points and then squander them in the same manner.