Yesterday’s piece on ‘the public intellectual’ in the Observer New Review has provoked much debate, among the Virago team this morning and on the Guardian website where they are holding a live discussion in the comments section. As John Naughton says of his list of 300 public intellectuals in British life, such a list will doubtless be seen by many as arbitrary or incomplete, and compiling it makes one realise how difficult it is to assess the impact of one person on the public consciousness. We were pleased to see some figures whom we are proud to have published on the Virago list such as Shirley Williams, Jenny Diski, Jenny Uglow and Susie Orbach, though by Naughton’s own admission only 25% of the list is made up of women (he claims this is a good result as it is more than Prospect and Foreign Affairs’s American version of such a list, which featured only 9% women). And inevitably there were others we’d have liked to see named! Journalists, writers and poets accounted for nearly half of the list, and this is not including figures who are known in a specific discipline but are also bestselling writers, such as Simon Schama – does this result from their greater access to broad public debate? The conclusion of most interviewees seemed to be that debate is happening, but in a quieter way than in the Europe of Bernard Henri Levy and the like – something to do with a kind of national character or perspective. As the classicist Mary Beard said, ‘We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate, we have loads of it’.
What did you think of the list – whom did they miss? Who doesn’t quite cut the mustard?
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