‘Death Sentence’ by Don Watson


2003, 191 p.

I must confess that my heart sank when I saw that my CAE reading group book for this month was Don Watson’s Death Sentence. I had read it when it came out in 2003 and now  I struggled to re-read it for our meeting.  It seemed repetitive and unstructured, with just one argument repeated over again. So I was interested to dip back into my reading journal from 2003, prior to starting this blog, to see what I thought of it then. Here’s what I said in 2003:

An interesting reading experience, given that at the time I was reading RMIT’s Teaching and Learning Strategy as part of an assignment. This is part-diatribe, part-essay about the intrusion of managerialist language into places where it doesn’t belong. It certainly makes reading the ads in Saturday’s Age, policy documents and government advertising at all levels an exercise in cutting out ‘clag’. Knowledge Management as a discipline comes in for a particular serve. In many ways this is an extension of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ but longer, and at times less disciplined. Good critique of the use of public and political language, but just a bit self indulgent. 8/10

I’m surprised now that I rated it so highly, but perhaps it was a new perspective back in 2003. After all, in the midst of a Howard Government, we hadn’t at that stage been deluged with Rudd’s verbal sludge, which made Watson’s critique almost self-evident.

The book itself has several unnamed chapters, marked only by a blank page separating them from the previous chapter. It’s hard to work out quite how one chapter differs from the next, or if there is a theme to distinguish one chapter from the other, especially as the book goes on.  The pages have a wide margin, in which are quotes from other texts: some pithy and elegant; others the type of verbal glue that he declaims against.  I can’t help feeling that the book is too long: that it would have been better served in a Quarterly Essay format of a lesser length.

Some fourteen years on, I suspect that Watson’s howl of anger is more about the application of managerial thinking as a construct, rather than the language itself (although the two are, admittedly, inseparable). It’s something that I abhor too, and I’ll have more to say about it anon.  However, I think that programs like the ABC’s brilliant parody of the National Building Authority Utopia have done much to skewer it, far more than this book with its arch tone could ever do.

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice

My rating (now): 6.5

6 responses to “‘Death Sentence’ by Don Watson

  1. I went to a talk about this, maybe the launch, I can’t remember. And that was enough. I didn’t want to read the book too…

  2. Seemed so cutting edge at the time…..

  3. I remember being impressed by Death Sentence, now I’ll have to make time to re-read it.

  4. artandarchitecturemainly

    I have often reread books years after reading them the first time, and found the old books to be less mature the second time around, or me (the reader) to be more mature than I used to be. This is true for historical texts, but even more true for novels.

  5. I have this book but have never read it. I always thought it was supposed to be a good book, but I’ve read enough comments over the years to suggest that the ideas are worthwhile but the execution not so much. Meanwhile, I continue to yell at the TV when I hear managerial-speak, like “going forward”. I detest it – mainly because, as you say, it usually indicates woolly thinking, just people hopping onto the bandwagon to use the words they think they are supposed to use. Grrr …

  6. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: From ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ to….. | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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