Frank O’Shea’s critique of Martin Plowman’s The UFO Diaries: Travels in the Weird World of High Strangeness (see Panorama section in the Canberra Times, 5/02/11) is flawed beyond a doubt as a pure critique of the literary value of a book, which is what it was intended to be. I declare now that I am neither a conspiracy theorist or a ‘story teller’ in the sense implied by O’Shea: a speaker/writer of fiction, a fibber, a liar, though I am trying to develop my skill as an author of science-fiction or Sci-Fi for short – not by the way a cathartic for my UFO experiences. And neither am I a liar when I declare that I have seen several objects over many years that meet the criteria for an object to be classified as an ‘unidentified flying object’. I declare, along with Whitley Strieber (Communion, Arrow Books, 1987) that I am sane and did not suffer some psychological event (e.g. hallucination, neurological trauma, etc) when I saw the objects. And I am willing to undergo both psychological examination and a lie detector test.
There are ‘cracks’ in O’Shea’s misguided attempt at a covert critique of the scientific value, disguised as critique of the literary value, of Plowman’s book. By starting with a critique of the literary value of Plowman’s book he then switched to a covert critique of the book’s scientific value or ‘contribution to the knowledge base of a particular field of scientific study’ e.g. so-called Ufology, and, in my view, wasted valuable space in Panorama in the process. No I’m not the editor for Panorama so it’s only my opinion.
Critiquing the literary value of a book is completely different from critiquing the scientific value of a book or its ‘contribution to the knowledge base of a particular field of scientific study’. If O’Shea is critiquing the literary value of Plowman’s The UFO Diaries, which I believe he is, he should have been consistent throughout his critique instead of underhandedly trying to critique its ‘contribution to the knowledge base of a particular field of scientific study’, e.g. the nature of UFOs. In doing so he stepped out of his depth of understanding and presented himself as an ‘authority’ on the subject of UFOs and simply gave his opinion on the matter, which he is entitled to do, of course. But it is an opinion that is short-sighted and insulting of those who have had real experiences of a real phenomenon. And if he’d done any real research he would have known that.
What has the extent of proof reading a book got to do with the book’s literary value or consumptive value? Absolutely nothing if you’re the reader of a book since a writer’s style is a matter of subjectivity and not a matter of objectivity for the reader. The reader is normally concerned with the book’s subject matter and the author’s skill at telling his/her ‘story’ regardless of whether it is non-fiction or fiction and not concerned with whether or not the book conforms to a particular literary theory, unless of course the reviewer is a literary researcher and lecturer in literary theory, like my former Media Studies lecturer, Dr. Josie Arnold. But such exegesis would not normally be found in Panorama, it would be found in an academic journal.
Book reviewers for newspapers tend not to be literary theorists, they tend to be writers trying to make some money from reviewing books (e.g. Popple, Dowse, Grieve, Newton and O’Shea) or they are journalism and communication people (e.g. Pryor and Tonkin), like some of the book reviewers for Panorama, e.g. Josh Rosner who I know well, and who I think is a good book reviewer and writer as well as a good ‘lecturer’ in journalism and communication. But these things are another issue in comparison to a Panorama book reviewer’s so-called ‘scientific’ conclusions on the reality or not of a particular phenomenon disguised in an ordinary book review.
To speak with authority on a subject, especially the reality of a phenomenon means you’ve done some empirical research on the subject, something O’Shea had not done and wasn’t highlighting. Plowman had done that to gain a PhD, so he had obviously done some empirical research. I do not believe the University of Melbourne is disposed to bestowing PhDs for less, but O’Shea is brave enough to disparage it for bestowing a PhD on Plowman. However, I do not believe Plowman offered a book of empirical research, what he offered was a book of observations from travels in places where UFOs had been seen, a lot like Steve Fry’s Last Chance To See (BBC TV 2009) which traces Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s journeys in search of endangered animals. I do not believe Fry to be a ‘scientist’ with a doctorate in one of the natural sciences, what he has is a degree in English literature, and his BBC program is mostly entertainment, raising awareness rather than a scientific inquiry into animals on the brink of extinction.
O’Shea clearly situates the UFO phenomenon in the psychological realm. This is clearly evident when he situates ALL eyewitness accounts of UFOs in with those who are said to have seen things like the ‘burning bush’, the Milvian Bridge, and ‘apocalyptic visions’, which according to O’Shea are simply “stories constructed to fill our [their] lack of understanding, to add a layer of memorable magic to unexpected events”. Basically, Moses, Constantine and Joan of Arc tell ‘little white lies’ or tell tall tales about or engage in extreme embellishment of said historical events. O’Shea cannot prove that these events didn’t happen simply because he wasn’t there to witness them himself.
Categorizing UFOs as fairy tales is insulting to those who have actually seen UFOs or investigate them ‘scientifically’ and as a result may have had some life-changing experience. It also highlights O’Shea’s ignorance. He didn’t do any research on the reality of UFOs but claims to be a ‘voice of authority’ on the subject. Appealing to psychology to answer his own query of the reality of UFOs, which he made covertly under the cover of a critique of the literary value of Plowman’s book, is narrow minded scepticism and exposes his attitude to the UFO phenomenon. He would be better off simply saying he doesn’t believe in the existence of UFOs rather than underhandedly insulting those who know they exist.
O’Shea does not appeal to scientific expertise in other fields in which research into UFOs has been done and really shows his lack of understanding of the phenomenon. And that’s to O’Shea’s shame and detriment as a self-proclaimed ‘voice of authority’ on the subject of UFOs. I am here not critiquing his ability to write a book review, I am criticizing his underhanded, ignorant insult of those who do serious research on UFOs but who do not call themselves ‘Ufologists’. To call yourself a ‘Ufologist’ and conclude that UFOs do not exist is an oxymoron. What you really are is a debunker not a researcher. For Plowman to conclude his book with the words “I am satisfied that UFOs are and always have been real, even if they don’t exist” and give O’Shea good reason to behave like a seanchaí, makes Plowman either a simpleton or an ignoramus in the true senses of the word and incidentally someone who can write a book, but not someone who is trying to understand the true nature of the phenomenon (see Kerrin Binnie’s ABC radio interview with Australian Astrophysicist, Professor Hughes).