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Peter Carey an inane literary snob?

It’s not often a literary story gets above the fold on the front page, but yesterday Bryce Courtenay managed it by serving up an extended spray at Peter Carey in Crikey!. Beginning by observing, “Peter Carey is a perfect example of . . . inane literary snobbery,” Courtenay goes on to deride Carey’s sales figures (“[i]f I’m a popular writer then Peter Carey is an unpopular writer . . . [i]f I’m a best-selling writer than he’s a worst-selling writer”), his education (“my education is every bit as good as Peter’s, possibly better”), the “self-perpetuating club” of government-funded snobs who force students to read books they hate instead of books they love (presumably the latter is code for books by Bryce Courtenay), before really throwing down the gauntlet by declaring, “unequivocally I could write his kind of stuff”.

Unfortunately the article itself is only available to subscribers, though as Stephen Romei points out over at A Pair of Ragged Claws, if you’re desperate to read it in its entirety you can always take out a trial subscription for free. That said, I’m not sure the full piece adds a lot to what’s above.

Courtenay’s remarks were prompted by Carey’s argument in both his closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and in his appearance on ABC 1’s Q&A that there is a connection to be made between declining educational standards, the rise of popular fiction, and the increasing triviality of public debate, vectors which, in combination, are eroding the foundations of civil society. Put simply, “[w]e are getting dumber every day, we are really literally forgetting how to read . . . consuming cultural junk . . . is completely destructive of democracy”.

Putting aside the rights and wrongs of Carey’s argument (for what it’s worth, I have sympathy with a lot of what he says, but the issues he’s touching upon are complex and deserve rather fuller attention than I’m able to give them now), what interests me about Courtenay’s spray (aside from how utterly self-serving it is) is that it’s part of a rather larger shift in the cultural landscape, and one which is connected to the sorts of issues I was discussing a while back in a post about the rise of genre.

Back then I was arguing that the retreat of the “literary” can be understood, at least in part, in terms of the loss of the critical vocabulary that enables us to make meaningful judgements about quality. That’s partly about changes in what and how students are taught, partly about a broader unease about imposing cultural judgements, and partly about the rise of the consumer/reader which is being driven by consumer capitalism and the manner in which the internet is breaking down traditional loci of cultural authority. In such a context it becomes very difficult to mount a defence to the argument that the real test of a book’s quality is its popularity.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I actually don’t think the test of a book’s quality is its popularity. Nor that I don’t think much of Courtenay’s books (and yes, I’ve read several of them). But I’m not sure that makes me a snob, and neither does it mean I’m riven with envy about the hordes of readers who throw themselves at the feet of the Bryce Courtenays of the world. Quite the reverse in fact: I have immense respect for many “popular” writers.

What it does mean is that I think there are many forms of literary expression and literary pleasure, and while I respect the skill and craft of a writer such as George Pelecanos or James Lee Burke, that doesn’t preclude me from dismissing Dan Brown (for instance) as crap. Nor (and I think this is the point of Carey’s Courtenay completely fails to engage with) does it stop me from believing that serious writing is important, both because it makes intellectual and moral demands of us, and because it enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit by doing so. I’m not sure I agree that the chatter of the new world, and the changes in our reading habits are necessarily or purely corrosive, but I do think the increasing antipathy to writing that forces us to think , and the celebration of writing that exists purely to entertain is. We all know the increasingly trivial and self-serving nature of the media is bad for public life, so why is literature any different? Because that is, in the end, what Courtenay and others like him are claiming.

Obviously I’m keen to hear your views on all of this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you to Tony Martin’s hilarious rant about the odious Lee Child’s performance on First Tuesday Book Club a few weeks back. You think Bryce is bad? Wait till you see Child in action.

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18 Comments Post a comment
  1. genevieve #

    The Martin piece is priceless, isn’t it. And the first thing I thought of, when I heard about this.

    June 10, 2010
  2. It’s terrible to see writers going at each other like bloated sharks in a kiddie paddling pool…

    though I have to say I’d be tempted to ripost after the sneering Lee Childs comments I read in Tony Martin’s article. He sounds like a real sweetie, that Childs (never heard of him before, actually).

    We have a good friend who earns a fortune painting very good pastels of Provençal poppy fields…technically he’s good, but we secretly consider him an artisan rather than an artist (we could never tell him this). Perhaps there’s a parallel to be drawn…there’s nothing wrong with a good commercial thriller when it works…

    Having two small kids I’ve read loads of easy reads the last year or so, but nothing that’s made me reflect on my life or made me dream in the same way as Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, to pick the first example that comes to my mind.

    You need space and quiet to dream, and when our lives are saturated by facebook and twitter and the internet, with the badly written online newspapers and every second person you meet is hooked up to an iPod/iphone, it’s little wonder people are going for the quick sugar rush of popular fiction…

    June 10, 2010
  3. Just went and had a read of the Martin and was likewise charmed. I particularly liked this:
    ‘You don’t hear McDonald’s complaining that they haven’t been awarded three Michelin hats for their latest Bacon Burger DeLuxe.’
    What a really excellent analogy that is.

    June 10, 2010
    • It is, though “bloated sharks in a kiddie paddling pool” isn’t bad either . . .

      June 10, 2010
  4. but what does this have to do with “democracy” as Carey put it?

    June 10, 2010
  5. The thing about a writer like James Lee Burke is that he’s superb at characterization and his work actually has identifiable themes – which means he, like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell – pushes the boundaries of genre fiction. The same can’t be said of Dan Brown. Nor, I suspect, of Bryce Courtenay, although a quick glance at his web site convinces me life is too short for me to take the time to read any of his work.

    I have often wondered – because I try to keep up with contemporary British, American and Australian lit as well as Canadian – if the works that end up selling foreign rights – i.e. the ones that make it to Canada from Australia – are the best or merely the most popular. So this salvo from Courtenay is rather heartening to me. Everyone who’s anyone in Canadian serious reader circles has read Peter Carey. No one’s ever heard of Bruce Courtenay. Oh. Bryce, was it? Well, Bruce, Bob, Bryce, Byron – life is good for a big frog in a small pond, I guess. 😉

    June 10, 2010
  6. “The thing about a writer like James Lee Burke is that he’s superb at characterization and his work actually has identifiable themes – which means he, like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell – pushes the boundaries of genre fiction.”

    Well exactly. Ditto Larry McMurtry, Dorothy Dunnett, Peter Temple and, I’d argue, Val McDermid, to mix my genres wildly, and just off the top of my head. I think you’ve put your finger on it with mention of characterisation and abstract themes, and to that I’d add a metaphorical or allegorical dimension in which the novel has an extractable ‘message’ and is saying something implicit but still coherent about the world. Elizabeth George, for example, has become quite passionate about the way that horrible backgrounds produce young criminals and her books keep getting better and deeper and more interesting as a result.

    June 10, 2010
  7. One of the standard dismissals of literary fiction is that it is ‘just another genre’, but one with pretensions of grandeur. I’m not sure I believe that entirely, but my dissatisfaction with most literary fiction stems from a different source. The novel is no longer a privileged cultural form, no longer D. H. Lawrence’s ‘one bright book of life’. That conclusion is obvious, but it need not be a source of anxiety. My own work is influenced by television, cinema and comic books (especially the latter) as much as, if not more than, any literary canon, and I therefore have little patience with books that persist in maintaining the illusion that these other media do not exist. It seems to me that one possible negative definition of literary fiction is that it is a kind of writing that takes its own autonomy, and therefore its own cultural significance, for granted. This is apparent in its commitment to the idea of language as a form of seduction (only literary fiction is sold to us as ‘beautifully written’). Well, to quote Morrissey, that kind of book ‘says nothing to me about my life’, and I am in any case inherently suspicious of people who are trying to seduce me, however elevated their language is.

    That doesn’t mean I’m on the side of Lee Child and Bryce Courtenay though, although I am generally in favour of bad taste and impropriety.

    June 11, 2010
  8. “It seems to me that one possible negative definition of literary fiction is that it is a kind of writing that takes its own autonomy, and therefore its own cultural significance, for granted.”

    I dunno about the form taking its own significance for granted, but most of the people who write it and read it do. The majority of literary prizes are for novels. The overwhelming majority of Creative Writing students are writing novels. The novel is the form that neurosurgeons think they’ll have a crack at after they retire, when they’re got time on their hands. And if one writes and publishes a short story, an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction as it’s now officially called, the question most people ask is ‘Oh yes, and when are you going to write a novel?’ The privileging of the novel over other literary forms is deeply embedded in most readers’ consciousness, and I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon.

    June 11, 2010
  9. But all those people who want to write novels don’t actually read many of them, do they? Which is an utterly bizarre disconnect. I don’t actually believe in the death of the novel, however. I just don’t believe we’re leaving in the world that F. R. Leavis built any more (as indeed, James’ earlier piece on genre argues persuasively).

    I mentioned bad taste, because, when I was looking through a collection of catty comments on writers by other writers, ‘tasteless’ or ‘in poor taste’ was a surprisingly prevalent critical assessment in the nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, for example against Dostoevsky, who, like many writers of the period who are now in the canon, was then dismissed as populist (though it is actually Nabokov who accused him of ‘lack of taste’). Now we don’t see this accusation much in reviews, but I think it remains a problematic criterion. ‘Tasteful’ novels bore me.

    June 11, 2010
  10. “But all those people who want to write novels don’t actually read many of them, do they? Which is an utterly bizarre disconnect.”

    Couldn’t agree more, about both the non-reading and the bizarritude, and I think this is relatively new (post-70s, say, in the wake of the ‘Be creative’ mantra in education around that time).

    Most of the Creative Writing students I’ve had in the past who have been like this (and there have been many, even in the selective classes) have said indignantly, when encouraged to read as many good novels as possible, ‘But I don’t want to be influenced!‘.

    One could not tactfully reply that in most of these cases a little influence would be the best thing that could possibly happen to them. One wanted to, though.

    June 11, 2010
  11. Benny #

    I think Carey’s comments can also be read as being in line with the old guard’s lament that modernity (or postmodernity – as a collection of ‘fads’ such as feminism, postcolonialism, etc etc) is eroding the core of ‘our culture’. Matthew Arnold said it centuries ago – we must teach those plebs how to read so that they can recognise what we think is valuable… basically anything that strokes our egos (qtd from old dead educated white guys).

    Unfortunately (because I love some of Carey’s work), Carey’s lament is one step away from, imho, the paranoid Hansonist claims that immigration from Asia and the Middle-East will lead to a decline in Anglo culture. And this is where I think his claims start leading toward a certain version of democracy.

    Democracy, in the eyes of those enlightened fore-fathers of the 18th and 19th centuries, was never about one vote for all, but about one vote for everyone ‘we’ think is enlightened enough to vote. JS Mill never thought that the barbarians would vote, just as Carey thinks the plebs can’t read. Modern democracy, according to the Hansonites, risks the destruction of tradition (along with the privileges it provides for the traditionally powerful), just as the democratisation of reading, according to Carey, risks the destruction of traditional reading practices (along with the privileges such reading practices give to ‘literary snobs’- aka the traditionally powerful).

    Carey’s comments are yet another defence from the middle-ground – an attempt to protect the systems (of reading, in this case) that keep the privileged powerful. I don’t like Courtenay very much, but I do think Carey’s comments represent a troubling kind of literary snobbery.

    June 11, 2010
  12. I have somewhere an A D Hope essay from 40 years ago arguing the same – that the novel is the predominant literary form and that people need to relearn poetic language and forms.

    But I’m not sure if this remains true now.

    Media forms are multiplying. Time spent on any one medium grows shorter. Poetry, or related forms are, I believe, more suitable and adaptive to these mediums than forms such as the novel.

    I’d argue that the novel requires a long period of concentration to be fully enjoyed, and this is not always facilitated by the competing media sources nowadays through which we receive our arts, culture, and entertainment.

    Poetry is usually much shorter, pithier, more stylised, and is recognisable as poetry in aural and textual mediums. And indeed with the proliferation of song lyrics, and of both serious and comic singers, it’s at least arguable that some of our most important poets are working in the musical profession, and may not even have considered themselves as poets!

    I think the current media environment is beneficial to poets, less so to novelists. But it could be a matter of where the talent lies and how poets and novelists and other artists choose to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them.

    June 11, 2010
  13. Tim #

    I don’t have much time for Courtneay’s ott attack, or his books, but I nonetheless find Carey’s comments offensive. I think there is an element of expat snobbery in them that needs to be challenged.

    What irks me particularly is that Carey is one of those who argued long and loud about the need to maintain parallel importation restrictions, which, whatever its merits, is a practice that keeps book prices in Australia higher than they would otherwise be (I know some argue this isn’t true, but as a careful consumer who spends an inordinate amt of his disposable income on books, I beg to differ).

    My point is, it is a bit much to argue we don’t read enough when you are in favour of a system that pushes books out of the price range of the people you attacking for not reading enough.

    So I see a class element in his comments that maybe he hasn’t thought about enough. In this respect at least, his comments are certainly as self-serving as Courtneay’s.

    I also find the terms ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ problematic in discussions like this. Surely there are decent ‘popular’ writers (touched on above) just as there are bullshit ‘literary’ writers? The entire language of the discussion is fraught.

    At the very least, Carey’s comments, then, strike me as particularly unnuanced for a guy who is arguing literary merit and the need for careful thinking. In fact, they reek a little of pandering to his audience.

    (One other point worth considering in passing is the way books are marketed, a practice that I’m sure scares a lot of ‘literary’ types away from decent ‘popular’ books and vice versa.)

    June 11, 2010
  14. As TimT, Benny, Jon and others have said, this debate isn’t a new one. In fact, hasn’t Courtenay been saying this same thing – one way or another – for years now? In this instance, he’s named-names. Perhaps correctly, too, if one feels the same as Tim does above (irked by Carey’s comments)

    June 11, 2010

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