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.