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Posts tagged ‘Peter Carey’

Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize was announced this morning in London. Since the judges seem to have got the notable omissions out of the way when they assembled the longlist (Ian McEwan, Martin Amis) they’re not the big news this time round, though the two books many will note the absence of are Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Not having read the whole list I’m not really in a position to guess at the likely winner, but I would say that Emma Donoghue’s fictional reworking of the Natasha Kampusch story, Room, has been attracting a lot of attention, and while Tom McCarthy’s C has probably slipped under many people’s radar, if it’s made it to the shortlist I think it’d have to be the dark horse candidate. It’s also pleasing (not least because I’m an admirer of the book) to see Peter Carey shortlisted for Parrot and Olivier in America.

The six books on the shortlist are:

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Emma Donoghue, Room
Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
Andrea Levy, The Long Song
Tom McCarthy, C

In other award-related news, Sunday saw the announcement of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was split between China Mieville’s The City and the City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a result which seems about right to me.

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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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Parrot and Olivier in America

parrot-olivier-ausJust a quick note to say my review of Peter Carey’s new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is available on The Australian’s website.

It’s been interesting speaking to people who’ve read the piece, not least because it’s difficult to escape the feeling Carey’s burned through some of his goodwill in recent years. The reasons for that seem to be complex – certainly there’s a view the last few books have been a bit patchy – but I also suspect changing literary fashion has left his brand of big, rough-hewn post-modernity looking a little awkward in the contemporary landscape (I’d say something similar about Doctorow and Rushdie, though I have to say I think Carey’s streets ahead of either of them). Of course that’s always a problem for writers as distinctive as Carey, but I do hope it won’t stop readers seeking out this new one, not least because it’s his best book in years, and definitely up there with early masterpieces like Illywhacker. Nor am I alone in this judgement: in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald Andrew Reimer calls it a tour de force (not online), and Jennifer Byrne says something similar in Saturday’s Age.

And if you’re interested in reading more about Carey you might like to check out this piece I wrote for Meanjin a while back. It’s a bit long in the tooth these days but it’s got some good moments.

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Peter Carey’s Gumtree


There’s a nice little moment in this week’s episode of Movie Extra’s rather excellent new comedy, The Jesters, in which the Mick Molloy character, Dave Davies (a thinly disguised Doug Mulray) is informed by his agent, Di Sunnington (the marvelously deadpan Deborah Kennedy), that Jane Campion wants him to play the part of the villain in her new movie, Gumtree. Worried it’s an arthouse flick, Dave presses her for a bit more information, only to be told it’s based on a Peter Carey novel. “Have you read it?’ he asks, to which Di replies with haughty disdain, ‘Don’t be stupid, it’s a Peter Carey novel, nobody’s read it”.

It’s a cheap line, but it’s a funny one (it doesn’t hurt that every time I hear Deborah Kennedy say “Don’t be stupid,” I’m reminded of her fabulous performance opposite Sam Neill in Death in Brunswick), the only problem is that (a) the book they’re talking about doesn’t sound anything like a Peter Carey novel, and (b) from the plot description and the title it’s clearly meant to be Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, which was famously about twelve hours away from being made into a movie starring Russell Crowe and Our Lady of the Immovable Face, Nicole Kidman, when it came suddenly and spectacularly unravelled a couple of years ago.

All of which does, in a way, make the joke even funnier. Because the laugh depends on the assumption no-one reads Peter Carey, and the general risibility of Australian writers and writing, but in fact they’ve had to change the name of the writer the joke is really about because while enough people will have heard of Peter Carey to make the joke work, absolutely nobody’s heard of Murray Bail.

Oh dear.

(Just btw, here’s a clip from this week’s episode, an “out-take” of Molloy’s Dave Davies doing his nut on set).

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Bread and Sirkuses


Peter Carey

I’m currently reading Peter Carey’s rather fabulous new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. Since I’m reviewing it I can’t say much more than that, but I thought I might use it as an excuse to upload an essay I wrote for Meanjin about Carey way back in 1997. Entitled ‘Bread and Sirkuses: Empire and Culture in Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs, it uses those two books as the starting point for a broader survey of Carey’s work. In places it’s a bit dated, but it’s not a bad piece, so it seemed worth giving it another run.

If you’d like more Careyana, Carey maintains a classy-looking website, with excerpts from his novels, selected reviews and links to a range of interviews and appearances, as well as reproducing this one, which originally appeared in The Paris Review. And if you’d like to read some other pieces I’ve written about Carey’s fiction you might want to check out my reviews of My Life as a Fake and Theft.

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Parallel importation and the future of books

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I linked yesterday to Peter Carey’s excellent piece in The Age attacking the proposed changes to Australia’s copyright laws (I can see already I’m going to need to find a way to create some kind of second stream, or news-ticker to throw up links to articles and sites which I like without actually adding full-blown posts, but that’s another story). Since I’m working on a piece about some of these questions at the moment, they’re rather on my mind, but I thought it might be a good moment to link to several other pieces that have appeared recently, one about the Google Books settlement in the US, another by Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland from yesterday’s Crikey! about the decline of the review and the third a piece from Time about the future of publishing.

At first blush, the two topics are only tangentially related. The first, parallel importation, is a story about protecting the rights of Australian authors to manage their rights within their home territory, and about protecting Australian culture. The others are about a larger, economic and cultural transformation being driven by information technology. But I can’t help thinking they’re actually connected. Sparrow’s piece, the Time piece and the Google Books piece are all about a shift away from the print culture that has existed for the last few hundred years. This was a culture which relied upon particular reading habits, and which gave birth to the dominant cultural form of the last 150 years, the novel. One part of that culture was an economic system in which publishers controlled copyright both legally and physically by controlling the distribution and reproduction of the physical object. Yet as the experience of the music industry has demonstrated, once the physical object evaporates it becomes almost impossible to continue to control reproduction. So as the print culture of the past, and its dependence on both the modes of reading that go with it and the physical object fades, isn’t it possible the debate of parallel importation may begin to look like one of those skirmishes fought on the edge of a larger conflagration?

I’m not suggesting we should give up the fight to prevent the push by Dymocks and their crony, Bob Carr, to roll back territorial copyright becoming reality (why anyone who lives in NSW would listen to the advice of Bob Carr about anything, let alone educational or cultural questions, is completely beyond me, but we won’t go there). That’s a fight that needs to be won. But I also wonder whether it should begin to be seen in a larger context, as part of a more profound shift which will ultimately make questions about the parallel importation of physical objects a relatively minor question within an almost unrecognizable information culture.

The articles mentioned above are:

Time Magazine: Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature

Crikey: The Death of the Literary Review

The New York Review of Books: Google and the Future of Books

The Australian Society of Authors also provides this set of links to various resources about the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books, and submissions to the Inquiry (which have now closed) are available on the Productivity Commission’s website. I suggest anyone who’s interested in this question spend a few moments perusing the many, many submissions from authors and publishers.


Peter Carey on parallel importation

Silencing Australian voices.