On Carey’s version of literacy and democracy

I recently watched Peter Carey’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. In the video, he lectures earnestly about people once reading in the ‘shearing sheds, lending libraries, mechanics institutes’ and ‘the trenches’ (he even uses Gallipoli, and Burke and Wills to stress his point), imploring everyone to teach children Shakespeare because it will even work in the ‘ghetto’. It doesn’t matter what colour the child is, nor their life experience, because reading is about exploring people other than you. After all, he argues, who would want to be Madame Bovary or Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert?

This howl against illiteracy (and the definition of literacy) left me feeling stuck in a time warp. I initially watched the Carey video because the age-old debate of literary versus popular fiction had resurfaced (like art house vs Hollywood blockbusters, cats vs dogs, Python vs Perl) and was being publicly fought by Bryce Courtney and Peter Carey.

Initially I thought the problem was with the way books are defined. Cookbooks, popular fiction, engineering books and literary fiction all serve different purposes, so it is unhelpful to categorise them all as books. But once I finished watching the video I was left feeling excluded in a way I haven’t felt since ditching my TV.

Peter Carey’s Australia is certainly a different, abstract Australia from the one I grew up and live in. He reminded me that I shouldn’t feel excluded by reading about predominately white middle-class protagonists because these protagonists are just as different to him. Peter Carey would never want to identify with the odious activities of, say, Humbert Humbert. A conclusion no doubt reached by growing up in Bacchus Marsh in the ’40s and ’50s and fleeing to New York in the ’90s. (He attempted to hedge this by saying people of colour needed to be included in some ethereal way, but, gosh, it wasn’t going to be by reading those clearly inferior books with non-white protagonists.)

I can only imagine it is an argument he hasn’t really thought out. A writer who has addressed the issue is Justine Larbalestier, author of the brilliant Liar. While she often gets letters from non-white teens thanking her, ‘No white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books,’ she writes. (HP Lovecraft’s racism aside, I had Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos himself, to look up to – an awesome role model.)

Carey’s argument is also problematic regarding race and class as, while he uses US statistics, he does not address the very real socioeconomic reasons that affect literacy in the US, and here, for that matter. Teaching Shakespeare won’t fix the structural inequalities.

Carey suggested the enemies of literacy had a singular, clear strategy for getting boys who are weak readers to read: get them to read books about disgusting things or explosions. Apparently, through Carey’s logic, they ceased to be good books once they involve this subject matter. (I wonder what would have happened if the criteria was a swordfight. Would Carey have to ditch his Shakespeare?)

He argued that increasing literacy does not make voters for the Left or the Right but makes for a healthier democracy. Carey attempted to illustrate this argument by showing videos of Palin supporters at a Palin book signing unable to state what she stood for, or awkwardly parroting her platform. Presumably, they are the products of Carey’s dystopia. Yet they prove little other than what a subset of Palin supporters think.

The problem is that literacy is a complicated thing, and Carey is only familiar with one kind (and not the French kind, as he clearly states in the video).

The measures of literacy include, as one aspect, prose literacy. This was the only factor Carey discussed, while ignoring document literacy, numeracy, and problem solving. Moreover, he purposefully misrepresents the prose literacy definition, ‘various kinds of narrative texts, including texts from newspapers, magazines and brochures’ by adding ‘the back of cereal packets’, and does not bother to find an example of the measurable material. He also failed to recognise the research done in grading literacy, or the international and age comparisons that show younger people are actually more literate than those his age.

Yes, we’ve had a long time to develop language, to a degree where we’ve adapted it as a way to communicate with machines. (That’s right Carey, I challenge you to a programming–off.) There are however more kinds of literacy than the ABS measure of life skills, including a cultural literacy that Carey seems to lack. His descriptions of Australia so reinforced an ’80s White Australia advertising campaign that I swear he was going to talk about throwing shrimps on barbies – he got close, but it was ockers ‘burning the sausages’.

Given the number of authors who address culture, language and otherness, I question Carey’s claims and arguments on literacy. Last year I read Brian Castro’s fantastic Birds of Passage, an exploration, among many other things, of literature, culture and identity in Australia. The equally amazing USian author Junot Diaz displays a similar force in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And something else happens in Wao when you pick up on the Nerd-speak or the Spanish.

There seemed to be many contradictions in Carey’s arguments for a literary culture that clouded and undermined the argument he was making. The irony was, he may have been served by heeding his own advice. There is in Wao and Birds of Passage a play with cultural and linguistic literacies that make a much better argument for literary culture and democracy than Carey ever could.

Benjamin Laird

Benjamin Laird is a Melbourne-based computer programmer and poet. He is currently a PhD candidate at RMIT researching poetry and programming and he is a website producer for Overland literary journal and Cordite Poetry Review.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I don’t think Carey would say that Literature could, by itself and in complete isolation, save us all from ignorance. I think he is identifying a problem and suggestion one apprantly simple act that would help. It’s only apparantly simple because the tools required and developed through the reading of genuine Literature are actually complex, and that’s the whole point. It’s good to hear someone speak out against the whole ‘at least they’re reading something, anything, whatever’. And of course, he risks the tag of elitism, snobery etc, and then the further superficial-level political inclusivity stuff – but its the critical tools developed through the process of tusseling with and enjoying a wide range of Literature – from different groups if you so wish, who’se stopping you?

  2. I watched this video last night and was struck by Carey’s incoherent logic. I don’t wish to offend all the ageing white men out there, but it seemed to be the ramblings of a man staring into the abyss of mortality — thus the need to validate his work and ruminate on the end of the world.

    I was baffled and offended by his ahistoricism when it came to notions of democracy, ‘the West’ and whatever he defines as ‘not the West’, which he failed to elaborate on, but apparently their fate is ‘other’.

    Apologies for iPhone errors.

    1. I was present during Carey’s address at the SWF and while I thought his intentions were good, his delivery, both in style – a very awkward, uncomfortable presentation – and content, was shaky.

      For example, I wrote at the time:

      “Peter Carey’s central point in what was a well intentioned and quite convincing address, is that without a lively literary culture, one which engages citizens in reading not only for pleasure but also as a means to improving knowledge and the ability to think, democracy is lessened as a force for genuine, informed participation and, therefore, more susceptible to demagoguery.

      What he did not say was that prior to the 2003 invasion by the Coalition of the Willing, to which Australia was party, the citizens of Iraq had the highest literacy rates in the world, according to UN statistics. Many readers of Carey’s books, I suspect, were convinced by the arguments put forward in favour of the invasion by the Bush-Blair-Howard triumvirate, arguments which were ultimately proven to be entirely spurious but that even at the time were regarded by many respected analysts as being dubious and motivated more by the opportunity for strategic gains than for the welfare of the Iraqi people. One wonders how the Iraqis feel about their literacy rates today.

      The sentiment of Carey’s address undoubtedly has merit but it seems rather short sighted to ignore the fact that well educated, highly literate people of the kind present in his audience can still be duped by smoke and mirrors into wilfully and violently destroying another nation. Literacy alone may not save democracy, but democracy most certainly cannot prosper without it.”

      Sorry to be mentioning the war but I hope you get my point.

      1. Wow, when it comes to adjunct social labelling it doesn’t get much worse than combining ‘old’, ‘elitist’, ‘white’ and ‘man’ – except maybe to add ‘straight’? How would his punishment deepen from there?

        Jokes aside, I’m sure Pete has read quite widely – outside of ‘Mein Kampf’ and Shakespeare and all that other white supremist stuff.

        1. Whooaa there Jeremey, seems like you are accusing me of calling Peter Carey a racist?

          I thought I was just stating facts. Old, white, and man being fairly self evident, elitist being self evident to me, but perhaps more subjective to you, Jeremy.

          I wouldn’t take offence at being called a young, black, inclusive woman writer, after all.

  3. I remember going to Andrew O’Hagan’s speech to the Sydney Writers Festival in 07 – it was electrifying, vivid and passionate. Carey’s by contrast was a dismal ramble, and his attempts to marry the reflex-traditionalist trope (‘these new-fangled teaching methods are ruining everything; let’s go back to Shakespeare’) to some unformed finger-wagging at the excesses of capitalism (oil spill, etc) were less than successful. What was with the arch references to reading as a ‘cult’? Coupled with sneering at the Palin supporters (shooting fish in a barrel isn’t big or clever), he came across as the stereotype of a liberal elitist: woolly-headed, do-gooding, impractical.

    His one valid point got lost in all the crap. Teachers in this country are paid really poorly. Pay that reflects their vital role in society would make a lot more difference than any number of vague and fogeyish invocations to step up their game.

    1. Well, I agree that Pete is not a great public speaker. There’s every chance, I’m guessing, that his best form of mass communication is through the form of ‘novel’.

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