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.