Carey on criticising

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am

One of the festival's biggest stars is a critic famous for skewering literature. His next book, to be called What Good Are the Arts?, questions the worth of creative types, and he arrives in Hong Kong flaunting his ignorance of Asian literature.

Retired Oxford University professor John Carey, 69, has become a British institution through contrary criticism in The Sunday Times newspaper over the past 25 years. He supports writing that has an original voice without being elitist and attacks revered scribes such as Virginia Woolf and W.B. Yeats for failing to meet those standards.

As chairman of judges for the Man Booker Prize last year, he produced a shortlist that spurned literary heavyweights - including J.M. Coetzee, Graham Swift, Martin Amis and Peter Carey - in favour of largely unknown writers from small publishers.

After handing the prize to D.B.C. Pierre amid controversy over the Australian's crooked past, Carey turned on his fellow judges for failing to recognise Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

He then came under fire from writer Julian Barnes and others for using the Booker's fame to write newspaper columns and appear on television.

All part of the job, says Carey. 'The point of the Booker is to publicise books, make people buy and read books. The more publicity, of any kind, the better. I'm sure about that. We were very lucky in a way this year because the winner turned out to be, well, a criminal, really,' he says.

Pierre was found to have a nefarious history of drug abuse and the kind of artistic licence that justifies cheating an elderly friend out of his house.

'You might say on one hand that it's disgraceful that the Booker Prize should go to someone like that. But in my opinion you give a Booker Prize for the book, not the virtuous life that the author has led or not led. The publicity was tremendous.

'I enjoyed doing it. I was able to take the whole four months to read the 117 novels properly. I read a book a day. If you can do it properly, it's enormously satisfying and you discover new talent that way. And we did. We found Clare Morrall and her book Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which we put on the shortlist ... She was published by a tiny publisher in a Birmingham side-street. She had five novels turned down by publishers. She was a woman of 50, a teacher of music, two grown-up daughters. I thought it was terrific. I'm sure if I hadn't bothered to sit down to read every novel that would have been one early on you would have cast aside and thought, 'Oh, come on, a 50-year-old granny who's been turned down five times'. It's now sold extremely well. She's been made as a writer and I feel very pleased about that.

'I do quite like a fight in that I like arguing for my own preferences. It's always the way in the Booker that you lose some fights. I thought Mark Haddon's book was wonderful. There's almost a ventriloquism in the way Haddon is able to get inside the head of this boy who is completely dead emotionally.

'But only one of the five judges agreed with me, so it didn't get on to the shortlist. I think that was a terrible mistake. It was proved a mistake when the book won the Whitbread. The answer you get is that the book is very restricted, very monotonous. Well, of course, you could say that's the point. It's restricted because this boy's approach to the world is restricted by his autism.'

Carey also judged the Booker in 1982, when he helped give the prize to another Australian, Thomas Keneally, for Schindler's List. Since then, the English-language novel improved because writers from outside Europe and the US have been given international access, he says, citing the popularity of literature from India's Salman Rushdie, Canada's Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel, Australia's Carey and David Malouf and South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, 'the most intelligent writer now writing'.

Carey admits an ignorance of Asian literature and hopes the festival will educate him.

His own books include The Faber Book of Reportage, The Faber Book of Science, The Faber Book of Utopias and The Intellectuals and the Masses, a ruthlessly erudite swipe at the elitism of modernist writers.

His work in progress widens his target to art throughout history. 'The kind of moral, spiritual benefit that's often claimed for the arts seems to me highly questionable and certainly not in any way provable. Also, the kind of contempt that advocates of high art have for what are thought of as popular or mass art is not based on any good evidence. It's often assumed that you can read other people's state of mind and what they feel if they enjoy, value popular art. But of course you can't do that. You haven't got access to other people's minds. All those kinds of judgments are very suspect.'

The dispersal of literature's power base will undermine notions of high art, he says. 'I admire modern writers who try to write books that are worth reading; serious and interesting books that have ideas but reach a huge public.

'That's a very hard thing to do. But Vikram Seth did it with A Suitable Boy. He took arranged marriage, one of the things that's thought to stand between the English romantic tradition and the Indian tradition. He writes about arranged marriage in a way that has you thinking like the heroine, who is won round into thinking that it's the right thing. That is a remarkable achievement, in adapting some prejudice in your reader.

'I haven't really got much time for books that aim for a small, educated audience. I don't really see the point.'

Is the Author Really Dead?, March 9, 5.30pm-7.30pm, HKU, free; The Best of All Possible Worlds: Utopias in Thought and Fiction, March 10, 7pm-8.30pm, British Council, $80/$30; Asia and English Literature, March 12, 6.30-8pm, Mandarin Oriental, $280