At his closing address for the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Peter Carey said a lot of laudable things about the importance of reading and the value of good teachers. But underlying his speech was a severe, elitist disdain for ordinary people who, one guesses, do not read Peter Carey novels.
The cult of book readers
Carey started out by trying to butter up the audience. Who, he asked for a show of hands, had read a work of literature in the past week. Of course, most people in the audience had. He noted how unlikely it would be to get such a high proportion of ‘yes’ answers in any other room around the country. He later referred to it as a cult of literature readers.
He further pandered to the audience by throwing in a few titbits about environmental destruction and indigenous injustice and sundry causes likely to please middle-aged armchair socialists.
He went on to discuss the importance of people who can read works of literature and serious nonfiction – not just newspapers and cereal boxes – to making informed political decisions. (I would argue that the ability to think critically and analyse statements in context are more important, but I’d just be called a postmodernist tosser.) But at the same time, he noted with despair the incredible dumbing down of society.
As evidence of this dumbing down, Carey played a series of vox pops taken outside a Sarah Palin book signing at a Borders bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. These booklovers were unable to discuss with any clarity what Palin’s policies were, or why they were so opposed to the evil Democrats.
As further evidence, he noted that one of the top-selling books in Australia was the Master Chef Cookbook and not, if there were any justice in the world, a Peter Carey novel. (OK, I added that last bit.)
But these were cheap shots that proved nothing.
There’s nothing easier than finding a place where dumb Americans congregate, pointing a camera at them and letting them talk, as the Chaser’s Charles Firth could tell you. And popular entertainment doesn’t need to be highbrow. Though to be fair, it should probably not be completely stupid. Carey made a nice analogy about junk news and junk entertainment being as bad for the mind and junk food was for the body.
This claim of dumbing down has been made for decades and has been refuted almost as often. Ten years ago, the Guardian examined the issue in great detail and found no evidence that people today were dumber than past generations. Au contraire.
Goodbye to privileged knowledge (and good riddance?)
Beneath these claims of dumbing down lie a profound discomfort with what is actually going on – a vast, unprecedented smartening up; billions of people who have access to information through books, newspapers, television and of course the internet. And the destruction of barriers to entry into the elite domains of privileged knowledge that novelists and academics like Carey inhabit and fight to maintain.
Everyone can read. And everyone can publish. A lot of it will be rubbish. But so what?
The world does not have a limited amount of cleverness to go around. Sarah Palin may be a more successful book writer (by number of books sold) than Peter Carey, but that doesn’t make Carey’s work any less intelligent or special for those who appreciate it.
And if the theory that ‘dumb’ books like the Harry Potter series are a gateway drug – they actually encourage people to read, and even to read real books – is true, there may even be more people around to enjoy Parrot and Olivier in America.