“Peter Carey is a perfect example of that kind of inane literacy snobbery,” says Bryce Courtenay, with an economy and efficacy of words that has made him Australia’s most wildly successful writer.
Courtenay was stung by Carey’s recent closing night address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, during which he rebuked a nation “getting dumber every day”; “forgetting how to read” the classics in favour of cookbooks and Dan Brown and “cultural junk … completely destructive of democracy”.
“He’s talking absolute bullshit,” Courtenay spits. “There’s always been the equivalent of the Twilight series, the equivalent of the big blockbuster; historically speaking there have always been novels that have captivated a very broad audience that might not have always understood Shakespeare, but the reading public is homogeneous. I mean, we read everything and not to read is unthinkable. More books are being sold today per capita than at any point in history in the country. So we know that people are reading.”
Courtenay isn’t apologising for selling millions of books in dozens of countries, mounting an extraordinary defence of the ‘popular novel’ and a “deeply suspect post-modernist” culture he believes has been hijacked by the likes of Carey and his “self-perpetuating club” of writing snobs — novels of “literary pretensions” that his books help subsidise.
“Good writing is good writing,” the 76-year-old told Crikey from his home in Bowral in NSW. “There’s no such thing as popular writing versus literary writing. If I’m a popular writer then Peter Carey is an unpopular writer. If I’m a best-selling writer than he’s a worst-selling writer.
“It’s not ‘I am a literate writer and he is an illiterate writer’. My education is every bit as good as Peter’s, possibly better. Unequivocally I could write his kind of stuff.”
Appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program last month, where he stoked the simmering debate on popular literature further, Carey lamented the loss of Shakespeare’s prose in education and the reading consciousness. And yet, Courtenay says, the Bard was the popular writer of his time.
“Shakespeare was attended literally by the mob,” he says. “He had a popular audience, and the reason he had a popular audience is because he told unbelievably good stories. They weren’t sophisticated [the audiences], these were crooks and pick-pockets and wild men and drunks and they came along because the storytelling had a particular power, it exists, it tells us who we are, it tells us where we’ve been, it tells us where we’re going.
“It is human continuity.”
Courtenay talks of a prevailing “stupid dichotomy” that junks traditional storytelling: “It has captivated the tertiary levels in Australia and while it has been disabused in most countries it still prevails here.” This club of “academic snobbery” lives off the success of writers like Courtenay, he says.
“There are writers in Australia who have been dependent on the Australia Council hand-outs for their entire careers. If they had to go out there and make a living as many good authors do they’d have absolutely no chance. They’d capture the school market because their cohorts sit on the boards … and therefore reading in schools has been an appalling process because kids will tell you very happily that the stuff they’re made to read with singular exception is crap. And it’s the crap that the literati will write.”
Courtenay cites The Power Of One, his international best-seller that he says won rave reviews from critics overseas but dismissive censure from the Australian literature community.
“There’s a book that’s sold seven and a half million-odd copies in 17 languages,” he boasts. “Now what are they going to say, are they going to say this is a piece of shit? Or are they going to say that this book has something to say to people?
“There is no such thing as a wonderful book that gets lost. It just doesn’t happen. But what is getting lost is a lot of very, very ordinary books that have literary pretensions. And they’re just very ordinary books. There’s the assumption that just because you’re a literary writer therefore you are writing something of importance, of interest or entertainment or education or ability. It’s absolute crap. A book has to stand between its own covers and you put it on your lap and if it doesn’t engage with you then it’s dead in the water. Now that goes for a classic as much as it goes for anything else.”
And Carey? “This guy has won the Booker Prize twice or three times, I don’t remember, but certainly that’s impressive,” he says (twice, in fact: Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001, one of only two authors to win the honour multiple times). “I’m not sure I’d like to win it but it’s certainly in a literary sense impressive. However, if you look at Peter Carey’s latest book it would be a very interesting idea, and I suggest you do it, that you look at it and see how many it sold in Australia. Then look at a Matthew Reilly or me or some other popular author and see how many they sell. (Crikey couldn’t find the closely-guarded figures, though Courtenay suggests it may be as few as 10,000.)
“It’s just bloody stupid. If the Peter Careys only existed then we wouldn’t have any books at all because nobody could afford to publish them. The disappearance of Bryce Courtenay means in effect the disappearance of Peter Carey, no matter how good he is. So we are forever reliant on each other.
“I’m not knocking his work; my personal opinion of Peter Carey’s work is not important here. But what I am saying is we are all in this together.
“Right from day one they’ve said this so-called ad man who’s written this so-called best seller has got to be a dud because he’s an ad man. Now, Peter Carey was an ad man. He wrote me a letter once and begged me not to mention that to anyone because it would destroy his career.”
That cat is now out of the bag… “Eventually he had to,” Courtenay explains. “But he was terrified that that would go against him. Whereas I didn’t give a sh-t. And in fact copy-writing is as good a training in the use of words … as there is. So we both had very good training. He decided to throw that training out of the window, I decided to use it, that’s all.”
But surely Courtenay is aware of the commercial demands of his work? Surely his popularity is deliberate, his prose purposefully accessible?
“Never even occurs to me,” he chides. “Why would it? I never wrote for money anyway; I started at 55 and said ‘well you know I’ve always wanted to do this, let me have a go, I’ll probably fail but what the hell’.
“Words don’t make stories, they are simply the means of telling them. And sometimes you get good stories reasonably badly told, and sometimes you get stories beautifully told. I’d like to think I was somewhere in the middle there. That my language is accessible and wasn’t showing off, but it wasn’t silly or poor or badly done.”