From New York to Sydney and on to Melbourne, many an inner-city intellectual is full of contempt for their fellow men and women. It’s just that not many ‘fess up to what they really think.
Not so the Australian expatriate Peter Carey. The New York-based novelist told the taxpayer-subsidised Sydney Writers’ Festival at the weekend: “We are getting dumber every day; we are literally forgetting how to read.” Carey has not released the text of his address but, according to a Herald report, he complained: “We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk … is completely destructive of democracy.”
According to the report, the novelist’s audience was of the converted kind. No disagreement was evident when Carey declared the nation of his birth has “become intolerant of any news that is not entertaining”.
Carey’s complaint is, in Australia, cookbooks and Dan Brown novels top most best-seller lists. And he expressed the wish, by as early as next year, every 14-year-old would understand and adore William Shakespeare and learn to love Charles Dickens’s work. If young teenagers go for Shakespeare and Dickens, well and good. But if they will settle for Brown, this should be good enough. What matters is that the young learn to love reading – and virtually any reading will do for starters.
As a novelist, Carey is worried about the status of the novel itself. In April, The Wall Street Journal reported how, at a function in the New York Public Library, Carey responded to a question about the kind of novels he writes with a version of the conversation he claims to usually have on planes. It went as follows. The person says: “What do you do?” “I write novels.” Person: “Should I know your name?” Carey: “Only if you’re literate.”
The fact is people read more than ever before. This reflects increasing literacy rates in the less developed world, along with the growth in online reading in the developed world. Carey’s claim “we have forgotten how to read” is hyperbole – whether spoken to American or Australian audiences. Yet it is more than this. The novelist’s disdain for the reading tastes of his fellow citizens reflects a deeper disenchantment with societies which do not assess intellectuals to be as important as intellectuals regard themselves.
In an interview on Radio National’s Breakfast in 2006, Carey declared if he still lived in Australia he “would spend so much time in a total blinding rage”. He is on record as having described Australia as a “flea circus”.
Carey’s Sydney Writers’ Festival whinge is but the most recent complaint of the inner-city leftist writer or commentator who decries the (alleged) lack of culture among those who live in the suburbs and regional centres. A similar critique is commonly heard in Australia.
Earlier this month, The Age dismissed its Brunswick-based columnist Catherine Deveny. The immediate cause turned on her Logie night attempt at humour – to the effect it would be a you-beaut idea if 11-year-old Bindi Irwin got laid. This controversy diverted attention away from Deveny’s contempt for those who live in the suburbs, some of whom read The Age. She mocked shoppers at the suburban shopping malls, ridiculed families with signed and framed football jumpers on their walls and dismissed believers as mere idiots.
No one quite matches Deveny’s contempt for the less educated and lower socio-economic groups. However, in 2004 La Trobe University academic Judith Brett warned readers of the edited collection The Howard Years that, in contemporary Australia, “the opinions of the ignorant or uninvolved are given equal weight to those of the passionate and the knowledgeable”. How shocking is that?
Writing in the Herald Sun last February, columnist Jill Singer opined: “There is nothing wrong with being an accountant, farmer or fisherman – but these are insufficient credentials to, say, run a nation’s finances.” According to this logic, one-time train driver Ben Chifley was not qualified to be treasurer in John Curtin’s successful wartime government but Jim Cairns was just the man to hold the position in Gough Whitlam’s erratic government in the early 1970s. Yet Chifley was competent at his job while the former academic Cairns was a disaster.
In 2005, journalist and academic Margaret Simons wrote in the Griffith Review about her experiences in visiting the Fountain Gate shopping centre in suburban Melbourne. It was an “us” and “them” experience. One minute Simons was in Carlton with its devotion to “conspicuous refinement and good taste”. Just an hour later, dressed in hemp, she was in suburban Narre Warren asking shoppers whether they had heard of the culture wars and wondering why they ignored her questions. All this in search of an answer to Simons’s query as to what is “the difference between the people who chose to live here and ourselves”. The question is as embarrassing as the account of her research for an answer.
It seems that some parts of the inner-city are more, in Simons’s terminology, sophisticated than others. On ABC radio in Melbourne last February, John Faine dismissed Altona as so “industrial” it “gets the fumes from the industrial zones wafting across it”. Not attractive, was Faine’s judgment. Not enough coffee shops and insufficient hemp worn, apparently.
The irony is that much of this inner-city snobbery is funded by taxpayers who live in industrial areas or near suburban shopping malls. Carey’s alienation found expression at the Sydney Writers’ Festival while Simons’s analysis appeared in the taxpayer-subsidised Griffith Review. Brett is an academic and Faine works for the public broadcaster. It’s enough to make you reach for the nearest cookbook.