John Carey: The intellectual of the masses

As chair of the Man Booker and a leading critic, John Carey holds the keys to the glittering prizes. John Walsh talks to the media-friendly arbiter
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The Independent Culture

At 9.30 next Tuesday evening, a uniformed flunkey will silence the rattle of coffee-spoons and the sussuration of gossip in the Great Court of the British Museum. After some throat-clearing words-from-our-sponsor, all eyes will fix on a man at the top table - an ascetic figure, with a suggestion of the roosting eagle about his sharp eyes, and a voice which turns all his Rs into Ws, like Joseph Heller and Jonathan Ross. Professor John Carey will pitch the literary world into a small fever of cheers and vituperation by announcing the winner of the Man Booker Prize and will then, in measured tones, address the nation on the State of the English Novel.

The nation will listen more receptively than in recent years. The annual post-prandial lecturette on Booker night has been a thing of controversy in the hands of Lisa Jardine (too populist), Gerald Kaufman (too sinister), Kenneth Baker (too fulsome) or Carmen Callil (too critical of the home product). Carey, however, is someone you can trust. Among the politicians, publishers, historians and media tarts who judge the Booker, he is a bona fide literary-critical star. He retired four years ago as the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, (the top Eng Lit job in the land) and his weekly reviews are by common consent the ne plus ultra of waspish evaluation.

But Carey is more than a posh academic or a critic for hire. He's a genuine curiosity, a perverse, independent thinker. He's a professor whose most famous early essay was "Down with Dons". He's a teacher of English literature who loves flaying the moral shortcomings of its practitioners. He's a media-friendly intellectual who keeps bees, digs an allotment and, reportedly, loves sunbathing. Many of his books are studiedly meta-literary: The Faber Book of Reportage, The Faber Book of Science, The Faber Book of Utopias. His best work, The Intellectuals and the Masses, scythed down a generation of Modernist writers who regarded lower- and middle-class readers as insects and toyed with theories of mass extermination. Now he's at the helm of the Booker, which has often been abused as a charter for highbrow pretension. How had he enjoyed judging it?

"It is very testing," he says. "You spend four months reading a new novel every day - and it engages your deepest feelings and preferences. Then you meet up with four other educated and sensitive people and you're sure they will agree with you - but not at all. I've met it again and again, this total, head-on disagreement about books you've grown to love."

Was there a row? Did someone storm out? "There was rational discussion up to a point, and then simply an agreement to disagree". Carey shakes his head at the failure of his co-judges (A C Grayling, Rebecca Stephens, Francine Stock, D J Taylor) to see things through his eyes. "Take Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a masterly and amazing book. I admired its way of seeing the world from a totally different viewpoint [the main character is a teenage sufferer from Asperger's Syndrome], this boy who's a whizz at science but can't have any emotional relationships. I admired its ability to empathise with this single viewpoint. But others hated it for just that reason. We were seeing the same things, but reacting in totally different ways."

How did he feel about the annual cries to make the Booker Prize more democratic, to consider bestselling modern-bloke authors such as Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons and Ben Elton? "I would love to see a Hornby novel like How to be Good win the Booker Prize," says Carey. "It's a very impressive novel of ideas, but with vivid characters. I'm very much in favour of widening what might be looked on as the Booker's scope".

Carey has chaired the Booker before, in 1982, when the prize went to Schindler's List. Was the English novel in good shape, 21 years later? "It seems pretty clear that things have got a lot better since 1982, particularly because post-colonial literature has taken off - the Indian novel, the Canadian, the Australian. In 1982, Salman Rushdie was barely heard of. The diversity of the novel now is astonishing".

So what characterises modern fiction? "My impression this year was that the judges had a distinct preference for books with a strong storyline, a strong plot, a compulsion to go on turning the pages. I like that. It's what I too want in book.". Yes, but what themes? "Easily the most popular theme was broken marriage. Probably more than half the novels were about different aspects of broken marriages, how the children suffer, or don't suffer."

When the shortlist was announced to general consternation (three first novels? four women?), Carey called it "a giant-killing shortlist" in leaving out, among others, Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Peter Carey and the new Nobel laureate, J M Coetzee. Was he living up to his reputation as a chronic subversive? "No, I really thought the Peter Carey was inferior Carey, that the Pat Barker was inferior Barker, that Anita Brookner was brilliant for 50 pages and then so terrible, I could hardly bear to finish it. I wasn't trying to be a giant-killer."

Let's just remind ourselves of what a good assassin the professor can be. When it comes to deflating overblown reputations, Carey is in a class of his own. His reviews (to employ a modern idiom he would probably deprecate) kick ass: "Chesterton had a body like a slag heap, but a mind like the dawn sky. He saw the world new, as if he'd just landed from another planet". "Flaubert was a perpetual adolescent. His distinction lay in never outgrowing the hatred and contempt that the normal teenager feels when confronted with adult human beings".

Where does the assassin impulse come from? "It goes back to schooldays," said Carey in a confessional rush. "I wasn't very clever at school, early on, in Redcliffe-on-Trent in Nottingham, where we were evacuated during the war. I wasn't exactly thick, just not very interested. I was sceptical of the things people were trying to encourage me to be interested in... Then we moved back to London when I was 12, and I went to a marvellous grammar school in East Sheen, with two wonderful English masters, and things improved."

So that early scepticism turned into moral disapproval? "Yes, but I'd like to believe there was a cultural component too. It seems to me that demanding you should revere this person or that is something that keeps art and culture away from a lot of people - because they think, 'Is that what I'm supposed to revere? Forget it'. I once got a letter from the art critic Tim Hilton, after I'd been on some programme about Miro, on which I'd said it meant nothing to me. He wrote and asked, 'Do you think any useful purpose is served by your remarks?' I wrote back and said, 'Yes, because I think people being forced to adulate what they don't actually feel is a bad thing for culture'."

His anti-dons stance was the result of his early brush with Oxford in the late 1950s, when he was a lecturer at Christ Church. "Christ Church in those days was just like Brideshead, full of unbelievably rich young men, some clever, some not. The dons I was writing about were like Maurice Bowra, whom I admire for many things, but he'd be with his friends... and they'd listen to the conversations going on around them and would, quite loudly, allocate these people to social classes... That kind of snobbery and disregard for people's feelings seemed to me counter-intellectual actually."

Had he himself been patronised by the donnish establishment? Carey nodded, grimly. "Lightweight," he says. "I was considered a lightweight. It was after I started writing for the Sunday papers. To be signed up as a part-time journalist - well, it seems, if you're seeking publicity in that way, you must be a lightweight. But I didn't care. The first thing I did when I joined Keble College was to translate Milton's De Doctrina Christiana, a huge enterprise. I didn't notice the Sixties passing me by while I worked at it, night after night. But once it was done, I didn't feel I could possibly be a lightweight."

With the Booker ordeal safely behind him, Carey can devote his attention to a book called What Good are the Arts? A short version will be the subject of three lectures - the extremely heavyweight Northcliffe Lectures - he will deliver at University College London next spring. In the meantime, he can bask in the satisfaction of having subjected the flower of modern fiction to his searchlight gaze - and the success of the bees at the Oxfordshire cottage he shares with his wife, Gill. "This year, my bees have produced, in three hives, 230 pounds of honey and each one has got 40 pounds left on the hive for the winter... really, it's been a fantastic year for bees". Whether it's been as fantastic for fiction seems suddenly, for Professor Carey, a lot less important.


John Carey was born in Barnes in 1934. His father, William, was an accountant who, after the war, became company secretary to the designers Colefax & Fowler. His mother, Winifred, was secretary to his father. He was evacuated to Nottingham during the war and then, on returning to London, went to a grammar school in East Sheen and then on to St John's College, Oxford. After national service and a spell as Senior Scholar at Merton College, he held academic posts at Christ Church, Balliol, Keble and St John's before being appointed Merton Professor of English Literature in 1976. He retired in 1999.

His literary critical works include The Violent Effigy: A Study in Dickens's Imagination (1975), Thackeray: Prodigal Genius (1977) and John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (1981). His other books include The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) and three anthologies for Faber: The Faber Book of Reportage (1987), The Faber Book of Science (1995) and The Faber Book of Utopias (1999). He lives in Oxfordshire with his wife, Gill.