In person, the academic and literary critic John Carey seems far less controversial than his fierce reputation would have you believe. Keith Thomas once said of him: ‘all the vitriol comes out in his writing, so in private life he is able to have the sweetest of human relations’; this quickly became clear on meeting him. I expected a vociferous defence of his opinions but instead found him very willing to accept the natural contradictions and complexities of the subjects he has written about. He has been called ‘the mother of all populist dons’ but I would argue this is far too reductive. His approach is refreshing, especially when the Oxford tutorial system can often push us in such a binary, didactic mode of discussion. He is, of course, incredibly well read and able to justify all of his contentious takes with an eclectic array of examples.
All of Carey’s works, whether they are his widely read literary criticism (of Milton, Donne, Thackeray and others), journalism, or provocative polemics, are in many ways the product of the culturally omnipotent British class system. Whilst writing the hugely controversial The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), a tirade against the perceived snobbery and derision of ‘the masses’ amongst literary modernists like Virginia Woolf, Carey tells me how he intended it to be a purely ‘objective sociological examination.’ However, he admits to me later, ‘I dare say my own views do show through.’ It is difficult to see how, if he had been one of the privately educated, upper-class students and dons surrounding him at Oxford, he would still write about the arts and literature with his distinctive anti-elitist fervour. Whether this veers into inverted snobbery, something of which he has often been accused, is still unclear to me.
Carey wasn’t a toff; his unlikely arrival at Oxford was the product of the 1944 Education Act. He even dedicated his 2014 autobiography, The Unexpected Professor, to his own South London grammar school, lamenting their ‘vindictive extermination.’ However, I was troubled by hard-line traditionalist views from a supposed egalitarian. At the time of their removal, he called comprehensive schools places ‘in which the clever and the cretinous are jumbled together.’ But Carey is surprisingly ready to admit, unlike many other octogenarians of his stripe, that his own good fortune in the fifties may have clouded his judgement, saying, ‘I was, I really was [critical of the comprehensives], coming from a grammar school. I thought it was awful that these good schools were closed down.’ He is now cheered by the success of many comprehensives and optimistically hopes private schools will become remote from the British education system.
Carey was one of the first advocates for encouraging pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to Oxford before the term ‘access’ was ever used or deemed important. The first in his family to go to university, as a tutor at Keble he encouraged making contact with schools that had never sent pupils to Oxbridge before, a seemingly obvious practice derided by contemporaries. He is a little surprised when I say that I could relate to much of his experience of cultural alienation and elitism at Oxford and agrees that the University, whilst being a world away from how it was in the fifties, still has far to go. Although the overt displays of nepotism and privilege Carey witnessed have died out, it is still possible to catch an underlying whiff of entitlement and elitism throughout the University today.
The Intellectuals and the Masses’ controversial thesis is that modernist literature was essentially a hostile and snobbish reaction to the increasing numbers of literate working and lower-middle classes. The denial of the humanity of these ‘masses’ by the modernists became ‘an important linguistic project’ in their literature and can be linked to the growing support for fascism and eugenics in such circles. But it was Carey’s first-hand experience of the same kind of condescension at Oxford, that donnish intellectuals like Sir Roy Harrod ‘would have despised my father, as he had despised me,’ which compelled him to write the book. This is what interests me about Carey; he writes with a personal sense of urgency, accessibility and sense of relevance lacking in the writing of many more sterile academics of his standing. Criticising the elitism of some of these modernists matters because through dehumanising ‘the masses’ in their works they legitimised reprehensible politics; as populism divides much of the West, it has become easier for educated elites to delegitimise the views of ordinary people through a sense of elitism.
The book was met with anger from the left and right. Put in his own words, Carey ‘was a commissar, an ally of Mrs Thatcher in her war against the Arts, a lackey of the Murdoch press, and a ‘puritan’ for his criticism of ‘high culture’ and defence of popular authors like Arnold Bennett and Arthur Conan-Doyle. I’m surprised at the consternation it aroused and wonder if such views in academia would be so hotly contested now. I imagine much less so, especially amongst undergraduates more sympathetic to criticism of the old guard, whether this be Oxford’s colonial history or the entrenched historical elitism of the University itself.
Nonetheless, it is easy to charge Carey with failing to truly contextualise the views of the modernists within a period of immense and bewildering change and even wilful ignorance in order to make his point. Stefan Collini is one of his fiercest critics, criticising him for this as well as a certain hypocrisy: ‘structuring everything around a binary contrast in which ‘academic’ equals pretentious and (deliberately?) unreadable while ‘ordinary’ equals authentic and down-to-earth … [obstructs] any deeper thinking about these issues. It also panders to a familiar anti- intellectualism that sneers at that very life of the mind of which Carey is, in other modes, such a fine exemplar.’
Perhaps it is more interesting to question why Carey himself has attracted so much criticism of this kind (much of it, like the above, becoming intensely personal) compared to other academics who may have equally controversial takes.
Indeed, the reaction to Carey in the press and his reputation amongst academics speaks more of an entrenched elitism and reluctance to new ideas in the profession rather than an inherent and irrational class-based bias on Carey’s part. Irrespective of this, many modernists had abhorrent political beliefs and Carey is right in linking these to their works more fully. Take DH Lawrence’s Nietzschean views: ‘I would build a lethal chamber as big as the crystal palace … [for] all the sick, the halt and the maimed.’ Or WB Yeats’ fascination with eugenics: ‘sooner or later we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes.’ The worst offender was Wyndham Lewis, the ‘intellectuals’ intellectual,’ who developed an ideology incorporating fascism, anti-Semitism and intense misogyny.
Surely such canonical figures should no longer be venerated? Carey doesn’t think so: ‘if you think they are great writers you should say so, and why. And if you think their opinions are objectionable you should say that, too, and why. Orwell says in his essay on Salvador Dalí that we should be able to acknowledge that it is possible to be both a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. I think he is right.’ Of course, with long dead writers, we may be able to justify reverence; but it reminds me of how the #MeToo movement and a wider public outcry over the actions of prolific sexual abusers has thrown questions into light of whether they deserve a platform, and if we can still enjoy their works separate from their personal conduct. Of course, there is perhaps a distinction between those who commit awful acts and those who believe awful things (like the modernists).
However, Carey displays some reticence when I bring up no-platforming more generally. He argues that for any academic ‘there is nothing they don’t want to hear; no argument they don’t want to listen to.’ Cutting oneself off, even from extremely unpleasant ideologies ‘leads to any lack of real intellectual understanding.’ But surely this take has its limits: many students would consider no-platforming in their universities as the questioning of a right to a platform, rather than the removal of such views from public discourse entirely.
In The Intellectuals and the Masses, Carey also recounts how The Daily Mail was launched in 1896 to cater for this newly literate working class. Academics like TS Eliot, who said it affirmed the public ‘as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass’, were cowed; the position of the intellectual in public discourse was threatened.
However, such a comment made by an intellectual about Daily Mail readers wouldn’t look out of place today and many would agree it would be justified. Whilst there was certainly a degree of snobbery and elitism fuelling the modernist critique, the defence of popular culture, namely populist newspapers, is surely dangerous territory nowadays in light of the use of mass media (and particularly social media) to manipulate the truth.
When I share these concerns with Carey, his response is measured: ‘I’m in favour of a free press that represents the whole range of current public opinion … [but] much current tabloid journalism can be damaging in that it reinforces what it takes to be its readership’s prejudices.’ However, the answer for Carey ‘is for writers who are thoughtful and questioning to write in a way that is intelligible and attractive to the readership tabloid journalism seeks to capture’.
He sees himself as an example of one of these thoughtful writers. He previously told me: ‘I try and improve The Times by writing for it.’ He reviews books ‘in a way in which I’m desperately trying to make them readable by a lot of people. I’m sure people do read books that I’ve reviewed because I make them interesting.’ This is true; Carey’s journalism, like much of his academic work, is masterly in its balancing of accessibility and a lack of pretension with intellectual and critical clout.
However, I am still unconvinced that he is not largely preaching to the very middle-class choir in the form of The Times’ readership. While his reiteration that the answer to my concerns ‘is not to say that newspapers are not worth writing for but write better for newspapers,’ I am still left questioning the extent to which individual or even collective responsibility can make a difference to the state of the media and popular culture in a post-truth era.
The ‘Culture Industry’, a term coined by Adorno and Horkheimer over seventy years ago, comes to mind here. Their prediction that with the advent of mass-production, culture was increasingly commodified to manipulate society into passive servility to capitalism increasingly rings true for many young people disillusioned with the current system. In his chapter debating the moral superiority of ‘high’ Art in What Good are the Arts (2005), Carey criticises Adorno and his contemporaries for making the case against mass culture without truly investigating the way in which it affects its recipients. Indeed, he is right that many of Adorno’s predictions, such as those on film, were unfounded. He tells me: ‘it’s not the answer for intellectuals to cut themselves off from the people and non-intellectuals.’ Nonetheless, surely Carey cannot ignore the role of wealth and power in manipulation of public consciousness.
Despite sympathising with Adorno’s concerns, Carey returns to the role of the individual: ‘if you feel that the masses are being treated as sub-human by the people who write for them, then you should write yourself for as big an audience as you can and write in an intelligent way … the answer isn’t exclusion but inclusion.’ His point is in line with his previous criticism of the modernists, who were dismayed by what they saw as the manipulation of the masses by mass media. Rather than use the opportunity of a widening readership in producing accessible works, they chose to make their works deliberately unintelligible to the masses in reaction to such ‘manipulation.’
Indeed, in What Good Are the Arts (2005), Carey pushes his thesis that one piece of art has no higher value than another; that art, contrary to traditionalists, carries no moralising effect. Still, his critics see a huge flaw in his view that literature is still the superior Art.
Although provocative, I actually see no contradiction. He simply extols the virtues of the choice of the medium itself rather than the intrinsic value of any piece of literature over another work. Taste a personal choice and we are not privy to the reasons behind it. Carey, in dedicating his life to the study of books, is inclined to say this anyway but I would still personally agree with him.
He admits too that his love of literature is certainly a product of his educational advantages, echoing Pierre Bourdieu, whose Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979) emboldened his disregard for a distinction of superiority between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Bourdieu concluded that: ‘art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences.’ The consumer of a work of art or literature, lacking the competence (acquired through their accrued cultural capital) to understand it is ‘lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, without rhyme or reason.’ This probably explains why I’ve never liked Shakespeare and Carey agrees that the snobbery supporting ideas of what is ‘good’ art should be dismantled due to their roots in social inequality and cultural difference.
This underpins the call of the book to radically change the structure of arts funding in the UK. The short version of this he gives me sounds fairly common sense: ‘[it] should be used to encourage arts and crafts of all kinds in local communities and especially among children … rather than concentrated on “flagship” enterprises like the Royal Opera House.’
He criticises how arts funding reflects what is economically lucrative rather than the immeasurable impact on lives and minds, using varied everyday examples of this, like a group of young offenders reading Lord of the Flies. Carey concludes from the young men’s affecting testimonies that: ‘I do not believe that any other art than literature could have produced these results.’
Carey is an academic who can analyse the works of Donne or Milton with the same conviction that he recommends I read The Girl on the Train. Most importantly he recognises a wider need that preceded the modernists to constructively respond to cultural rifts with a more productive and utile use of Art; a need which deepens now in the face of gaping ideological divides in our society.
Art by Abigail Hodges