Sarah Krasnostein on Peter Carey and Arts criticism
Sarah Krasnostein is the multi-award winning author of The Trauma Cleaner, The Believer and the Quarterly Essay Not Waving, Drowning. A regular contributor to The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, she was awarded the 2022 Walkley Pascall Prize for Arts Criticism. Her latest work, On Peter Carey, was released in 2023.
ASTRID: Sarah, I am thrilled to welcome you back to The Garret.
SARAH: Delighted to be here again.
ASTRID: The last time we spoke was in person and we are currently recording via Zoom, but we spoke in person on stage at the 2022 Melbourne Writers Festival. That time that we spoke, the topic was ‘Are we all okay?’ Now I'm pretty sure we came to the conclusion that we are not all okay. But today, I'm really hoping to lift the tone a little bit and talk to you about exciting, uplifting things like fiction.
SARAH: I am so delighted. This is stepping away from the normal dark velvet of my normal materials to talk about yeah, something different.
ASTRID: You've just written On Peter Carey. Now this is part of the Writers on Writers series. There have been a few spectacular pieces in this series. I really enjoyed Alice Pung On John Marsden and Christos Tsiolkas On Patrick White, and now we have you On Peter Carey. Now I have a confession, Sarah. I thought about not telling you and then I felt like I couldn't actually get through an interview, but I have never read any Peter Carey.
SARAH: Oh, that's ideal. That works well. That's good. This can be an anchoring chat.
ASTRID: I'm a little bit embarrassed about this, but also, I have this recollection of my mother's copy of Oscar and Lucinda, and I must've been young, so it must have been a first edition or whatever. It was pale blue cover back in the early 1990s and I have missed his entire body of work. He's won the Booker twice. He's won the Miles Franklin, what, twice maybe?
SARAH: Yeah, I think so.
ASTRID: Can you tell me what I'm missing, please?
SARAH: Well, this kind of familiarity, the place that he holds in the collective cultural consciousness versus how widely he's actually read now was part of my attraction towards him as a subject for this essay, because it's an interesting dichotomy between having a very familiar name, very familiar book spines, still in print, still has a special place in those bookshops and they are large, weighty tomes, like 800-page books. So they do take up space, and yet for many of us that are very well-read, while we can place him culturally in that context, we don't really have that thick engagement with the work. So yes. Now I've forgotten the question. I'm so sorry. So excited by that.
ASTRID: That was a perfect response. I guess just a few brass tacks before we jump into the whole of Peter Carey and what you think of him.
ASTRID: How long did it take you to write this Writers On essay... Hold on. How long did it take you to write this Writers on Writers essay? And also, how did you pitch it? How many words are there? Just to put it in the audience's mind.
SARAH: Right. Time blurs as we know. It felt very long. I think I had about a year maybe or six months. It was a commission. I was allowed to choose who I'd like to write on because they're very personal essays in which the author of the essays in this dialogue, either real or imagined or at the level of reading with the author that they chose. So I think that it wouldn't really work to be assigned a particular person. So it was right after the Quarterly Essay. Yeah, I think it was burbling around for about a year. I think the writing was about six months, but the majority of the work was the reading, because these are, like I said, books that you don't so much read as schlep around. You defer to them. Yeah, there was a long time of reading and note-taking.
Yeah, like I said, I was drawn to that kind of familiarity versus the actual not lack of knowledge about him now from my perspective that I had enacted myself because I had this book on my shelf, The True History of the Kelly Gang. The essay opens with this book that has been with me through two decades and never felt called to actually crack it open and read. We weren't going into bookshops. We were not having a browse amidst those curated selections. We were reading what we had and yeah, I had started reading it. I fell in love with this book. I was so shocked at the strength of that feeling. Then quite fortuitously, I was asked by Michael Williams to interview him for Sydney Writers' Festival 2021. While I was super activated by True History, I don't think I would've gone back to those early books and read him straight through were it not for that interview. Then yeah, the essay grew out of that.
ASTRID: In your essay, you touch on almost all, I think, of Peter Carey's works, but you really go deep into The True History of the Kelly Gang, which you just mentioned. Now, I was surprised. Again, you reached into my mind, Sarah, and plucked my broad cultural knowledge out. You spend a lot of this essay also talking about and referring to the artist, Sidney Nolan, who of course, I think everybody listening, even if you're not quite aware, but could picture a painted picture of Ned Kelly against the vivid Australian Outback that you weave together both of these Australian artists in this work. I should say they're both Australian artists who left Australia permanently.
SARAH: Yes. The more I started reading about the writing of True History, I learned that Carey had been quite inspired and moved by the story of Ned Kelly, the mythology of Ned Kelly, his Jerilderie Letter that he read when he was a young man, but then never followed through on this vague plan to write a rollicking bushranger novel until he had seen Nolan's paintings of the Kelly series exhibited at the Met. So I wanted to explore the mythology of all three of these men, Carey, Nolan, Ned Kelly, what it meant to, this in Nolan's words, to put a bizarre object against the Australian bush and this feeling of always being adjacent or next to or not quite in the context of the story, always being an outsider to those stories, what they had done with that material, why they no longer lived here after they became quite successful. All of that seemed like rich material that I wanted to explore further.
ASTRID: I was really struck by one of your comments in the essay, Sarah, where you said, ‘If I wanted to read about Victoria, I was reading Helen Garner. If I wanted to read about Australia, I was reading Alexis Wright’.
ASTRID: I think that's probably a similar feeling. Although I'm well-known of not actually enjoying Helen Garner's work, I have that same feeling with contemporary writers who are in Australia and are drawing out an experience of what it means to live on this continent. I guess I wanted to discuss with you, I don't think there's an answer, but how do you place Peter Carey in the body of contemporary Australian literature as he continues to write about Australia, but hasn't lived here for 30 years?
SARAH: Yeah. It's so interesting to me because the more that I read and what... I'm appreciating each book in their own fullness, but I am looking for patterns. The more I read, the more it became clear to me that I don't know if he would have been as popular as he is if people truly understood just how radical his politics are. What we know about the way that Australian books have flourished or not overseas, particularly in the UK, is, and I think Beejay Silcox has made this point, that unless they include or played to all of the familiar tropes, people aren't really interested. They want an outback story. We know what they mean and that's what does well there, but also here. We are reluctant in so many ways to engage with the reality of our history, but if it comes in the form of fiction, bring it on.
He's a very political writer. He is constantly writing towards our great forgetting and amnesia specifically about the genocidal violence settlement and the continuing consequences of that, also, the ways in which we've been fawning. He calls us a client state of America and this very infantilized relationship we've had with England and the need to fulfil our colonial role. So that's throughout everything he's written, but you can read it on two levels. You can read it as this very scathing assessment, very radical for its time, or you can just read them as rollicking yarns and a good read. They do function equally well on two levels, so they're a bit of a Trojan horse and I really was entranced by that.
ASTRID: It was remarkable to me to reflect on how many books he's sold around the world. I don't own a Peter Carey book and I feel like I should probably fix that, but in general, it's the kind of book that I've always expected to see on someone's shelf even if they haven't read it. Just as you mentioned before, it feels like part of the cultural background even if people don't necessarily, these days, read or engage. But at the same time, so many copies have been sold around the world. Peter Carey has essentially helped construct the external idea of what Australia is in the minds of people who don't live here through his fiction. I wanted to ask you, Sarah, about your response to his fiction, but also to fiction in general. So much of your public life is to do with nonfiction and fact and interpreting facts and bringing us a different way of experiencing or thinking about fact. This is just a whole different part of your brain that I feel I've just got to have a little look at.
This is a quote from your essay, ‘My highest praise, remembering that a Carey novel is waiting by my chair or at my bedside always gladdens me and has been of comfort. I have never felt lonely while reading them’. That's a beautiful thing to say about someone's fiction.
SARAH: Oh, thank you. Well, for me, if someone said that about my books, I would probably not be able to take in any of the good stuff, but at some level, I would feel like the mission had been accomplished. But I read fiction exclusively, I want to say for the first 30 years of my reading life, which started quite early. I feel that all of my initial technique, scaffolding, and again, I have no formal training, so everything that I was taking my little secret notes on and everything that I was practising came directly from fiction. I didn't discover narrative nonfiction as a thing until I was probably in my early 30s. Again, the narrative non-fiction that I read then and loved most and I'm always trying to write in dialogue with is mid-century American creative non-fiction, which is itself drawing nonfiction.
So fiction is king for me, queen for me and yeah, my first love. In some ways, I don't really see a distinction with those techniques. Of course, facts are a different matter and secretly I continue to work on my fiction, but I'm nowhere near being able to show that in public. It's surprising to me what I do and how I do it because I would've thought for many years that I would just be a novelist.
ASTRID: If I were to go and pick up a Peter Carey novel, where should I start?
SARAH: This is an interesting question. I don't think without that shocking activation of finding that The True History of the Kelly Gang was an entirely different animal to what I thought it was, I would've gone on to read the other ones. But the ones that have stood out to me are True History, Oscar and Lucinda, so maybe you can get it from your Mum if she still has or on any boomer bookshelf, and Amnesia. I think that spans 20 years, nearly 30 years of his writing because he was producing a substantial book every three years. Those ones are the ones that stood out for me both at the level of the sentence, because what he's doing is just so dextrous and gorgeous craft-wise, and then these very dense stories that like ping-pong back and forth between time periods and characters. They're multifocal and they're just beautifully embroidered stories, and they are saying something that remains very radical to say, whether it's in fiction or nonfiction in Australia.
ASTRID: I'm a little bit shocked that I might leave this interview and have to go buy a Peter Carey novel. The things I do for the The Garret, Sarah.
SARAH: Just a simple 800 pages.
ASTRID: Somehow. Somehow I'll magic up a simple time to read a simple 800 pages. I want to go back a little bit, and I think I asked you this before, but I don't think either one of us really drew it out. But where do we place Carey in contemporary fiction? Because you and I read a lot. We go to writers festivals. We're those kind of people. Where do we place him next to a Helen Garner or an Alexis Wright who are both still writing?
SARAH: It's such a good question. I don't know if the world moves on or the readership moves on, but I do think that writers keep their audiences if they're doing it right. People drop out and others come in. So I think he remains very relevant, but he's 80 now and he's slightly fallen off that three-year schedule. I'm just curious if I find myself being unexpectedly emotional about this, but I did not expect to have emotions still. But maybe he's most powerfully remembered having this substantial body of work for saying something that was so important about our national myths and the need for them, our inability to look directly at ourselves, our inability to confront history and he was saying it more beautifully than you could possibly imagine. He wasn't saying it particularly elliptically. It is the reading of the book. It's the natural reading of these books to the degree that we can say that it's clear.
He was loved and celebrated, but perhaps not in the way that he had intended to be. Because if he had hit that target, willing readership that was ready to engage with these issues, I don't know that we would've had the last 10 years of federal government. I don't know that we would've had the media landscape that we currently do and I don't know if his books would've been as popular and as broadly read. So in some ways, that messaging was falling on people that were into it, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Is it a missed chance? Was it a missed opportunity? If so, it's a beautiful addition to a history of lost opportunities or these blazingly obvious things are just happily relegated to history or relegated to literature drowned out ultimately in the national discourse.
ASTRID: Sarah, I do believe that writers don't go... Let me say that again. I do believe that the work of a great writer, whilst different generations will interpret it differently and their books will be read in different ways at different times, the works always have relevance. After what you just said, I'm feeling a little bit guilty about my slightly veiled cynicism about Peter Carey and I am going to find the time to read The True History of the Kelly Gang at some point this year.
SARAH: Well, I would love to know what you think and if you come back and you're like, ‘This was awful. What were you talking about that?’ That's valuable too. But I'm so curious because I'm dying to talk about this book with my contemporaries and literally everyone that was me at the start of pandemic before I read that book. I was exactly you. It's so beautifully written as such a radical act of editorial and publishing courage because it doesn't read comfortably. It doesn't read commercially, and he was fully backed in that respect. There's so many curious things about that book. I'd be deeply interested in discussing it with you.
ASTRID: I look forward to that, Sarah. I'm going to change hack a little bit and ask you about criticism, not just literary criticism, but given this is The Garret, I suppose it's natural for us to focus there. Last year in 2022, you received the Pascall Award for Literary Criticism. I have so many questions about criticism, but the big one, what makes for great criticism and why do we need it?
SARAH: Just I have to put on the critics hat because those parts don't like speaking to each other. You've got to be frank and fearless in a way that I'm constantly up against it if it's another writer, another author, because you have all the sympathy in the world and you know where the fears are and the insecurities are. But in the same way as a writer, again, the highest gift is not somebody that's going to blow smoke, but that somebody that's engaged with their work seriously enough to spend the fleeting moments of their life reading it and to question what they thought about it and why. It doesn't get better than that. That's the highest honour you can give another creator. I think that frankness, that fearlessness, something beyond, I reckon, I liked it, I didn't like it.
I'm not really interested in what was liked or not liked. I want some formal framework. It doesn't need to be one formal framework, but I want to know that there is a framework being applied for the specific book that's engaging as objectively as it's possible with the constraints of the form. If I'm writing about TV or if I'm writing about books or visual art thing, I'm applying some formal criteria. Then at the end of the day, differently to the I reckon, which is an intellectualised pissing contest, I definitely want to know about the emotional impact. I want to know what it felt like to read. I want to know what it felt like to experience how long that feeling lasted, what it did. Because maybe at the end of the day, that's the only thing that matters, how we can encourage each other to feel differently about something that we previously thought we knew.
ASTRID: What's your favourite thing to sit down and review?
SARAH: See, 'favourite' is interesting because if I love something, I don't want to review it. I feel like I'm only living in that I reckon or that 100 per cent emotional space and to subject it to a critical analysis or an intellectualised analysis, I feel like something's lost. But having said that, I really enjoy the TV pieces. I find literary criticism so tricky for so many reasons, I think, because I consider myself first an author or writer, not a critic. So something that's different enough that I don't wear the vernacular like a second skin. So fiction or nonfiction, I feel like I live there. I don't really live in TV. I don't really live in TV or film or visual arts. So that discomfort is really great because at the end of the day, we're finding out what we think. It's an exploration. When you sit down to write a review, you are foremost explaining to yourself why you feel this or why you think this. I like that displacement of something that I don't love that isn't familiar and I'm exploring it to learn more.
ASTRID: That's a fascinating way of looking at it. I need to take that on board. I tend to try to review things I love, which then destroys everything for me.
SARAH: Oh, yes. Yes.
ASTRID: It's a bad life choice. Now we are talking via Zoom and you are in a courthouse. You are in a courthouse. This is the first for The Garret. But I'd like to ask you, what are some of the long-form projects you are working on at the moment that you can-
SARAH: Yeah, sure.
ASTRID:... talk about?
SARAH: Yeah. No, no, that's fine. This is for The Monthly and it is about the Malka Leifer trial, which I have been following since 2018. It's a child sexual abuse case, so a female principal and her students. She was recently found guilty of most of those offences. I am here with the transcript coming through for the factual details that were presented in closed court. Otherwise, I was here for the rest of the trial, so that was about nine weeks. That'll be this year. I have recently started on the next book, which is going to look like a trial book and that's all I can probably say about it at the moment, but it's a Victorian double murder case. Yeah, so I'm not being coy. It is when I feel like I haven't explained the book to myself, if I explain this to someone else, it's like it hardens in the concrete and something's lost. This is so wanky. I can't even begin to tell you, but I do feel that. So yeah, those are the two big things that I've got at the moment.
ASTRID: Sarah, I'm looking forward to reading both using very different parts of my brain and emotions and intellect, but I do love the idea of another long-form, long, long-form, bigger than a Quarterly Essay work from you.
SARAH: Thank you. I'm so excited. I feel like that's my natural resting position. I can just disappear and worry over where the commas go for a good two years.
ASTRID: That sounds perfect, Sarah. Thank you for speaking to me again. Congratulations on Peter Carey. You have really challenged me to read beyond what I normally do. Thank you for taking the time out of the court case.
SARAH: All right. Thank you generally for the podcast, which accompanies me on my little walk, so thank you and specifically for having me again. This is a joy.