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John Carey: The last public critic

A distinguished Oxford academic and newspaper critic, Carey has been a cultural influencer for 50 years. He is a high-establishment insider – and yet has never forgotten the social slights he experienced as a young man.

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When I was on the cusp of adulthood and trying to cobble together a literary education, one figure towered above all others in appearing to light the way. This was John Carey, who during the years I spent as a sixth-former, a “partner” at John Lewis and a first-year undergraduate chaired the juries of both the Man Booker Prize and the Man Booker International Prize and published his widely debated 2006 polemic What Good Are the Arts?, a loose sequel to his anti-elitist classic The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), which I had devoured in the John Lewis canteen.

In the same period he wrote more than 50 pungent pieces for the Sunday Times, on topics including the novelist Anthony Powell (“He had no ideas”) and the biographer Peter Ackroyd (“Surely Shakespeare’s life cannot have been as boring as this”); and appeared several times as a guest on the Radio 4 discussion programme In Our Time, where he was introduced as an “emeritus” professor of English at Oxford University, and spoke with especially memorable force and clarity on the epic, a subject I was notionally studying for the majority of that time.

Asked how Paradise Lost related to the epic tradition, Carey talked for exactly two minutes. He started by calling the poem “an anti-epic”. Milton’s project, Carey maintained, was – like that of Marx and Freud – to ask “the really important question: what’s wrong with human beings?” Milton’s answer was that they trust passion, and not reason – “it’s quite a good point”. But Carey also conceded that Milton worshipped Homer and Virgil. After all, he said, how does good overcome evil at the end of Paradise Lost? “With a chariot.”

A great deal of Carey is present in those two minutes of speech: the contrarianism; the swiftly plucked quotations and pertinent left-field references; the elastic, tremulous vowel sounds; the tone that the critic and broadcaster Mark Lawson describes as “slightly amused”; the generic, possibly faux-humble use of “it seems to me”; the idea of a poet making a “point”; and, finally, crucially, the reference to a divided mind.

In his new book, A Little History of Poetry, Carey emphasises that Milton was a republican who married a royalist and the author of a Christian poem whose hero is Satan. Carey’s criticism has always set about mapping the fissure in a writer’s psyche. His writing on DH Lawrence is concerned with how “hotly” Lawrence disagreed with himself. In his 1981 book on John Donne, Carey wrote: “His insistence that ‘no man is an island’, taken together with the egotism of his writing, illustrate both his urge to blend and the inescapable selfhood which prompted and frustrated it.” The character of Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop becomes, in Carey’s stereoscopic vision, “Dickens’s way of avenging himself” upon his own sentimentality.

Carey is himself a strange mixture – avuncular but deadly, amiable yet formidable, the donnish author of an essay called “Down with Dons” that ends with a tribute to a famous don. He is a champion of high literature who has limited enthusiasm for the major work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and a lifelong inhabitant of what he has dismissed as “the sheltered islands of the scholarly, the professionally bookish and the metropolitan”. And his professional activities were driven by opposing impulses. In his memoir The Unexpected Professor, he recalls that he spent the second half of the 1960s working his way through Victorian literature, writing the chapters on Renaissance prose for Christopher Ricks’s history of English-language literature, translating and annotating De Doctrina Cristiana for Yale University Press’s Milton’s project, and editing every-thing apart from Paradise Lost for the series “Longman Annotated English Poets”. He also started contributing book reviews for the New Statesman and producing a short guide to Milton, which he hoped would be lucid and funny.

These days, Carey, who is 86, knows where his priorities lie. “I more and more feel: what’s the point of writing a book that no one’s going to read?” he told me in February, during a four-hour conversation at his house, just outside Oxford. His latest book – the first in 50 years that hasn’t been published by Faber and Faber – is part of a Yale series that originated with EH Gombrich’s history of the world for younger readers. At one point, his editor suggested that Carey should think of a ten-year-old. “I did question that.” But he imagined teenagers. “They wouldn’t want any theory, or notes, and they’d like personal anecdotes about the poets so you’d see them in a human light.” Carey told me that people often “sneer” at biographical criticism, but applying the life to the work is, he says, “more interesting than ignoring” it.

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John Carey was born in Barnes, south-west London, in 1934. His father had worked as an accountant at a French fabrics company, Godde, Bedin & Cie. Carey’s older siblings were privately educated, the house was full of paintings and antiques, and the family had a live-in maid. But after Godde, Bedin went into liquidation, his father lost his job and a lot of money. (Carey remembers being shown bundles of worthless shares.) Carey admired his parents, and has written with fondness about what he considers his ordinary stolid background, characterised by gardening, visits to the parish church, compassion and hard work. (His brother suffered from mental health problems, which Carey suspects may have included autism.)

Carey was sent to Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys, where he discovered his love of English literature. In his A-level year he was so desperate to achieve a scholarship at Oxford that, to help him stay up reading, he procured amphetamines from a doctor’s son he had met at Church Youth Club. The results were “phenomenal”. Carey was able to work through the night, passed the exam, and has remained in Oxford ever since, with the closest he has come to a radical move being a change of colleges.

He taught at Balliol (which he loved), Christ Church (which he loathed), Keble, and St John’s, before taking up the Merton Professorship, arguably the most distinguished literature chair in England, in 1975. Frank Kermode claimed that Carey had been “the very model of a Merton Professor”. It wasn’t a view universally shared. His predecessor – and D.Phil supervisor – Helen Gardner, hadn’t wanted him to get the position, and he was loathed by many of his colleagues. A Private Eye article claimed that the favourite song at English faculty parties was the theme tune from 2001: A Space Odyssey because that was the year Carey was due to retire. “They thought I was a kind of upstart,” he said, “which I was.”

Carey isn’t the most reliable witness to his Oxford career. He pointed to his friend Christopher Ricks as the kind of “terrifying” academic who would “make no pretence” of thinking that someone’s lecture was any good. But the Princeton professor Nigel Smith told me that Carey would frequently “pillory” the guest speakers who appeared at his Merton seminar. Carey also said that his model for diligence was the historian Keith Thomas, a colleague at St John’s in the 1960s: “You’d see him in the library from first thing and he’d have a great pile of books.” And while it’s possible that Carey felt inspired by Thomas’s immersion in past epochs, his working habits were already firmly in place. He knew his A-level texts more or less by heart (“I’m afraid I was like that”) and spent virtually all his time as an undergraduate in the library. “I read the whole of Wordsworth,” he said. “Amazing thought.” (In his memoir, he says that much of it was “ponderous”.)

Carey’s wife, the academic Gill Carey – they met as undergraduates more than 60 years ago – said that he is “addicted to work”. All of his lectures are scripted, and he takes notes on almost every book he reads. He told me he would consider it “dishonest” to write the introduction to a book if he didn’t know the author’s work. When I asked if he felt any trepidation before embarking on ambitious projects, he said he didn’t. “I blush a bit to think that.”

The poet Ian Hamilton, an undergraduate at Keble in the 1950s, said that Carey was “full of life, vigour and ideas, clever as hell”. He pushed his students to work hard – harder, Carey has written, “than many of them had supposed anyone could”. Nigel Smith, who points to Carey’s “schoolmasterly quality”, said that on arriving in Oxford as a graduate student, Carey gave him a test on the continental Renaissance – “the only time that’s ever happened to me”. Carey recognises that he could be “very militant”. He rejected Martin Amis’s application to St John’s on the grounds that he had no second language, and he still grumbles that colleagues such as John Bayley, Terry Eagleton and Richard Ellmann didn’t care enough about modernising the syllabus.When Eagleton raised the possibility of resigning his professorship, Carey encouraged him to leave. (Eagleton, for his part, might be described as a qualified admirer – he wrote in the New Statesman that Carey is “a relentless debunker of pious guff and portentous rhetoric” who too frequently “smacks at straw targets”.)

Carey’s discipline is combined with a minimum of fuss. One of his sons, Leo, who works as an editor at the New Yorker magazine, referred to his father’s approach: there is, he told me, “never any sense of agon, no tearing out of hair”. When his father was required to empty his college rooms, he simply got on with it: “Having to discard all this stuff, which to many people would be a great wrench, he turned into a task that one could do well.”

Carey has moved, if not with the times, then with certain literary fashions. Leo Carey referred to the idea that his father doesn’t “quite seem to have dated in the same way that other people have – people who are on the London literary scene and get sort of associated with a period of it”. Though he started as a Renaissance scholar, he has been engaged with modern and contemporary subjects since the Oxford syllabus expanded and he began writing for the New Statesman. “I remember being terrified,” Carey said. “You’re writing for an unknown audience!”

Working with the literary editor Karl Miller – a minatory presence – did little to put him at his ease. Gill Carey, as a prank, once wandered into the garden to say that Miller’s secretary was on the telephone, simply for the pleasure of watching him go pale. After Miller moved to edit the BBC magazine The Listener in 1967, Carey served him as a book reviewer, radio critic, and TV columnist – he was forced to rent a television set for the purpose – while contributing to Ian Hamilton’s New Review and continuing to write for the NS, under literary editors Claire Tomalin and Martin Amis. In 1973, he published The Violent Effigy, perhaps his best book, a study of Dickens. And in 1977, recently ensconced as Merton Professor, he took the position of chief book reviewer of the Sunday Times, a job he retains to this day.

Gill Carey, who “vets everything”, recalls that after Carey started writing journalism, his style, which she says had been “long-winded”, grew suddenly sharper. Leo Carey recalls that “being really interesting was something he almost set about”.

One writer in particular helped to forge his style. Carey told me that he recently looked at his own 1987 collection of reviews and journalism, Original Copy: “I thought a) this is extremely good, b) it’s just like Orwell.” When, exactly 50 years ago, Penguin brought out four volumes of Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters, Carey was, he tells me, “completely captivated”. From Orwell, he drew the lesson that you should not only acquire a lot of knowledge but “make it accessible to a big audience”.

Carey gets remarkable mileage from plain constructions: “Hughes’s aim is to reinvigorate language”; “One quality Craig Raine lacks is dignity” (a compliment); “The clear message of the 1986 Guinness Book of Records is that animals must try harder.” Of Martin Amis as a critic: “He is never dull.” The masterly thing about the style of the Protestant reformer William Tyndale, Carey wrote, “is its not seeming to be there” – an Orwell-like, or perhaps Carey-like, quality.

Central to Carey’s vividness is a gift for subtle observation. Leo Carey recalls that when he was studying for his A-levels, he pointed out to his mother that in “To Autumn”, Keats makes no mention of dead leaves. A voice was heard from another room: “That’s very good! Very good to see what’s not there!”

At the time, Carey had recently published a new edition of The Violent Effigy to make good what he realised had been missing – a study of a single novel’s structure. And when he came to describe Dickens’s Bleak House, he used the imagery of omission, suggesting that the novel comprises two books, one about Lady Dedlock’s illicit sex life, the other about the machinations of the Court of Chancery, neither of which Dickens was able to write.

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Carey has a lifelong hatred of snobbery. As a young don, he was appalled by Christ Church. In his memoir, he describes an incident at high table when the economist Roy Harrod, asked by a guest who Carey was, replied, “Oh, that’s nobody.” Carey has called his politics “dogmatically republican as well as socialist, edging on communist”. (He has almost certainly refused a knighthood.) Reviewing the 1983 election manifestos in a piece headlined “The Strange Death of Political Language,” he argued that the Conservative one was “easily the best written”, but reflected that this was “not at all what I’d hoped to find”. He squares his politics with writing for a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper on the grounds that he is – indeed like Murdoch himself – reflexively anti-establishment and a passionate egalitarian, convinced of the virtue of writing for a general readership.

Some believe that Carey’s populist allegiances have come at a price. The Intellectuals and the Masses prompted derision for connecting the modernists’ disdain for ordinary people to the Final Solution. The critic James Wood, who once complained that Carey tends to stoop to the journalistic occasion, has written that he is a man “in whom a philistine is trying to escape” and questioned the “easy moralism” underpinning the idea that, say, Virginia Woolf was simply “a pretentious snob”.

Mark Lawson, who regularly worked with Carey on radio and television, told me, “All critics have weaknesses – few have as few as John – and he does have a tendency to see things through an English class perspective, siding with the non-establishment figures.” Lawson told me that during a judges’ meeting for the WH Smith Literary Award, Carey said it was remarkable that someone with a background like Nick Hornby’s could have written a novel as accomplished as High Fidelity. It soon emerged that Carey believed that Fever Pitch – the book that made football middle class – was a memoir of hooliganism. “That was so John,” Lawson said. “It would have been a very appealing narrative – much more so than the other one, that Hornby was the son of a Thatcherite knight who’d been involved in the Channel Tunnel.”

But Carey’s egalitarian streak is coupled with a refusal to give anyone – humble, well-born, world-renowned – a free pass. Craig Raine – in one of his rare dignified moments – wrote that you had to look to the early TS Eliot to find a critic with Carey’s “eye for what is bad in an author”. My undergraduate head of department, Thomas Docherty, told me he had been flattered to receive one of Carey’s dressing-downs in print, though Clive James said he slept badly for months after Carey’s review of his first book, The Metropolitan Critic. (James’s widow recently claimed that he could have quoted the article by heart.)

During our conversation, Carey said that he found Sally Rooney’s novels “sort of desultory”, though he conceded he was not the target audience. In A Little History of Poetry, he quotes Yeats on the irrelevance of war poetry, then says: “It is hard to imagine a more foolish comment.”

Carey admits that he is “pretty ashamed” of some things he has written – he calls his review of Clive James “smart-arse”, and recalled a “very mischievous – I’m afraid – review” he wrote about Germaine Greer. But he believes his enthusiasm is often overlooked. He regrets that his book on Donne is viewed as an attack. Of his 1977 book on Thackeray, Carey says that he was “trying to say what’s good about him actually,” though he couldn’t help adding: “It’s just that I happen not to think that a lot of it is worth reading.”

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In recent decades, Carey has devoted most of his time to acts of advocacy and appreciation. He produced a series of anthologies, one of which, The Faber Book of Reportage, was a best-seller. (“That was when we bought a second car,” Leo Carey said.) In Pure Pleasure, he wrote about his favourite books of the 20th century. His biography of William Golding was a labour of love. (Hilary Mantel wrote to tell him it was the best literary biography she had ever read.) What Good are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor both end with a celebration of reading. Carey’s last book was an abridged version of Paradise Lost, designed to encourage a new audience. And in A Little History of Poetry, he writes with passionate concision about dozens of poets, including Milton, Donne, Rilke, Stevie Smith, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Mary Oliver.

Carey’s cruelty may inspire amusement or Schadenfreude, but his presence is absorbing and his curiosity is germinal. Kazuo Ishiguro – whom Carey called a “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful writer” – told me that during on-stage events with Carey, he often becomes “properly lost in conversation”: “I suspect him of employing some kind of hypnotist’s trick.” And whenever they meet, Ishiguro invariably finds himself – “sometimes to my annoyance” – becoming “strangely enthused about some idea or author or film or an entire art form to which I’d never previously given much thought”. The Australian writer Peter Carey (no relation) has said that the spur for his novel Oscar and Lucinda, which won the Booker Prize in 1988, came from Carey’s article about the English writer Edmund Gosse. (Carey, who wasn’t aware of the connection, chose Oscar and Lucinda as one of his books of the year.)

The question is what form enthusiasm might most profitably take. In Carey’s view, critics often get in the way. His inaugural Merton lecture, published in the New Statesman under the headline “The Critic as Vandal”, issued a warning about the dangers of paraphrase. Towards the end, he posited the figure of “the anti-critic”, someone attuned to “the fact that literature is irreplaceable, irreducible, and irrefutable”. His books are notable for the wealth of quotation and for trying, insofar as possible, to inhabit the author’s “mind”, “personality” or “imaginative world”.

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At this stage of his evolution, John Carey welcomes any opportunity to give readers unimpeded access to works of literature. When I rang him at home on 22 April, during the coronavirus lockdown, he did not seem worried, despite being in the high-risk group: “Thank heavens Gill and I feel fine.” He told me that when he wasn’t jogging around his garden (“we are lucky in having one”) or riding his bicycle (“it’s perfectly legal”) or reading the new Hilary Mantel (the jury’s out), he was at work on a pair of particularly Careyish projects – a weekly series for the Sunday Times website in which he reprints a poem and provides a short, mostly factual introduction, and an anthology of works that he particularly treasures but couldn’t quote in full in the Little History.

Ishiguro seemed to hit upon the source of Carey’s enduring appeal when he said that he doesn’t “come over as an academic” and that “everything he says seems to come inflected by personal, lived experience”. Yet Carey is often dealing with subjects on which, in Ishiguro’s phrase, “his scholarly expertise is immense”. Unlike the majority of his colleagues and descendants, Carey never switches code or shifts guises, speaking now as a populist, now as a specialist. He has no need to – for more than 50 years, his taut, spry, flexible, idiomatic style has enabled him to engage a large non-specialist audience without, for the most part, stinting his deep infectious belief that literature is serious, and matters. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave