I reviewed John Carey's later book 'What Good are the Arts?' very negatively on Amazon a few years ago, and have had mostly negative comments for my pains. This book, which at least has a more intelligent premise (to examine attitudes of 20th century intellectuals towards 'the masses'), is even worse. I expect a kicking.
This is possibly the most asinine book by a tenured academic that I've read since Rudiger Imhof's 'The Modern Irish Novel', which had the great disadvantage of being written by someone for whom English is not a first language. Professor Carey's book is much better written than Professor Imhof's, but whereas Prof Imhof's took a few really stupid axioms (for example, that good modern fiction contains extended passages of description, and is not mostly composed of dialogue) and developed them with ironclad logic, Prof Carey's takes a few sensible axioms (for example, that modernist intellectuals were uneasy about the general public) and fails to develop them at all. Every page is infested with weasel wordage, unexamined assumptions, misrepresentations of the works being discussed and, in general, the kind of slack reasoning and absence of argumentative rigour that, if tried on by the average undergraduate, would have seen the young John Carey slinking out of college with a bare pass, if that.
Geoff Dyer has written an excellent review of the book, demonstrating the essentially corrupt and self-serving nature of Carey's thesis; for example, anyone Carey doesn't like is considered an 'intellectual' and therefore suspect, but anyone he does like, such as the poet and translator Edwin Muir, or the University of Chicago Press-published academic Helen McGill Hughes, is excused from the charge of 'intellectual' and considered just a reliable source.
One of the chief problems with the book is Carey's unwillingness to ask difficult questions, out of a desire to not alienate the reader. For example, he spends much of the first chapter quoting various intellectuals on the subject of how widespread free education is a bad thing, without any attempt to counter their arguments. It's apparently enough for Carey that Yeats poured scorn on the lower classes for not being as cultured as the higher classes; that, in itself, dismisses Yeats, as far as Carey is concerned. It so happens that I think Yeats' idealisation of the upper classes, insofar as he thought that the upper classes were more cultured, was mere snobbery, without any basis in fact. (I am one of the democratically educated middle-classes that Yeats would have despised.) But I want to see it argued, not just held up for ridicule. Likewise, when Eliot attacks education for all, I want to see a counter-argument; I don't consider it self-evident that Eliot was talking rubbish. After all, Eliot was a great writer. while John Carey isn't one, and so even if Eliot had some daft ideas, the reasons why he held them may have been very interesting.
Elsewhere, Carey pours uncritical praise on newspapers for providing the 'masses' (which he claims don't exist) with exactly the same type of aesthetic pleasure that intellectuals get from high culture, by means of featuring human interest stories. What Carey lacks, here, very glaringly, is any kind of critical sense regarding newspapers. Newspapers are media formed by decision-making and economic processes, not just some benign natural mirror in which uneducated people see themselves. Noam Chomsky, someone who has far more faith in and experience of the common sense of most people than John Carey, has repeatedly demonstrated the extent to which newspapers are, in general and by their nature, in the service of capitalism; their business is to sell their readers to their advertisers, and not to provide their readers with disinterested truth and 'human interest'.
As Dyer points out in his review, the hero of this book -- insofar as it's true hero isn't, in fact, John Carey himself -- is Arnold Bennett. Most of its readers will never have read Arnold Bennett. I made a special effort to, precisely because as someone who is gaining a college education only as an adult, I fall into the category of the kind of reader that I think John Carey wants us to believe he is writing for. I was reading Joyce as a teenager, and enjoying him; the older I get, the more I see in his work. I don't see much worth reading in Arnold Bennett. If the author of this book considers Arnold Bennett so great, all I can say is: so much for his critical faculties. It's disturbing enough when the book by Nietzsche that he quotes more often than any other is a book that Nietzsche himself never published. Carey's habit of quoting a writer at you and not bothering to point out that the writer had a much more complex and nuanced position than he represents is here at its most glaring.
The work of understanding the complex relationship between modernist artists and their public is hard, and this book, in its clumsy, evasive, fact-dodging way, just muddies the water. It will confirm the prejudices of people who suspect that difficult writing is always a waste of time, and never becomes easier with experience; it will not convince anyone who takes pleasure in reading anything that demands even the slightest effort on the part of the reader.
In short, John Carey could get a job with the Daily Mail.