Last night Australian expat novelist Peter Carey read from his newest book, A Long Way From Home, in the basement hall of the Elliott Bay Book Company. Carey was affable and interesting and funny, and although not the greatest reader (that prize goes to Neil Gaiman) he isn't bad, and we do like his novels. Mighty Reader is a bigger Carey fan than I am, but certainly Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelley Gang are great books. Carey's newest doesn't sound like it's in that league, and his publishers refer to it as "Carey's late-career masterpiece" or something like that, which makes it sound like poor Peter is already dead and they're sifting though his oeuvre while deciding which novels to reprint in new colorful paperback editions.
At almost every reading I've attended (for novelists, anyway), an audience member asks the writer to name some contemporary novelists he or she admires. The novelist's mind invariably goes blank for a moment. Eventually Carey managed to name a couple of Americans working now, and he mentioned Franzen, at which point Mighty Reader coughed with clear derision. More than once. After the reading, when Carey was signing her copy of A Long Way From Home, Mighty Reader apologized for having coughed derisively at Franzen's name. Carey looked up at me and said, "You're not fans, then?" My response was something about how if I ever meet Franzen, I'm going to hit him as hard as I can. This is not the conversation I'd imagined I'd be having with Peter Carey, two-time Booker Prize winning novelist. I'd intended to thank him for saying earlier that the impulse for a novel was an idea, an imaginative vision, and that he assembled his novels around the needs of the ideas, and I'd intended to ask him how that contrasts with current American fiction writing teaching that bases a novel upon the sentence, the prose itself rather than whatever the novel is "about." Alas, the Franzen-needs-to-be-whupped-good conversation did not turn into a discussion of craft. I should not be surprised by this.