Any person who produces art or literature, or who offers up anything at all for public consumption, must have a thick skin. Harsh reviews are as much a part of the writing life as days in front of a blank screen. But Jessie Tu’s recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Irish novelist Sally Rooney strikes a nastier tone than most scathing book reviews manage. It is symptomatic of an increasingly prevalent trend in literature, according to which the identity of the writer is more important than the words on the page. If your reaction is to scoff and retort that this is exactly what happened when white men dominated publishing, well okay. But that injustice is simply being re-rehearsed in reverse—this time, the wolf preens in progressive sheep’s clothing, masquerading as virtuous while advocating a heavily regressive approach to reading.
Tu opens her article by admitting that she is confused by Rooney’s popularity. Fine—almost everyone at one time of another has found themselves bemused by the success of an artist who is not at all to their taste. But that marks the outer limits of Tu’s reasonability. She immediately complains that those who dislike Rooney’s books risk being thought of as “a bit of a monster” should they be unwise enough to say so, and that the “mainstream adoration is impenetrable.” This is simply not true—Rooney is among the most divisive of contemporary writers, with a loyal fan base often fending off equally passionate detractors. But in the next couple of paragraphs, it becomes apparent that what Tu really finds objectionable has almost nothing to do with Rooney’s abilities as an author. Repeatedly and repetitively, she chastises Rooney and her milky-skinned characters and their milky lives (she’s even irritated by the amount of tea they drink). The word “white” appears 14 times in Tu's 950-word article (15, if we include the obligatory reference to “whiteness”), and in almost every instance it’s dripping with scorn.
Sally Rooney is indeed white, and to date, has written about a country in which the population is approximately 93 percent white. But so what? If Rooney is to be discouraged from writing about white people in rural and urban Ireland, then she is almost certainly being discouraged from writing about anything at all. Does anyone doubt that a thoroughgoing identitarian like Tu would hesitate to raise a pitchfork were Sally Rooney to write a novel about four Taiwanese friends strolling around Taipei? Tu gripes that Rooney might not be well regarded were she not white, and concludes by stating that anyone who believes she is being too hard on Rooney is probably white too. Unaware of her arrogant presumption as she hammers bitterly at her keyboard, she awards herself the job of speaking on behalf of all people of colour, who she appears to assume couldn’t possibly formulate an opinion at odds with her own.
The world of literature has expanded its horizons in recent decades, and the quality of writing from voices that may not have been published in decades past is something for which we should be grateful. Zadie Smith, Marlon James, and Colson Whitehead are among countless voices I would likely not have had the opportunity to enjoy in the 1970s or ‘80s. But with this welcome change has come a sort of piggybacking identity politico, armed with the axioms of critical theory and bucketloads of self-righteous indignation, who determines the value of work based on the immutable characteristics of its author.
Shouldn’t the writing be what counts? And if not, do we leave it to zealots like Tu to determine the hierarchy of literary value? Tu places Rooney squarely beneath herself, because although Rooney scores a handful of intersectional points for being female, she loses so many more on account of her dreadful whiteness. Is Tu’s work more essential because she is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants in Australia? If Rooney were writing about being the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants in Australia, then perhaps. But she isn’t, she’s writing about what she knows. Does Tu’s training as a classical violinist count against her in some way as it indicates privilege, or does she judge her work to be more worthy than that of Sally Rooney on the basis of skin colour alone? The answer of course is that none of this should matter—not violin training, not gender, not race. Just the words.
Tu once absurdly declared that she would “probably never read another novel by a straight white male”—that pale, stale monolith of colonialism and misogyny. Tu’s stance is shared by one of Ireland’s best-selling novelists, Marian Keyes. Novels by men, she announced, aren’t worth reading because “their lives are so limited … such a small and narrow experience.” British journalist Suzanne Moore was delighted to hear this. The problem with this kind of thinking is that precision is not encouraged. It is stupefying to consider the extent to which a mind must be captured by ideology to actually believe these ideas. Keyes may read Tu’s latest novel, and feel positively virtuous for having done so, but Tu is unlikely to read hers, since both women choose their reading material for reasons that have nothing to do with literary merit. Ostensibly progressive ideals are cancelling one another out, and soon fanatics will have nothing left to read but writers of their own gender and skin colour. Promoting a recent novel, Keyes recommended a reading list that she hoped would help to “burn down the patriarchy.” Notwithstanding her conviction that it is male minds that are too limited, small, and narrow, her own 12 recommended authors were all white Western women.
And what does all this identity-obsessing do for authors? Not much. Zadie Smith has described it as a “pain in the arse.” In the Irish Times, Sally Rooney’s contemporary, Naoise Dolan, tried to make sense of identity and the pervasive interest in her personal life and sexual orientation. She pointed out that Sara Collins “has argued that as a black writer, she is wary of any externally imposed pressure to stick to certain subjects just because of her identity.” These writers—and all writers—are more than their immutable characteristics. The stories they tell are what matters, and the search for truth. Today it is understood that writers should be sensitive to the characters and cultures they write about. In From A Low And Quiet Sea Donal Ryan offers a heart-breaking portrait of a Syrian immigrant named Farouk who loses his family trying to get to Europe. Farouk is a character that moved me as much as any I’ve read in recent years. Is he any less true because Donal Ryan is from Tipperary, Ireland?
Whether the ideologues like it or not, some of the greatest works of literature in the world’s canon have been written by supposedly dreadful people of seemingly huge privilege and opportunity. It really doesn’t matter whether the next great novel of our time is written by Lord Henry Alexander Asquith VI or by the latest young female writing talent from Asia. Tonight, lying in bed, millions of readers around the world will open books and explore the lands and lives created by black writers, white writers, Asian writers, straight writers, and gay writers. And if they don’t like what they find, they can simply put the book down and read something else. Maybe Jessie Tu will summon the strength to put down her dog-eared copy of Normal People and do likewise. She is privileged enough to live in a free society where she can read anything she wants. And unlike in years gone by, there is a whole world to choose from.
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