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Likeability

Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado writes: Irish women writers continue to face blatant sexism from a phalanx of male critics who attempt to exclude them from cultural tradition, thirty years after the controversial publication of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Such detractors dismiss their writing as lacking “seriousness” and deride Irish women authors and their female characters for a supposed lack of “likeability”. These are distinctly chauvinistic charges.

Last year we were reminded of the insidious, institutionalised sexism within literary criticism by Ian Parker’s appalling profile in The New Yorker targeting Edna O’Brien, who has published her work in that same magazine for the past fifty years. When I wrote a rebuttal in The Irish Times championing O’Brien, Campbell Spray, an editor at the Sunday Independent, published a response siding with Parker, and accusing me of “clutching my pearls” and making “an over-the-top feminist defence”. This summer, when I praised her trailblazing 1960 novel The Country Girls on Twitter, Belfast novelist Robert McLiam Wilson replied immediately to inform me of “the migrainous ineptitude and shallow narcissism of Edna O’Brien”.

Apparently, for an Irish woman to portray female experience is to display these aforementioned qualities – especially if she writes about female desire. The scandalised reaction to the sex scenes in the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People, which aired on RTÉ in Ireland, was astounding. A host of Holy Joes called into the popular Irish radio programme Liveline, condemning the show as “filthy”, like “something you would expect to see in a porno movie”, and reproving Rooney for “sexualising our young people. It’s not normal.”

The pathologising of female sexuality due to a misogynistic false piety is nothing new, and it persists in the field of literary criticism. It has prompted the editors of the new right-wing British magazine The Critic to publish an editorial in their July/August 2020 issue decrying “The Decline of the English Novel”, citing Rooney’s work as a prime example of this phenomenon. Despite accusing Rooney of “dour didacticism”, they also proclaim that her writing is “immoral”: “Set down in a serious novel published in the period 1890-1910 by, say, George Gissing or H.G. Wells, you straightaway encounter a set of characters whose inner lives are disturbed by fundamental questions about their moral and spiritual behaviour. Here in 2020… ‘moral behaviour’ is mostly reduced to the pressing dilemma of who to sleep with this week.”

Never mind the fact that Rooney herself has stressed the direct influence of nineteenth century English novels on her fiction, particularly in their exploration of morality and inner lives. And why the magazine’s editors include Irish author Rooney in a piece on the “English” novel in the first place is another curious matter. It seems they want to claim her just so that they can discard her in the next breath.

Sometimes, a male critic experiences such a charged reaction to an Irish woman author precisely because he finds her attractive. In 2019, Swiss critic Martin Ebel took it upon himself to comment on Rooney’s physical appearance in the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, describing her as resembling “a startled deer with sensuous lips”. Similarly, Spray stated that when he was a young journalist, an acquaintance “jokingly warned me of O’Brien's reputation as a great lover” ahead of his interview with her. Spray recalled his disappointment when he turned down an invitation to dine with O’Brien following the interview, since her offer “was I believe more about food than romance. I should be so lucky. Whatever, I declined, to my regret … Just as I had been by Polly Devlin, a year or so before, I was entranced by [O’Brien’s] voice, languorous tones and the way she reached back and sighed for the ages. It was the sensuality of real Irishness, real woman. I was being drawn into the country.” This fetishising of Irish women writers as personifications of a feminised, sexualised Ireland is a complex particular to a certain strain of male critics.

When Irish women write about sexism in their fiction in order to spotlight it as a pervasive problem, this can fall on deaf ears. In the New Statesman earlier this year, Leo Robson denounced Anne Enright’s exquisite novel Actress – an intimate, excoriating examination of systemic sexism in the entertainment industry – as a “plodding, clichéd story”. He found the gradual revelation of the traumatic narrative “puzzling” and conflated the narrator Norah with her creator: “This is Norah’s approach, but is it Enright’s? The answer … is maybe.” When Enright spoke at an event for Actress with the London Review of Books in February, a male audience member recounted being asked “what kind of author she was” and he described Enright to her face as “remorseless” and noted “I’m not sure that she actually likes people.” He then inquired “why she can’t forgive her characters”, because they do not seem to have “happy endings” in her books. Enright retorted, “Get you and your projections!” In a brilliant move, she asked him to clarify what he meant by his statements and he was reduced to incoherent mumbling.

Anna Burns’s extraordinary novel Milkman, which won the 2018 Booker Prize, was deemed “wilfully demanding and opaque” by Dwight Garner in The New York Times. He labelled the book a “difficult slog” and attributed this to the teenage narrator’s circuitous, stream-of-consciousness method of description. Garner failed to pick up on the fact that this mode reflects her psychological distress at being stalked and sexually groomed by a menacing, middle-aged paramilitary. He declared peevishly, “I found Milkman to be interminable, and would not recommend it to anyone I liked.” In the very next sentence Garner remarked, “It’s poor form, probably, to insert a long quote this early in a review,” then he proceeded to insert a long quote, after disparaging Burns for being “interminable”.

Such paradoxes abound. The writer in The Critic reproaches Rooney for receiving “undue” praise, while also complimenting her work: “The current victim of this process is poor Sally Rooney, not yet thirty and the author of two quite interesting novels, who will now have to spend the next ten years of her career digging herself out of the pit into which impressionable critics have flung her.” After blaming Rooney for “the decline of the English novel” the author then commends her for writing “two quite interesting novels”. This self-contradiction is rife in sexist literary criticism and it symptomatises a begrudging envy of women’s successes.

The editorial board of The Critic features an all-male line-up, including The Spectator’s notorious mouthpiece Toby Young. The former magazine’s roster, and its name, illustrate the masculinist monolith of “The Critic” – a male invention which aims to intimidate women writers, but whose bellicose swaggering actually belies insecurity and cowardice. Case in point: the article admonishing Rooney is penned by a “Secret Author”. But it is no secret that Irish women endure opprobrium from male critics who regard them and their female characters as “unlikeable” if their writing does not conform to prescribed standards. Recently, Enright observed in the New York Review of Books, “This request for likability refuses to go away, though everyone gets it already: fictional men are allowed to be bad, their badness often is the story, female characters are not allowed to be bad, because it makes a story slightly unpleasant. Readers deflect their aversion toward the author, who is accused of a crime that is hard to define. What does ‘likable’ mean?”

Rooney, Enright, Burns and O’Brien are global bestsellers and prestigious award-winners from three different generations. They are major Irish writers who have attained enormous international acclaim despite a putative “unlikeability” alleged by a faction of male critics. This year, Rooney received an Emmy nomination for her adapted screenplay of Normal People. She also won the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year and the Costa Novel of the Year for this superb book. Enright is a Booker Prize winner, and she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction for Actress. Burns made history as the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize, for Milkman. In the past year alone, O’Brien won two lifetime achievement awards: France’s Prix Femina and the UK’s David Cohen Prize, in addition to winning the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for the magnificent Girl.

Nevertheless, men continue to dominate the field of literary criticism, and this demand for “likeability” is a form of coded misogyny. Of course, the problem is not limited to the realm of literary fiction either. Although male gatekeepers to the canon of literature in English continue to exhibit exclusionary bias by maligning Irish women authors, we are currently witnessing an explosion of impressive writing by women from Ireland, north and south. This powerful wave of Irish women’s voices continues to gain momentum, and I for one hope there is no stopping them.

15/8/2020

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She tweets @drdawnmiranda