Sally Rooney attends a photocall during the Edinburgh International Book Festival(Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

It’s not Rooney, it’s you

When identity is the primary means of engagement with art, criticism is reduced to mud-slinging

In That Noble Dream, American historian Peter Novick argues that being objective about history is doomed to failure, but worth the attempt regardless. While necessarily subjective, a historian can still rely on their training and knowledge to strive for something approaching objective truth.

I’ve long felt the same way about criticism. There’s a lazy argument that there’s no such thing in art as a guilty pleasure. People simply like what they like and shouldn’t feel bad about it. This is like saying there’s no difference between a McDonald’s burger and a Cordon Bleu meal. You might prefer a cheap burger cooked by an underpaid teen, but to say it’s the same thing as a finely cooked meal is to erase the importance of craft, learning and expertise.

A work is judged not just on the identity of the author, but the identity of the critic

The job of a critic is to draw on broad knowledge of the field, assess a work within that field and attempt to put it into context. It’s a necessarily subjective art that strives for objectivity. It’s an art that requires as much self-awareness as empathy. “Is it good?” and “Do I like it?” are two very different questions. A critic needs to look at a work and ask, “What would I think about this, if I weren’t me?”

That kind of criticism feels increasingly idealistic in an age where identity is the primary means by which we engage with a work of art. A work is judged not just on the identity of the author, but the identity of the critic.

Australian literary Twitter had a little spasm last week after an emerging local novelist took aim at international bestselling behemoth Sally Rooney for being too white. Ostensibly, it was a belated book review of Normal People, timed to coincide with the release of Rooney’s new book. The critic, Jessie Tu, hadn’t read the new book. Some readers suggested, given the superficial analysis, it was unlikely she’d read the previous one either. 

There’s nothing wrong with attack reviews. Most critics have enjoyed writing them from time to time. (To define terms, an attack review is a joyous, merciless sledging when a critic applies their sharpest wit to the worst possible reading of a text.) Tu clearly enjoyed writing this one and fair play to her. She has form, too. When her novel was released last year, she was invited to review a fellow first time Aussie novelist Ewa Ramsey and, instead of turning in the expected back-slapping, comradely review, eviscerated the book as being stale, dreary and packed with hokey dialogue. 

Leaving aside the merits of that review, I applaud Tu for her bravery. Australian critics are outside their cliques treated with some suspicion for being a soft touch when it comes to reviewing Aussie culture. On its launch, Melbourne’s The Saturday Paper allowed its book reviewers to write under pseudonyms a decision that allowed for more latitude in criticism, but was pilloried as cowardice. If you attack someone’s art, the argument went, you should at least be brave enough to reap the consequences (which could be devastating, given how small the AusLit scene is). 

If there is a common thread between that review and the attack on Rooney, it is that both are examples of criticism that doesn’t primarily engage with the text itself but rather the society that has produced it. The review of Ramsey’s book is cut with familiar cultural studies terms such as heteronormative, patriarchy and – the killer – “straight white male”. The criticism of Rooney is, more bluntly, that her books are “too white”.

Gone is the notion of any universality of human experience, transcending racial, sexual, geographical boundaries

This caused a spasm because it’s the sort of criticism that can’t really be engaged with — at least, not by the eighty-three per cent of Australia that identifies as white. (The Australian arts scene is, quite rightly, doing a lot of soul-searching at the moment around its lack of diversity.) I don’t know Tu and (as a straight white male) have no real desire to criticise her, but when you place your identity at the centre of your criticism, it becomes difficult to play the ball and not the woman. What seems more interesting is to look at her piece as a salient example of the limits of identity-based or “extreme subjectivity” criticism.

Tu writes that she felt erased by the whiteness of Rooney’s work, which could clearly only be enjoyed by white people. Presumably, for a white person to argue against her point is to prove it.

What a depressing view of art this is. Gone is the notion of any universality of human experience, transcending racial, sexual, geographical boundaries. By this reading, art either reflects our chosen identity (which is so specific that nobody else can ever truly understand us) or it erases us. While representation matters — as an Australian who grew up watching American, English and Japanese pop culture, I had the nagging sense that where I lived wasn’t important — it’s as blunt a critical instrument as they come.

Perhaps white readers and authors weren’t triggered by the piece because of the colour of their skin, but instead because this extreme subjectivity criticism — damnation by representation is an increasingly dominant means by which art is assessed and frequently dismissed. It’s a form of criticism that denies art’s power to unite disparate people and generate empathy for those we might otherwise overlook.

When Tu’s piece was shared by the Irish Literary Times, the notion of representation became key. As Helen Lewis put it [in a now-deleted tweet], the implied critique of Rooney’s work not being representative of its setting was a shorthand way of demonstrating that you knew nothing about Ireland – a country where ninety-four per cent of the population identifies as white. By viewing Normal People through the prism of her own identity, the critic has failed to place it in its proper context. (Arguing why the books have resonated so widely outside that context might have been more interesting.)

Others seized on Tu’s dismissal of any social discomfort sprung from one of the protagonists having a mother who worked as a cleaner (that is, working class). A glance at the critic’s biography reveals she studied classical violin for fifteen years (a rarefied world that happens to be the setting of Tu’s own novel).

Overbearing emphasis on identity flattens the real structures of privilege

Aside from encouraging a lack of empathy with those different to ourselves, the most profound effect of an overbearing emphasis on identity is a flattening of the real structures of privilege. To excoriate a text as being “too white” is to divorce privilege from economic and social power and make it simply a matter of skin tone. Racism exists, as does sexism, classism and staggering economic inequity. They don’t always overlap.

Apart from being successful-while-female, Rooney’s main crime seems to have been the somewhat ironic appeal the title Normal People makes to a universal (white) humanity. It’s a claim arguably worsened by her acceleration to cultural icon. I suspect Rooney herself would agree with Tu’s central claim that we could find better literary heroes. 

But when a critic struggles to see beyond themselves, beyond their own identity and context, then it makes it impossible for them to see anyone or anything else clearly. Novick was right that objectivity is an illusion. Succumbing to such extreme subjectivity as many critics appear to be in their recourse to identity reduces criticism to mud-slinging, where our arguments will always matter far less than the people making them

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