Photo by Erik Voake

Sally Rooney and cultural boycotts

Rooney has now run into greater controversy than simple literary taste

Artillery Row

Enormous sales, multiple awards and significant cultural cachet notwithstanding, it is hard to warm to the author Sally Rooney. Perhaps it is the glum expression which she adopts in publicity pictures, or maybe it is the way in which she, an avowed Marxist, seems to struggle with the responsibility of being “the voice of a generation”. Certainly, anyone who features a bestselling author overcome with existential torpor as one of the central characters in her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, cannot be accused of a lack of self-regard.

Although the reviews have been less glowing than for her earlier books, she receives the respect due to a major literary figure. John Self wrote in The Critic, “It will not win her any new fans, and some existing fans will think, ‘Ah. This again.’ But it doesn’t matter much, as nobody else does it quite so well.” The book has sold an awful lot of copies, and no doubt will be adapted for film or television. An unremarkable joke about the quality of hipster burgers has been seized upon, with relief, as proof that she is not the austere figure that some (I stand in the dock, guilty as charged) have painted her as. The voice of the generation has spoken.

Unfortunately, Rooney has now run into greater controversy than simple literary taste. She has refused to allow her new novel to be published by the Israeli publishing house Modan. Her reason for so doing is that she supports Palestine in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and is an advocate of the cultural boycott of Israel. Rooney’s supporters — an engaged bunch of partisans — were quick to state that her reasons for boycotting Modan were that the publisher is the Israel Ministry of Defence publishing house, and that she was not acting in an anti-Israeli or anti-semitic fashion. She has therefore acted, they argue, in a typically principled fashion, and is being persecuted for being a high-profile left-wing figure, and a woman to boot.

Why does worldwide publishing remain in thrall to a fiercely intolerant ideology?

Rooney was, however, happy for Modan to publish her earlier novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, and has stated that she was “very proud” for them to do so. She has also said, “The Hebrew-language translation rights to my new novel are still available, and if I can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so. In the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality.”

This rather runs counter to her defenders’ claims that Rooney’s objection lies only in Modan, rather than with any other Israeli publishing house. Describing it as being an offshoot of the Ministry of Defence seems an extrapolation of the country’s MoD being one of the various clients rather than its sole raison d’etre. But these may, in the end, be distractions from the main issues at hand: the tense relationship between considered intellectual disagreement and straightforward anti-semitism, and why worldwide publishing remains in thrall to a fiercely intolerant ideology that would have led to the crucifixion of a major author who had announced that they would not allow their books to be brought out by, say, a Palestine publisher on “ideological grounds”.

There are a growing number of major figures in the arts, from Roger Waters and William Dalrymple to Patti Smith and Rooney, who are card-carrying supporters of the so-called “BDS movement”, which stands for “Boycott, Diversity and Sanctions”. BDS advocates an ongoing cultural boycott of Israel until the country meets its perceived obligations under international law. The musicians refuse to perform there, and the authors will not authorise translations of their books. And so on. It may seem unfortunate that intellectually impeccable figures such as Dalrymple and Brian Eno are fellow travellers with the likes of Chris Williamson, Russell Brand and that firebrand of the Left, Ken Loach, but nonetheless their policies arise from reasoned and well-thought out political engagement rather than simply disliking Jewish people. Or so one hopes.

One can rail against this as structural sexism

Whether one defends Israel unconditionally or regards it as a totalitarian, neo-apartheid nation that has unjustly oppressed a neighbouring people, many of those who criticise Israeli policy and, by extension, its population, do so with impunity because of the colour of its inhabitants’ skins. If the situation were to be reversed, I cannot imagine that many of the BDS supporters would be so vehement in their public utterances, but would instead prefer to express their disagreement in more subtle, dog-whistle forms. Yet those who proudly march beside Loach, Williamson and Waters — who called Israel “an apartheid state” and “the worst human rights offender in the world” — see the situation clearly. To boycott Israel, and its publishers, is an act of solidarity and principle. Rooney’s actions are therefore moral and laudable, and any other interpretation that can be placed upon them arises from malicious bad faith.

Some may look at Rooney’s profile and feel unease, although in many cases this is not borne out of misogyny, sexism or anti-Irishness. Instead, it is a case of “cometh the hour”. She has captured the zeitgeist in an increasingly female-dominated industry. Far more women buy books than men, especially fiction, and there are far more female staff in publishing, from editorial to sales and marketing, than male ones. One can rail against this as structural sexism, or shrug and accept that it reflects the cultural make-up of the literary world today. Rooney is perhaps, along with Hilary Mantel, the pre-eminent novelist in her field. She is a hugely powerful and influential figure, and the publicity campaign for her new book reflected this, even down to the pop-up shop (complete with Rooney bucket hats) that appeared around the time of its release.

If a movement from the right emerged to attempt to cancel her — as has recently happened over and over again with male writers — then there would be vitriolic cries of “hate speech” and “intolerance”. I cannot see what benefit the cancellation of Sally Rooney, or any other writer, offers the world. Even if she sometimes seems a strangely petty figure (I still treasure her incredulously asking an interviewer how she knew she was married, only for the journalist to remind her that she had thanked her husband in the acknowledgements), her work appeals to a vast number of readers, many of whom will be happy to separate her political pronouncements from her writing.  If the (few non-English speaking) readers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem find themselves unable to purchase a Hebrew translation of Beautiful World, Where Are You, they may be able to live with such a loss. After all, the navel-gazing indulgences of a successful Marxist writer may seem solipsistic to those who live through graver matters.

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