Jessie Tu and the Fashionably Regressive Approach to Reading

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/08/jessie-tu-and-the-fashionably-regressive-approach-to-reading/
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So a white author can’t write about non-white characters lest she be a problem. A white author also cannot write about white characters lest she be a problem. How long ago did these people jump the shark and we still think we can editorialize them into common sense?

What isn’t answered, is what do we do about these people? Talking about them isn’t helping unless it is just continuing to highlight the absurdity. But to what end?

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I hate this ‘stay in you lane’ shit, and especially the social reversion which would have us treat all people on the basis of their arbitrary groups- it denies the essential universality of the human experience and our ability to transcend petty jealousies and squabbles through our own agapē.

The other problem is whenever we see the work inspired by intersectional thinking, whether on screen or in print, the characters are two-dimensional caricatures of the groups they are meant to represent, with some characters dripping in pathos and others cast as completely unbelievable villains. Mind you, there is nothing new about it- the archetypal school bully popular in the last generation of American fiction in reality has deep-seated insecurities and tends to get in a temper because they are slow in the riposte with the verbal sparring which is common to males, from adolescence onwards. In real life, it is the sting of the hero’s scathing wit which invariably gets him into trouble.

The main thing is that people don’t like to be lectured at, and they particularly don’t like the presumption they possess prejudices which most of the empirical data shows are fast dying out in the West. The cultural Left is also wrong in their central thesis, you can rank order any group in any Western society by the percentage of fathers within the community in which they grew up and find that those with the highest incomes are also those with the highest rates of fathers.

You can even do the same by Western country and the average income levels match-up. It works far more for boys than it does for girls (which is why African American women have a higher rate of social mobility than white women) but it all evens out to rank order the group. It even forms the basis of an intergenerational reset, because two income households are better able to confer both wealth and advantage to their children more than single income ones. So race is not the primary driver of disparity or inequality in the West, fatherlessness is.

As usual my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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“It’s just such a lonely place for BIPOC people when you don’t see yourself on the page, because you literally don’t exist,” Tu says. Growing up, she explains, that lack of representation meant “I felt ineligible for anything, like an adventure, or love. I was so yearning for a story about a young woman who looked like me, who struggled with loneliness and the shame of loneliness.”

We get it, hon; you weren’t one of the popular girls in high school and you’re still cheesed about it, twenty years later.

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Couple of comments.

  • This author seems to understand the audience but despite the fact there are not many feminists here, still feels obliged to put down white dead males. As many men as women missed their chance to write books before we got so rich we could afford to educate our women in utterly useless women studies.
  • What people pay Tu to write an article that can only be considered as a really bad essay written when it was that time of the month? No arguments, no logic, just prejudice and malice. I see at Unherd as well, somehow editorial staffs have a quota for feminist drivel, or what looks like feminist drivel when you stick to the surface.
  • Interesting in her article though is how she seems to be guided by a mysterious power that defines what is normal, good, and acceptable. Can’t she think on her own?

I think I preferred to be oblivious of Tu.

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I’ve been seeing these kind of inflammatory, highly emotive first-person “essays” indundate the mainstream media for some time now. Sad to see the SMH go the route of Buzzfeed and Junkee with this sort of “article.”

The question being, is Tu adopting the obnoxious tone for clicks or is she sincere? Perhaps a bit of both.

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Wondering why Tu’s review is of any interest here. Or any similar one based on the intersectionality of the reviewer.

“I’m someone who has too much to say,” exhales Jessie Tu. As reported by The Guardian in the review of Tu’s novel. Her review proves it.

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