Scholars hit back over New Yorker ‘hatchet job’ on Edna O'Brien

Irish literary critics unite to defend novelist after article portrayed her as ‘deceitful, flighty and self-pitying’

She is one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers, with a six-decade career that has seen her rove, lyrically, from rural Ireland to 1960s London to northeastern Nigeria. Last year, on receiving the David Cohen prize for literature, she was praised for having “moved mountains both politically and lyrically through her writing”.

But Edna O’Brien, whose 1960 literary debut The Country Girls was banned by the Irish censorship board and publicly burned by a parish priest, is still controversial . A less-than-hagiographic piece about her in the New Yorker magazine has prompted a fierce reaction in her native country, with an O’Brien specialist now lashing out in the pages of a leading Irish journal.

Under the angry headline “A gratuitous assault” in the latest issue of the Dublin Review of Books, Maureen O’Connor vents her fury at the New Yorker piece, accusing it of “deliberately” portraying O’Brien as “deceitful, flighty, self-absorbed and self-pitying”.

“[Ian] Parker’s hatchet job attempts to traduce the personal integrity and professional career of Ireland’s greatest living writer, a woman in the last year of her ninth decade who has perhaps had enough of such treatment,” writes O’Connor, a specialist in Irish studies who teaches in the school of English at University College Cork.

While Parker “cannily” injected “the occasional positive comment”, she claims, he had an “intention to humiliate his subject”. She accuses him of wrongly suggesting that “O’Brien has exaggerated her struggles, from her childhood poverty to her relationship with her mother to her literary reputation”.

Ian Parker wrote in the New Yorker, that ‘O’Brien’s instinct for stage-managing and self-fashioning remains undimmed’
Ian Parker wrote in the New Yorker, that ‘O’Brien’s instinct for stage-managing and self-fashioning remains undimmed’ Photograph: Slaven Vlašić/Getty Images for The New Yorker

“It would take far too many pages to thoroughly answer each of the many insulting charges Parker levels against O’Brien,” she writes.

O’Brien made her name with The Country Girls, the first of a trilogy, which broke down social and sexual barriers for women and was banned by the Irish authorities as “indecent”. Her most recent novel, Girl, inspired by the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014, has been described as a “masterclass of storytelling”.

After a complicated relationship with her home country – in 2015 President Michael Higgins made an official apology for the scorn formerly heaped on her by the Irish – O’Brien is now regarded as a national treasure in Dublin. The New Yorker piece, which appeared last autumn, had already been damned in the Irish Times as “appallingly disrespectful and sexist” by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, a visiting research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast.

But O’Connor, who has been researching and writing about O’Brien for 20 years and was interviewed by Parker for the piece, has had months to finesse her attack. She writes that the journalist, in researching his profile, contacted her last July: “After a very pleasant first several minutes, I grew uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking.”

In his piece, Parker wrote that “O’Brien’s instinct for stage-managing and self-fashioning remains undimmed” and that she “often writes about people who have been let down, one way or another, and at a quotidian level she seems most comfortable when registering discomfort… I came to think that, were O’Brien given a choice between a punctual guest and a mortified, unpunctual one, she would opt for the latter.”

Elsewhere, he continued: “O’Brien’s narrations of her life have tipped a little in the opposite direction, to emphasise distress, and sometimes struggle, rather than acclaim and good fortune.”

Maureen O’Connor, of University College Cork, called Parker’s article a ‘hatchet job’.
Maureen O’Connor, of University College Cork, called Parker’s article a ‘hatchet job’. Photograph: UCC

He also noted: “The page for O’Brien on the website of her London literary agent describes her as the winner, in 1962, of the Kingsley Amis Award. For decades, this accolade has been noted by O’Brien’s publishers, by journalists and academics, and by the universities where she has taught… There isn’t, and never has been, a Kingsley Amis Award… In 1960 the… Observer asked readers about books they’d enjoyed that year, and Amis praised The Country Girls for its ‘unphony charm and unlaborious originality’. For this, he wrote, it ‘wins my personal first-novel prize of the year’.”

Parker added: “It’s not clear how a kind remark in a Sunday paper took on a 60-year life as a formal honour… O’Brien said that she couldn’t recall, but blamed the carelessness of agents.”

O’Connor’s criticisms include his characterisation of O’Brien’s childhood and her relationship with her mother, in which Parker wrote: “She has referred to her ‘peasant resilience’, and to neighbours ‘poorer even than us’… But Edna grew up in a large Arts and Crafts house; she and her three older siblings went to boarding school.”

O’Connor writes: “Parker betrays embarrassing ignorance. Because her family had a nice enough house and educated the children, it couldn’t have been all that bad, Parker argues. Parker evidently knows nothing about the economic, social or ideological conditions of mid-20th-century Ireland… O’Brien has never represented her own childhood as one of extreme material deprivation or crushing poverty, though she witnessed both.”

She adds: “Most mature grown-ups expect other humans to be flawed, and while O’Brien is imperfect, she is not a fraud.”

Parker declined to comment.


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Dalya Alberge

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