An astonishing hatchet job on Edna O’Brien
A New Yorker writer is taken to task for his mauling of Ireland’s greatest living writer
Edna O’Brien at her home in London in 2006. This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of the Dublin Review of Books. Photograph: Frank Miller
In February 2019, the New Yorker published an article by Ian Parker on the literary fraud Dan Mallory, who, among other things, faked a cancer diagnosis and lied about having earned a doctorate from Oxford, as well as about his mother’s cancer and his brother’s suicide. Parker’s well-wrought piece about Mallory, a purported suspense author, itself reads like a thriller and received deserved recognition and admiration.
We all find the exploits of con-artists titillating. The Bernie Madoff scandal made headlines, film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley novels have exceeded the success of the popular series on which they are based, and even (or perhaps especially) his detractors can’t get enough of every appalling revelation about the shady dealings of the grifter currently occupying the White House.
There is an important difference, however, between someone who misrepresents facts in order to perpetrate a hoax and someone who self-consciously crafts a public persona. Public figures of all kinds project a version of themselves for public consumption in order to protect their private lives and, in the case of writers and other artists, to preserve the space and energy necessary for the demands of creative production, and sometimes as an expression of social critique.
Mr Parker betrayed an inability to recognise this distinction when, in a phone call to me on July 10th, 2019, he asked whether there was any difference between Dan Mallory, the author of one (not entirely original) novel, and the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, an eminent, widely respected novelist and playwright who has been successfully publishing for over 60 years. Only one of these writers can be described as a sociopath, despite many attempts over the decades to malign O’Brien, personally and professionally, an effort that now includes Parker’s New Yorker (October 14th, 2019) profile of her, published in the newsstand version as Troubles.
Mr Parker contacted me in July because I am a recognised authority on O’Brien’s work. An Irish studies scholar who teaches in the School of English in University College Cork in Ireland, I have been researching and writing about O’Brien for 20 years and recently submitted a book-length study of her work for publication. My work has appeared in American, British, and Irish publications, and I am the co-editor of two volumes of critical essays on O’Brien.
I was delighted to hear that Parker was planning a long feature article on the author. He appeared to have read some of my critical work – always flattering – indicating particular interest in an essay I published in Irish Studies Review in 2005, Edna O’Brien, Irish Dandy. It is quoted by Parker in his second paragraph, but only the first half of a key sentence regarding Irish literary dandies’ “theatrical, aggressively fictional self-fashioning”.
While I do see O’Brien as someone who has been engaged in theatrical self-fashioning for the entirety of her career, I go on to demonstrate that she does so in a tradition of Irish writers whose staging of the self “problematises foundational ideas about identity, class, gender, social role and position”, not as some self-serving, ego-boosting charade, which is what Parker presents O’Brien as performing over the course of his profile.
It was a great disappointment to read Parker’s piece, which confirmed the worst of my qualms about the July 10th phone call. After a very pleasant first several minutes, I grew uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking, the spin Parker appeared to be placing on my statements. (Friends and family can attest to my concerns at the time.) The suggested parallel with Dan Mallory made me especially apprehensive, and I asked that we communicate over email in future so that I could be more controlled and careful in what I was saying, in an attempt to mitigate misinterpretation.
I have since learned that other sources contacted by Parker felt similarly uneasy about the tone of questions and were as concerned as I about what to expect of the finished product. For the record, I do not feel Parker misrepresented our conversations, but, rather than be thrilled to have my name appear in the New Yorker, I am ashamed of being associated with the article. O’Brien did not specifically mention this detail to me, but I was very upset to see Parker reproduce, early in the article, what O’Brien must have assumed was private email correspondence between them, a betrayal of implied trust that indicates Parker’s intention to humiliate his subject.
One striking element of my phone conversation with Parker was his repeated dismissal of my observations about the sexism that has typified much of the discussion of O’Brien’s work, which, in her case, almost inevitably devolves into a discussion of O’Brien herself. Parker was more receptive of my references to O’Brien’s confidence and sense of self. I may have unwisely used the loaded word “entitlement”, but I hastened to say that O’Brien was indeed entitled to quite a lot, based on the significance of her literary accomplishments as well as the history of critical and personal abuse to which she has been subject.
I pointed out that it required a strong sense of self-worth to persevere over the course of her public and private trials, and that male authors of any eminence are expected to behave with a much greater aura of entitlement than I have ever seen O’Brien manifest, but this was brushed off.
Of course it is necessary for Parker to reject the history of misogynist attacks O’Brien has suffered – despite my offering examples and stating a willingness to provide more – because to acknowledge this would undermine one of his central contentions: that O’Brien has exaggerated her struggles, from her childhood poverty to her relationship with her mother to her literary reputation.
The Booker-prize-winning novelist Anne Enright has asserted we must praise O’Brien, “because she has taken enough insults in her day”. In contrast, while cannily injecting the occasional positive comment, Parker deliberately and subtly crafts an image of O’Brien as deceitful, flighty, self-absorbed, and self-pitying.
It would take far too many pages to thoroughly answer each of the many insulting charges Parker levels against O’Brien, but I will begin by responding to some of the most uninformed.
When it comes to the characterisation of O’Brien’s childhood and her relationship with her mother, 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.
To begin with, O’Brien has never represented her own childhood as one of extreme material deprivation or crushing poverty, though she witnessed both. The house was inherited, as was a great deal of land surrounding it. By the time O’Brien was born, most of the land had been sold off to pay drinking and gambling debts incurred by her father, who was listed as a bankrupt in Stubbs Gazette.
I have first-hand experience of a similar context for my father’s difficult upbringing in rural Ireland, which, through sacrifice and self-denial, nonetheless produced educated and successful adults. Parker notes that O’Brien’s personal trauma “remains hidden”, hinting that this is somehow an effort at deception, but an individual’s childhood trauma is no one else’s business. Someone knowledgeable about the time and place where she grew up, however, could imagine numerous possible causes for trauma, as well as many sad inevitabilities.
Parker speaks derisively of O’Brien allowing “herself to being filmed walking, with wistful purpose, across windblown hilltops”. The film is not identified, but is probably a 1975 documentary made for Irish television, Edna O’Brien Returns to Clare. The landscape of her childhood might understandably inspire contemplation and “wistfulness”. O’Brien has described her childhood as fetid and claustrophobic, an assessment most survivors of the era would share.
Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church enjoyed complete authority over bodies and a majority of minds for most of the twentieth century. The patriarchal nuclear family was vital in maintaining and implementing the power of the Church and its narrow, punitive morality, which was particularly damaging for women and children, as has been revealed in report after exposé after scandal since at least the 1990s, when the extent of child sex abuse in the church began to be publicly exposed.
The nightmare reality of the Magdalene Laundries and mother-and-baby-homes is still waiting for full investigation after the discovery in 2016 of hundreds of bodies of babies and children dumped in a septic tank on the grounds of one such institution in Galway. A recent book by Caelainn Hogan, Republic of Shame, describes this carceral regime as “a bizarre culture whose legacy remains very much alive”. The pressure on women’s behaviour, especially in relation to sexuality, had acute consequences for mother-daughter relationships, coloured by a mixture of censure and fear.
Even outside this specific cultural, historical context, mother-daughter relationships, however healthy and open, are fraught in patriarchal Western society, something Parker does not seem to realise. Again, he suggests that, because O’Brien’s mother sometimes visited London, O’Brien has overstated the contentious nature of their relationship, which she tells Parker was “filled with accusations and confrontation”.
I would recommend he read O’Brien’s short story Cords for a fictionalised version of a very recognisable mother-daughter dynamic in which unshakeable love co-exists with irreconcilable recrimination. While Parker casts doubt on O’Brien’s capacity for subtlety, irony and self-awareness, the attempt to frame her version of her relationship with her mother as misleading or exaggerated lacks nuance.
In the Edna O’Brien archive housed in Emory University library, I read decades’ worth of nearly-daily letters from O’Brien’s mother to her daughter, as I told Parker I had, and have seen first-hand the heart-breaking blend of devotion and condemnation in those letters, whose tone, especially after O’Brien’s divorce, could vary considerably. A sensitive reader could not help but feel the torment suffered on both sides of the correspondence, some of which has been reproduced in O’Brien’s 2006 novel The Light of Evening. Further evidence of the vexed nature of O’Brien’s relationship with her mother is furnished in the short documentary film referred to above, which includes uncomfortably tense scenes of the author visiting her parents in their home.
Despite her vehement disapproval of literature, the correspondence between O’Brien and her mother testifies to the latter’s gifts as a storyteller, one profound source for O’Brien’s own often-noted powers of description. I said as much to Parker and have wondered, since reading the profile, whether that influence was used to justify the claims he implicitly makes for a kind of inheritance or transmission of a tendency to wild hyperbole.
O’Brien’s mother’s account of the chapel-yard fire, the disputed story of copies of The Country Girls being burned in O’Brien’s home village, was “fuelled by her flair for the dramatic”, according to my own characterisation, intended to express admiration for her scene-setting skills. According to Parker, however, O’Brien’s mother passed this unfortunate “flair” down to her daughter, whose fictional treatment of real-life events in Girl he later characterises as “a flight of fancy”; but I will return to this most disturbing section of Parker’s article.
The lack of nuance and complexity that marks Parker’s surmises about the occluded “reality” of O’Brien’s relationship with her mother obtains in his remarks about the start of her career. He seems unable to comprehend the possibility that O’Brien was both fortunate to have her talent recognised early in her career and in need of “the resilience of a hundred men”, as she puts it, to take advantage of that initial luck. It must be, according to Parker, one or the other, which only makes sense if one discounts the fact of the unique and unrelenting obstacles that were set in the way of O’Brien pursuing that career, including the brutal resentments and jealousies of her husband at the time of her first novels, fellow writer Ernest Gébler.
Despite such obstacles, O’Brien has enjoyed considerable success, but until recently hasn’t universally been taken seriously in Ireland or the UK. She has only been considered a writer worthy of scholarly attention since the mid-1990s, over 30 years into her writing career, attention that made its first mark in a special issue of The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. North American academics continue to dominate the field of O’Brien studies as it has developed since.
O’Brien has always enjoyed enthusiastic support in North America, from both acclaimed fellow writers – including Philip Roth, Alice Munro, John Updike, John Cheever, Richard Ford, JD Salinger and Mary Gordon – and the reading public. As Parker notes, by way of attempting to mitigate the seriousness of her professional travails, she also continued to be read by Irish readers during the decades of censorship, but “official” Ireland has only in the last 15 years begun to treat O’Brien with appreciation and respect.
Fellow novelists Éilis Ní Dhuibhne and Anne Enright will not allow the Irish reading public or its official literary experts to forget that, while now the recipient of the greatest honours the state can grant an artist, her work was once “banned and reviled”, as Ní Dhuibhne reminds us in an Irish Times review of the 2015 novel The Little Red Chairs.
I could easily refute Parker’s claims about the decline in the quality of O’Brien’s writing since The Country Girls trilogy, but that deterioration theory is a tiresome one that scarcely deserves a response, having been answered repeatedly over the years. However, it is important to note that I am far from alone in my appalled response to Parker’s article, to seeing the New Yorker publishing an attack on the personal and professional reputation of a writer whose fiction has been published in this same magazine for 50 years.
When the article appeared online, commentators on social media described it as “cruel”, “disrespectful”, “dire”, “dismaying”, “unwarranted”, “unseemly”, “insidious”, “salacious”, “grotty”, “infuriating”, “snide”, “misogynist”, and as “character assassination”. On October 16th, 2019, The Irish Times published a robust and heartening response to Parker’s piece, The New Yorker’s Edna O’Brien profile is sexist and cold-hearted, by the writer and academic Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado. The New Yorker, meantime, made no response to my letter to the editor, which was never published.
Parker’s accusations range from O’Brien misrepresenting her hair as curly, to exaggerating her Irish accent, to making up a literary prize, to overstating the material deprivations of her childhood, as discussed above. Even the way she refers to her own illness as “the cancer” is made to seem affected and precious, explicitly linked to Parker’s comments about her theatricality. Apart from the sheer heartlessness of sneering about what language someone chooses to talk about her own life-threatening illness, as Sherratt-Bado points out, the locution is a Hibernicism, more evidence of Parker’s ignorance of context and history.
What Sherratt-Bado doesn’t add in her short, pointed piece is that this particular Hibernicism (“the stomach is at me”, for example) is a way of ironically distancing and downplaying a bodily ill, the very opposite of dramatising suffering or seeking sympathy.
Parker’s litany of O’Brien’s crimes against “authenticity” reminded me of an eight-page, single-spaced letter Gébler wrote to the judge presiding over a custody hearing during the couple’s divorce in the 1960s. That letter, making a case for O’Brien as an unfit mother, features a similar catalogue of evidence of her fraudulence and general moral depravity, which includes consorting with theatre people and homosexuals and dying her hair. Gébler also characterises O’Brien as dramatically self-pitying, as does Parker, who seems to suggest that because she was able to purchase a nice house (by dint of decades of constant, tireless work in many thankless genres in addition to her well-known novels), received some positive reviews, and has kept working, she has no cause for complaint.
O’Brien has never identified as a victim the way that Parker claims she does. For example, recreating a visit to her home, he renders mawkish a clearly humorously self-deprecating reference to ink marks on her hands as “stigmata” when he notes Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is playing on the radio in the next room. How she engineered the timing of this bathetic background score over the public airwaves is unexplained. Parker is not the first observer to underappreciate O’Brien’s sense of humour, her admirable lack of bitterness.
Parker also joins a long line of commentators who present O’Brien as unstable, but he ups the ante by imputing to her a sick fascination with violence. He quotes an observer who tells of her eyes widening when hearing descriptions of torture while drinking champagne, and the ostensibly irrelevant point is made that it was champagne and not prosecco O’Brien was drinking. Like many apparently insignificant, snide and petty details included throughout, such as the “real” texture of O’Brien’s hair or her use of the definite article before the word cancer, this slyly deprecatory aside contributes to the greater picture being presented here.
In a 1994 interview with Valerie Grove, O’Brien characterised this tired line of criticism: “people might think it wrong to dine and drink champagne, with lilies on the table, while there are poor people in prison in the world. But that’s very narrow thinking, very puritanical.”
The intensely puritanical Gébler, with his claims to have taught his wife her “ABCs” and to have essentially authored her first successful books, inaugurated a decades-long genre of misogynist ad hominem attacks on O’Brien, disguised as literary criticism. Such critiques were written by men and women, as when Peggy O’Brien in 1985 called the novelist an “outrageous concoction of what foreigners expect an Irish person to be – mellifluous, volatile, wanton, irrational”, or Sarah Hughes, in her review of The Light of Evening, condescendingly comparing her to “the fiddlers who clog up Dublin’s cheesier theme pubs”.
It is worth noting that Parker had to go back to 1974 for evidence of O’Brien’s lack of feminist credentials, selectively quoting Julia O’Faolain, who also said in the same piece he quotes that feminists should be grateful for O’Brien, as “her stories are bulletins from a front on which they will not care to engage, field reports on the feminine condition at its most acute”.
The personal attacks were frequent, abusive, and even threatened physical violence, as when the Irish journalist Kevin Myers, in the pages of the London Times in 1985, expressed a willingness to “stick a hatchet” in O’Brien’s head (interview with Penny Peyrick, June 3rd, 1985). As noted, Parker barely acknowledges the seriousness and extent of this well-documented, malignant history, even as he contributes a late entry to the genre, one I hoped had more or less died out after the publication of In the Forest in 2002.
What is most egregious and alarming about this long and detailed attempt to thoroughly discredit O’Brien, however, is the accusation toward its conclusion that the rape scenes in her latest novel, Girl, are baseless fabrications. Apart from the leeway usually granted a work of fiction when portraying the emotional truth of an experience, the research O’Brien conducted in Nigeria was exhaustive (and exhausting), and the novel is drawn from young Nigerian women’s first-hand experience conveyed to the novelist in person.
Parker rather oddly puts himself in the position of defending Boko Haram against O’Brien’s unfair characterisation of their cruelty. It is hard to say whether this is worse than the implication that O’Brien might be racist, reporting that she finds Nigerian names “peculiar”. It is important to counter Parker’s calumny by observing that Girl, O’Brien’s 18th novel, has received largely enthusiastic notices in major publications, including the Atlantic, the New York Times and the Guardian, and has been awarded the Prix Femina in France, a distinction historically reserved for works in the French language. At the end of 2019 she also received the prestigious David Cohen Prize for Literature. She turned 89 in December.
Just what did Parker’s brave “exposure” of the ailing author hope to achieve? Parker told me he wished to “gently” push back on her mythology. But why? In any case, the pushback in Parker’s profile is not gentle, just sly and disingenuous. Most mature grown-ups expect other humans to be flawed, and while O’Brien is imperfect she is not a fraud. In fact she has repeatedly risked her personal safety and professional career in pursuit of telling unwelcome truths. (I have seen the threatening letters.)
Some of the many injustices she has courageously fought and exposed, through physical demonstration and petitioning governments, as well as by writing both journalism and fiction, include: the Vietnam war, the nuclear arms race, clerical sex abuse, Ireland’s war on women – from the Magdalene laundries to the anti-abortion laws only recently overturned – sectarian violence, the treatment of republican prisoners in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the refugee crisis and domestic abuse.
Her readers have remained loyal and numerous through formal experimentation and controversial subject matter. I have seen O’Brien spend hours signing books for dozens of fans after a reading and give each one of them time for a chat and a photo, despite being in her eighties and suffering jet lag. I have seen her rise above a mediocre interviewer and transform a potentially tedious promotional event into a dazzling entertainment. She effects the same alchemy in Parker’s piece, which fails to dim her unique brilliance.
However, to render figurative Kevin Myers’s disturbing image, 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.
Maureen O’Connor lectures in English at University College Cork. She is the co-editor of two essay collections on Edna O’Brien and has recently completed a book-length literary study of O’Brien’s fiction, forthcoming from Bucknell University Press.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of the Dublin Review of Books (drb.ie), an online journal which appears monthly and publishes essays and shorter reviews chiefly in the fields of literature, history, arts, culture and the human sciences. Access to the current issue and the archive is free. You can sign up for the drb newsletter informing you of current content here