Withering slights: Brontës didn’t get emotion, says Booker winner Marlon James


A report by Matthew Moore for The Times of London.

When Marlon James won the Booker Prize in 2015 he joined the pantheon of great English-language authors.

However, it turns out that the Jamaican writer does not hold every member of the literary canon in high esteem.

The Brontë sisters, he claims, do not get human emotion; E M Forster is a “snob first, novelist second”, while Charles Dickens proves “problematic” for backing the brutal suppression of a 19th century anti-colonial rebellion.

Marlon James, the author, made the remarks in a new podcast series

James, 49, made the withering remarks during a new podcast series in which he and his editor give their candid views on dead authors, safe in the knowledge that they cannot complain — or sue — from the grave.

He discloses a particular dislike for Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, saying that he has abandoned the book three times because the characters are “unabashedly cruel, for no reason”.

“Every time I start reading Wuthering Heights, I actually find it refreshing that the characters are unlikeable, at the outset. Then you realise, ‘hold on I’m going to spend quality time with these people’ ,” he said.

“There are parts that are overwritten, there are parts where I’m like ‘these Brontës really don’t get human emotion do they?’ ” That criticism could be applied to all three of the sisters, with the possible exception of Anne, he said. “Their frame of references aren’t human emotion — they’re what they’ve read about human emotion.”

James took E M Forster to task over Maurice, his novel about homosexuality

E M Forster, the author of Howards End and A Passage to India, also receives a skewering. James is particulary dismissive of Maurice, the gay love story only published after his death. “I think Forster was snob first, novelist second,” he said. “I’m not a fan of Maurice, that’s a piece of s*** novel. And I think even he kind of knew it.”

James, who won the Booker for A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, confesses to mixed emotions about Dickens. He praised Bleak House as staggering, Great Expectations as great and Little Dorrit as fantastic, but struggles with the writer’s defence of the bloody suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865.

More than 400 Jamaicans died when the island’s governor declared martial law in response to a protest march.

“As a Jamaican I should have really big issues with Charles Dickens. He’s a very, very problematic guy,” James said. “It was like a Jamaican Tiananmen Square. But Dickens was one of the people who supported it. He was like, ‘No, the natives need to be taught a lesson’. So on that level, f*** you Dickens.” Despite this James said he still considered Dickens a genius, albeit one inclined to mawkishness. “My problem with Dickens is that he never came across a sentimental scene that he wouldn’t write,” he said.

James, who now teaches literature in the United States, recorded the podcast Marlon and Jake Read Dead People, with his long-time editor Jake Morrissey. Mr Morrissey makes a passionate defence of Anthony Trollope — “more consistent than Dickens, more readable than Dickens and more approachable than Dickens” — and urges his friend to give Agatha Christie another chance.


One thought on “Withering slights: Brontës didn’t get emotion, says Booker winner Marlon James

  1. The Brontes are well-known for saying they “live inside their own heads” so, I agree with you that they might not have experienced the emotions. They wrote about them pretty well though. Don’t forget that Dickens was serialised in a newspaper, so he was as sensational as a soap opera.

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