Millennial Intellectual: An Interview with James Marriott
by Nicholas Harris
I think I’m a reviewer, critic is probably too dignified. I’d love to be a critic, to be someone like James Wood, but I’m probably a reviewer. To some extent it’s a question of space — if you have 6,000 words in the LRB you can be a critic — but I have to remain humble about the fact that I have 1,000 words in The Times. Increasingly I do feel I would like to write at greater length though.
Which critics and reviewers have you drawn the greatest inspiration from?
Undoubtedly the person I read most, probably the only critic I re-read very often, is Martin Amis. The War Against Cliché is, for me, some of the best criticism ever written. The Frank Kermode quote on the cover where he says, ‘Often being right and being funny are in this book aspects of the same sentence’, is, I think, completely true. And it’s a perpetual reminder to be as right as possible and as funny as possible, and as elegant as possible. I always read it as a reminder of what I should be at least aiming for, though you have to keep falling short all the time. Also John Bayley and his book The Power of Delight. Not so much as a stylist, but I can get on board with his rather humane attitude towards books.
You have coined the label ‘the millennial intellectuals’ to describe a group of young, female writers which include Jia Tolentino, Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Megan Nolan and Hera Lindsay Bird. What do they have in common?
I've been reading a bit of David Foster Wallace recently, and it's really interesting to think of the late 90s and early Noughties when everyone was obsessed with irony, and nobody could be sincere anymore. But this literary movement, if you can call it that, or the literary mood of my generation, is this mood of sincerity. It’s being unafraid to talk about feelings that unites all those people. It’s amazing how many different people fit into it — Annie Lord in her dating column at Vogue is also very good in this way. I have friends who criticise it and see it as a literary movement of relatability where people write books that you're supposed to map your own experiences onto. But I don't think that's a problem and it's an interesting thing for books to do if it hasn't been done before.
So is this the ‘New Sincerity’?
I think the original New Sincerity group thought they were being more sincere than they were. Jonathan Franzen is sincere, but not as heart-baringly sincere. This sincerity is off the charts, which is what a lot of people who find off-putting about it. When I speak to a lot of middle-aged people about Normal People they think it was so embarrassing and overwrought.
What do you make of some of the more notable critiques of Normal People then, the essay by Becca Rothfeld for instance? Do you think they’re right that fiction should also be concerned with morally objectionable characters?
I think that Becca Rothfeld essay was absolutely brilliant, a work of genius. I'd love to be able to write like that. But you can find things technically wrong with the book, but it can still move you and can be good in the end. You can get too technical and picky while missing the bigger picture. Probably in hindsight, Normal People is about people who are incredibly good-looking and incredibly clever and incredibly nice. But in a way that is part of the Sincerity we were talking about. A lot of writers at the end of the 20th century were ostentatiously concerned with writing about 'bad' people in a slightly showy, shallow way — that Bret Easton Ellis stuff. And I think that became a literary affectation and it was cool to write about people who were bad or morally questionable. Whereas (though I agree with Becca Rothfeld that it's about nice people) I thought it was interesting and almost revolutionary for her to write about people who are good. Because some people are good.
You wrote last year about the decline of the ‘male hotshot novelists’. Why do you think they’ve finally been replaced?
Maybe this is the solipsism of living in a historical moment, but I think we are living through the first really interesting literary revolution maybe since the 90s. Their dominance was because no-one ever came along to unseat them, and I think they are being supplanted now. I don’t know why it should be now, though (and this will sound very Marxist of me) I think it may have something to do with the changing material circumstances of our generation. Life suddenly looks very different for people our age than it did for people in the last 30, 40 years. That change probably introduces a new kind of writing.
Might this new generation replicate the cultural prominence that those novelists enjoyed in the 1980s?
From my understanding, particularly from D.J. Taylor’s book The Prose Factory, there was a peculiar set of economic circumstances in the 80s. There was less competition for books, people didn’t have iPhones, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, there was a lingering respect for literary culture, everyone had to read the latest novel. Newspapers automatically took an interest in novelists — stories about Martin Amis on the front page of the Daily Mail, that sort of thing. And however famous Sally Rooney and Megan Nolan get, that will probably never happen to them. The centrality of the novel as a cultural form has been ceded to Netflix shows — that’s what you’re more likely to talk about at a dinner party. If anything, it’s amazing that Sally Rooney and Megan Nolan and Naoise Dolan are able to cut through against the odds.
Do you mourn that change?
It’s tempting to because if novels were more important, I would probably be more important as a critic of novels! Culture changes, and human beings continue to be creative in different ways. One thing I remind myself of is something in Plato about Socrates mourning the decline of the oral tradition because people were writing and that was destroying oral culture. I think things change, and you can mourn it on a personal level, if you might want literary critics to be more important. But you have to accept it, and it’s silly to hope it could be otherwise. I think we have quite a robust interest in literary culture to be honest. I'm glad Sally Rooney exists, that Megan Nolan exists, that Naoise Dolan exists. I'm happy to be able to read them.
You write with the same infectious enthusiasm whether about Coleridge and Wordsworth or Dolan and Rooney. Do you have a sense of hierarchy within literature?
This is probably a really stupid attitude to literature, but I just want to know about life and I want to know about people’s feelings, and people. Poetry is probably the thing I’ve always loved most. But I don’t know, if you were to do a literary analysis you’d probably find (and I think I’d agree) that Coleridge is better than Naoise Dolan. I think Naoise Dolan would agree that Coleridge is better than Naoise Dolan. (And I think Coleridge would agree too.) But it’s just good to read nice, interesting things about life, and I seem to respond, especially to poetry. I don’t know why.
Was that your problem with the recent Keats book by Lucasta Miller then, the subordination of aesthetics and humanism to politics?
That was my feeling. And it seemed disingenuous to me, because I wasn’t really convinced that she felt that. I want to be moved by poetry, and I want to feel things about life, and I don't really care about analysing things politically. That's probably my main ideological position, if I have one, and if you can describe that as an ideology. That's where I come at everything from. I don't think people are really moved by poetry because of its political or social significance, it's just a way to try and find new things to say about stuff. Though there's obviously good stuff in that Keats book, and Lucasta Miller is an incredibly intelligent woman.
Speaking of politics — you’ve carved yourself quite a subtle position in your occasional columns as both a defender of your generation and a critic of some of its excesses: the obsession with enforcing strict moral binaries for instance. How do you imagine your political perspective?
I sometimes think paradoxically that the main thing as a columnist (or at least the sort of columnist I would like to be) is to have no views and for my politics to remain in this numinous, larval state. I try not to have views about anything until I’ve really thought about it. I think it’s important to maintain a sense of doubt about everything, and then when you sit down to write an opinion column you can start thinking and try and form all the doubt into some brief, vanishing moment of certainty. But I don’t know if that makes me a good or bad columnist — I’m sure lots of columnists would say you have to be very certain and have a political identity. But I can’t help but see two sides to everything.
And you’ve ended up on the wrong end of cancel culture for this open-mindedness — what was that like?
I think I am very eager to be liked, and I want people to think I'm a nice person. And that makes being attacked on Twitter very upsetting. It's kind of traumatising for like two days and then it goes away and you stop thinking about it. It is really horrible. And it requires real bravery to confront that, which I'm not sure I have. It’s also the terror of the paywall, which is that everyone just tweets the headline, and if you get a headline that makes you look mad or angry then everyone just assumes that's what's going on. But it is literally impossible to be a journalist without people attacking you on Twitter; I don't know anyone that it's not happened to. And if it's not happened to you, you probably are being overcautious and trying not to upset everyone. If I were writing 30, 40 years ago, you'd upset a load of people and they'd send letters to the Times and harrumph over their breakfast table, and that harrumph is now sending an angry tweet about it. Some people obviously relish it. I love watching older columnists getting into fights on Twitter. Some of them are so fearless and seem to thrive off it, whereas it sort of terrifies me.
Those two incidents aside, you’ve built up a substantial following both among young people as well as the more general Times demographic. Why do you think people like your writing?
It’s hard — I hate all my writing, so it’s hard to imagine that other people might like it. I don’t know. I like that I’ve managed to write about my feelings in a way that’s hopefully not been cringey. That’s not easy to manufacture, and people seem to respond to that I suppose.
What about the comments about how old you look that you inevitably get under each article?
I love that, I think it’s really funny. I always think Times commenters can be as rude as they like because they’re paying for the experience. As opposed to Twitter where they can insult you for free. But The Times commenters are really sweet if you talk back to them. But I don’t mind people saying I look young; it kind of reassures me because they might think I’m prematurely wise or something.
So you’re the Millennial Virgil guiding the Boomer Dante through the world of the ‘youths’?
Maybe I end up doing that inadvertently. But it’s always a mistake to set yourself up as the young person writing about young person things, because inevitably you can’t sustain that forever. Obviously, the reason I got to start writing columns for The Times was as a sample young person with opinions about young person things. But I remember thinking this will only last me a few years, and it’ll last me even fewer years now. Those notebook columns are always about the circumstances of your life. And if I start writing about mythical things like owning a house and having a dog, hopefully that will still be as interesting, though of course it may be incredibly boring.