An epistolary inquiry into the zeitgeist, the novels, the publishers and me.
I’m the same age as Sally Rooney. I’m a writer, too, with three abandoned novels to my name. As a deeply jealous person, I’ve found Rooney-mania a bitter pill to swallow over the past few years. The literary success of any of my contemporaries causes me pain, but this was unprecedented.
I put off reading her for a long time. But she became the zeitgeist! It was starting to affect my conversation at parties. When, eventually, I did pick her novels up, I was surprised. I didn’t like them – in fact, I didn’t think they were very good at all. Were these putdownable novels the same ones that had critics saying things like:
‘Impossibly intellectual, impossibly tender. Impossibly beautiful, too.’
‘She is positing a world in which we might stop apologizing for apologizing, in which we might seek compromise and see vulnerability as a form of courage. We might stop protecting ourselves. We might love with bleeding, imperfect hearts.’
The New Yorker
‘In every generation, there are writers who speak for that generation, who bottle some essential current or mode of thinking and being, and arrange it in letters on the page. The 28-year-old Rooney has been hailed, not implausibly, as ‘the first great millennial author’. Her debut, Conversations with Friends, was as star-making as White Teeth and as zeitgeisty as Less Than Zero.’
The New Republic
Does the literary ‘voice of a generation’ exist, outside of headlines and press releases? What was making these august publications indulge in such manic prose? Is the literary industry in any way, shape or form even halfway sane?
I dug deeper into Rooney’s past, like a miserable detective. I found the article about debating championships that had won her an agent.
‘I did it. I got everything I set out to get. I was the one delivering the offhanded refutation. It was me sipping water while I waited for the end of the applause. […] I’m not nineteen anymore; I don’t need to make people feel comfortable. In the end, it was me. It may not mean anything to anyone else, but it doesn’t have to – that’s the point. I was number one. Like Fast Eddie, I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.’
The Dublin Review
I’m not sure that this tart self-hagiography is the slightest bit ironic.
But had my jealousy sent me mad? Or was everyone else mad? To get to the bottom of it all I messaged some fellow contributors to The Fence over the course of a month. The idea of trying to mesh my own vituperative feelings into a balanced synoptic piece, ending with a devastating little conclusion seemed both tedious and unoriginal. So emails were duly dispatched, in the hope that I might receive confirmation that I wasn’t alone in my readings.
As it turns out, I was vastly outnumbered. Most of them were pro-Rooney, like one young critic:
‘I think young literary fiction authors are under a kind of culture pressure at the moment to fall broadly into one of two camps, and be either: po-faced, florid and a bit spiky or a wry, facetious nihilist. Rooney is neither, which is refreshing. Her books are also unapologetically Irish. Cultural references aren’t explained for a uk or us audience. It seems like she set out to write about Dublin the way so many contemporary authors write (often unintentionally, I suspect) about London: as though you should know what she’s talking about. Which, again, is refreshing.’
There’s a lot about Rooney that is refreshing, I can’t argue with that. Like her characters, she thinks deeply about politics and morality. I admire her, as a woman who had the fortune to grow up in London, for the significant efforts she made on behalf of the Repeal the 8th movement.
Another contributor, Emily Luttrell, added her view:
I think Sally Rooney writes simply, and beautifully, and never too self-consciously. One of the things most people say about young writers is they either don’t know themselves, or they don’t know their characters. I don’t think you can say either about her.
This, came from another contributor, a famous newspaper columnist:
‘Personally, I think she’s great, and can’t help thinking that her style, and the subjects she covers, are divisive because they seem a bit low stakes for a literary novelist. Speaking as someone who over-writes, I’m impressed by how restrained her prose is, as if she goes back through the text and removes the showy-offy purple bits. That sounds like faint praise but it’s really, really hard to write that confidently, and she makes it look effortless. There’s a level of self-control in her work that means even when nothing much is happening, I’m enjoying reading that nothing. I suppose sometimes I want a novelist who brings flash and polish and dangerous new ideas that explode inside my head. And sometimes I want to read someone channelling the minutiae of a hidden thought in prose that’s as close to my own, unshowy, inner monologue as language allows. Her success is in being as good at that second thing as anyone.’
Well that sounds lovely. Chastened, I decided to reread her books, slowly and carefully, to see what I had missed the first few times around.
I tried to like them, I really did. But I kept getting distracted by her off-hand, rickety similes.
for days afterwards i felt guilty and terrified, like i had committed a sick internet crime.
Conversations with Friends p48
it was easy to write to nick, but also competitive and thrilling, like a game of table tennis.
Conversations with Friends p59
the inside of my body was hot like oil
Conversations with Friends p92
the mist was grey like a veil.
Conversations with Friends p167
our breath hung between us like fog.
Conversations with Friends p310
as a child nick was very thin like a stick insect.
Conversations with Friends p215
it was terrifying, like watching himself committing a terrible crime on cctv.
Normal People p69
By this stage, I was feeling like I might commit a terrible crime myself. But still I kept up, questing towards some considered display of equilibrium. tf contributor John Shade, who works at a major publishing house, supplied me with some valuable industry insight into Rooney-mania:
‘I have two theories as to why people think that Rooney has written not just a commercially successful novel but a literarily significant one. (The distinction is important, I think, because whilst nobody should ever begrudge a writer success, I do believe that the claim to literariness should be contested.) Firstly, literary fiction is beholden to a mob mentality. People read what’s popular… because it’s popular. Critics then rationalise the success ex post facto. Secondly, literary fiction is a genre in search of a floor (in terms of quality). Rooney, by accident rather than by design, plays into this perfectly. In interviews she talks a big game about capitalism, Marxism and critical theory, but the books read like upcycled ya. This gives her books the public impression of profundity but the private experience of levity. This is great for readers who want to look clever on the bus without having actually to exert themselves on the page. Critics, meanwhile, have a body of statements on art, politics, and aesthetics that they can use to try and alchemise literary gold from her leaden prose.’
Thank God. An ally. ‘Upcycled ya’ indeed. But what is Literature with a capital L? I’m not sure I have the skills or the energy to define it. Thank you, then, Jeanette Winterson, for this:
‘There are plenty of entertaining reads that are part of the enjoyment of life. That doesn’t make them literature. There is a simple test: ‘Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?’ Nobody blames maths for being difficult – and it isn’t difficult – but it is different, and demands some time and effort. It is another kind of language. Literature is also another kind of language. I don’t mean literature is obscure or rarefied or precious – that’s no test of a book – rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation.’
She wrote this article in 2011, when the publishing world seemed on the brink of being Kindle-ised. The Booker judges, terrified of losing relevance, deemed that entries must be viewed as being ‘readable’. Did this in effect mean simplistic? Was this democratising?
Much has changed since then. Sales of print books have increased four years in a row, and game-changing, complex works of literature – like Ducks, Newburyport and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – have been garlanded with richly deserved prizes, the very same awards that Rooney herself has been nominated for.
But early laurels weigh like lead. And my brain felt like lead, too. I’d hit a brick wall. But then something struck me – surely the origin of Rooney-mania – the sparse style, the coltishness, the glib insistence on being the ‘best’… had their roots across the Atlantic. I felt a new wind come over me!
My own knowledge of American literature was mediocre for the task at hand. I emailed Alice Coates, a friend of a tf contributor, and received this response:
‘In the 80s and 90s, a generation of writers emerged whose flat affectless prose style, combined with graphic descriptions of drugs, sex and violence, came to be known as ‘blank fiction’. Rooney employs something similar in the simplicity of her prose, but where these others use this to some advantage – usually to emphasise how outlandish the events of the story are – the effect in Rooney’s writing is muffling. And that’s because we just don’t get a sense of how intense these experiences are. Related to and partly a product of the blank style is another element which you can find in a couple of other female novelists and short story writers, one of whom is the absolute master. Let’s look at a sentence from the master of this style, Deborah Eisenberg. This is the opening sentence of her new collection of short stories – Your Duck Is My Duck: ‘Way back – oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I’d gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth’s core to its surface – I was going to a lot of parties.’ This seems flippant but it really isn’t. The lyricism and rolling energy of the clauses lull you into a false sense of security. By the end of this story everyone has struggled or is struggling, things have really happened. We don’t feel this intensity from Rooney.’
Well that’s the thing with Sally. She’s not big on certain types of intensity: parties, fashion, landscape. True, that might shine a light on my own predilections; but I couldn’t help but feel that both novels, with their cast of four to six main players, were lazily updating Victorian texts to the present age, and not in the interesting way that she alludes to in her interview with The New Yorker.
The epigraph for Normal People is from Daniel Deronda, and Rooney recommends reading George Eliot’s 1867 novel alongside her own. From America back to the uk, I messaged Mark Brope, a tf contributor, but more importantly a historian of the Victorian period. His last email, after much hassle and hustle, is the one that sticks in the mind:
‘The George Eliot of Maggie Tulliver and then of Dorothea Brooke does indeed plausibly ride again in the work of Sally Rooney. Her protagonists possess the same earnest white fire, the heroic unwillingness to pay the price of forgoing either ideals or aesthetics. The parallels work with a pleasing resilience, too, across the current barricades of gender politics. For example, a satisfactory heir to the erroneous Dr Tertius Lydgate is found in Marianne of Normal People, who similarly permits her sexual preconditioning to derail her internal code. But for all Rooney’s mastery of structure – indeed quite often because of it – the all too particular world she establishes does not possess the amplitude, the irony, the forgiveness or the joy of Eliot’s. She will not tolerate the blandly conformist, practical kindness of Dorothea’s sister Celia and her squirearchical husband; the complicated renunciation shown by the curious clergyman Dr Farebrother; or even the bungling mixture of enlightened theory and appalling practice of Mr Brooke. Dr Casaubon in Rooney’s hands would surely become wholly Gothic without an undertow of vulnerability. The wicked banker Bulstrode’s contemporary equivalents cannot even exist in Rooneyland, except as fabled background spectres.’
Weighty words, indeed, and perhaps capturing the essence of my issue with the novels: the unremitting misery that they depict. For Rooney’s characters suffer and do precious little else.
Both novels’ female protagonists, Frances and Marianne, are painfully thin. It is suggested they have eating disorders, but if there is any psychological origin to their thinness, it is never explored. Their low bmis feel like characterisation; a costume.
The psychological pain becomes physical:
i figured my own body as an item of garbage, an empty wrapper or a half-eaten and discarded piece of fruit. putting my self-loathing to work in this way didn’t make me feel better as such, but it tired me out.
Conversations with Friends p116
i stepped on my foot so hard the pain shot up my leg and i had to bite down on my lip to stay quiet.
Conversations with Friends p124
Marianne and Frances are sexual masochists:
i want you to kill me […] I want you to hit me.
Conversations with Friends p260
She asked him to hit her and when he said he didn’t want to, she stopped having sex.
Normal People p360
There’s nothing wrong with a little pain, but the gratuitous nature of the characters’ martyrdom feels designed to elicit strong reactions from a reader wanting to be seen to be feeling something.
It reminds me of another book beloved by my fellow emotive millennials, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, in which the protagonist Jude is subjected to torment after torment. But are these agonies convincing? Not to Daniel Mendelsohn, who demolished the book with feline precision:
‘Jude might better have been called ‘Job’ […] There is something punitive in the contrived and unredeemed quality of Jude’s endless sufferings; it sometimes feels as if the author is working off a private emotion of her own. […] We know, alas, that the victims of abuse often end up unhappily imprisoned in cycles of (self-) abuse. But to keep showing this unhappy dynamic at work is not the same as creating a meaningful narrative about it. Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel than like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.’
The New York Review of Books
Similarly, Rooney’s novels do not interrogate the origins of this unstinting despair, as gd Dess identifies in perhaps the most perceptive essay on her work written so far:
‘Both novels end on a religious note: in Conversations with Friends, for her transgressions of the flesh, the adulterer Frances is punished by a disease. In Normal People, Marianne’s ‘redemption’ is brought about through an act of grace. Given Rooney’s Marxism, her refusal to provide a social solution, and her reversion to ‘the opium of the people’ as a way to resolve her protagonists’ dilemmas, seems out of sync with her beliefs and trivializes her characters’ despair, which she went to such great pains to portray.’
The Los Angeles Review of Books
But as Cody Delistraty notes, it’s a passive acceptance of her environment:
‘Politics, for her, is ultimately more setting than subject, more a way of quickly defining characters and creating tensions rather than necessarily motivating them. It is a set of unalterable circumstances that define the millennial ‘condition.’ But there is little revolutionary about Rooney’s politics, no scent of revolt – only oppression. Which is, I suppose, exactly why she’s so attractive to a generation that established the politics under which we all now live – some of us thriving, most just getting by.’
I talked to another tf colleague, Eliza Caillet, about the dichotomy between capitalism and Marxism in Rooney’s work.
(As we were exchanging messages, I couldn’t help thinking how much Rooney would despise Eliza and me. We’d be the ones at Melissa and Nick’s party, drinking wine and being frivolous ‘wearing long necklaces.’ We’d be ‘drinking a bottle of Cointreau together and smoking’.)
‘Bobbi represents the aggressive partisan found in most universities who concludes, that when people disagree with her, they must not have understood the point. Bobbi’s Marxism is practically a joke throughout. Early on in the novel, she goes for a ‘three course meal with wine’ with her father who appears to be an Irish civil servant. Frances takes money off her alcoholic father, and later off Nick. She is only able to overcome the hypocrisy that torments her (and the reader) and become self-reliant when she a) starts work and therefore joins the ‘capitalist’ workforce and b) starts to recognise the lives of other people as idiosyncratic and meaningful as opposed to part of a huge capitalist machine.’
As I tittered over my emails, I was suddenly struck with a particular gloom. The thing with all prognostications on ‘late capitalism’ (has there ever been a term more doomed to fail?) is that such an all-encompassing phrase elides the specific social practices that have sprung up of late: namely the commodification of young female writers. As Rooney herself stated in an interview:
‘When I see my name or a picture of me, I just get this horrible feeling. I’ve been really lucky in terms of the coverage of the book. But it’s just a sense of horror at my own personhood now being an object of public scrutiny or discourse… It’s a far cry from why I started writing. Yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of why.’
I was reminded of a piece I came across in The New York Times, written by the novelist D M Thomas, on his sudden literary celebrity following the release of The White Hotel:
‘That frozen week in January, poised between shaman and showman, I felt a sham. Returning each night to my silent, pictureless apartment, I would look in the bathroom mirror and wonder who I was. I missed familiar things, familiar ground, that would have confirmed my identity. I missed, above all, family and friends who would have treated me with becoming disrespect. The only kinds of respect an author seeks are common courtesy and the intelligent reading of his work. I started to detest my own work. It was as though all the thousands of words that had been written about it during the past nine months, and the scores of false images carved by interviewers out of my reality came together in that week, and threatened to overwhelm me.’
The New York Times
Rooney never asked for literary snobs like me writing pieces like this. It shouldn’t matter that I dislike her novels. But it does, because when someone’s work becomes the zeitgeist, their agency is pulled out from under them. We’re no longer reacting to the text. We’re reacting to the publicity, the thinkpieces, the tweets, the dinner party badinage.
Alexandra Marraccini, perhaps my most thoughtful correspondent, puts it perfectly:
‘Rooney’s prose is spare to the point of sometimes blurry. She shines on garments and bodies, but not so much when spaces or places are concerned. New Yorker-types have always preferred a spare narrative, and so it sells to literary people but also shoot-it-for-the-Gram-by-my-latte types, who then end up enjoying it and driving further sales. I don’t think ‘good’ literature has to be ‘difficult’ literature, of course, but I’m tepid on Rooney rather than feeling strongly either way, probably because it’s just not a risky book to write. The good news is that big press releases from other millennial women who write about women’s lives, including Ottessa Moshfegh (My Year of Rest and Relaxation) and Ling Ma (Severance), still came out, even if they got a fraction of Rooney’s attention and prizes for Normal People. The other trend I see is a bifurcation of literary culture, to some extent, between large-press-casual-buyers and small-press-dedicatees. Small presses, because they don’t have to sell as many copies as Normal People would to justify buying a title, are of course more likely to pick up prose that isn’t so spare that it’s tenuous, or run through the ya trope filter. Maybe the Nobel and Booker 2019 shortlists will shift the trend back a little, as it does whenever a small press wins a big prize.
I don’t mind Sally Rooney, but I remember a time when you bought, say fsg in the States, and Faber and Faber here in the uk, for a bit of a challenge. Acquiring editors, I know it’s hard to make these calls, but please, buy more weird, difficult novels – including from and about women! I want to read for pleasure, but also to be invigorated by the new and strange. I think that publishers want books that are saleable, easy to market and that lend themselves to lucrative movie tie-ins. For all writers, including women writers in particular, who aren’t apt to have the immediate designation of literary genius as often as their male counterparts, there is a certain kind of pressure to be easy. Ben Lerner, for instance, might have just been a minor mid-list title with little critical attention as a woman. The Rooney phenomenon is to my mind as much about marketing as it is about any imprimatur of taste. Publishers wanted to play to the rise of commercial feminism with a millennial woman’s voice that was equally commercial in its audience. It’s not about the quality of Rooney’s writing per se, but the boxes her books ticked in a crowded fiction market. The next Rooney will be whichever woman is plucked from a crowd of comparable writers for mainstream release.’
Well what had I learned from these conversations about Sally Rooney? A month of emails to contributors and pestering calls to the editorial team almost pushed me to the brink. It gave me a grudging respect for Rooney and her diligence. It also affirmed something I had long suspected: sometimes readers can be a mob, who take what they’re given, and read in an uncritical manner. The author is reduced to a brand. Publishers want to sell books; newspapers want to write timely stories; the public want to read the next big thing. In all of this, Rooney the writer matters least.
Am I still jealous? Yes and no. I’d rather my writing was judged on merit than gobbled up whole. As the product, Rooney isn’t being treated fairly. Whatever one ultimately thinks of her novels, the Rooney phenomenon has become what we’re talking about.