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Sally Rooney gained a cult following for writing two bestsellers, followed by a commercially successful TV adaptation, an impressive feat for someone so young. As a result of this success, she has been dubbed the voice of a generation. Rooney’s skill lies in writing that feels at once personal to the reader and yet entirely enclosed within its own world. After shunning them for over a year, I read Conversations with Friends and Normal People in eager succession, over the space of a week.
Some novelists shove as much as they can into their work, leading to complicated, jargon-filled pages which are a slog to get through. Rooney is not like this, her prose flows, with no speech marks there is a sense of natural progression. This barebones approach to writing is somewhat unusual, but highly effective. Rooney herself describes the way she likes to write as, ‘flat and smooth’. Part of her success is ultimately down to this immense skill.
A lot of people who haven’t read Rooney might be suffering from a subconscious aversion to super-popular books. Pandora Sykes writes in her essay ‘Relentless Pleasure’ about these literary expectations. She argues we feel an ‘entitlement’ that what we read should resonate with us; it feels like bad writing if it doesn’t strike a chord with us particularly. Undoubtedly, Sally Rooney’s style of writing, nor her characters, will speak to everybody.
Rooney has only garnered one obvious criticism in the time she’s been famous, and it comes down to her characters and the world they inhabit. In Conversations with Friends, the protagonist Frances is a poet. She has a complicated relationship with her parents. She is conventionally attractive, and soon begins a messy affair with a married man. Similarly, Marianne, one of the two protagonists of Normal People, is a waifish, emotionally troubled woman with an abusive family, who derives much of her sense of self from academic validation. She too engages in destructive relationships which can never come to good, but finds herself on-and-off with Connell, who, unlike her, was popular in high school but comes from a deeply working class background.
The pattern emerging seems to romanticise the struggles of middle-class white women with problems that they (to some extent) inflict upon themselves. Released this summer, Beautiful World, Where are You? Follows successful novelist Alice, who begins seeing a warehouse worker, Felix. Much like in Normal People, the social imbalances are obvious, and the continual presence of troubled-yet-fortunate white women is a tired trope for many.
Some female critics have stated that they don’t feel that they can resonate with Rooney’s work, because the repetition of these characters does not reflect a universal experience, nor is it relevant to many. The question has been posed as to what extent Rooney, who is herself an academically skilled white woman (graduating from Trinity College, like her protagonists, in 2013), reflects her characters.
Rooney states plainly that the material of her books is wholly fictional, but she argues moreover that whether it is fiction or not doesn’t matter. The books we read are the result of a great sounding board of other material; taking the time to distinguish truth is not something that necessarily provides any greater meaning, nor significance to a story.
The temptation to title something a ‘self-insert’ piece is probably the result of wanting characters to speak to us; we yearn to know someone has felt the same. Naturally, these characters bear a resemblance to Rooney and her life, but as any writer will tell you, there’s only so far from lived reality that you can take fiction, whether that be presented in an abstract way, or more directly. Because Rooney’s work primarily focuses on romances interlaced with modern issues of class and politics, it is easy to latch onto these stories for comfort through resonance.
This poses a question: should we be reaching for books that provide us with a sense of familiarity, or should we search for new experiences? We are accountable for educating ourselves about other lives, and for broadening the lens with which we see the world. Nevertheless, feeling seen and heard, especially in what we consume, is one of the most affirming experiences we can have. This is one of the primary themes in Alan Bennett’s highly successful play, The History Boys, where the comfort of this sensation is described beautifully and at length. Like many novelists, Sally Rooney’s writing does resonate with people in emotive ways, but the gaze of Rooney’s successful, white protagonists is rather narrow.
This isn’t to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the stories Rooney tells, but the popularity she has garnered ultimately results in people feeling like they have to resonate with her work. As Sykes says, we have no obligation to resonate with these books, despite how much other people might push it upon us. It sends a strong message that Rooney is the most successful novelist of recent times, moving from triumph to triumph, even though the stories she tells are so narrow in relatability.
While there is no doubt in Rooney’s writing skill, we need to consider how digestible bestsellers with ‘universal appeal’ are to wider audiences. She is supposed to speak to a generation, but how well can any single person speak to a whole generation? Perhaps this issue sits within wider literary culture, a reflection of pre-existing canons and notions of success. What matters is the kind of pedestal we place artists on, and how we measure their reach.
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