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Sally Rooney needs to be famous She has become a prisoner of her own perspective

Sally Rooney, candle-making icon (Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

Sally Rooney, candle-making icon (Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)


September 3, 2021   5 mins

Next week, fans of Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney can enjoy a visit to the Sally Rooney pop-up shop in Shoreditch. The shop — a venture to mark the publication of her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? — will stock Rooney’s books alongside a curated selection of her personal recommendations, as well as hosting “workshops, book clubs and daily giveaways, including a calligraphy and candle-making class”.

Only open for three days, it is the ultimate immersion in Brand Rooney, a retail experience squarely targeting the millennial women who make up the majority of her audience. We (there is no point in pretending I’m not a Rooney fan, even if at 40 to her 30, I’m pushing the demographic) don’t just want to consume: we want to experience our values at the point of sale, whether we’re buying cosmetics or clothes or the latest book by the author who’s been labelled the “voice of her generation” for her mix of acutely observed realism and startlingly intense sex.

For your average midlist author — the kind of writer whose publicity campaigns tend to involve schlepping out to provincial arts festivals and hoping cheap red wine will take the edge off audience indifference — all this fuss over Rooney must spark a certain resentment. And one author in particular must resent it more than anyone. Rooney is, famously, a Marxist. She also despises the celebrity that has come with her success. Yet here she is, fronting up a lifestyle outlet as though she were a Love Island influencer.

It’s a strangely tortured position, and one that seems to preoccupy her, to the increasing detriment of her fiction. Beautiful World, Where Are You? is the story of two friends from Dublin: a successful novelist called Alice and an editor on a publicly funded literary magazine called Eileen, both approaching thirty. They fall in love with men, have enjoyably dirty sex which is described in enjoyably dirty detail, struggle to believe that they are worthy of love and write each other long emails about the decline of civilisation and (in Alice’s case) the horrors of having a public profile.

As in her first two novels, Rooney shows an unnerving ability to compact the world into a few shrewd observations. Take this description of the few months when everyone in Eileen’s social circle, including Alice, seemed to be moving out of town:

“It was April and several of Eileen’s friends had recently left or were in the process of leaving Dublin. She attended the leaving parties, wearing her dark-green dress with the buttons, or her yellow dress with the matching belt. In living rooms with low ceilings and paper lampshades, people talked to her about the property market.”

In fewer than 50 words, Rooney sketches a socioeconomic thesis. Those rooms with their provisional furnishings, designed to be lived in only until they could be fled; Eileen with her sparse wardrobe, feeling adulthood escape her as her friends move on.

But the detail is also an act of deep affection. In chapter 17 of Adam Bede, George Eliot broke off from the story to deliver a short essay on the ethics of realism. Beauty, she wrote, is a fine thing, but should be sought in places besides pure aesthetics. The work of the novelist, in Eliot’s view, was “to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things”. The buttons, the belt, the lampshade — these are Rooney’s “commonplace things”, and she records them because she cares for them and for the people they belong to.

Her attention to the material grounds her incredibly sharp sense of the emotional exchanges between humans. When Eileen and her long-term on-off lover Simon make eye contact at a wedding, it summons a bravura flashback of their entire relationship: “their phone calls, the messages they wrote to one another, their jealousies, the years of looks, suppressed smiles, their dictionary of little touches.” This describes a certain kind of accumulated intimacy so precisely, there’s a shock to seeing it on the page — as though Rooney has stolen your life to offer it back to you.

But despite these strengths, Beautiful World, Where Are You? is not a good novel, even if Rooney’s limpid style means it’s always a readable one. The problem is that, after two very fine novels of writing what she knows, she seems to have become a prisoner of her own perspective. Rooney is insistent that, even though Alice is also a novelist, she is not a self-portrait. Still, the similarities between the two are too glaring to be ignored.

For one thing, Alice’s output sounds an awful lot like Rooney’s: her boyfriend teasingly calls them “filthy books”, while Alice scathingly classifies them as “sensitive little novels about ‘real life’”. Alice’s success has been vertiginous, like Rooney’s. And her experience of fame has been scarring, like Rooney’s. In the long emails between Alice and Eileen which make up much of Beautiful World, Alice attacks what Rooney has called the “hell” of literary celebrity. “They never tire of giving me awards, do they?” complains Alice. “It’s a shame I’ve tired so quickly of receiving them
”

This is not a very sympathetic whine, and nor is it obvious that it’s supposed to be (Alice and Eileen are so close in character, they write with one voice, as though they are the competing parts of Rooney’s own self). But elsewhere, the nightmare quality of celebrity is vividly realised: when Alice writes about an online critic who “genuinely believes that because she has seen my photo and read my novels, she knows me personally” there’s a sickly sense of invasion.

There’s something about Rooney’s emotional register that probably does encourage over-identification. She is not, after all, writing postmodern wordplay epics. She’s writing about exactly how it feels to lock your gaze with someone you fancy and feel the weight of years of wanting behind it. It must be draining to be the conduit for such powerful private emotions: there’s a toddler logic that persists into adulthood which believes that if someone can see your heart, you must be able to see them too.

In a Guardian interview to promote Beautiful World, Rooney presented the engagement with fame as a necessary evil, the precondition for anyone talented who wishes to exercise their talent. “Of course, that person could stop doing whatever it is they’re good at, in order to be allowed to retire from public life, but that seems to me like a big sacrifice on their part and an exercise in cultural self-destruction for the rest of us
” But there’s no binding contract saying that the successful novelist must also be relentlessly available.

Beautiful World isn’t just fixated on fame: it’s dependent on fame for its meaning. Without Rooney’s own celebrity to frame Alice’s experiences, this would be a far less intriguing novel. It’s impossible to care about these two couples the way you could care about Marianne and Connell in Normal People. The epistolary chunks hobble the story with unimpressive philosophising like “human beings lost [the instinct for beauty] when the Berlin Wall came down”. Beautiful World will interest you in exact proportion to your interest in the cultural phenomenon of the Great Millennial Novelist Sally Rooney.

“People who intentionally become famous — I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it — are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill,” says Alice, and she does have a point. So why doesn’t Rooney follow the example of Thomas Pynchon and embrace the mystique of life as a literary recluse? Why pose for the Guardian holding an owl? Why the pop-up shop? Rooney’s success is deserved. Her celebrity is optional, and — judging from the gulf between Beautiful World and her other novels — it’s the least interesting thing about her.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

sarahditum

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aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago

Anne Rice’s success was deserved, Stephen King’s deserved, Tom Clancey’s, whoever wrote the Fifty Shades, and so on. They worked for it, tapped into the reader’s psyche, and, like all good romance writers from Jane Austen to James Hilton, she delivered the goods.
And there is nothing wrong with being a romance writer, it pays the bill and allows you to do what you love best. But, let’s be under no illusion about it. She isn’t pushing the boundaries of fiction, the novel, or frankly anything else. She is serving up lifestyle dreams. (And does it with the most hackneyed method; the novelist as character.) She is certainly no Dorthy Parker or Flannery O’Conner, let alone a Mitford.
And Marxism at this point is just a talking point, a way to either differentiate yourself or even more sadly, to fit it, to push the right levers to get past the hall of editors. Of course, she is hawking candles in that most millennial of marketing ideas, the pop-up. As she is a pop-up, only to be replaced at the next literary faire.

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2 years ago

One more Marxist celebrity
At the same time she relishes the goods of capitalist societies, she despise and condemns them.
The well known schizophrenic Marxist attitude!

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

this article from Guardianland helpfully clarifies the Marxist millionaire dilemma : see It’s not actually a dilemma at all, only capitalist millionaires are evil. Now stop oppressing your Marxist millionaire betters you bigoted peasant.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/24/can-a-socialist-live-in-a-two-million-dollar-mansion

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Utterly hopeless defense there. You could argue that a youtuber is not anybody’s employer but that’s about it.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
2 years ago

Who? Really if she walked down the street who would know or care? Ok I’m not the demographic and I gave up on current fiction years ago, but please I don’t care what some well off Marxist pseudo whines about;

“Oh whoa is me, I’ve got all this money and half a dozen Hackney millennials recognise me, how will my Marxist principles cope”.

Really, why is this article indulging this? For goodness sake even her bloody photo looks self pitying.

Last edited 2 years ago by Clive Mitchell
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

When is Julie Burchill coming back?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

So why doesn’t Rooney follow the example of Thomas Pynchon and embrace the mystique of life as a literary recluse?

At a guess because anyone who identifies with a murderous ideology like Marxism is necessarily a vacuous, hypocritical poseur. No genuinely thoughtful person could ever profess to be a Marxist. You have to be a misanthropic hatemonger.
She’s Anders Breivik but with a laptop rather than a gun. As a writer she’s Andy McNab: read only by her own sex.
Why isn’t her chicklit sold by weight?

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

God, what a dreary and adolescent existence.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

Well yes, she’e going on thirty I gather. That doesn’t leave much time for growing up before decrepitude strikes.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

that’s her next book sorted then, a miserabilist, barren spinster shagging and being miserable about it.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

There seem to be a lot of self-proclaimed Marxists around these days. I wonder how many of them have read Marx. But then again, maybe one doesn’t need to.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

On various political forums there are far too many fashionably left-wing posters who not only see Marx as a serious intellectual, but as THE incontestable trump card in debate.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a poster quote Karl Marx in response to a comment, as though that immediately stopped the debate, as though Marx was infallible and his every utterance inarguable.
I must admit to a rather puerile sense of humour so on receiving a comment like:
“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” (Karl Marx)
I invariably respond with
“

 

 

 

 
.. , 
.. 
.. 
.. 
.” (Harpo Marx)

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” (Karl Marx)
well then Karl, how will communists be able to hang other communists when they’ve hung the last man who knew how to make rope?

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Well that’s not Marx, and you could say that instead.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Point well made

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

It’s back to Wolfie Smith. Power to the people!

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

…there are different kinds of Marxists you know. Some are so grouchy they wouldn’t want to be a part of a movement which would have them in the membership.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I’ve not read any of her stuff, but based on this essay it does appear to meet my definition of chicklit, which is to say it is preoccupied with stuff no male author would even bother to mention and which, if removed, would mean there was no book left. The case is conclusively made if this stuff comes up within any random 2 or 3 pages.
George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, AnaĂŻs Nin and Pauline RĂ©age are not, by this test, chicklit.
This tut manifestly is. In the sample 50 words extracted, half of them are about clothes and interiors. I’d wager that elsewhere, shoes and hair feature quite heavily. If any character drives a car, I’d further guess that the colour is mentioned, but nothing else (certainly, absolutely, definitely not the make. Or the engine. The handling around bends? Forgeddaboutit).
It’s not that women can’t write. They plainly can. It’s just that only women crank out chicklit, and only women read it.
It’s kind of odd, really. If a man wrote an empty female character vacuously preoccupied with clothes and interiors, he’d be vilified for his sexism. What chicklit readers apparently want is identical sexism but from other women. I’d wonder about what that means if I cared more.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Austen is definitely chick lit by that definition. Pride and Prejudice was man meets girl, girl hates man but there’s sexual tension, there’s another suitor who turns out to be a bad un (these last two are the problems to be overcome by the putative lovers – typical of rom cons), girl finds out man is good un and has a huge gaff, girl gets her (now) dream man.

Austen doesn’t really hide the fact that the house matters either.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Yebbut Austen is satirising all that. When Rooney can’t stop mentioning clothes, it’s because she thinks this is important, because she’s fundamentally trivial. Austen was laughing at it in the same spirit that American Psycho laughs at it: because they are serious people but their targets are not.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

The novel was originally a genre for over sensitive women with time to wring their hands within the 18th century vogue for The Sentimental. The first ‘sensation’ was the risible Pamela ( satirised by Fielding in his parody ‘Shamela’). Today the novel, despite the pompous claims of the literary world and academia, has largely returned to its roots.

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

That’s a very shrewd point. I wouldn’t have agreed with you even 10 years ago, but seeing and glancing through the mountains of appallingly badly- written dross in Waterstones et al more recently, you’re spot on.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

Normal People was a pile of dross. No idea why this woman is so feted. Doubtless she disapproves of Brexit but still is happy to live in London.

Hypocrite? Moi?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

The TV series was ok. Never bothered with the book.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Bollis
David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Woke, Remoan, uni-educated, female, 30something, weekend ft fodder. What more is there to dislike.

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago

As a matter of interest, how is her being a ‘Marxist’ reflected in her every day life?

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

Ah, but is she “literally a Marxist?” Apparently there are are enough of the pseudo variety around that Ash Sarkar felt the need to set herself apart.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

I’m the target audience for Sally Rooney: Mid-20s, Anglosphere, Female, University educated (Especially in the humanities) and self-conscious as heck. I don’t mind reading authors I disagree with (although I’d add calling yourself a Marxist is off-putting) but there’s something cynical about Sally Rooney. Hence why I can’t bring myself to purchase her books. She feels like she belongs in the glossy pages of The New Yorker, not next to Virginia Woolf. There’s no unique attitude, or anything conveyed in the Sally Rooney brand that I haven’t read elsewhere.
Of course, Unherd has never been shy from discussing current problems in Irish & British literature. This is why in the next few years, I’ll hopefully read some encouraging pieces about new talent in literature, especially fiction. Authors with genuine love for language and storytelling, while having something meaty to say. Hopefully from those with different politics than ‘Marxist.’

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“A pop-up shop in Shoreditch” sounds like the makings of an interesting novel. Or song. Or poem.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

Indeed! I spy a limerick.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

There was once a London lady called Trish
Who kept a pop-up shop in Shoreditch
When Pop-Eye would call by
He’d let out a long sigh
At the sight of all the nautical kitsch

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

In Shoreditch a pop-up once popped.
Though Its content could easily be topped.
Nearby places had books
More deserving of looks
Out of Shoreditch I was happy to opt.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

There once was a Literary- Marxist,
Who developed a political twist,
At the height of her Zoom,
She fell off of her broom,
And found herself deep in Shoreditch…

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Just a quick comment to praise the writer of this book review.
Because it’s a very good book review.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

ie, it’s the review that’s good, not the book

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Agreed. I’m not usually a fan of Sarah Ditum’s work here on Unherd but this is an excellent book review, imo.

T Doyle
T Doyle
2 years ago

Rooney strikes me as typical of the self loathing and loathsome generation of women who have much more than their predecessors but lack the nuances and life experiences. A writer writing a book about writers is so dull. She’s a Marxist because she’s thick. Is she related to Wayne Rooney? He’s more interesting. Innit.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Sally Rooney is a Marxist. Ergo, she’s a fascist.

Kathryn Dwyer
Kathryn Dwyer
2 years ago

Thank you Sarah Ditum for this great review. I might just read the earlier works, as your extract illustrating Ms Rooney’s capacity for distillation of a socio-economic moment was indeed impressive, something the undeniably amusing comments posted below seem to have overlooked.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Kathryn Dwyer

In the belief your comment is serious…No, i dont think those amusing comments missed a thing. Honestly, i am not being frivolous,but in Wales we would just say Rooney probably didnt have enough cwtches when she was growing up ( or now) …

Phil Simmons
Phil Simmons
2 years ago

Very charitable of Sarah D to cite George Eliot in her exposition of Sally R’s style, but I can’t help wondering what Dr Leavis would have made of this


Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
2 years ago

Thanks for the review. I’ve been curious about her because she made such a fuss about selling her books in Israel and not translating them into Hebrew outside the strictures of the BDS movement. Now I am spared the waste of time that would be involved. Her titles are winsome and her writing, judging from the few excerpts, is solipsistic. Anyone creative writing class can teach you to write an observant and sentimental paragraph about buttons and lampshades. Apparently there is no depth to her.
If there is ANY depth, it is to unintentionally portray the emptiness of millennial lives which are products of the fake feminist movement. I’d like to see Mary Harrington opine about her characters.
As for her anti-semitism, well that goes right along with her Marxism. Being Irish, she may have been steeped in anti-semitism since birth, or it is a new and rebellious hate which she took on to prove her Marxist chops. She should read Alain Finkielkraut, The Imaginary Jew, if she has not done so. She might find some identity of her own to value besides being a faceless and soulless Marxist. Then she might find that Beautiful World she is looking for.
She might also want to read up on some history of Israel and the Arab colonization of the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Being Irish, she should understand the real meaning of colonialism for it is NOT Israel.