Sally Rooney’s Rise as a Normal Person

A few months into the pandemic, my local library finally got Normal People as an audiobook on Libby. Whether it was fate or coincidence, I was the first person to hit “Borrow.” Almost as soon as I finished listening to the rather melodic Irish accents, Normal People went from having a waiting list of 0 weeks to 14 weeks.

It seems like everybody and their barista has been reading Sally Rooney. I confess that she has only been on my radar since Normal People—her latest novel—kept invading my Bookstagram feed last year. Before I knew it, I was obsessed. I remember tracking down every article and interview I could find about Rooney to learn anything I could about her. It took me months of reflection during the pandemic to realize how odd it was to focus on Rooney rather than her books, begging the question why.

To be honest, I hesitate to spend so much time analyzing an Irish (read: white) author in a time when Black writers struggle to obtain a fraction of the recognition Rooney has accumulated. However, I think it’s still important to examine Rooney’s fame because I believe it’ll uncover some weak spots on how we as a society decide which writers are lionized.

To be clear: I like Rooney’s writing, and I especially enjoyed Normal People, the novel that catapulted Rooney to literary stardom. My main critique here is not on the quality of Rooney’s work or her as a person but rather the fundamental nature of Normal People that has enamored so many readers and the fame Rooney has in turn been granted.

Breaking Down Normal People

Normal People follows Connell and Marianne, who begin an affair during high school. He’s a popular boy who comes from a working-class background and she’s a lonely girl who comes from privilege. However, their roles of popular and lonely are reversed a year later when the two are attending Trinity College in Dublin. Their lives intertwine throughout their college years, briefly coming together and then separating…again. Marianne embarks on a self-destructive path later in college and Connell begins to dream for a life beyond the one he anticipated in his and Marianne’s small world.

On the outside, the story is simple: two lovers who never seem to catch a break. But dig deeper and the plot thickens with the nuances of class relations, the intensity of first love, and the existentialism that comes with growing up. Rooney herself said to Seán Rocks on RTÉ Radio 1’s Arena that she was “just really interested in getting down into those complexities [of most relationships] and exploring them in as tiny detail as I could.” Normal People is not plot driven, so it’s these “complexities” in Connell and Marianne’s relationship that drive the prose. As Rooney tells the New Yorker, “I’m trying to show the reality of a social condition as it is connected to broader systems.” In the same article, she said, “You would hope that by trying to show those things in process you can say, It [sic] doesn’t have to be this way.”

And perhaps that’s the appeal: the fact that everyone at one point has felt somewhat like Connell and/or Marianne.

The Central Relationship in Normal People

Relationships are complex, and I agree with Vox’s take on how Rooney addresses Connell and Marianne’s relationship in that she “takes a knife to [it], slicing it apart to examine its dysfunctional power dynamics and never flinching away from the mess it uncovers—but it also allows that relationship to feel genuine and meaningful and even sweet.” Connell and Marianne have moments of lucidity about their relationship that are quickly abandoned when they grow apart, only to be drawn together again. And readers have certainly related.

Modern relationships look nothing like those from just a generation ago. Marriage is no longer always the goal. In fact, one could argue that modern relationships, like that of Connell and Marianne, do not need a goal. Coming together and breaking apart is normal in a world that is increasingly encouraging everyone to move forward rather than to stay put. It’s a world that expects “ghosting” rather than “going steady.” Yes, Rooney says that a relationship like Connell and Marianne’s “doesn’t have to be this way.” But it is, and readers can at least take heart that such a relationship is okay because it can be “meaningful and even sweet.”

Rooney and Privilege

The publishing world is thoroughly enamored with Rooney’s laser-sharp take on relationships—in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Rooney’s editor Alexis Washam says she loves how Rooney is “attuned to the subtleties of human relationships” and how “[Rooney’s] characters and their situations are specific, but their psychological and emotional experiences are universal.” However, it’s this very claim of universality I challenge.

I mentioned before that readers related, but taking diversity into account, how many readers actually go through Connell and Marianne’s exact experience? Is the duo’s relationship understandable to most western millennials? Yes. But universality suggests that Rooney has tapped into an all-encompassing, shared experience that frankly not everyone has lived. And to be even more frank, we will only label authors as “universal” if they claim heritage from a certain continent—you know which one.

As the daughter of conservative Hindu immigrants, I can tell you that I never experienced the same connections and disconnections as Connell and Marianne, especially not in high school. And even though I get the loneliness and search for companionship, my public college experience in Birmingham, Alabama, was vastly different from Connell and Marianne’s private college experience in Dublin, Ireland. Yes, Washam acknowledges that the “situations are specific,” however, those very “situations” award certain characters privileges that queer and BIPOC characters would never be awarded, meaning that Connell and Marianne’s “psychological and emotional experiences” cannot be “universal.”

Really though, Rooney’s popularity says more about us westerners than it does about her. She herself confesses to being uncomfortable with her fame, saying to Michelle Hart for Oprah Magazine, “I feel a lot of anxiety about being ‘chosen’ or labeled the voice of a generation because I represent a privileged slice of that generation—I’m not really a representative emissary.” In short, the experiences of a modern Irish woman can be understandable, not universal.

Let me repeat Rooney’s words: “I represent a privileged slice of that generation.” Rooney herself acknowledges that her voice has been amplified and nurtured by nature of her race and status. She even confessed to The New York Times “that most of my reading until now has been limited to the literary traditions of Europe and North America.” These literary influences are reflected in those of her characters, who are rooted to a time (21st century) and place (Ireland) where they are allotted the privilege to worry about romantic entanglements and comfortable futures. Again, this is not universal, it’s an illustration of one place during one time for one group of people.

Rooney as the Millennial Writer

But this snapshot has resonated so much that Rooney has been labeled “the first great millennial novelist.” Millennials are defined by relationships, from our affinity for posting pictures of avocado toast to attending goat yoga. As the generation that normalized selfies, online dating, and instant gratification, connections are hard to make, so we’re constantly questioning our relationships. More than that, growing up during the Great Recession has forced us to constantly hustle, whether it’s getting our startups off the ground or pursuing advanced degrees, leaving no time for relationships. Rooney’s characters navigate this environment with unsettling ease.

It’s All About Timing

Although marketing has a lot to do with Rooney’s labeling as the millennial writer, it could also be a product of time and the fact that millennials are now an economic force establishing a generational identity. I tend to agree with the New Yorker, which reported, “Rooney is writing novels of manners about an era in which the expectation of caring for others no longer obtains, in which it’s easier to wreck a home than to own one.” So maybe our “millennial novels” need to reflect our current state, one in which relationships are constantly shifting to match with the tumultuous nature of the 21st century. Emily Temple notes this in her LitHub article “Let’s All Stop Pigeonholing Sally Rooney as a ‘Millennial Writer.'” Temple argues that “Rooney is only a millennial writer in the sense that any writer is a product of their age—that is, indelibly but not necessarily importantly.”

Still, Rooney’s lionization as THE millennial writer defies logic. And to me, it’s not as simple as kairos. Although it’s reasonable to hypothesize that Rooney’s lionization is a result of publishing Normal People in the right time and place, her selection still reeks of privilege. The central relationship in Normal People is between straight, cisgender, white characters in predominantly white settings. What’s more, Connell and Marianne’s conversations cover white issues that turn a blind eye to racism, homophobia, and xenophobia—they have the privilege to focus on their personal lives without considering wider social machinations. But maybe it’s that vanilla element that makes her so popular. She’s uncontroversial, meaning it’s safe to enjoy her writing.

Rooney and Public Discourse

Going back to Rooney the writer, we’ve seen writers with a cult of personality before with the legendary parties of Truman Capote, the obsessively masculine exploits of Ernest Hemingway, and the fact that everyone seems to be aware of a little English town called Stratford-upon-Avon. But let me point out that these cults of personality have almost exclusively developed around white men. To Rooney’s credit, she’s one of the few female writers who has received an equal amount of fame.

However, there have been authors before Rooney who’ve also captured this “voice of a generation.” We have the classics like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as well as contemporaries such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. For the latter two, I have to say that it’s telling that an Irish author who’s written literary fiction gets to be the “millennial writer” when Thomas and Han, young adult authors of color, are breaking down racial barriers while writing for millennials.

The Guardian puts the media’s feelings succinctly: “Rooney is such a gifted, brave, adventurous writer, so exceptionally good at observing the lies people tell themselves on the deepest level, in noting how much we forgive, and above all in portraying love.” Although I agree that Rooney does a great job of portraying complex characters in an even more complex relationship, this reporting is a perfect example of how the author is not only given precedence over her story but is also infallibly lionized. To use “gifted,” “brave,” and “adventurous” all in one sentence to describe one author is rather overzealous. Rooney does hold up a mirror, but only to a select group of people. She is “gifted” in her writing, but I wouldn’t call her “brave” because she neither says anything new nor portrays anything “adventurous” because that would require her to go into thorny pastures, which she never does.

The Limits of Rooney’s Privilege

Normal People deals with things Rooney already knows about being a young Irish woman coming of age in the 21st century. Yes, she addresses class in the novel, but that’s nothing new, considering that plenty of Irish authors have been doing just that for decades. Yes, she addresses familial abuse with Marianne’s home situation, but I remember being disappointed in how quickly the plot moved on from that.

I understand that it’s exciting when a female writer gains the same type of recognition that’s only reserved for older white men, and that has certainly helped fuel Rooney’s lionization. However, she’s hardly that feminist writer we can rally around. Unlike the feminist writers Roxane Gay and Gloria Steinem, Rooney is not one to rally around but rather to gather around. Like I said, she’s safe. Her books don’t push any political buttons despite the communist streak Rooney has stated to have in her personal life.

Rooney, to her credit, latches onto the normality of modern relationships and instead of decrying the loss of romance, she accepts it, allowing readers to accept their own relationships in a world that sometimes demands too much. Don’t get me wrong, acceptance is all well and good, but I don’t read the works of “gifted, brave, adventurous” writers to be complacent—I read them to be challenged.

So yes, while Rooney’s writing is a worth a read, don’t make the mistake of calling her “the voice of a generation.” She’s one voice worth listening to, but the voice of the millennial generation includes everyone.

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