Sally Rooney Addresses Her Critics
The Atlantic|September 2021
The Irish writer has been accused of being overly sentimental and insufficiently political. In her new novel, she makes the case for her approach to fiction.
Caleb Crain
In her first two novels, Conversations With Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), the young Irish writer Sally Rooney resurrected the depressive, evacuated style that Ernest Hemingway made his signature. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white,” he famously wrote in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” and in much the same deadpan way, Rooney has Frances, the narrator of her debut, look around a college library and think, “Inside, everything was very brown.” Ridiculous in isolation, Rooney’s line makes sense in context: Frances has just received an email from her lover’s wife, and while she waits for the courage to read it, she tries, unsuccessfully, to distract herself by focusing on her surroundings. At least, that’s what I imagine is going on in Frances’s head. With a writer so chary of detail, the reader rushes to fill in.

Rooney also resembled Hemingway—and Raymond Carver, a renovator of Hemingway’s minimalism whom Rooney has cited as an influence—in her ability to write dialogue that sounds unpremeditated but has a neutron-star density of drama and emotion. Here are Connell and Marianne, the teenage lovers of Normal People, after their first kiss:

All right, he said. What are you laughing for?

Nothing.

You’re acting like you’ve never kissed anyone before.

Well, I haven’t, she said.

Rooney showed mastery of point of view as well. Her control was so fine that she was able to convey Connell’s arousal during a reunion with Marianne by slowing down his perception and amping up its sensuousness: “She’s wearing a white dress with a halter-neck and her skin looks tanned. She’s been hanging washing on the line. The air outside is very still and the laundry hangs there in damp colors, not moving.” Rooney’s respect for the limits and biases of her charac ters’ minds was strict. Frances, young and unsophisticated, has never tasted a fresh avocado before, fantasizes about seeing her name printed in a magazine “in a serif font with thick stems,” and describes the torso of her fi rst male lover with an almost generic simile: “like a piece of statuary.”

The rigor with which Rooney conformed narrative voice to the shape of her characters’ consciousness won her praise as a portraitist of her Millennial generation— and also left her vulnerable to political critique. Many of her characters are college-age leftists of an idealistic sort and, like tyro intellectuals since the dawn of time, are deadly earnest without altogether knowing what they’re talking about. They are besotted with theory but literally haven’t done the homework. At a performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Frances catches sight of the washing-instruction label on the lead actor’s slip, and the spell of the performance is broken: “I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.” A whole essay could be written about this sentence’s simultaneous knowingness and not-knowingness, but as a snapshot of a young person who knows which names to invoke but not (lucky for her) their actual work, it can’t be bettered. And in fact, Frances’s insight is a good one—whoever thought it up first.

Rooney told interviewers that she, like some of her characters, was a Marxist, and American critics— many of them her Millennial contemporaries— drafted her into the war over tone of voice, ideological purity, and evidentiary standards that has been raging in progressive political circles since at least the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. In The New York Review of Books, Madeleine Schwartz complained that “the politics are mostly gestural” in Rooney’s books, pointing out that her protagonists, far from being rebels, “are all good students.” Becca Rothfeld, writing in The Point, also saw the leftism as fashionable posturing and seemed sorry that Rooney hadn’t more explicitly punctured it. In a follow-up essay in Liberties, Rothfeld went so far as to dismiss Rooney’s fiction as “sanctimony literature”: “full of self-promotion and the airing of performatively righteous opinions.”

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