When twenty-eight-year-old Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney had to move her recent author talk in Brooklyn from the local library to a nearby church due to popular demand, Vanity Fair called it ‘almost too obvious’ a metaphor. Following the runaway success of her debut Conversations with Friends, and the frenzied word-of-mouth popularity of her follow-up novel Normal People, Rooney has attained something akin to god-like status in literary world, cementing her reputation as what The Times dubbed the ‘first great millennial novelist’.
We are now beginning to see the Rooney effect flow through the cogs of the publishing system. At this years’ London Book Fair, finding ‘the next Sally Rooney’ was named among the hottest trends for publishers and agents. Already we’re starting to see Rooney look-a-like titles hitting the shelves, as seen in the unfortunate coincidence of Diana Evans’ Ordinary People release alongside Rooney’s Normal People.
Perhaps more noticeable for readers of contemporary fiction is the growing trend of invoking Rooney’s name in order to signal promising, young, largely female talent. In the last six months, the list of local debuts likened to Rooney include Ruby Porter’s first novel, Attraction, and Sophie Hardcastle’s forthcoming Below Deck, while internationally we’ve seen the comparison drawn to promote Jessica Andrews’ debut Saltwater, Love & Other Things to Live For by Louise Leverett, Skin by EM Reapy and Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin, to name a few.
The use of such comparative titles is by no means a new trend, and has solid and practical grounding within the industry’s business model. For overworked agents and publishers, comparing a new work or author to an existing one allows them to quickly assess if a writer’s work is going to be of interest to them. For in-house sales and publicity departments, having a reference title assists in formulating profit estimates and shaping approaches to ‘selling-in’ a title. For booksellers, big-name comparisons help them place books on shelves and recommend titles to customers. Comparative titles make the industry go round.
However, as with any profit-making system, it is worth questioning whom this system benefits.
The first and most obvious question is: does it benefit Rooney herself? The simple answer would seem to be yes. Being named as a benchmark for emerging and promising talent by industry insiders further confirms Rooney’s reputation as the Archetypal Millennial Writer. To be likened to Sally Rooney is to be synonymous with young-ness, fresh-ness, relevance and relate-ability. Her breakout success also represents the elusive golden ticket for publishers – a literary novel with commercial crossover potential.
Yet this a lot to take away from a single name on a dust jacket, and no-one seems more acutely aware of this than Rooney herself. In the same interview with Vanity Fair, the author discusses her discomfort around the growing ‘entity of ‘Sally Rooney’’. ‘You’re not in control of which things become prominent about that person,’ she comments, describing a pervasive sense of ‘horror’ at her ‘own personhood now being an object of public scrutiny or discourse’. Indeed, the author has even gone as far as to suggest she may not write another book, sending fans into a predictable uproar. Cynics may view this as a PR stunt, however, Rooney’s consistent and seemingly genuine disavowal of her celebrity status are enough to convince me that her rise to fame has not been entirely beneficial to her creative process or personal wellbeing.
Putting the author herself aside, the second question would be: if the aim of invoking Rooney’s name is to promote new, emerging female talent, does it, in fact, benefit them? Again, the simple answer would seem to be yes. Given the popularity of Rooney’s work, it stands to reason that agents, publishers, booksellers and readers are more likely to pick up and sell on a title that claims to be similar.
However, this only works if the books deliver. Consumers, more than ever, are wary of being misled by advertising and hype machines, and surely there are no more astute critics than those readers of literary fiction? As a recent reviewer of Jessica Andrews’ debut in The Guardian writes: ‘Saltwater is billed as ‘for fans of Sally Rooney and Olivia Laing’, but Andrews has little in common with either’, while The Times made the same comparison the basis of an unfavourable review. Where an author might have succeeded on their own creative terms, by likening them to Rooney it seems we set them up against a standard against which they run the risk of falling short.
On the whole, however, surely any author that raises the profile of writing by young women is a good thing for young women writers. Particularly someone like Rooney who is working within that grey area between memoir and fiction, which has for so long has struggled to shrug off its label as ‘indulgent’, ‘domestic’ and ‘quiet’ and gain the critical recognition it deserves.
It is perhaps useful, here, to draw comparison to the breakout success of Insta-poet turned million-copy-bestseller Rupi Kaur. While poets and critics themselves may have argued internally about the quality of Kaur’s work, the general consensus was that any breakout was a positive for young, aspiring poets. There are, however, two key differences here. The first is that Kaur works within a medium that has traditionally struggled – even more so than literary fiction – to find a mainstream audience. The second is that she is a woman of colour.
All of the women benefiting from the Sally Rooney effect – Andrews, Porter, Hardcastle, Leveritt, Reapy and Beagin – are white. Indeed, for a white, middle-class emerging writer such as myself, the attention around Rooney is ostensibly good news, having proven a market for fiction that grapples with our experiences, our bodies, our relationships. But what about those women who have different experiences, different bodies, different relationships?
As Rebecca Liu argues in her recent article in Another Gaze, Rooney sits alongside Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Girls writer Lena Dunham in benefiting from a frenzied public discourse that places the success of their work in its ‘relatable’ portrayal of generational and gender issues. But, as Liu continues, such art, far from being universal, in fact ‘revolves around an archetypal Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive.’
At a time when we are supposedly seeing an industry-wide push for more diverse voices in publishing, by invoking Rooney’s name as shorthand for a generation of writers, we run the risk of alienating the emerging voices who don’t fall under her brand of ‘universal’ and ‘relatable’ female experience. Of flattening rather than expanding women’s writing. Of excluding rather than supporting new voices.
I’m a huge fan of Rooney’s work. But the things I love about her books are not the universal, the relate-able, the newsworthy. It is the way she brings her unique voice, worldview, political ideology and lived experience to the page.
Perhaps then, rather that further elevating Rooney to the status of literary ‘everywoman’, the key here is in celebrating the individuality and particularity of her writing. In allowing her to shine through the fullness of her of own work.
By worshipping the individual, rather than the archetype, not only do we liberate Rooney from her own god-like status, but allow her disciples to gain a following in their own right.
Image: detail from the cover of Normal People