Sally Rooney's Fiction for End Times

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In her third novel, Rooney does more than just respond to critics; she surveys the wreckage of modern life.
Art isn't meant to be one-size-fits-all, and a book's popularity is always less about its worthiness than its marketing budget. We all know this. But the problem—particularly for Sally Rooney, whose two novels and two TV deals have sent critics scrambling to theorize her success—is that hype is easily mistaken for claims to preeminence or universality. Which leads people to blame the hyped novelist, rather than the hype itself, for not living up to their highly personal tastes or expectations.1 Books in Review Beautiful World, Where Are You By Sally Rooney Buy this book

Like all popular books, Rooney's novels have been critiqued through the lens of their author's various public identities. She has been called both "representatively millennial" and "not really engaging with any of the social issues that might make her truly relevant to the millennial moment." Her works are "an essentially confessional account of female consciousness," but she is also "hardly that feminist writer we can rally around." She's been lauded for understanding "a kind of enduring, hard-bitten Irishness," a nationality that supposedly "insulates her from the social and cultural conversation going on in [America]," even though Rooney, who has a master's degree in American literature and an Internet connection, says she doesn't "really have a sense of Irishness, or what that means." The Guardian suggests that the Marxism of Rooney's characters is there to signal their elite background. The Atlantic calls the novel's politics "ambient rather than explicit," while Slate considers them not only explicit but satirical. (Rooney herself has said, "I don't know what it means to write a Marxist novel.")2

Worst of all, Rooney has suffered the misfortune of being dubbed "the First Great Millennial Author" in The New York Times, a title that's not only impossible to live up to but invites invidious scrutiny, making the author accountable for the bluster of critics and publicists. It's fine to argue…
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