Normal novels?

posted in: Authors | 0

Can something popular also be great? asks the LA Review of Books in a recent review of Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s third book Beautiful world where are you? The release of Rooney’s latest novel was met with swift bookstore window makeovers and long queues of millennials (those who hadn’t splurged on an advance copy). The book has since become a superseller, with celebrities perpetuating its popularity through much watched insta-stories. But can something this widely and wildly popular also be ‘Great’, i.e. of literary greatness? 

Scores of literary critics offer us arguments as to why Rooney is not capital-L-literature in their opinion. As Becca Rothfeld writes, the unambitious vocabulary and syntax leave the novel formally unadventurous. But Rothfeld’s most damning critique of Rooney is that it is yet another example of sanctimony literature, a contemporary genre that is ‘an extension of social media: it is full of self-promotion and the airing of performatively righteous opinions’. Madeleine Schwartz, of the New York Review of Books, shares Rothfeld’s view that even though politics runs through the novel, it is empty, gestural, and conforming to a specific set of (leftist) standards. 

Paradoxically, the same points of criticism are the aspects Rooney has been lauded for. Her unadventurous writing might be likened to Hemingway’s sparse style. Her non-radical political stance and self-promotion could be ways to reflect the anxieties and preoccupations of her generation, reminiscent of Joan Didion.

Just when you think you could perhaps consider Rooney a new contemporary literary figure, this bubble is burst by those who argue such credit is the result of literary inflation; a regressing literary landscape in which we don’t read enough literary fiction. This has led us to mistake something quite ordinary, like Rooney’s novels, for something exceptional, as Rupert Hawksley states. In a similar vein, Will Self argues that Rooney would have been classified as young-adult fiction 10 or 20 years ago.

So what makes a novel great? What makes a novel normal? And where do Rooney’s novels sit, which are on the one hand popular and instagrammable, but that on the other touch on generational themes and worries? 

Share your opinion on Sally Rooney’s works or one of 398 other contemporary novels included in the Big Book Review survey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.