Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a great book. It is a classic 19th century love story set in the 2010s, one that digs sharply into the misunderstandings, power imbalances, insecurities, and self-destructive tendencies that can maim and destroy a relationship. It’s a quick and engrossing read, and it deserves the acclaim it’s received. But that acclaim has been so loud, it has elevated Rooney from celebrated writer to bonafide literary celebrity, something she very understandably does not like.
In an interview with Vanity Fair last week, the 28-year-old author said she was troubled by her newfound fame. Of late, Rooney has been hailed as the “voice of a generation.” Normal People, which was published in the States earlier this month, debuted on the New York Times’s bestseller list at number 3. Refinery 29 ran a whole piece on how both Normal People and Rooney’s 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends, had become status symbols on Instagram. Rooney says she finds finds this all troubling:
“It’s a far cry from why I started writing,” Rooney says of her recent fame, sitting in her publisher’s office next to a large poster of her book cover, praise plastered around it in all caps with exclamation points. “Yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of why.”
The problem, as Rooney sees it, is that she is no longer Sally Rooney, but Sally Rooney the Author, a persona, a person whose life is now “ an object of public scrutiny or discourse.” Living authors do not usually ascend to a tangible level of fame. Rooney did not want it, and Rooney did not ask for it. And yet, for now, it’s here:
“The majority of people have never heard of me—the vast, vast, vast majority of people. And long may it stay that way! I’m very, very happy with that and I completely acknowledge that I’m not actually famous. But I do have . . .” She pauses before continuing; Rooney, who was a champion debater before she was a novelist, is intimidatingly exact with her speech.
“But having said that, obviously to some degree my job involves me taking on a role as a public figure on a very minor level. And so that is different from being a completely private citizen, a private individual. So it’s definitely something I think about. And are there responsibilities? Are there ethical responsibilities that come with that? And also because it’s something I never wanted. . . . It has made my life weird in certain respects, it has—only for a couple of weeks. It’s very self-limiting.”
It’s interesting to see Rooney’s perspective on her newfound recognition, in part because Normal People’s praise will probably come paired with some backlash. Hype can do literature a disservice. I’ve had several discussions with friends who thought Normal People was a good read but nothing “profound.” A good book can be world-changing without intention, and though reviewers have argued Rooney is a “brilliant new millennial voice,” earlier this month Rooney told NYLON she didn’t set out to speak for an entire generation, an assertion she repeated to Vanity Fair.
And now that she’s so successful, of course, she’s sort of set up to fail.
“The first month or whatever’s fine, but then I’m like, ‘I’m washed up. I’m never gonna write anything again. I’ll never have another good idea,’” she said. “I’ll start inventing all these rationalizations. I’ll be able to find examples of other novelists who published in their 20s and never published again.”
Hopefully, Rooney’s not going to be one of those novelists, and her next work is just as good (if perhaps less Instagrammable) as her first two efforts. Either way, leave the damn woman alone.