Last month a supposedly over-hyped ingenue author – a producer, many say, of glorified chick-lit – published a brilliantly nuanced essay in the Paris Review, casting an erudite eye over the history of the novel and drawing a provocative comparison between two of its giants, Austen and Joyce. How could one writer be both things: an unschooled, unskilled peddler of commercial pap, and a superb critic?
I’m talking, of course, about the author everyone talks about all the time: Sally Rooney. Doubleness is a theme of Rooney’s career: she is a darling of publishing, our time’s bestselling literary author – as well as the most patronised and reviled. People queued up to buy her latest novel from pop-up shops and converted ice cream vans, and meanwhile bien pensant commentators lined up to deride the “cult” of Sally Rooney, lambast the “Rooney industrial complex” and even accuse her of being an avatar of unchecked white privilege. Even worse, some serious reviewers doubted whether she was an especially good writer.
This must be bewildering for Rooney. For someone like me – who’s not so much read as inhaled every word she’s ever written – it’s simply bizarre. When I tell people I think Rooney is a great writer, I’m met by a roll of the eyes or a stare of contempt as often as agreement.
But there’s something appropriate about the double reaction Rooney provokes, too, because the twin passions of desire and rejection are precisely what she writes so well about. All Rooney’s main characters – from Frances in Conversations with Friends to Alice in Beautiful World, Where Are You – display what a psychoanalyst might call sado-masochistic tendencies. Pleasure and pain, or love and hatred, are for them so tightly bound together they’re like separate threads in a single piece of twine. The fact Rooney simultaneously inspires such love and loathing among readers is, in that sense, entirely in keeping with her art.
As her Paris Review essay, originally delivered as the TS Eliot lecture in Dublin in October, proves, Rooney is a much more serious intellectual than most other writers of fiction (to say nothing of her silliest detractors). But brains alone don’t make a good novelist – otherwise people would still bother to read the pointlessly cerebral logorrhoea of Rooney’s most obnoxious critic, Will Self. What I love about Rooney is her almost spooky intuition for the subtleties of human dynamics – as well as her irony, which is so dry that even some excellent critics miss it altogether. In these ways she’s very much like her beloved Jane Austen (another genius sometimes mistaken for an author of chick-lit).
I’ve noticed that even my friends who say they “hate” Rooney express their feelings in terms of animosity for Frances or Marianne or Alice as though her characters were actual human beings. The ability to conjure seemingly real people out of mere words is the rarest and most valuable gift a novelist can possess. Any other author – even Will Self, if he knew what it was worth – would give their writing arm to possess it. Rooney has it in abundance. She is an abnormally brilliant person and we are lucky to have her.