New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. The Staggers
23 January 2023

What critics don’t get about Sally Rooney

To label her an over-hyped ingenue is to misunderstand her greatest conceit.

By Matt Rowland Hill

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). 

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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.

[See also: Kick the Latch is a spare and powerful account of a life with horses]

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

Topics in this article : , ,