Sally Rooney is preparing to publish her new book, Beautiful World, Where Are You. But reports are emerging of near-hysterical behavior more suited to a (pre-cancellation) J.K. Rowling Harry Potter novel than an elegantly written work of literary fiction.
Pre-publication proof copies of the novel have sold on eBay for hundreds of dollars, despite the US publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux having explicitly asked recipients of the advanced reading copies not to resell them, and even a promotional canvas tote bag is realizing nearly $100. Meanwhile, when the book is published in the US and UK on September 7, 50 British retailers will be opening their doors early on the day, so eager purchasers can get their Rooney fix shortly after daybreak.
In case you need to be reminded, Sally Rooney is 30. She began her career a mere six years ago, when she published the autobiographical essay ‘Even If You Beat Me’, about her time as a competitive debater. Since then, agents and publishers have fallen over themselves to be in business with the authentic voice of millennial literature. She has published two previous novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, and is the recipient of prizes, including the Costa Novel of the Year, the Encore award and the Irish Book of the Year award.
No doubt Beautiful World, Where Are You will add to the roster, if early praise is anything to go by. The Atlantic compared it to Goethe and Rooney herself was likened to Hemingway. She has also become an unlikely fashion icon. GQ wrote excitedly about a bright yellow hat, emblazoned with her latest novel’s title, saying ‘Behold: the Sally Rooney bucket hat.’
Those of us who are neither millennials nor uncritically adoring of a young novelist may find this hype somewhere between amusing and inexplicable. The television adaptation of Rooney’s sophomore novel Normal People, broadcast shortly after the beginning of lockdown and co-written by her, showcased her strengths and weaknesses as a writer admirably. Its obvious sincerity and presentation of two young people discovering their intellectual and sexual horizons together was admirable; the complete lack of humor in its po-faced seriousness, less so.
The biggest laugh I had over its 12 episodes came early on, when the beautiful Marianne begs the handsome Connell to follow his heart and study English literature at Trinity College, Dublin, rather than being diverted into some more superficially productive course. Would that all of us English graduates had had such incentive in our younger years.
Rooney herself has helpfully contributed to the mystique around her by offering gnomic (but reasonably frequent) interviews. She is usually photographed looking unsmiling and stern, and pronounces authoritatively on literary and social issues. She is a Marxist, apparently, but quibbles with interviewers as to whether she — also a graduate of Trinity College and a daughter of an arts center administrator and a telecom technician — is sufficiently working-class to be allowed to use such a term. She describes her fame as a form of torment, and actively avoids reading reviews, profiles, or articles such as this. Many in her position might be less terrified by the idea of selling vast numbers of copies of their books, and grateful instead to have been offered such a platform.
There is no doubt that Beautiful World, Where Are You will be an enormous bestseller, and with a television adaptation of Conversations with Friends due to be broadcast next year, Rooney’s name and reputation will continue to flourish for a considerable time yet, even as she seeks to cast off her anointed status as ‘the voice of a millennial generation.’
Yet sometimes even this self-seriousness has its drawbacks. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Rooney reacted with surprise to the interviewer mentioning her husband, and said ‘How do you know I’m married?’ The journalist had to tell her that this revelatory nugget of personal information had, in fact, been leaked out by none other than Rooney herself in the book’s acknowledgements.
Idols, even those who can be both literary and fashion icons, must be allowed their moments of oversight. It humanizes them in a way that the adulation that they face threatens not to, and reminds us that Rooney is a young woman at the beginning of a promising and interesting career, rather than the godlike sage that some would have her be.