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Why do millennials love Sally Rooney?

Sally Rooney’s third novel, ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, was one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. Now that it’s out, it’s smashing sales records.

Sally Rooney’s third novel, ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, was one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. Now that it’s out, it’s smashing sales records.

Her new book covers similar ground to her earlier work, but this time, more than ever, Rooney turns inward and grapples with what it means to be a successful writer in the current moment.

So why has Rooney’s work struck such a chord with millions of readers? And does ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ live up to the hype?

This episode is spoiler free!

 

Guest: Writer and book critic, Madeleine Gray

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

OSMAN:
Hey there, I'm Osman Faruqi and welcome to The Culture, a weekly show from Schwartz Media, where we take a deep dive into the latest in the world of pop culture, arts and entertainment.

This week on the show it’s another first for us - it’s our first ever episode about a book. This particular book was one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year, and now that it’s out it’s absolutely smashing sales records, I am, of course, talking about Sally Rooney’s third novel - Beautiful World, Where Are You.

Rooney’s two previous novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, have sold millions of copies; she's widely regarded as one of the smartest, and most successful, writers of her generation. Her new book covers similar ground to her earlier work, but this time, more than ever, Rooney turns inward - and grappling with what it means to be a successful writer in the current moment - especially a young, woman writer who still has her fair share of detractors.

So why has Rooney’s work struck such a chord with millions of readers, particularly millennials? And does Beautiful World, Where Are You live up to the hype? To help figure all of this out and we’re gonna do it without spoilers, I’m joined by Madeleine Gray, a writer and book critic, who wrote about Sally Rooney’s new novel in the latest issue of *The Monthly*.

Madeleine, thanks for joining The Culture.

MADELEINE:
Thank you so much for having me.

OSMAN:
Madeleine, can you start by telling me a bit about your relationship to Sally Rooney and her work? When did you first read her? What was the first book and what kind of impact did that have on you?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, so it was 2017. I'm Australian, but I was studying in England at Oxford doing my master's in English literature, and I was writing a lot about erotic female friendships, which I was like, you know, personally quite invested in at that time, and also women in books who were trying to work their way out of neo-liberal entrapment, women who realise the world is structurally a bit fucked and are working out how better to live. 

And I was reading a lot of really academic books, hard books. And one day I was quite hungover and I went to the bookshop, me and my house and bought Conversations with Friends, which was Rooney's first book, which had just come out. And there’d been a bit of a buzz about it, but obviously not as much as the buzz around her latest novel or about Normal People. 

And I kind of read that book hunched up on my chair, a shell of a human being, in one day. But it was just so enjoyable and it kind of turned into common parlance and good novel writing all of the kind of academic thoughts that I've been having and dealing with in very different vernaculars and dialogues. And so I wanted to start thinking about that because I loved how she was making stuff I've been thinking about in hard words accessible in easier words.

OSMAN:
So you were studying Sally Rooney while at Oxford. A lot of Normal People is set at a similarly prestigious university, Trinity College in Dublin. Did your personal experience give you any extra insight into her work, do you think?

MADELEINE:
It was very interesting. Obviously, being Irish is different to being Australian, but at the same time, there's two kind of parallel relations to the English and Oxford and academic institutions. What with our countries colonial histories and and so on. So, yeah, I loved, personally, having someone kind of deconstruct that institution, feeling outside of it, but being within it. That felt very pertinent to me at that time. And as well, it's a small world. So like a lot of people that I was studying with at Oxford had been to Trinity College, Dublin for their undergraduate degrees and kind of knew Sally a bit from, because it's a small world. And so very much in the beginning, it was clear that this was a microcosmic novel that was going to reverberate around the world because of the kind of generality of the kind of institution she described. Somewhere very elite for learned people to learn more is something that ratifies and, and is in every country. Every country has the equivalent of a Trinity College, Dublin - not every country but, actually, they probably do. In Australia, it's like Sydney Uni, Melbourne Uni and those elite institutions, the same kind of everywhere.

OSMAN:
Yeah right. Can you tell me a bit about Sally Rooney’s life, and how you think her personal experiences are reflected in her novels?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, so she, she's 30 and she grew up in Castlebar in County Mayo, an island which is like a small place. Ten thousand people. Mom was an arts worker, so she grew up around books. And then at age 18, 17, she went to Trinity College, Dublin, on a scholarship and because she was big into debating, quickly got into the inner circle of, kind of, Trinity College's elite. And I don't know if you personally debated in high school, but I did a little bit. And it is a really weird, weird little world.

OSMAN:
I don't know whether I want to answer that question truthfully because of what it says about me. I did do some debating in high school. I did. Yes. And I think I know exactly what you're talking about, but break it down for us.

MADELEINE:
Yeah. So basically, I mean, there's all different types of debating, different kind of spheres and levels of it. But at school, it's mostly private schools and you've got people learning how to argue with each other based on things that they don't necessarily believe in, the idea is that you have to get a topic and then just argue to the best of your ability and beat the other side with the power of your arguments. I remember one time in high school I got, it was like, ‘that Australia should never leave the Iraq war’.

OSMAN:
Well, this is really taking me back. There was so many debates on stuff like this...

MADELEINE:
These like, bizarro, kind of, fascist topics...

OSMAN:
You're constantly playing devil's advocate...

MADELEINE:
Yeah. And you're a 15 year old and you're like, oh, shit. Like, OK. And you just have to, like, get into the mind of the fascist. It's really weird. And so the debating world that Sally Rooney entered at Trinity College, Dublin. Is that like on steroids with people who were very privileged, who are learning to dismember each other in arguments, not necessarily believing all of the stuff that they're saying, but wanting the cultural capital of being the best arguing. And Sally Rooney ended up winning the international debating championships in 2013, I think it was. And she did this essay that was called Even If You Beat Me, I think, and it's this fascinating essay where she talks about being a university debater and how she kind of learnt to revalue honesty, I suppose, or trying to actually say what you mean, because so much of her university career was being disingenuous. And so, Conversations with Friends is a novel, really, her first novel that is about trying to get past the pressure to say what will best represent you in a conversation and instead try and say things that you actually mean and understand other people. So that's kind of how I understand her autobiography very much filtering into her first novel, at least, yeah.

OSMAN:
Her second book, Normal People, was the one that really brought her to international acclaim. I mean, I think the book has sold over three million copies now, which is astonishing, is kind of the kind of hype that I haven't really seen since Harry Potter and Twilight.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“Guys, I don't wanna be dramatic but, like, if my flat was burning down in a fire, my advance reader's copy of Sally Rooney’s new book is the first thing I would save.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“If Sally Rooney wanted to write about watching paint dry, I would read it.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“Show me a book that just blew your goddamn mind because of how incredible it was…”

MADELEINE:
I think it's very Harry Potter-esque.

OSMAN:
Yeah, all the more remarkable in the sense that it's not a sort of grand epic fantasy aimed at children. Why do you think that book in particular became such a phenomenon? I mean, I think obviously Rooney's writing is quite remarkable. We knew that from Conversations With Friends. But was there something about the story of Normal People or the context and timing in which it landed or maybe a combination of all of those different things that made it really resonate as much as it did?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, Conversations with Friends had hyped up a lot of cultural capital for Rooney and for Rooney-adjacent fans. So, like, on social media, Conversations with Friends was like a very... it was very shareable content, like you’d have a photo of you holding the book and that was, like you were cool and it was profiled in Vogue and stuff like that. So she was fashionable.

And Conversations with Friends is actually quite an interesting novel. It’s four different people, one’s bisexual, two women have been in a relationship before, there’s intergenerational gaps, it's actually quite complex, like I really love that novel. 

And then with Normal People, a few years later, people are wanting to attach themselves - that's maybe cynical - attach themselves to the hype, but be part of whatever this journey is that's happening. And Normal People is a really good gateway into the Rooney world because it kind of strips back what Conversations with Friends does. Well, Conversations with Friends is a kind of zigzaggy square with all these characters. Normal People is just like train tracks. It's just two characters, Marianne and Connell, who meet at school. And she's rich and unpopular and he's poor and popular. And then they go to uni. The situation changes, except she remains rich. Surprise. 

And then basically the whole novel is them, just like, am I in love with you? Maybe I'm in love with you or I might not be. Let's have sex. It deals with everything that Rooney is interested in, but in quite a traditional, kind of, linear way, that is kind of familiar for readers. It's a romance novel, everyone's very disenfranchised and oppressed and capitalism is bad, but it's quite a straightforward book. And so, I think that a lot of people - that really resonated with them because they could just log in, kind of attach themselves to it and go on the journey just, kind of, like, automatic pilot.

OSMAN:
I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think, I've had this conversation, I've had this conversation with friends, who haven't read Normal People and they're aware of the hype around it. And they're like, I've read the blurb, I've read the plot summary, doesn't seem that compelling. And I think what that maybe misses is that, you're right, the story is very linear. It's not full of twists and turns. It's not necessarily super suspenseful. The tension comes from this relationship. But I think what my feeling, as to why I think it was and certainly what resonated with me, is that stories about love and relationships and connection have been around forever. But every generation, every year almost, things change, the way we interact with one another, the things we talk about, the signs and signals we send when we're muddling our way through relationships are different. 

So you can go and you can read Jane Austen and it's still very you know, it's moving and it's wonderful and it's fun and it's interesting. But the way that relationships and courtships and break-ups and heartbreak work now is so different to then. And I think Rooney does such a good job of understanding how all of this fits together, how we as a generation fit together in this world, and how that relates to the conversations we have and the relationships we have.

MADELEINE:
Yeah absolutely, and she does this in all of her books but certainly Normal People, but she's so good at kind of working out the different textures of, like, messaging platforms and talking to people and how you can have a certain control or autonomy in some textual mediums, and not others. 

Archival Tape -- Sally Rooney:
“As a writer, I’m very drawn to text and words and so - uses of language always interest me - and I feel that the internet gives us new ways of using language and has really embedded written language in our lives in a new way. So, the fact that so many relationships are conducted almost primarily through the written word, for a writer, is very juicy and interesting. I love the written word! So I was, yeah, really interested in pursuing how it is that people build relationships using language alone.”

MADELEINE:
So, like, if you're a good writer, for example, if you feel comfortable writing, email dialogue is brilliant for you in a relationship because you can kind of work out everything you want to say with all the cadences perfectly. And you can kind of counter what the other person might say already in your perfectly formed email whereas if you're doing instant messenger on Facebook chat or whatever, you're constantly trying to one up each other and you can't predict what the person's going to say next. And Rooney does that texture so well, of the kind of, waiting four minutes between a message and having an existential crisis in those four minutes because that pause is not the rhythm that you've been going at before. And that kind of thing is what makes the novel so, so understandable to anyone of her age who's reading them, because that's how we talk to each other.

OSMAN:
Yeah, exactly, and I'm sure that other people have done it. And perhaps I'm just not as familiar with - obviously I haven’t read every single book about young romance - but it's sort of surprising. It's one of those books that you read and you’re like: oh, wow, this is one of the first times I've seen the way that I live and interact represented in literature in this kind of fun and gripping way.

MADELEINE:
Yeah, exactly. So then I think that leads on to the new novel, It's a Beautiful World, Where Are You, because when I was reading Conversations with Friends and Normal People, a lot of the ideas that Rooney was talking about, like capitalism. Oh, no, I feel disenfranchised, but also impotent, those were thoughts that I'd had vaguely kind of percolating in my head. But I'd never really seen them strung out in a book with a character whose life was similar-ish to mine. And in Beautiful World, Where Are You, a similar thing is happening in one of the main kind of philosophical scenes in the novel is someone standing in a supermarket and they're like thinking about how all the food has been made by people who are essentially enslaved in other countries, and that's very bad, but also they still need to choose a sandwich. Yeah, and so I read that it was like, oh yeah, like, good point, Sally. Like, fair. And then I was talking to my colleague at work who's twenty two, so younger than me, and she was like, OK, we get it. Sally, we've all had that thought when we were like 14 and I was like shit did we, did we all have about 14. I certainly didn't.

OSMAN:
No, no, no, this is a thing that kids, like Gen Z, they’re so much more woke than us. They're, like, way ahead of the game on this. They're probably reading Sally Rooney being like you weird millennials. Why is it taking you until 30 to figure out how broken the world is? That's the whole context in which we've been raised, basically.

MADELEINE:
Exactly. We grew up in this. So I think that her novels are so good for a certain generation of people. But the ideas that she's engaging with are perhaps ageing out younger readers who feel that she is behind the times, which is a fascinating thing to have occurred in the past six years.

OSMAN:
That is really interesting. And it does take me to one of the things about her books and in particular, Beautiful World, Where Are You, that it's probably one of the areas of her writing that I find the least compelling. But before we get into the specifics of that, let's just talk about the new book generally. I honestly can't remember this much hype for a book. I cannot think of any other book released in the last few years or that might be released in the next couple of years, that would elicit the kind of conversation and discussion and excitement as this one - is obviously why we're talking right now. So there's enormous amount of expectation going into it. And I think partly that's because the first two books are so good. Also, we've seen the BBC Hulu adaptation of Normal People, which probably brought Sally Rooney into a whole bunch more people's lives.

Archival Tape -- Normal People TV Show

OSMAN:
Before we get into the ins and outs of the book. Can you tell me a bit about what it's about and how similar or different it is to Normal People and Conversations With Friends?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, so, I mean, she's working within the same remit. She's not suddenly imagined. She's someone living somewhere else in the world having a different experience. So, it's about four characters who are Irish. And, I don't think it's actually explicitly said, but it's suggested that they went to Trinity College, Dublin, or one of them went to Oxford for a bit of difference, bit of zest. And basically two of the women are best friends and one of them is a very Rooney-esque character in that she is a very successful writer of literary fiction. And she sold her first novel at age twenty-four for an ungodly amount of money and has since kind of been trying to deal with the existential ramifications of being so popular and rich so young, despite just writing novels as she sees it. 

And then you've got her friend, Eileen, who is a literary copy editor in Dublin, who's kind of at a bit of a loss to do with her life. She's in love with a guy, Simon, who's five or ten years older - there's a generational difference that they make a lot of. So she's in love with him. But, kind of, he's often gallivanting around with young people, but it's pretty evident they're going to end up together. And then there's the fourth character, Felix, who is a factory worker and the novelist character, Alice, meets him when she moves to the coast of Ireland to reset after she has a mental breakdown after her immense literary success. So that's the set up. And then, not much else happens in the book, really, except for the four of them kind of meet up, the two Dubliners go down to the coast to see their friends and then kind of all of the emotional things that are uncertain and below the surface, kind of, blow up on this one kind of holiday that really doesn't do the book justice, because it's not about plot. It is about dealing with contemporary life. But, yeah, just as a, as a brief summation, that’s it.

OSMAN:
That’s a great summation. And I guess what it makes me think about, and what I'm interested to get your initial reaction on, is just even hearing you describe the characters in the plot is we’re stepping into a very familiar world, if you've read Sally Rooney's other work, we're not going too far out. We're talking about a similar generation of people from similar backgrounds. I find it really interesting that she keeps her primary female characters who tend to be more well off, keep falling for these working class guys. So even that dynamic is very Marianne and Connell, as you know what we have with, um, with Felix and Alice. And as you said, it's not so much about plot. It's more about these interactions in the way that they think and live. When you read it, were you satisfied that we were getting more of what Rooney has already established herself had being good at? Or were you hoping for maybe some kind of intellectual, uh, flexing from her?

MADELEINE:
My expectations weren't particularly astronomical, not because I don't think that she's a good writer. I do, but because this amount of hype, it would be an extraordinary thing for her to just just jump ship and write something totally different. I enjoyed the book. I thought it was good. And as I was reading the beginning half, there are elements of it where you can see that Rooney is trying to stretch where the audience… like, how far they will go with her, because there are whole pages of, kind of, diatribe emails about philosophy and lost civilisations and kind of the aesthetics of plastic in our world. And those are things she kind of hinted at in snappy dialogue in her previous books. And here she just kind of goes for it to page and page at a time. So, if you were just coming to Rooney’s novels now and hadn't kind of established that trust that she's also funny and there will be a love story, you might get a bit annoyed with that. 

But I thought that was where she was trying to make things different. And the other thing that she's trying to make different and it is different about this book, is it's coming from the perspective of someone who is an immensely successful author. So the main quandary, apart from all the normal ones she deals with, existentially, is if you are a really famous writer, can you still write good books? That's the main question, kind of, of this book for me.

OSMAN:
What you've identified there is, I think, both what I really love about the book and what I don't love about the book. So, to start with what I don't like, I think I'm with her politically, like every time she's delivering something polemic or diagnosing the problems with the state of the world. And I'm like, I get this totally. But I think even though it was a bit underdeveloped in Normal People, I like the way that it came up organically and that it was part of characters just talking to one another. Whereas here I feel like, firstly the conceit of the long emails, chapters that are just emails to each other. How many people do you know, send long emails to one another as a way of communication? Is this a thing people are doing?

MADELEINE:
No, precisely. I mean, I was like, wow, I never write emails this smart, she's so smart. Um, but also I was like, I only ever write emails really long when I'm very upset with someone, and I, and I can't organise my thoughts in another way. And I just need to try to get it out in a structured way because, in conversation, I might fuck it up and just and just not communicate what I feel. Whereas her characters, you're right, it's kind of quite like an exhibition of their intelligence and their thoughts from the mind of a one Sally Rooney. It's kind of, it does feel a bit sometimes like she just showing us all this knowledge that she has.

OSMAN:
And as, as a writer, I mean, everyone's got ideas and it almost is like I can't quite find a way in which to express these views I have about the world through a scene or through an interaction or through this character moving through life. So here’s just, like, five pages of their thoughts dumped onto a page. And like I said, even if I agree with it, it just doesn't quite feel as, kind of, sharp as it could be.

MADELEINE:
Yeah, yeah. I definitely agree with that. I think that the way that she's tried to make it work and in some instances she has, but I do agree with you, is that the character is mostly doing these long emails. Is this novelist's character who maybe would do that, who's very isolated, living by herself. And so when you're alone, as you know, in lockdown, you can go a bit crazy. And, and that kind of discourse is perhaps something that would more likely happen in that situation. But that's perhaps me being too kind.

OSMAN:
We’re going to take a quick break and be right back.

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OSMAN:
It's interesting, you mentioned lockdown. Obviously, this book is not a kind of a lockdown book or a book about quarantine or anything, but it's so hard to not read any kind of work or consume and engage with any kind of art right now, without thinking about it in the context of what the world has just gone through. And so the character Alice, does talk quite openly about how her social interactions feel a bit weird because she hasn't really talked to people in a long time. And I think that will speak to a lot of people who are re-emerging into the world, particularly. You know, I think what Rooney's always been really good at and what I find so kind of thrilling in this book is, is the way that her characters interact on a romantic or sexual level. The opening chapter being this first date on Tinder somehow just captures everything about what it's like to be in those kinds of situations.

MADELEINE:
It’s such a good scene.

OSMAN:
Yeah! And when you move through to house parties or first trips away or all of these things, that constant sense of doubt, uncertainty, feeling each other out, putting on a bit of bravado, but not really being sure, playing a role, but feeling upset when you get called out for it. That's to me what she's so good at.

MADELEINE:
I personally think that in terms of what you're talking about, right there, Conversations with Friends is like piece de resistance just because, as you say, it's about characters trying on roles, seeing if they fit and then being annoyed when people call them out. And there are some excellent things in Beautiful World, Where Are You where that happens, especially between Felix and Alice. There are some moments where Felix completely punctures Alice’s sense of self and you just want to, you want to die when you're reading those pages. Yeah, but in Conversations With Friends, I think it happens far more organically and far more often. And I think that's because all of the characters lives intersect so much romantically, like some people have best friends who used to be lovers, some people like to rely on someone else for a job. And so that kind of like, how do I say, like puts electricity to that relationship in a different kind of way. And I feel like with Beautiful World, Where Are You, it's a little bit like, just Normal People 2.0 a little bit and that it's two train tracks of people. Does that make sense?

OSMAN:
It does make sense. And I think probably what I'm experiencing is a bit of recency bias. Right. Which is, I haven't read Conversations With Friends in a while. And so, yeah, this being the most recent thing of Rooney’s that I've read. I'm like, oh, cool. Yeah, no, she's really good at doing this. I really like it.

MADELEINE:
Yeah. And it is good.

OSMAN:
The other, the other thing I think that I like about this book a lot and I think in a way what elevates and I think there's already I'm seeing some criticism of the fact that, you know, Rooney's got another character, this Alice, who's kind of like her dealing with similar stuff that Rooney is dealing with. And it's a bit boring. And who really cares? It's not relatable. I actually think I have the opposite view to that. I actually think it is quite interesting and quite brave for Sally Rooney to be as honest and upfront as she is about what her life is like now and her thoughts on publishing, on being a literary icon, on receiving praise and receiving criticism. I think that's, again, a very millennial thing. I think so many writers have dealt with these things before and have pretended like they're not impacted by it and they've pretended like they're above it. Whereas she, through this character of Alice, is being so explicit, like she says at some point, you know, the publishing industry offered me this huge contract. I have no idea what they're doing. I don't think they know what they're doing either. But I'm going to take that money.

MADELEINE:
You know, I'm told to go, yeah, yeah, of course. She says, I'm going to be rich enough to take it or something.

OSMAN:
Yeah. And even we'll get to this, I think, in a bit when we talk about some of the pushback. But there is a section where she's very explicit in saying, you know, Alice got the fawning adoration and that was the next wave, which all the takes responding to the fawning adoration. Like, that's not she's not even trying to hide that this is about herself. And there's one bit in particular that, you know, it's in that frame of what we were talking about, these emails that are maybe not organic but I might actually just read out this part very quickly because maybe it's because it spoke to me a little bit. But I just think that it is so explicitly Sally Rooney sharing her thoughts and feelings about where she's at to the world, and I found it quite moving. 

It's the start of chapter six, she says, ‘Every day I wonder why my life has turned out this way. I can't believe I have to tolerate these things. Having articles written about me, seeing my photograph on the Internet and reading comments about myself. When I put it like that, I think, that's it. So what? But the fact is, although it's nothing, it makes me feel miserable. And I don't want to live this kind of life. When I submitted the first book, I just wanted to make enough money to finish the next one. I never advertised myself as a psychologically robust person capable of withstanding extensive public enquiries into my personality and upbringing.’ Like that sounds like a diary entry from Sally Rooney, right?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, as you read that your heart breaks. Yeah. I think, you know, you're right. It is very brave of her to address it. And also, smart. She deals with it in a really interesting matter way and then that takes her to being able to have conversations in the book about what she thinks the role of the author is in ways that perhaps might get less criticism because they’re in the book than if she just said in an interview, it's kind of enfolded in fictionality, which perhaps is safer. So, do you mind if I read a passage as well? 

OSMAN:
Of course you can. Yeah. Yeah. 

MADELEINE:
So it's like later in the book, chapter 12, she’s saying to Alice, ‘Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree. It seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day.’ 

I talked to a friend about that. And she says, ‘is this whole book about settling?’ And I don't know if that's the right way to describe it, but there is something about this book and about all of her books that are about attuning yourself with a situation you are in, having knowledge of all the ways that it is wrong...

OSMAN:
...coming to terms with things maybe rather than settling...

MADELEINE:
Exactly. And coming to terms with it and trying to work out what you can make from bad circumstances. And I mean, that's not a, that's not an original idea for a book, but it's very much the situation that so many of us find ourselves in now more than ever. And I think she does that so well.

OSMAN:
We’ll be back after this quick break

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OSMAN:
Madeleine, it's really hard to talk about Sally Rooney without talking about the
talk around Sally Rooney, despite being - or perhaps because she's so enormously popular and critically adored, there has been significant criticism of her work. I'll be really honest with you, I don't really understand a lot of it, and I don't mean that in the sense that I disagree with critics because I personally have some of my own criticism of some of her work and some of her writing. 

But I can't quite understand where this Sally Rooney backlash comes from. The closest I can put my finger on it is that as soon as someone becomes extremely successful and popular, there is a temptation within certain people to try and figure out why that's bad or wrong. And I think that becomes heightened when that person is a woman, or a young woman in particular, or a young woman who is not afraid of just speaking her mind and talking about things on her own terms. It seems like a lot of people just can't really kick back and accept that even if they don't like the work, it's fine for it to exist and it's fine for other people to like it. You've thought about this a lot more than I have. Do you have a sense of what does drive this this critical push back to Rooney in her work?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, I mean, I think you're right. Just in the most kind of simple and reductive, but I think correct, sense it's sexism. I think it was Simone de Beauvoir who said when a man writes, it's general, and when a woman writes, it's specific.

I feel like when when women and young women write about their lives, there is a kind of like a collective kind of imagining that we've somehow come up with that because women are disenfranchised in so many ways. Perhaps their characters in books should reflect the lives of other disenfranchised people for them to be ethical in some way. And I see that perspective and I think it's good to represent diverse views. But that is a take that does not get attached to books by writers from other subject positions. If a man is writing about men, or a man is writing about people like him, that criticism is very, very rarely made. I mean, like. This is not to say the criticism should be made. I actually don't think it should. But, you know, like Brian Brown recently released a whole book of 30 stories about men, and he says, yeah, they're all white men. And then the commentator and the Good Weekend, it was like, yeah, they're all white men. They kind of nod and just keep going with the story. So yeah, it's about the expectations that, in here, in um, in stories from people from marginalised perspectives I think.

OSMAN:
I think you're right that there's this gendered expectation of women writers being, you know, quote unquote empathetic and caring and understanding of the world. And Rooney obviously positions herself on the left of the political spectrum. And so, at the sense of, well, why can't you do these other things? It's like the bar she set for herself or the bar that other people have set for her. She's not attaining.

I mean, I find this, the criticism of her books lacking diversity, I find it the most frustrating criticism because I believe very passionately about diversity in publishing. But I also think it's strange to expect Sally Rooney or to want Sally Rooney to write about characters other than the ones that she writes about. Like we said at the start, people will write fiction based on their experiences and their worldview. That doesn't mean that they can't write about other things. But Sally, if Sally Rooney wanted and felt confident writing about, you know, having a person of colour in her novels, good on her, she clearly doesn't think she can do that, doesn't want to do that. And I'm less interested in having Sally Rooney write about, you know, my family's Pakistani, having a Pakistani character in one of her books. I would rather a Pakistani author write that.

MADELEINE:
Yeah. And do it well.

OSMAN:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I, I mean, Rooney's work has been so popular it has inspired a lot of writers. I know it's also inspired a lot of publishers and literary agents. I know for a fact who've been sent out with marching orders from their bosses to find the next Sally Rooney's all over the world, including here in Australia. How do you see the impact of her work playing out right now? Do you think your particular writers or books that you see as being directly inspired by the kinds of things Rooney's writing about in the style in which she writes?

MADELEINE:
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think her prolific success has been huge in terms of publishers taking a gamble and actively trying to find young women writers writing about how - to use the word I've used a million times - a structural disenfranchisement, but also with a sardonic kind of over beat and also with generally, you know, a fair bit of sex and despondency. 

That's a kind of genre that is so comforting right now. And some people are doing it well and some people are not doing as well, in my opinion. So, like, really good examples of what Rooney's impact has kind of made possible in the publishing realm is I think, Raven Loni's Lustre, is absolutely genius. And it's about a young black publishing assistant in New York who has an affair with an older white guy and then kind of moves in with him and his wife and their adopted daughter. And that book is so wonderful for all of the things that it shares with Rooney and then all the things that it adds to it. I think that, I won't name names. It's not my business to talk to dunk on debut authors. But there are some novelists who, who maybe will write better second novels, but have definitely taken it in their minds that this is a genre that's selling right now and have done that and have kind of written a muted version of what they think is sellable at the moment. And I wouldn't blame them for that. People want to get published, but I think that the push from marketing people and so on to pump things out is producing something less complex than we would like. But at the same time, it's also producing some really good ones, and especially locally, like, one that I'm really excited about that's coming out soon is Diana Reids’ Love and Virtue. It's a campus novel and like, I love a campus novel.

OSMAN:
We don't have enough of them, I reckon, in this country.

MADELEINE:
Exactly. We absolutely don't, like you know, you've got the secret history and the American campus novels. You've got the Rooney kind of stuff over there. But, here we've got this new Diana Reid’s book, which is about two friends at Sydney Uni at Women's College - it’s not called Women's College in the novel - but like, it is, and it's about sexual assault, it's about, kind of, the ownership of stories. And that is a novel, Diana Ried’s novel, that would not exist without Rooney's path leading the way. Not to say that Reid wouldn't have got there on her own at some point, but the ground has been trodden enough so that so that novel can come out. And that is it's a really interesting novel.

OSMAN:
Brilliant. Hey, Madeleine, thank you so much for talking to me today.

MADELEINE:
Thank you very much for having me.

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OSMAN:
The Culture is a weekly show from Schwartz Media.

It's produced by Bez Zewdie and Atticus Bastow. Our editor-in-chief is Erik Jensen, and our theme music is by Hermitude.

I’m Osman Faruqi, see ya next week.

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