• Let’s All Stop Pigeonholing Sally Rooney as a “Millennial Writer”

    Even If We Agree She's a Great One

    You may have heard that Sally Rooney, whose second novel Normal People comes out in the US next week, is “the first great millennial novelist.” If you spend as much time on the internet as any self-respecting millennial is supposed to, you may have heard this many times. “This 28-Year-Old Irish Writing Really Captures Millennial Life” is the headline of Elisabeth Donnelly’s recent essay on Rooney in BuzzFeed Reader. “How Should a Millennial Be?” wonders Madeleine Schwartz’s New York Review of Books review. The headline of Lauren Collins’ profile of Rooney in The New Yorker may be “Sally Rooney Gets in Your Head” but the deck is “The Irish writer has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” “In every generation,” Christine Smallwood writes in The New Republic, “there are writers who speak for that generation, who bottle some essential current or mode of thinking and being, and arrange it in letters on the page.” Rooney, everyone agrees, is that slayer writer for the millennials.

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    Well, all right. It’s true that Rooney, at 28, is a millennial novelist, and it is also true that she is a great one. In her two books so far, her characters have also been millennials, as teenagers and young adults. Of course, “millennial” is a term used so diffusely and so often by winking corporations and pushy advertisers as to be nearly meaningless at this point, if not a dirty word, but it technically refers to the generation born between 1981 and 1996. They (we, technically, though I am what you would call an “old millennial”) are the largest generation in the workforce, the most educated generation in western history, and tend to be tech-savvy, socially conscious lovers of pot and avocado toast and “experiences.” We also ruin everything.

    But something makes me feel queasy about this universal heralding of Rooney as the First Great Millennial Novelist. First, it feels too much like a qualification. Why can’t she just be a great writer? Why can’t we see her novels as timeless? As just . . . novels? Why the urge to label her (or anyone) like this at all? (Thank goodness there isn’t (too much) sexual assault in Normal People or it might be described as a #MeToo novel, like Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise has been.)

    This may simply be a marketing issue, both for the book and for the publications running these pieces. There’s a reason the term “millennial” has been used so much—people like to define themselves and each other, and it feels good to place everyone in their appropriate box. And I understand that editors are trying to get people to read book reviews by framing them in socially-relevant terms. But in the same way that praising novels as “timely” unintentionally undercuts their worth—suggesting that they have an expiration date, that their contents are only important in the moment—defining a writer by her generation, especially a generation so roundly mocked and fretted over, feels like a subtle undermining of her abilities.

    And it is Rooney as a writer, not either of her books in particular, that is being defined this way, despite the fact that Conversations With Friends, which came out two years ago, is much more actively engaged with “millennial” ideas, tropes, and details than Normal People, which is the actual impetus for all of these reviews. Normal People feels much more universal than its predecessor, which makes the insistence on “millennial” as Rooney’s primary descriptor right now even more puzzling.

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    I understand that I’m quibbling about an adjective, but it does Rooney, and her work, a disservice to talk about her in such terms. It does her a theoretical disservice but also a practical one: if someone tried to sell me Normal People on the premise that it was “the first great millennial novel,” I wouldn’t buy it, for the same reason I resisted Girls with all my might. I don’t like to be defined, or marketed to in this way. I don’t want to read great millennial novels; I want to read great novels. If you ask the media (and we are asking the media, here), millennials are lazy, entitled, obsessed with their phones. So branding Rooney with the millennial label so relentlessly looks a little like a public dumbing-down of an interesting literary writer.

    There’s a reason the term “millennial” has been used so much—people like to define themselves and each other, and it feels good to place everyone in their appropriate box.

    But what does being a “millennial novelist” actually mean, besides being the right age? After all, there are plenty of working novelists between the ages of 22 and 38 right now. It’s true that the details of these novels—though again, particularly Conversations With Friends and less so Normal People—line up with a certain contemporary cultural landscape. As many have pointed out, Rooney’s characters are self-aware, tech-savvy, political (at least performatively). They have financial insecurities and concerns that may be traced to coming of age after the 2008 crisis. They wonder about the job prospects for an English major (actually that one’s fairly eternal). “As a portrait of young people today, Rooney’s books are remarkably precise,” Schwartz writes in The New York Review of Books.

    She captures meticulously the way a generation raised on social data thinks and talks. Rooney’s characters love to announce where they fall on the matrix of taste and social awareness. They read Patricia Lockwood and watch Greta Gerwig movies; they read Twitter for jokes. Decisions are made according to typologies. There’s built-in social meaning for any interest or opinion. “No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy,” says Nick, and I was reminded of friends swiping left on Tinder, rejecting dates because their favorite movies signaled unquestionable incompatibility.

    She’s perfectly correct. But these kinds of details aren’t really the meat of Rooney’s stories—they’re only the gloss. Are books really defined by whatever their characters talk about? I guess it depends on the book, but Rooney’s writing, especially in Normal People, is noticeably bereft of the smart-ass internet tone that I associate with millennials. Rooney’s politics—Marxist, feminist, anti-capitalist—and her characters’ relationship to them—intellectualized, guilty for not being more engaged—feel millennial, because they feel current. But millennials did not invent any of these ideas, nor their ambivalent relationship to them. “A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically 19th-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing,” Rooney told Collins for her profile in The New Yorker. So why the collective insistence on prioritizing the clothes?

    I’d argue that Rooney is only a millennial writer in the sense that any writer is a product of their age—that is, indelibly but not necessarily importantly. It’s not that she’s not a Great Millennial Writer. That’s just not what’s interesting about her. Nor, for that matter, is it what is interesting about the many many other millennials writing good (or hey, even great) books about people their age.

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    For me, the most interesting thing about Rooney’s work is the fact that I cannot describe her books to people in a way that makes them sound good. This is obviously a personal and particular delight of mine, and not a highbrow critical take, but it goes something like this: “You see, two people who are in love in high school but one is popular and one is not and then they go to college and date on and off and they’re both damaged and hate themselves in different ways?” Nope, say my friends. And yet. There is something in the way things are done and said, something on the craft level, the line level, that turns these boilerplate romantic stories into compelling works of art. The only other writer who regularly accomplishes this for me is Ben Lerner (whose novels, according to Collins, Rooney particularly likes). Both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are about relatively uninteresting subjects—some guy studying abroad! Some guy worrying in New York!—but it’s the treatment of them that makes them contemporary masterpieces. So too with Normal People, and to a lesser degree (because there’s an affair, and because for me it is somewhat less compelling) Conversations With Friends.

    This definitely has something to do with the fact that Sally Rooney is a master of character: the most shocking thing about her work is that she has the power to make us care about these people and these relationships so deeply. “She has a knack for dialogue, a faultless grasp of pacing, and the ability to situate the reader instantly in a place and a feeling. But what makes her a great novelist is her freakish psychological acuity,” Smallwood writes.

    Rooney’s writing, especially in Normal People, is noticeably bereft of the smart-ass internet tone that I associate with millennials.

    There’s also the way she manipulates time in Normal People—a repeated skipping forward after an incident, switching between the two main character’s perspectives, and looking back with different eyes—is seamless, elegant, and perfectly calibrated to keep the reader engaged; on this level alone she should be treated as a great novelist. This is what makes her interesting to me—not her age or her politics.

    But craft aside, the base crises of the characters and concerns of Rooney’s novels aren’t any different than those of older novelists, either: which self to be? How to negotiate loving and being loved? How to fail and keep going? Where do I stand in the world? Let’s be real: people have been having feelings and relationships and thinking too hard about them since the beginning of literature. “The millennial concerns in Rooney’s books feel specific to a generation in their twenties and thirties, learning about the first blush of love and sex and power in a world that’s radically different from the world of their parents,” Donnelly writes in BuzzFeed Reader. But isn’t that true of the novels of any generation? There is nothing new about love and sex and power and a changing world.

    In her New Yorker profile, Collins makes a good case for calling Conversations With Friends “millennial” on the line level.

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    “I didn’t feel like watching the film on my own,” Frances says, “so I switched it off and just read the Internet instead.” An older novelist might have written “surfed the Internet” or “looked at the Internet,” but “read the Internet” has the ring of native digital literacy. There’s also something current about the flatness of Rooney’s tone; like “breaking the Internet,” “reading the Internet” makes a little joke of the juxtaposition of a puny active verb and the vastness of the thing upon which it is acting. Rooney’s transposition of Internet voice to the page brings a certain tension to her narration.

    Of course she’s perfectly right about the digital literacy, though flatness, while perhaps indeed current, isn’t exactly a millennial invention. Ask Hemingway. Ask Bernheimer. “The word that gets used to describe Rooney’s style is spare,” Smallwood writes. “Her paragraphs are built for the Instagram age. They are plain as white walls, empty rooms with one beautiful accent, like a potted fern.”

    Except that it’s not exactly spare, and unless you’re Rupi Kaur, I don’t know what it means to have paragraphs built for the Instagram age. Everyone talks about Rooney’s “plain” narration as if it is without style, though of course it is a style in itself. And it is one particularly chosen to achieve her special mastery over her characters. The flat affect allows for an almost fairy tale effect in contemporary literature: frank, unadorned emotion. It’s not blasé or simple: it’s how you think to yourself in your most charged moments, those moments when you have to be matter-of-fact or else you’ll dissolve. In Normal People, when Connell tells Marianne he’s taking Rachel Moran to the Debs, she is quiet for a moment. “Eventually she laughed, because she wasn’t totally without spirit, and it obviously was kind of funny, just how savagely he had humiliated her, and his inability to apologize or even admit he had done it.” It’s almost voyeuristic, this level of access. It’s also just what a certain kind of reader (me) wants from her female characters: that clinical clarity, that self-awareness, the knowledge that it doesn’t save you.

    In a 2016 essay entitled “Why There’s No ‘Millennial’ Novel,” Tony Tulathimutte (whose Private Citizens, lest we forget, was once dubbed “the first great millennial novel,” though with less universal swooning) noted that

    Lev Grossman blames our increasingly “multicultural, transcontinental, hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives” for why any consensus about a single voice now seems impossible. I’d go even further and argue that the “voice of a generation” novel never existed to begin with. For starters, why did we ever pretend novels by straight white guys about straight white guys spoke for entire generations?

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    Indeed. So why this apparent consensus about Rooney?

    “In the hierarchy of Rooney’s literary identities,” Collins writes, “millennial is greater than Irish, but post-recessionary may be greater than millennial.” I agree, and think the underlying worries about the economy are the best argument for these books being inherently tied to the millennial moment. But I think Rooney’s Irishness actually does have a lot to do with why she’s being covered the way she is, at least in America. Rooney’s Irishness insulates her from the social and cultural conversation going on in our country. In a certain sense, it’s safe for critics to anoint her in this way, because Ireland is historically a country of white people with no tradition of inherited wealth and free education for all (though who is rich and who is poor and what that means is certainly a subject for Rooney, and though all her characters go to the best school in the country). It feels chic to call her the Voice of Our Generation, because she’s “international,” and also safe and familiar enough, because she’s a white person writing in English. But she’s not really engaging with any of the social issues that might make her truly relevant to the millennial moment.

    I’m making these critics sound a bit cynical, and I don’t mean to. All of the pieces I’ve cited here are thoughtful and intelligent, and none of these writers is wrong to point out Rooney’s generation; it’s the overall trend that begins to feel oppressive. I don’t think any of this is intentional. Again, it’s possible the problem here is really just marketing, which has taught me that “millennial” is a dirty word, and which has seduced us into collectively fetishizing “Millennial Life” as something drastically different from Life Before. (Of course, in some ways it is—though I’d argue not in most ways that are important to literature.) And it’s true that millennials, as a group, have been so widely reviled that this serious treatment feels refreshing. “After years of seeing myself reflected only in think-pieces,” wrote Guardian books site editor Sian Cain, “blamed for variously destroying diamonds, napkins, marriage, sex and mayonnaise, it’s wonderful to see my generation preserved in literature as something worth writing about.” Fair enough—though again I’d argue that Rooney is not the first or only writer to do this.

    “The generational novel, like the Great American Novel, is a comforting romantic myth, which wrongly assumes that commonality is more significant than individuality,” Tulathimutte writes. We would be doing better by Rooney—and ourselves—if we let ourselves be a little less comfortable, and take her books for what they are, not what we want them to represent, and not try to collect them with buzzword we think people will click on.

    Emily Temple
    Emily Temple
    Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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