This week’s issue of The New Yorker features an excerpt of Sally Rooney’s forthcoming novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. As its title, “Unread Messages,” implies, the excerpts includes its fair share of texts, calls, feed-scrolling, and social media stalking. This isn’t new for Rooney, who nailed the sentimentality and self-editing of email and instant messaging correspondence in Conversations With Friends and Normal People.
So it’s a surprise to learn that, as revealed in her accompanying New Yorker interview, not only did Rooney not think much about the role of the Internet in her new novel, she hasn’t been reading many contemporary novels at all:
Did you think much about how to portray online life, or about that balance?
The answer, fortunately or unfortunately, is no, I did not think much about that. I also haven’t read much contemporary fiction over the last few years, so I haven’t been keeping up with developments in this area. I am looking forward to reading more now that my book is finished. But the reality is that I spend a lot of time on the Internet, although I don’t use social media anymore. Most of my close friends live elsewhere, and I communicate with them online, through messages and e-mails. And I also use the Internet to make purchases, and to learn about things, and so on.
None of the principal characters in this book, or anywhere in my work, curate public social-media profiles where they post updates about their lives or cultivate a particular persona. So that aspect of Internet use, which I gather is a pretty big part of online life, is not addressed in my work at all. There are lots of aspects of life that I know nothing about, and on which, as a result, my books are silent. But the characters definitely send text messages, and browse social-media Web sites, and read e-mails. I almost can’t imagine how it would be possible for them not to.
Firstly, declaring you don’t read contemporary novels as a contemporary novelist is a total power move. But Rooney also makes an interesting point. Much has been made of the proto-genre of the “Internet novel,” which confronts the realities of digitally native life. But even as the Internet eats up increasingly more of our minds, not all personal struggles and conflicts center around online existence; more often, the Internet is a tool to further meatspace relationships and goals. There’s a reason Rooney’s IMs and texts don’t have a distancing effect; Rooney is writing a different type of digital-age fiction—not Internet novels, but human novels, with the Internet woven in.