“Many older people … just completely don’t understand it,” says literary critic Becca Rothfeld. “Whereas basically every person who has defended Sally Rooney rigorously to me has been a younger person. I think a lot of the older people fear reprisal from the younger people.”
No self-effacing writer would ever accede to being called “the voice of their generation”. It was a label aptly applied to Girls creator Lena Dunham, spurred by her character’s own grandstanding, opium-driven declaration in the show’s pilot episode. The line quickly became iconic, and as Dunham later joked, will probably be inscribed on her tombstone.
Now Rooney has been cursed with the same burden. Her books, including her debut Conversations With Friends, have been heralded as the great Millennial novels. It is not necessarily an accolade the 29-year-old welcomes.
“I am only trying to do my own thing,” she told the Herald and The Age in 2018. “I am not trying to speak for anyone else never mind an entire generation … It is too much responsibility to put on me and on the work.”
Rooney may be a Millennial writer but her work has now reached a significantly wider audience. In the UK, the adaptation broke records for the BBC’s iPlayer, with 16.2 million people watching in its first week (compared to 8 million for Killing Eve). Despite the series being targeted at under 25s, it proved hugely popular with older viewers. The UK Daily Telegraph concluded the show’s popularity was “fuelled by middle-aged nostalgia”.
Stan, which is owned by Nine, the publisher of this newspaper, would not release the Australian data but said the series had set new records for all demographics.
But not everyone is a fan. Critic and Guardian columnist Jessa Crispin was “bored” by the series, deriding it as “a story as old as time” padded out with cliched university woes, milquetoast forays into sado-masochistic sex and “performed awareness about class relations”.
While Rooney’s book earned critical acclaim and won a legion of everyday fans, many of the lay reviews on sites such as Amazon complained it was dull, repetitive and frustrating.
Of course, frustration is a key feature of the story. Marianne and Connell are supposed to infuriate; they are two highly intelligent but emotionally awkward young people trying to navigate their first love. Their inability to communicate effectively about their desires can be nauseating, but it is also the point.
It’s easy to see how this could provoke pangs of empathy from fellow Millennial and, at the same time, howls of derision from older and perhaps more jaded observers. It plays into prejudiced assumptions about young people being skittish, unreliable, naive and selfish.
Theatre director Sam Strong loved the adaptation, especially its structure of 12 intense half hour episodes, but empathised with those who just don’t get it.
“People who are older than the characters depicted might have a degree of impatience with the way they express themselves or how much they’re able to express themselves,” he said. “It’s true that the novel is quite a slow burn … not an enormous amount happens and it’s quite focused in its range of characters.”
It plays into prejudiced assumptions about young people being skittish, unreliable, naive and selfish.
Those who adore Normal People see themselves in it – and perhaps their infatuation, whether for the book or screenplay, stems from the rarity of that recognition. There is not a wide selection of explicitly modern literature by and about Millennial; less so novels with quick-witted, politically engaged, culturally aware characters at their core. It is no wonder Normal People resonates with those who produce the lion’s share of social commentary and criticism – they are from Rooney’s world, and the heartache that plays out between Marianne and Connell at Trinity College would make any 20, 30 or even 40-something university graduate nostalgic for their own halcyon days.
Rothfeld, who is 28 and completing her PhD in philosophy at Harvard, says it is no surprise that in the middle of a terrifying pandemic, people find comfort in the world Normal People portrays.
“People want to watch escapist TV right now,” she says. “It’s pleasant to watch glamorous people doing glamorous things. That’s why I’m rewatching Downton Abbey. For similar reasons, I think it would be nice to be at college in Dublin.”
The same flaws that make the characters frustrating also make them attractive. “It is pleasant to imagine a world in which everyone responds to you as if you’re brilliant, even if you’re behaving in a way that real people would find annoying,” Rothfeld says.
“Marianne is the classically glamorous aloof woman. All of her problems are glamorous problems: she’s too thin, she’s too emotionally contained. She doesn’t have any of the qualities that might make her difficult for audiences to warm to – it’s not like her depression manifests in emotional outbursts.”
Much of the critical discussion of Rooney’s story focuses on its supposed class politics. Marianne comes from wealth, Connell does not. As Rooney’s critics point out, it is hardly a groundbreaking premise, though it is compelling to see how that divide manifests in a relationship between two class conscious Millennial.
Rooney, herself a Trinity graduate, also identifies as Marxist. Rothfeld argues this has led people to elevate the role of class in her work beyond what is warranted.
“There are many books about people from different classes interacting with each other and this is no more radical than many others,” she says.
“I think if Sally Rooney did not say that she was a Marxist so much in interviews, people would not comment very much on this aspect of the book.”
Rothfeld says the better rendering of Normal People is that it is a classic love story, conventional in its structure and sensibilities, that has attracted a level of intellectual curiosity far beyond what it deserves.
“The two camps I know are people who love it and people who think it’s fine and entertaining and are confused as to why it’s taken seriously as literature,” she says.
“I read it on a plane. I think it’s great plane reading because it doesn’t demand a lot intellectually. It has a couple of references to high literature so you get to feel good about yourself.
“People want to think they’re reading Moby-Dick or something when they’re reading Sally Rooney.”
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.