If you read Sally Rooney, I wish you would read her as I did: bent into the seat of an airplane, flying from the city where I live as a woman to the valley where I regress on the regular into a girl. This was in late December, when we could still fly, and before I shook with protective feelings for any elderly person out in public. Even then, the air pressure and the prospect of my parents at the gate made me vulnerable. And if that vulnerability was general, it was also specific to Normal People.

I gobbled it down between takeoff and landing, and then I felt sick to my stomach. The experience left an impression, and it left me thinking about the ways my youth and age collide when I fly home for the holidays, and about the aesthetics and politics of writing about romantic love as it happens between people who are young and white in a moment when it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

I liked it, but that doesn't mean it was good.


Born a white girl in County Mayo, Ireland in 1991, Sally Rooney speaks literarily for a whole world of Millennials. She was nominated to that position by the boomers who preside over multinational publishing conglomerates for reasons I think I can see. If I felt the Ur-boomer desire to steward the cultural legacies of greater generations to the consumers of avocado toast, I would look for a writer who promised to carry the old literary ways to the young. And if I could express my pleasure at finding her in the form of a six-figure advance, I would give one to Sally Rooney, too.

A black-and-white photo of Sally Rooney. The author, dressed casually in a sweater, appears to be looking at something off to the side of the camera.
Fig. 1: Sally Rooney, Cambridge 2017. Photo credit, and many thanks, to Chris Boland for letting us use this image for our cluster.

She's a fuddy-duddy for the twenty-first century, as she acknowledges when she describes herself as the author of "basically nineteenth century novels in contemporary dress."1 There's some obfuscation and self-deprecation in that description, but there's also some truth. As the Victorian scholar Claire Jarvis has observed, the paradoxically old-timey timeliness of Sally Rooney defies the metaphor she uses to describe it.2 As Rooney's ironic narration marks her equally as a digital native and a literary descendent of Jane Austen, her pointillist characterizations betray her influences from social media to Henry James. Her conventionality traverses any difference that remains between form and content, and her contemporaneity extends also from body to dress. The effect is less old-with-a-veneer-of-the-new than old and new at once, all the way through.

That is Sally Rooney's brand. Her editors built it when they announced her arrival as a "Salinger for the Snapchat generation,"3 and it sells well on Instagram, too.

A young adult poses with a paper copy of "Normal People" in an Instagram post with hundreds of likes.

Like the rest of us, Sally Rooney belongs to the internet and also to a literary tradition that precedes it by centuries. She distinguishes herself among us only with her will and ability to convey both of those belongings more explicitly than most. And there is something about the way she does it that sells extraordinarily well on the Anglophone literary markets where Millennial women represent coveted demographics, so it becomes "aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney," as the critic Constance Grady maintains. She operates as "a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic. If you read Sally Rooney, the thinking seems to go, you're smart, but you're also fun and you're also cool enough to be suspicious of both 'smart' and 'fun' as general concepts."4

Rooney advances her commodification in these terms with the ambivalence she brings to it. Looking with a gimlet eye at the cultural capital that literature in general confers, she identifies as a Marxist and speaks wryly about the ways her politics bring luxury to her brand, which gains value from her disavowal of luxury as such. The literary equivalent of a high-priced slogan tee, she is heralded in the paper of record as "the First Great Millenial Writer, and Wary of the Attention." 5

That twisted reasoning brands Rooney a Millennial with a distinctly cross-generational appeal. Normal People made its way into my carry-on bag on the tepid recommendation of one Gen X woman to another, when my friend A. said it would remind me what it felt like to be young as it also made me glad to be old, which it did. And I read a slightly different note of appreciation in the generally rave reviews she receives from people older than me. When Barack Obama listed Normal People among his favorite novels of 2019, he modeled how to put his liberal credos into literary practice: by reading widely across differences of race, age, nation, and gender.6 And the liberal politics that inhere in that practice resonate also through the praise that editorial boomers heap on Rooney for narrating her contemporaries' shaky entry to their globalized economies. She helps them fathom why their interns and their grandchildren so frequently feel the Bern.

This is how Sally Rooney circulates through a transnational literary sphere that is roughly coincident with her. To describe her appeal, the New Yorker's Lauren Collins drew a "hierarchy of Sally Rooney's literary identities," where "Millennial is greater than Irish," and "post-recessionary may be greater than Millennial." As Collins reads it, "Rooney's writing emanates anxiety about capitalism," which works at the level of plot and character equally. Obstructing every love story by processes that sully the purity of young, capitalism exposes its duplicitousness in novels where it "purports to be a meritocratic system but actually functions as a diabolical inversion of communism, redistributing wealth and privilege at the whim of the people who already have those things." Sally Rooney is entrusted to perform that gesture of exposure.

But the social worlds where she performs it are as relentlessly white as the worlds of Lena Dunham and no less confined to one city in the global north. When the principal characters in Normal People take a college trip to Italy, their travel exposes neither the multinational networks that enable it nor the migrant crisis that was contemporary with it. There is no racial capitalism in a Sally Rooney novel. And there is only the slightest observation of race, as Jane Hu suggests in her excellent essay in this cluster.

Otherwise, the sheer whiteness of Rooney's authorial imagination has gone largely unremarked in her international reception, maybe because it confirms prevailing conceptions of the Irish. The literary market that Rooney enters has branded Irish literature by its pasty whiteness and wit, so if her portrait of the artist as a young woman gives highly partial representation to a nation that grows multiracial with the rest of the world, that partiality disappears readily into the literary tradition that naturalizes it.

The problem with capitalism for Sally Rooney is that it makes white people snobby, and snobbiness is a terrible obstacle to love. We have a lot of literature about this.

And that literary tradition isn't without its merits, but Sally Rooney says she wants to do more than extend it. She hits high notes of hope and change when she describes the political intent she brings to her literary project, which aims to "show the reality of a social condition as it is connected to broader systems" by showing how capitalism forestalls young people's happy endings. By representing that lived reality in literary form, Sally Rooney wants to change it: "You would hope that by trying to show those things in process, you can say, It doesn't have to be this way."7

What a lovely hope. But it takes a lot to believe that another novel about young white people falling in love could bring the world we have any closer to the world we want. I sigh.


The Anglophone Marxist tradition in literary criticism sighs, too. This is the tradition where Sally Rooney locates herself, but it exists in no small part to shred the axioms of liberalism she reiterates along with Barack Obama to assert the value of the literary as such. Has Sally Rooney not read Raymond Williams? The question sent me back to Marxism and Literature, which rebukes her by insisting that mimetic representation works fundamentally to keep power and wealth right where it is.

Inclining always to seal the world in amber, Williams writes, "most description and analysis, culture and society, are expressed in a habitual past tense." And that pastness works generally to seal our "institutions, formations, and relations" away from the full range of their future possibility. It is only the most exceptional works of literature that locate their readers in a world that has a lot of life yet to live by avoiding the "reduction of the social to fixed forms that remains the basic error." They foster their readers' capacity for revolution by illuminating our "structures of feeling," so we can see the contingency and mutability of the world as we know it. Perceiving our potential to change it, we can "find other terms for the undeniable experience of the present" as we feel "this, here, now, alive, 'subjective'" (128).8 The best literature makes the world young even for readers who are old.

I guess that's what Sally Rooney wants to do. And she wants to do it within the narrative logic of romance, which seems a questionable choice to me.


The realist novel would be nowhere without the stories of young white women falling in love, and Sally Rooney writes about nothing else. Normal People narrates the love that blooms between a rich girl and a poor boy; he has friends, she does not. Each lacks a currency required to be normal, but between them, they have it all: high school sociality, high drama, and a future that brightens when they imagine it together.

Marianne learns to understand Connell as he thought he would never be understood, and Connell learns to be kind to Marianne as nobody has ever been kind. Love makes these Rooney people feel normal, but social norms obstruct their love.

In high school, they "affect not to know each other," because "people know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell's mother is a cleaner." People know also that Marianne "is considered an object of disgust" while Connell is that rarity: the guy who is popular because he is at once handsome and nice9.

The class-boundedness of their society renders their coupledom sufficiently unlikely as to be implausible, but the narrative logic of the realist novel makes it meant to be. It schools its reader to recognize the best love as the love that blooms between a rich person and a relatively poor person. If we didn't learn that lesson from Jane Austen, we learned it from Titanic, which milked pathos from the inevitability that the poor boy would go down with the ship while the rich girl floats. We always knew she would.

We know it in Normal People, too, which shows how the stratifications that structure this story shrink to nothing when Marianne and Connell are behind closed doors. Building a world outside the world that turns by global capital, they share their secrets and have exceptionally good teenaged sex. It is good because it is intimate, and it is intimate because it is felt to be perverse. "Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school," Connell reflects, "What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it."

"Most people go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close to anyone."10

And, then, all of a sudden, he is an asshole to her! In public, for no reason she can see, he denies the reality they've created together. Then, poof, it's gone.

Marianne is left to speculate about the reasons why her kind boy becomes inexplicably cruel, but her reader knows. One of his friends mocked him by asking whether he would invite the outcast Marianne to go as his date to Debs, so he invites a more popular girl instead. He disavows his love and desire to avoid the cost of not being normal.

That betrayal is profound, and not only in the sense that it represents the threat of sexual infidelity. It's a declaration of allegiance to a craven society against the love that could redeem it.

Marianne can't say that. Lacking the standing to deliver such a speech, she lacks also the information that would tell her precisely why Connell deserves it.

But his mother has both, and she uses it. The local cool mom, she is young-ish, pretty, and single, with a clear understanding of the social dynamics her son exploits. And she has leverage over him, because she loves him as he loves her.

"People don't like Marianne, do they?" she confirms, summoning his interior monologue to fill in the local gossip as he drives her home from work. "I suppose you were afraid of what they would say about you, if they found out." The implied reader understands that supposition to be correct and participates in the judgment: "Well, I'll tell what I have to say about you. I think you're a disgrace. I'm ashamed of you."11 She gets out and walks.

This disciplinary scene gratified my feelings more than the love story that gives it meaning, maybe because I'm a terrible husk of a person, or because I'm sufficiently aged to be the cool mom to a terrible teenage boy. This generational identification is central to Rooney's success, after all. And it works in weird ways, as I note whenever I remember that my mom identifies with the Dowager Countess as "the protagonist" of Downton Abbey, and I remember that often. But I think there's more to it.


This scene marks the moment when the inequality between Connell and Marianne begins to reverse. After he leaves high school victoriously and she skulks out in ignominy, they go to the same university, where her eccentricities become charming and her wealth eases her way. His diminished status as a scholarship student makes him a minor character in the privileged circles where she travels, and he gets depressed.

Marianne and Connell attach themselves romantically to other people: he to the decent but boring Helen; she to the despicable Jaime, who invites a white supremacist to debate club just to see what will happen.

Marianne and Connell become friends.

Sardonically, now and then, Marianne reminds him how he once betrayed her and how badly it hurt. Those reminders take root and Connell apologizes, feeling belatedly the shame that his mother tried to induce him. The induction is gradual, beginning with the moment in the car, when his mother felt his shame for him because he couldn't feel it properly for himself.

Her compensatory feeling isn't the only prompt for the contrition he expresses years later to the collegiate Marianne, but it's not distinct from the causes, either. It teaches him how and why to treat a woman right, so he can become viable for romantic love in the economy of the novel. It makes him a better person.

This pedagogical scene enacts a fantasy of cross-generational solidarity between women that is politically potent. In a culture that makes it hard for girls to yell at boys even when some yelling is warranted, girls are left to dream of the scenes they lack the voice to make. And boys are left in need of mothers biological and not12 to teach them when to feel ashamed of themselves for the way they treat a girl.


Romance has historically worked toward the contrary purpose. I learned that in graduate school, when Janice Radway's Reading the Romance broke my heart a little and helped me grow up. These effects are only tangentially related to the reasons why I read it. It was assigned to me for its groundbreaking use of ethnography for literary study, within and beyond the subfields of genre fiction.

Radway wanted to analyze the politics of romance as a genre, so she talked to dozens of women who consume it in great quantity. She found a bookstore devoted to the fraction of the reading public that buys the majority of mass-market romance novels, and she surveyed its customers, asking them what they wanted from the books they bought to figure out what they got. The data showed her that women buy romance to escape temporarily from the drudgery of life under patriarchy: "By placing the barrier of the book between themselves and their families," Radway wrote, "these women reserve a special place and time for themselves alone."13

This read to me as a statement of inarguable fact when I read it at about the same age as Sally Rooney is now. Halfway through my doctoral program in New York City, I was adjuncting and waiting tables to buy the Penguin Classics™ that would give me the most pages per dollar. I came to literary experience to escape the tedium of my labor, and I was just beginning to learn the perils of that. 

Reading the Romance schooled me, but not with the argument that most readers attribute to it. The part that got me wasn't Radway's insight about romance's palliative effects on the women who read it. The part that got me was the part where she traces those effects to a specific moment in the plot. Distilling the genre to a formula, Radway subjects it to structural analysis and finds political meaning in its moment of reversal: when the protagonist learns to love a man who she knows to be an asshole. This education is essential to romance, and it is devastating.

In the beginning of every romance, the protagonist meets a man who impresses her negatively, with some feat of arrogance or condescension that humiliates her. She dislikes him for this good reason, and her dislike offsets the attraction she feels for him, too, because of some magnetic properties essential to his character. This incoherence in the protagonist's feelings for her man govern the plot of every romance until it gets to the end.

Because she is headstrong but tender, she softens when she gleans some new piece of information about the man she loves/hates. It recasts his dickishness inevitably in a flattering light, so she can see clearly: He loves her! And it follows without question that she loves him, too.

This happy ending "turns upon a fundamental process of reinterpretation" that happens in the protagonist's head, where the desirable but dickish man finds forgiveness that is as total as it is unsolicited. His "apparent emotional indifference" becomes legible as mere appearance. Indicating nothing worse than his "deeply felt passion and hurt," it testifies to "his hesitancy about revealing the extent of his love for and dependence upon her."14 It hurt her, but it doesn't mean that he is an asshole, or that he doesn't give a shit how she feels. It means that he is too sensitive to express his love in a way she might like. You know this story, too, yes?

I knew it, even though romance has never been my airplane genre of choice. Every graduate program I know teaches its students how to make men look good even when they behave badly while quieting the women who would ask for more. And this education is built into "the literary" as such, with "its tendency to mask the whole character of social relations that are necessary for its own flourishing,"15 as Sarah Brouillette has put it. The realist novel has worked toward that purpose over the course of its history, normalizing all manner of inequity through the conventions of plot and character. Romance is more representative than unique among the genres that teach their readers how not to know an asshole when we see one. This practice of unknowing is integral to the practice of reading.

Romance appears to Radway as a master class in these interpretive gymnastics. It trains the compulsorily heterosexual woman who reads it to accept a patriarchal culture that promises not to change. By correcting any feminist impulses she harbors as interpretive errors to fix, the genre demands one paranoid reading in particular: The man who appears to be an asshole is most definitely not an asshole. The reader's task is to learn how to rationalize his bad behavior. That education is reinforced in one novel after the next, so the woman reader learns how not to believe her eyes so she can live happily ever after. Properly gaslit, she becomes "free to respond warmly" to the "occasional acts of tenderness" that come her way.16 That's the happy ending.

It was approximately the saddest ending I could imagine, especially at that moment, and not only because I was beginning my adult life as a heterosexual woman. I was also staking my future on my imagination of a community organized around books, while evidence mounted around me to show how this community organizes itself also around highly refined practices of exploitation that purport to be something else. I was preparing to go on the job market. And the process left me feeling just as diminished and exploited as the wage labor I'd hoped to escape. Capitalism is the biggest asshole of all, obviously, and I'd hoped not to marry it.


Connell, however, is not an asshole. That defective character isn't available to him, because he arrives too late for the narrative logic that Janice Radway read in romance. Old already when I read about it in the early aughts, it is definitively obsolete now, which is not to say that romance has finished its work reiterating the grand narratives of patriarchal authority. Its narratives get reframed now in the discourses of women's empowerment that pervade Anglophone cultures in the twenty-first century, and its conventions get reframed, too, to meet the needs of a readership that is encouraged to lean in, say namaste, and drink rosé all day. Mass-market romance novels echo those incitements, as the novelist Melinda Read attests, by investing as heavily in "finding 'the self'" as in "finding 'the one." 17 Normal People echoes them, too, while gentrifying them with the literariness that wins Sally Rooney praise. Two decades into the twenty-first century, literary romance requires its protagonist to behave badly so she can learn to be better. Marianne has to be an asshole, too.


Years after Connell delays their happy ending by valuing his social standing more than his true love, Marianne delays it again by failing to see him outside the cosseted conditions of her class. As Connell's finances straiten, he considers taking some time off from his studies to work for money. He hesitates because he wants to stay in school, and it occurs to him that he could alternatively stay with Marianne for a time. And he wants to stay with her, not least because he loves her, so he goes to her as an ally who is also his beloved. She fails miserably on both counts.

Feeling vulnerable and "very afraid of losing her," he goes to her apartment with the intention of asking if he can stay, but the conversation goes awry. It is partly his fault. Instead of asking his question directly, he says he has to move out of his apartment, so he's thinking of moving home. Marianne misperceives his movement away from the cost of his rent as a movement away from her, so she goes cold.

"Her face hardened, without displaying any particular emotion. Oh, she said. You'll be going home then.

He rubbed at his breastbone then, feeling short of breath. Looks like it, yeah."

Quickly on the heels of these deflective sentences, they agree to see other people. And then they are broken up. It happens so fast. Before Connell sees it coming, it is "too late to say he wanted to stay with her, that was clear, but when had it become too late? It seemed to have happened immediately. He contemplated putting his face on the table and crying like a child."18

Leave it to a rich person to interpret every precarity as a personal choice, sprung from a moral failing or a personal offense. If Connell's mom were there, she would tell Marianne to feel ashamed of herself.

But Marianne doesn't have the benefit of such good parenting, so she remains largely oblivious to the structural forces that make her life easy. Connell gives her occasion to notice them months later, when he tells her how he'd hoped she would ask him to move in with her when he needed it. Seeing how she misconstrued his need as her injury, "she feels a sharp pain in her chest and her hand flies to her throat, clutching at nothing."19

Connell witnesses that feeling flicker across her face, and it is enough for him. As preemptively forgiving as the protagonists of mass-market romance, he accepts Marianne's apology before she gives it. And without that prompt, she doesn't give it, nor does the novel give any other evidence of her potential to change. A more truly Marxist literary imagination should include some acknowledgement either from the rich girl or from her narrator of the structural conditions that gird her class position, shouldn't it? I would have liked that.

But Normal People is mute on that subject. Without the artful use of narrated monologue that Jane Austen uses to expose Emma Woodhouse in all her youthful self-interest and myopia, Rooney leaves her reader with the possibility of an ambivalently happy ending that indexes possibility on a more global scale. In the end, Normal People reassures its reader that, as long as there are young people, they will fall in love with each other, and their love will make them good.

The proof is given in Marianne's interior monologue on the last page. As Connell's acceptance to a prestigious MFA program in the U.S. makes his future with her uncertain, the reparative quality of their love becomes proportionally clear.

Connell has "brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her," she realizes. As "his life opens out before him in all directions at once," she sees with new clarity that, "they've done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really, people can change one another."20

What a happy thought. It sucker-punched me in December for reasons beyond the obvious, and it sucker-punches me harder today. I don't think I've ever felt my life opening out before me in all directions at once. I have felt glimmers of that feeling, and I feel them more now in middle age than I ever did in youth, but I still can't hold them long enough to put them into words. And I had more access to those feelings than most of the young people I know today. I'm thinking especially of my students, who are struggling to find space to read and think in apartments that have sirens careening around them at the epicenter of the epicenter of this global pandemic in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, Queens.

I would love to believe they know Connell's wide-open feeling of futurity, that it is pervasive among them. And I would like at least to believe they have stored glimmers of it in quantities sufficient to carry them through these days that are sadder and scarier than most.

That would feel so sweet.

Gloria Fisk is an Associate Professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, and the author of Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature (Columbia UP, 2018), among other things.


  1. Lauren Collins, et al. "Sally Rooney Gets in Your Head," The New Yorker, January 7, 2019.[]
  2. Claire Jarvis, "Contemporary Clothing," Slate, April 22, 2019. []
  3. Veronica Suchodolski, "Why Calling Sally Rooney a Millennial Writer Does Her a Disservice," Observer, April 18, 2019. []
  4. Constance Grady, "The Cult of Sally Rooney," Vox, September 3, 2019. []
  5. Ellen Barry, "Greeted as the First Great Millennial Author, and Wary of the Attention," The New York Times, August 31, 2018.[]
  6. Staff, The Guardian. "Barack Obama Releases List of His 19 Favorite Books from 2019," The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, December 29, 2019.[]
  7. Collins, "Sally Rooney." []
  8. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Verso, 1977).[]
  9. Sally Rooney, Normal People (London: Faber and Faber, 2018), 3.[]
  10. Rooney, Normal People, 25.[]
  11. Rooney, Normal People, 55.[]
  12. I especially love the "comradely" model of parenting and kinship that Sophie Lewis proposes in Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).[]
  13. Janice Radway, "Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context," Feminist Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 53-78.[]
  14. Radway, "Romance", 65.[]
  15. Sarah Brouillette, "Romance Work," Theory & Event 22, no. 2 (April 2019): 452-464.[]
  16. Radway, "Romance", 65.[]
  17. This interview that Sarah Brouillette quotes in "Romance Work" supports her contention that romance works generically as a prop for "both zombie coupledom and empowerment discourse" (462).[]
  18. Rooney, Normal People, 129.[]
  19. Rooney, Normal People, 156.[]
  20. Rooney, Normal People, 273.[]