The novel is, by definition, formally heteropessimist: gesturing towards queerness at the levels of narrative, style, and perspective while resolving upon heterosexual coupledom in the end. This, at least, is the implication of Sally Rooney's recent essay on Ulysses in the Paris Review. In her reading, even this infamously experimental novel by James Joyce, an infamously masculine modernist, does not escape elements of the Anglophone novel developed by its earliest innovators, who were women most significantly, the marriage plot. Ulysses is after all a novel about a man wandering aimlessly around Dublin avoiding his relationship problems until he falls back into bed with his wife, whose final "yes I said yes I will Yes" recalls her response to his marriage proposal.1 (Is Leopold Bloom so different from the sad girls in today's sex novels?) Extrapolating from Joyce's unmarked citations of women writers, Rooney goes on to suggest that "the novel form is itself a kind of marriage, a union of distinct textual traditions we might label as masculine and feminine." Yet the very melding of genders that allows the novel formally to recreate (heterosexual) marriage also makes the novel formally "bisexual," in Rooney's terms, as "a genre that returns obsessively, from no fixed gender perspective, to the question of sexual desire."2

This comment recalls a perplexing passage in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. The narrator watches a man and woman climb into a taxi together, confirming her "profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction."3 From this image, she concludes that good writers must have "androgynous" minds to produce male and female characters and to elaborate themes that will appeal to readers of all genders: "Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated."4 Both Woolf and Rooney develop arguments for the necessity of amorphously queer fictional forms that paradoxically rely upon and reinforce conservative assumptions about men and women's inherent compatibility. If these writers are to be believed, it's easier to imagine the end of the novel than the end of heterosexuality.

Rooney invites readers to connect her "misreading" of Ulysses with the strategies she adopts in her own trio of novels, which might therefore become a testing ground for this theory. I'm not the first to find the portrayals of sexuality in these novels disappointing. Socialist feminist critics identify a conflict between Rooney's self-professed Marxism and her lackluster materialist interrogation of intimacy. For example, Sarah Brouillette criticizes Rooney's moralizing positioning of sex work outside productive labor in Beautiful World, Where Are You, while Sophie Lewis writes that "even in the Marxist novelist Sally Rooney's wildly successful novel Normal People . . . there is an implicit indictment of kink."5 Full disclosure: I defend Rooney anyway. A professor gave me a copy of Conversations with Friends when I was graduating college and preparing to leave for a fellowship year in Dublin. Its depiction of the ambiguities of friendship between queer women felt so relatable that I was convinced my professor whom I had met in a seminar on Freud had psychoanalyzed me. I circulated the yellow paperback among my friends until the spine was split and the pages stained and wavy. Still, something bothered me. Rooney is known for detailed sex scenes, but she never describes lesbian sex, even when women have relationships with each other in the main plotline. This becomes more obvious in juxtaposition with the 2022 BBC/Hulu/RTÉ miniseries, which includes just one lesbian sex scene in the final episode. (On-screen adaptations tend to inject diversity where it is lacking in the source material, sometimes with questionable results, as Jane Hu writes of the Normal People miniseries.6) Rooney struggles to find the line between over-sexualizing lesbian relationships and invisibilizing them, invoking queerness only to leave it unconsummated. "Perhaps Rooney's bi characters don't have queer sex because Rooney writes sex-negative novels about redemptive heterosexuality for straight people who have sex but don't like it," Natalie Adler concludes.7 Rooney's immense popularity is often conjured as an example of heteropessimism's cultural (and not just cultural) capital.8 However, if Rooney's characters don't participate in anything like collective politics or queer community, camaraderie nonetheless emerges out of the recognitions and resistances her work solicits among its readers in spite of itself.

Rooney's heteropessimist content is evident, but if we trust her account of how the novel works, her heteropessimism really operates on the level of form. Claire Jarvis anticipated this when she writes that Rooney's novels "fail as progressive political projects because the project they hold most dear is a formally conservative one."9 Far from being merely a collection of individual utterances and affects, heteropessimism is a formal structure wherein alternatives to heterosexuality perhaps in the form of nominally queer characters, gay subplots, or queer-coded descriptions tie the fabric of texts into conventional love plots. As this cluster elaborates, heteropessimist form shows up across genres: in television, as Ryan Lackey argues; film, in Sean Lambert's analysis; lyric poetry, according to Katie Kadue. Yet the novel poses unique problems and unique possibilities if its heteropessimism is constitutive. Dan Sinykin shows how, responding to new pressures exerted by the consolidation of publishing conglomerates, blockbuster novelists developed generic forms that allowed them to seduce their readers with the promise of entertainment value while negotiating their own complicity in mass market publishing.10 In an analogous strategy, Rooney  has it both ways by reiterating the love plot while undercutting it through internal critique, producing novels marketable as both popular romance and prestige literary fiction. There is also a less cynical way to look at the Rooney effect. For Nicholas Brown, economically successful novels have a special ability to make their own commodity status visible in a way that reveals how commodification works.11 By extension, if the novel's heteropessimism is central to its functioning as both artwork and commodity, then novels are especially well positioned to reveal the fragile artifice that sustains heterosexuality's dominance in the face of fulfilling alternatives. Rooney's novel forms reflect market forces while resisting them, generating mixed emotions that register deeper unease about how existing patterns of intimacy fail to sustain us. Beautiful World does this by critically reviving the epistolary a formal structure that recalls the early developmental stages of the novel, capitalism, and bourgeois marriage.

Beautiful World focuses on Alice and Eileen, former college roommates who live several hours apart as young adults. Alice, Rooney's avatar, is a successful novelist recovering from a breakdown in the Irish countryside. Eileen has a monotonous and underpaid editorial job at a literary magazine in Dublin. On a dating app, Alice connects with Felix, who works miserably in a warehouse. Both are bisexual, although this shared identity is basically incidental to the plot. Eileen dates Simon, her slightly older hometown friend, who advises a left-wing parliamentary party. Alice and Eileen write chapter-length emails back and forth debating the crises of right-wing authoritarianism, climate change, and institutional collapse. These emails stage political critiques that reflect back upon the more conventional third-person narration of the romantic plotlines in the intervening chapters. The characters congregate to talk through their complex intimacies when Eileen and Simon travel to the countryside to visit Alice and Felix.  

The email form has a longstanding relationship to the love plot. Jürgen Habermas argues that new forms of subjectivity and privacy developed in tandem with advancements in liberal capitalism and the emergence of the patriarchal nuclear family in the eighteenth century. As private people began to exchange commodities autonomously on the free market, they also started to enter voluntarily into marriages based upon love and equality at least this was the illusion. On Habermas' account, the twinned ideologies of capitalism and heterosexuality found their idiom in the epistolary novel: letters put individual minds in conversation, illustrating how interiority might come into being addressed toward others.12 This is not to say that most eighteenth-century epistolary novels took the form of exchanges between lovers (they didn't, and neither does Beautiful World) but that the epistolary novel in particular, and literature of this period in general, created the psychological architecture that bolstered liberal conceptions of both the free market and bourgeois marriage. In the 1990s, the romcom You've Got Mail could still imagine that the email might technologically revive this original ideological function of the letter. Romantic feelings and confessions, exchanged via email, soothe capitalist alienation, allowing a local bookstore owner to fall in love with a man whose massive franchise puts her out of business. Yet by the time Rooney published Beautiful World, romcom conventions themselves had come to stand, like letters embedded in fiction after the heyday of epistolary form, for "narrative inefficiency and historical retrogression."13 Rooney's emails are anachronisms, historical relics of an erstwhile optimism about the emancipatory power of capitalist progress and heterosexual romance.

It is in their emails that Alice and Eileen most directly make their politics known by condemning exploitative labor practices in late capitalism, yet these very exchanges are likely to distort readers' expectations of the value of labor. In her first email, Alice tells Eileen that she became stunned that the shiny packaged food items in a local shop conceal "all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations."14 Eileen writes back in fluent academic Marxist critique: "People think that socialism is sustained by force the forcible expropriation of property but I wish they would just admit that capitalism is also sustained by exactly the same force in the opposite direction, the forcible protection of existing property arrangements."15 Such exchanges come across as heavy-handed, betraying obvious but aesthetically unsatisfying effort, because they do two jobs at once, telling the story while interpreting it on the reader's behalf. But even as they work too hard, the emails also don't work hard enough. Eileen sends Alice an email that essentially copy-and-pastes the Wikipedia entry for "Late Bronze Age collapse" into the text.16 Alice writes back with another Wikipedia article on Linear B, supplemented by forays into the related articles on Mycenaean Greece and the scholars Michael Ventris, Arthur Evans, Alice Kober, and John Chadwick.17 This can't help but raise the question: why is Rooney being paid such exorbitant amounts of money to transcribe simple web searches? Even worse, the emails seem to transfer work to the uncompensated reader, who must spend extra time wading through chapters that deviate from Rooney's trademark "readability."

            Misaligning temporality and warping the relationship between labor and literary value,  Rooney's emails are characteristic of what Sianne Ngai calls "the gimmick." Gimmicks are "overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks) but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention)."18 When we judge artworks to be gimmicks, we unwittingly declare our allegiance to Marx's theory that the value of a commodity is equal to the collective social judgment of how much time ought to have gone into producing it. Equally, the affective contradictions engendered by gimmicks artworks like Rooney's novels that we hate to love and love to hate register the contradictions within capitalist temporality itself. Capitalism works by pocketing the difference between the value of what workers produce in terms of perceived labor-time and the wages the workers receive for actual hours worked.19 But capitalists also use time-saving technologies to drive down wages by replacing more and more human labor with machine labor.20 Yet it is ultimately self-defeating for capitalism to drive down the amount of time it takes to produce a given commodity while holding onto a valuation of the commodity that fixes it to labor-time.21 Gimmicks encode this contradiction in their sense of "bad timing" by striking us as "technologically backward or just as problematically advanced."22 No wonder "there's something a little 18th-century about Beautiful World."23

To prise apart labor, time, and value is also to open up a feminist critique of how both the capitalist wage system and traditional Marxism fail to recognize the reproductive labor within the heterosexual nuclear family by which women make possible men's productive labor outside the household.24 Feminists register their simultaneous attachment to and dissatisfaction with the labor theory of value when they frame heterosexuality's harms in terms of gendered inequalities in "emotional labor" or "hermeneutic labor" within relationships.25 Perhaps expressions of heteropessimism are also affective judgments about the distorted valuations that capitalism and certain of its critics produce. In our intimate lives, we know that labor and value don't always align. The critical power of the gimmick helps us to ascertain how these concepts nonetheless structure our appraisals and to anticipate a future in which they might be disentangled.

The gimmicky nature of Rooney's emails hasn't gone unnoticed. "The narrative gimmick on which Rooney hangs much of the book is as poorly-conceived as it is poorly-executed: for much of its length, this is an epistolary novel. Alice and Eileen send each other completely unbelievable emails, emails of enormous length and complexity, emails, in other words, that know they're in a novel," Steve Donoghue writes. He calls Rooney "the most famous, most imitated, and most lauded novelist in the world, despite the fact that she's conspicuously talentless."26 He positions himself as uniquely able to see through Rooney's gimmick, in contrast with others who judge poorly. This is only one example of the kinds of strained and flattening responses that Sally Rooney tends to invite among critics who can't stand her but can't stop talking about her. The gimmick's emotional pull can be as strong as it is confused. If the gimmick represents something about capitalism that often goes unnoticed, through its tendency to degrade into comedy or caricature it also endangers the very criticality it solicits.27

Additionally, sequestered into their own chapter, the emails become a convenient labor-saving device, an easy shorthand for what a reader only invested in conventional and "readable" romantic plotlines might skip. Such a reader might come to Rooney seeking what Lauren Berlant calls "relief from the political." Berlant argues that the soothingly predictable generic form of the romantic novel gives women readers the break from oppression they need to keep on going, but at the steep price of vitiating their desire for transformative political change, including the rejection of compulsory heterosexuality and capitalism. For Berlant, it is because women's literature is primarily packaged as a form of relief that "even when critical observations about the gap between lived and fantasy life survive the shifting through of generic conventionality, political critique tends to appear mainly in episodes that don't matter narratively."28 Rooney's emails offer a veneer of political engagement, but by segregating the novel's elements of critique to be discarded if needed and embedding them within the caricaturing form of the gimmick, they allow its conventional romantic plotline to still advertise itself as a placating fantasy.

The ethics of turning to the romantic novel for a sustaining yet politically inefficacious relief is a central thematic concern of Beautiful World. If a tendency to spend too much energy on "love and worry" were slowly to kill off humanity, Eileen suggests, wouldn't this be "a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world's resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead."29Even as it solicits a belief in the capacity of intimacy to alleviate the pain of contemporary existence, Beautiful World calls into question whether this belief is anything more than an artifice of the novel form. Alice complains, "The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth." The form of the novel defined in terms of its ability to conform to a recognizable love plot in which the characters "break up or stay together" is apparently inherently incompatible with political critique. Alice's claim that formal experimentation in the service of social good would be considered "artistically unsuccessful" calls attention to how the negative aesthetic judgments of Rooney's novels implicate the political.30

In the novel's unsatisfying coda, the love plot itself becomes a gimmick. Eileen and Alice return to their email correspondence in December 2020, in COVID lockdown. The mention of the pandemic introduces excessive timeliness only to intensify the sensation that the emails are out of sync with time, marking the divergence of the antiquated epistolary form from the new technologies used to manage pandemic distance. Alice comments upon the changes in labor conditions brought about by the pandemic only to dismiss them. Felix is out of work and "continues to experience periodic episodes of despair about the pandemic," while Alice, who was working from home already, finds that "the difference between lockdown and normal life is (depressingly?) minimal."31 Eileen and Simon are happily expecting a child and planning to get married and buy a house. Eileen writes, "I find it hard to believe anything really bad about myself when I consider how much he loves me," musing that even Simon's "paternalistic beliefs about women" are "charming." She narrates their comfortingly repetitive evening routine:

Every evening now when we've finished our work, Simon turns on the news while I cook dinner, or I turn on the news while he cooks dinner, and we talk about the latest public health guidance, and what's been reported about what everyone is saying in the cabinet and what Simon has privately heard everyone is actually saying in the cabinet and then we eat and wash up, and afterwards I read him a chapter of 'David Copperfield' while we lie on the couch, and then we look through the trailers on various streaming services for an hour until one or both of us falls asleep and then we go to bed.32

Alongside the love plot the Victorian novel and contemporary streaming series politics and the real fade into background noise. The emails finally dissipate their own critique to resolve upon conventional heterosexuality as a saving inoculation from structural oppression. Perhaps the generic pressure of the epistolary exerts its privatizing, subjectivizing force. Yet these last two emails also reconfigure the novel's previous alignments of content and form by bringing the couples together within the self-ironizing emails instead of ending with narration in the third person. The final two emails that constitute the coda read as gimmicks twice over: first, they are emails, and second, they provide an attention-grabbing but substanceless engagement with a highly current event, one that seeks to find refuge in a "simpler" time. This coda succeeds as a critique where it affectively fails. Turning the gimmick's caricaturing lens away from the novel's anti-capitalist formulations and onto the primary narrative, the final emails offer the sentimental relief of the love plot in a form that makes it feel flat, even as it claims to be a resolution. At the same time, another effect of returning to the emails is to foreground the intellectual and emotional (if not romantic or sexual) relationship between Alice and Eileen, as well as their shared history something I realized reading Caroline Godard's contribution to this cluster.

Like many of the novel's reviewers, my friends and I found Beautiful World pleasurable yet frustrating to read and gratifying to complain about. One friend said he skipped through the emails to get to the plot. Another found the mentions of contemporary politics overwrought. The ending made us all uncomfortable, with its strange blend of outdated romance and overly up-to-date pandemic malaise. These emotional responses to Rooney make visible the labor that her novel form exerts in order to sustain an alliance between capitalism and patriarchy, thereby calling into question heterosexuality's claims to frictionless naturalness. The aesthetic disappointments of Rooney's formal heteropessimism expose conventional and compulsory heterosexuality itself as a gimmick, bolstered by investments of time and energy that, for many people, fail to generate value.

Acknowledgments: I want to thank the members of Art/Culture/Politics: A Public Humanities Workshop at the University of California, Berkeley, where I workshopped a version of this essay.

Annabel Barry (@abelqbarry) is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Berkeley, interested in Irish literature, feminism, and philosophy of language. Her public writing on contemporary Irish literature appears in Chicago Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Common. She is working on a special issue about Ordinariness for Qui Parle, where she is co-editor-in-chief.


  1. James Joyce, Ulysses, edited by Hans Walter Gabler (Random House, 1986), 18.1608-1609.[]
  2. Sally Rooney, "Misreading Ulysses," The Paris Review, December 7, 2022. []
  3. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Harcourt Brace & Company, [1929] 1981), 98.[]
  4. Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 104.[]
  5. Sarah Broullette, "The Consolations of Heterosexual Monogamy in Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You," Blindfield, September 20, 2021; Sophie Lewis, "Collective Turn-Off," Mal Journal, July 2020. []
  6. Jane Hu,"Race and Romantic Realism" in Reading Sally Rooney, edited by Gloria Fisk, Post45: Contemporaries,15 June 2020.[]
  7. Natalie Adler, "Bisexual World, Where Are You," Lux, November 2020. []
  8. Shannon Keating, "The Year in Heteropessimism," Buzzfeed, December 30, 2019; Sarah Brouillette, "Sally Rooney's Couple Form" in Reading Sally Rooney, edited by Gloria Fisk, Post45: Contemporaries, June 15, 2020. []
  9. Claire Jarvis, "The Sweet Stuff," in  Reading Sally Rooney, edited by Gloria Fisk, Post45: Contemporaries, June 15, 2020.[]
  10. Dan Sinykin, "The Conglomerate Era: Publishing, Authorship, and Literary Form," Contemporary Literature 58, no. 4 (2017): 462-491.[]
  11. Nicholas Brown, "The Novel and the Ruse of the Work," in Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2019), 79-114.[]
  12. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, translated by Thomas Burger (MIT Press, 1991), 51-56.[]
  13. Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 50.[]
  14. Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 19.[]
  15. Rooney, Beautiful World, 41.[]
  16. Rooney, Beautiful World, 43-44.[]
  17. Rooney, Beautiful World, 61-64.[]
  18. Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Harvard University Press, 2020), 1.[]
  19. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, translated by Ben Fowkes (Penguin Classics and New Left Review, 1990), 730-731.[]
  20. Marx, Capital, Volume I, 781-780.[]
  21. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicolaus (Penguin Books, 1973), 706.[]
  22. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 2.[]
  23. Caleb Crain, "Sally Rooney Answers Her Critics," The Atlantic, August 10, 2021.[]
  24. Silvia Federici, "Wages Against Housework," Power of Women Collective, 1975.[]
  25. Ellie Anderson, "Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships Between Women and Men," Hypatia (2023), 1-21.[]
  26. Steve Donoghue, "Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney," Open Letters Review, September 9, 2021. []
  27. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 9.[]
  28. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2008), 11. []
  29. Rooney, Beautiful World, 119.[]
  30. Rooney, Beautiful World, 103.[]
  31. Rooney, Beautiful World, 343.[]
  32. Rooney, Beautiful World, 352.[]