Review: Beth Driscollon Sally Rooney

The Aesthetic Conduct of Sally Rooney’s Readers

What are the aesthetic possibilities offered by Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney’s blockbuster 2021 novel? To answer this question, we might look at the novel’s plot, characters, themes, style, narrative form. But we might also, inspired by a pragmatic view of art, look at how readers have made use of the novel. This includes readers like Simone, who begins her TikTok video with an excited announcement that she is about to read Beautiful World, then humorously cuts to ‘a couple of hours later’, lying on her back, stunned, clutching the book and looking at the sky while a ballad plays. Caption: ‘this is how it feels to read any Sally Rooney book imo.’

In her 2013 essay ‘Ways of Reading, Modes of Being’, Marielle Macé describes reading as a process of being ‘powerfully drawn towards different possibilities and promises of existence.’ Reading, she writes, is ‘one of the daily means by which we give our existence form, flavour, even style.’ Readers link art and life when they find books that make them feel seen and known, when they learn something new, when they discover an author and decide to read everything they’ve ever written. These interior moments are accompanied by bookish behavior, which is abundantly on display in the twenty-first century. Readers film themselves crying about books on TikTok; readers take quizzes to find out their Hogwarts House; readers cosplay as Katniss Everdeen. Readers take a photo of themselves wearing a bright yellow, Sally Rooney-branded bucket hat and post it on Instagram.

Photos from @booksaremagicbk, @lenadunham (via The New York Times) and @thebarandthebookcase.

In Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age, Jessica Pressman describes bookishness as a mode that includes using objects to participate in digital spaces and brand one’s identity as a reader. From the point of view of marketers, it’s sought-after behaviour. The US publisher of Beautiful World, Where Are You, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, not only distributed swag to influencers (tote bag, pencils, the hat), but launched a pop-up coffee van, a frank call to (Instagrammable) bookish action. That’s the business of publishing in the twenty-first century, particularly when it comes to big new books. From the point of view of readers, though, bookishness is not just a response to marketing stimuli, but a form of aesthetic conduct.

The aesthetic conduct of readers, as I conceptualise it, is the experience and expression of pleasure (or displeasure) in a book, and the use of that experience to fashion a personal style, a way of being in a world. As Macé elaborates in her essay, readers engage in aesthetic conduct when they respond to the formal structures of novels: to narrative forms that shape experience. Beyond this, readers respond to stories and language. Readers also respond to the material properties of books, which stimulate sensory and affective judgements; books may be pleasing to touch, smell, look at or (think of audiobooks) hear. These responses are active processes. In Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant argues that aesthetic judgment is a human faculty alongside cognition and will; aesthetic value is not, that is, simply a property of objects. I would argue that in addition to being active, aesthetic conduct is socially performed. This idea comes, indirectly, from Kant too, who states that aesthetic judgements are made with the view of others in mind, since they imply an objective evaluation that should be shared. Aesthetic conduct occurs when a reader engages with a book, and in contemporary culture, its social aspects emerge in online and offline networks, traced in readers’ conversations, writings and action.

There are many different kinds of readers – critics, academics, Goodreads users, book-club members, beachgoers – and it’s fair to say that in the last six months hundreds of thousands of them read or at least heard of Beautiful World. It was one of the bestselling fiction titles of 2021; its marketing campaign caught the imagination of bookish social media; thinkpieces and reviews appeared in every outlet with more than a glancing interest in books. Not every reader ultimately liked the novel, but in the process of engaging with it, they activated the book aesthetically. They responded to its cover, to its materiality, its characters and themes. They did so in ways that were encouraged by, constrained by and in tension with the commercial structures of the book industry. That is, readers used Beautiful World as a model for living.

The aesthetic model of Beautiful World includes the high-profile, cultural prestige of an ‘it book’, and an author brand that is young, intellectual, and female. This brand was established through Rooney’s earlier novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, which was adapted into prestige television in 2020. At its core, Beautiful World, like Rooney’s other novels, offers a blend of intense, complicated romance and thoughtful, politically-engaged ideas.

The novel follows the intricate relationships between four characters in their late twenties and early thirties: successful writer Alice, editor Eileen, their friend Simon, and Alice’s new love interest Felix. A lot of the book consists of cool, detached third-person narration of interactions between characters, and lengthy emails between Alice and Eileen that cover topics such as climate change, economic inequality, and the concept of beauty.

The novel stages a tension between genres, as its love stories play out against these more intellectual and political concerns. In one of Alice’s emails to Eileen, she intermingles a forensic examination of her attraction to Felix with a diatribe against the contemporary novel, directed at her own work most of all. Novelists, she says, are out of touch with ‘ordinary life’:

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. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful. Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter?

Sally Rooney’s readers need to have some patience (or indeed relish) for long reflective passages. This particular email is notable because it contains the crux of Beautiful World’s genre dilemma. Beautiful World is at its heart romance fiction, but feels the pull of larger social, political and economic issues, of the kind normally addressed in serious non-fiction, and sometimes literary fiction, when it’s not obsessed with formal experimentation and/or middle-class home renovations. There are, needless to say, many novels from the eighteenth century on that depict both social milieus and personal relationships: the work of George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Ali Smith, Melissa Lucashenko springs to mind. But, beyond a few words about Felix’s work in a warehouse that sounds a lot like Amazon, Beautiful World doesn’t attempt this mix. Rather, within its cloud of angst, it affirms the primacy of intimate relationships. Responding to Alice, Eileen emails:

Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day […] in that sense, there is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call ‘breaking up or staying together’ (!), because at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us, it’s still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.

Beautiful World’s justification for romance is that love is ultimately what matters to people. This is also the logic that drives the genre of romance fiction. Scholars including Janice Radway and Pamela Regis have broken down the elements of the romance genre, which enable almost endless variation of detail within a rock-solid formula: protagonists meet, experience attraction, encounter obstacles, and resolve them for a Happily Ever After, or at least Happy For Now. It’s the happy ending that sets romance fiction apart from much literary fiction, and which is non-negotiable for readers of the genre. Romance is also notable for its emotional intensity; its focus on intimacy, feeling and relationship. Typically short and utterly focused, romance novels provide a concentration of passion. Rooney delivers this intensity, shows care for relationships in all their complexity, and has enough optimism to provide a Happy For Now ending – in other words, she has the gifts of a first-rate romance writer.

The sense that the things Rooney does well are romance skills bubbles forth in commentary on Romance Twitter. This was evident in a string of tweets responding to a review of Beautiful World in New York Magazine by Amil Niazi. Niazi appeared to position Rooney as writing about relationships in a newly frank way, concluding her review:

Ultimately, we know what we’re getting when it comes to desire and lust in Rooney’s novels, and there’s something to be said for wearing our sexual desires so nakedly on our sleeves – or book jackets, in this case. It’s nice to know that what we all really crave is some bracing, witty conversation and a good fuck.

Using all caps and full stops between each word for affective emphasis, Jen – a romance fiction blogger and podcaster with the twitter handle @JenReadsRomance – responded: ‘If you find this appealing perhaps I can interest you in a romance novel.’ She also wryly described the review as: ‘My favorite genre of criticism! The one where the writer pretends romance doesn’t exist or do meaningful work around sex and relationships!’; romance author Rose O’Brien tweeted ‘tell us you’ve never read a romance novel without telling us you’ve never read a romance novel.’

Let’s just for a moment imagine that Rooney does write romance novels. Dream with me of a world where Rooney is the new Nora Roberts: a global romance fiction superstar. What would this change about Beautiful World and its reception? Well, for a start, Beautiful World might be two books. The first might have this blurb on its cover/Amazon page:

When prickly Alice, a single writer about to turn 30, rents the huge mansion by the sea, she raises a few eyebrows in the nearby Irish town. Felix, a local bad boy with a troubled past and the voice of an angel, finds himself drawn magnetically to the acerbic new arrival. For Alice, the house by the sea is a respite from global superstardom. She’s supposed to be finding calm, but when sparks fly with Felix, she impulsively invites him on a work trip to Rome. Can their attraction overcome their differences and their demons?

I would read this opposites-attract, celebrity romance in a heartbeat. The second book would also be blurbed with a set-up that hits classic romance fiction tropes, in this case second chances and friends-to-lovers:

Eileen’s life in Dublin as a literary editor is quiet, and that’s the way she likes it – mostly. When her boyfriend leaves her abruptly, Eileen turns for comfort to her best friend (and former teen crush) Simon. Simon has it all: good looks, a string of gorgeous girlfriends, and a high-flying job in international policy. But he can’t stop thinking about Eileen and what might have been. Can he convince Eileen to risk their friendship for a second chance at love?

There’s a world, a beautiful world, where Rooney writes five or six deeply satisfying romances per year and sells 34 books a minute to a legion of fans. But Rooney is not the new Roberts, and her books aren’t romance fiction. Instead, Rooney’s love stories are swathed in hundreds of pages of… other writing. For romance readers, the long sections of dry narration, distant description, and disquisitions on Wikipedia entries are real turn-offs. You can see this in one of the anonymous reviews left on Amazon:

A long drawn out story that didn’t amount to much. The emails written between the characters were boring and wordy. Did not enjoy this book at all! Waste of time and money (38 people found this helpful).

This review speaks to what publishing industry professionals know about romance readers: to satisfy, romance fiction needs to be efficient, hit its beats, provide a gratifying ending, and not be boring. If these conditions aren’t met, the romance reader will not enjoy the book, and will resent the waste of time and money. They won’t have got what they wanted from the reading experience.

But Rooney is skilled, and it’s not that she couldn’t write a pacy, involving romance if she wanted to. She clearly has a passion for exploring relationships. So why does she insist on writing (at length) about thinking about issues?

The non-romance parts of Beautiful World are ‘boring and wordy’, as noted in the Amazon review, but they also perform work. They offer readers an aesthetic model of elaborate self-doubt and intellectual exploration. The juxtaposition of these modes with the intense intimacy of the love stories, as well as Rooney’s propensity to write self-critical, unlikeable characters, create some undeniably awkward passages. The long emails between Alice and Eileen that interleave the action of Beautiful World showcase, almost cruelly, the way highly educated, well-read young people try to impress one another and themselves, complete with disingenuous self-deprecation. The nadir of awkwardness might be the emailed sentence from Alice, ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about right-wing politics lately (haven’t we all).’

This breathtakingly blasé phrase almost made me want to give up reading forever. After the initial shock, I found it pretty funny. It reminded me of one of my favourite Twitter accounts, @BougieLondonLitWoman, a parody project (don’t worry it’s run by women) that skewers the discourse of the fashionable, posh, bookish, young woman. One tweet, for example, reads ‘Thanking certain dear hearts for a truly scrumptious trove of presents this year. Folio Society treasures, a yearned-for Tove Jansson print and, at long last, a loom.’ Bougie London Lit Woman has largely stopped tweeting for now, but if she did tweet about politics, I imagine she’d sound a lot like Alice and Eileen.

The discourse about politics in Alice and Eileen’s emails is at best faintly and often overtly ridiculous. This is partly because they make grand claims (‘thinking about right-wing politics’) then immediately undercut them (‘don’t we all’). Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Richard Joseph describes this mode of Rooney’s as ‘painful self-awareness at the level of character.’ It’s a kind of self-criticism that can be a source of frustration for readers. Critic Katy Waldman notes that the ways in which Rooney’s female characters turn their dissatisfactions against themselves ‘suggest less a challenge to capitalism than a capitalist wet dream’.

Some readers, like me, wish Rooney would lean further into the romance fiction genre; others wish she was less romance and more fully committed to the political views that infuse her texts and her actions (such as her decision not to sell translation rights to an Israeli publisher, in accordance with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement). This is the genre dilemma of Rooney’s work: her critiques stop before she gets to her romances; the romances don’t fit, aren’t consistent, with the political views she advances. Sarah Brouillette in The Blindfield Journal, for example, notes Beautiful World’s ‘justification of quietism in the face of the unbearable, and its presentation of romantic heteronormative coupledom as consolation and comfort rather than as privation, desperation, struggle, something to be overcome along with everything else.’  Similarly, Daniel Lopilato in The Chicago Review of Books writes that ‘If Beautiful World is satisfying at the level of narrative – that novelistic plane where characters get together and break up and get back together again – in the end, I can’t help but find its critique truncated, cut off too soon.’ He goes on to suggest that perhaps the realist literary novel ‘lacks the political means to shatter its own illusion. This is to say that the conventions of the novel, congealing alongside the middle class at a time when the laboring masses were denied any sort of aesthetic experience, may well be designed to capture and accommodate unorthodox political thought – to drain it, in effect, of its critical powers.’ In this reading, Beautiful World emerges as an incomplete political project.

But, as Brouillette acknowledges, it’s the fact that romance and critical thought are there together that makes Rooney’s work so potent. This mix offers a compelling aesthetic model for readers. As Constance Grady writes: ‘it is now aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney. She is 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.’ Grady identifies the appeal for readers further, as a ‘hopeful belief in sympathetic magic: If Rooney’s books can pull off this balancing act, then surely, surely her readers can too. Can’t they?’

That’s why the Sally Rooney bucket hat and the Sally Rooney pop-up coffee cart are a bit odd – not because they’re merchandise for an avowedly Marxist author, but because they don’t quite capture the tone of Rooney’s balancing act; they are too disconcertingly cheerful and mainstream. There’s a mismatch between the distribution of a yellow bucket hat to influencers and the self-deprecating aesthetic conduct of Sally Rooney’s readers.

Nonetheless, the bucket hat is available to be ironically incorporated by Rooney’s fans, like the Instagram user who wore it to a fancy dress party: recuperation works both ways. The aesthetic conduct of Sally Rooney’s readers involves immersion in contradiction. Readers agonise along with the characters, inhabiting their deep desires to reconcile social justice, literariness and romance. Beautiful World paraphernalia increases the materials through which readers can engage in this aesthetic conduct, providing fodder for Instagram, for wearing to class, for taking to book events. As readers think through the choices and actions of Alice, Eileen, Felix and Simon; as they muse on their place in a capitalist world order; as they share their feelings about reading Rooney novels with their friends, family, and social media networks, they also style, wear and share bookish merchandise. This aesthetic conduct is part of the experience of a book, the dynamic mix of activities through which readers navigate life.

Works Cited

Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Professor Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Marielle Macé, ‘Ways of Reading, Modes of Being,’ trans. Marlon Jones, New Literary History 44, no. 2 (August 8, 2013): 213–29.

Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2020).

Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).