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The Rooney-Fication Of Gen-Z

Did you have a hard last few years? Are you a complex person with complicated feelings? Do you fall in love with all the wrong people? Well, then, Sally Rooney is just the author for you! Follow along as Jasmine Oke lays out all the ways the budding author is taking the world by storm.

Picture this: It’s the summer of late 2018/early 2019 and you’re flicking through a few Instagram stories after a long, hard day under the sun. You’ve noticed a common theme over the past few weeks: what is this human sardine book, and why is everyone and their mother reading it? Before we even get to that point, why is everyone seemingly reading at the beach all of a sudden? It’s the 21st century, young people don’t read anymore (obviously). Then, what is this strange little book that has people so gripped that they must take it with them on their summer adventures? That they must risk sand between the pages and a salty, torn cover? Your answer: Normal People by Sally Rooney.

While the Sally Rooney epidemic of the past five years has undoubtedly seen great change and growth in the reading habits of Gen Z, it has also seen a redefinition of Gillian Flynn’s (or arguably Rosamund Pike’s) ‘cool girl’ archetype. ‘Cool girl’ is no longer hot. ‘Cool girl’ is no longer game. ‘Cool girl’ is no longer fun. ‘Cool girl’ no longer abstains from getting angry. Instead, she embodies the antithesis of all these things. The ‘cool girl’ isn’t passive. Together, with the likes of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Mona Awad’s Bunny, or Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, Rooney—with her three novels—is a concrete member of the ‘Unhinged Woman’ elite. A genre that has only gained more and more attention as the century has progressed.

Despite the strong foundation of this genre, there isn’t a single contemporary name with a cult following quite as large and as dedicated as that of Sally Rooney. The author has almost become like a brand. If you’re not being recommended Sally Rooney novels, then you’re being recommended ‘Sally Rooney-esque’ novels – as though an entire other new genre is emerging. No longer are we pretending to want to read the ‘great classics’ to come across as fun and intellectual. Instead, we want to be the kind of person who would read Sally Rooney. Austen, Melville, and Dickens may have forged the path, but they’re all being pushed aside to pave the way for their younger, cooler sister. These novels are profound discussions of class and the human experience, laced with romantic intimacy that is both terrifying and hopeful. Yet, despite such interwoven lives, the characters still fall prey to miscommunication and a lack of transparency. They’re real, and we as readers can find ourselves – and comfort – in them and their flaws with ease. Everyone’s either a Marianne or a Connell, which one are you? Regardless of your answer, you’re bound to have Frances, Nick, Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon-shaped jigsaw pieces which also fit just right.

The divisive characteristic of Rooney’s work is her utilisation of the absence of quotation marks in any instance of dialogue throughout her novels. Done to highlight this theme of miscommunication, Rooney abstains from clearly indicating where speech begins and ends, who is necessarily speaking at any given time, and what is being said aloud vs what is merely a thought. While this may be frustrating for some readers (I admit I was one of them to begin with), others enjoy the challenge of deciphering these moments. The latter is clearly the prevailing attitude, otherwise, Rooney wouldn’t have had such great success with all three of her novels: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), and Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021).

Not only has Rooney had plenty of commercial success, she’s also been held to critical acclaim. Though not her debut novel, Normal People, as previously mentioned, is what cemented Rooney as the Gen Z icon she is today. The 2018 Waterstones’ Book of the Year, winner of ‘Best Novel’ at the 2018 Costa Book Awards, and longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Normal People dominated the literary world in its release year. What’s more, it has dominated social media spaces (I actually dare you to try and find a BookTok or Bookstagram account that hasn’t mentioned it), bookstore customers’ carts, and television screens each year thereafter. Adapted into a BBC miniseries in early 2020, Normal People – and Rooney herself – expanded their audience by branching off into the world of television. It’s safe to say that the series, featuring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as main characters Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, was an instant hit. It cemented the stars as respected and adored actors among Gen Z and Millennials alike, leading to their involvement in later hit films such as Where the Crawdads Sing (Edgar-Jones) and Aftersun (Mescal). Fans of the book were initially concerned upon hearing news that the much beloved book was being adapted for screen due to the intense intimacy between these two characters and the difficulty in replicating that with real people. However, Daisy and Paul’s on-screen chemistry was so outstanding that it now has fans following their friendship outside of the Rooney story world (perhaps a little too closely).

Finally, the prevalence of this household name cannot be discussed without mentioning ‘The Sally Rooney Multiverse’ [insert ‘it’s all connected’ meme*]. This refers to an ever-growing web of connections that can be made between different elements of the Sally Rooney realm. Beginning with Rooney herself, the web expands out to her two adapted novels (NP & CWF in 2022) and their respective actors. I won’t go too deep into it (it’s best you go into this with a fresh mind), but just know – if you like Taylor Swift, Fleabag, Phoebe Bridgers, or Harry Styles, then you’ll probably like Sally Rooney.

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