The Sally Rooney phenomenon—like Harry Potter, for adults

Fans are queueing up outside bookshops and buying “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” tote bags and bucket hats. Why has one author inspired so much reverence?

September 11, 2021
Photo: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

Twenty years ago, I was sitting on a swing attached to a broomstick wondering if magic could actually be real. Since I grew up in a cottage in ancient woodland in Fife, which was once a haven for those accused of witchcraft, this idea was, in a way, not so far-fetched. Yet the reason for my magic-obsession were the Harry Potter books. Reading the first one aged nine, I had never been so entranced by a book before. The idea of a parallel world in which I could connect with other “special” people appealed to my moody, romantic, childhood self. As I sat on my broomstick, I tried to convince myself it could all be real, and for a second it was.

Many of the children who grew up in the heyday of Harry Potter mania are now sharing a similar enthusiasm for Sally Rooney. It’s hard to think of many 21st-century authors whose works have been awaited with such fervour. While the Twilight trilogy and Fifty Shades of Grey also inspired fandoms, their authors were not literary stars like Rooney—something extremely rare. (The last young writer to become an overnight literary celebrity was Rooney's friend Zadie Smith.) Her ascent has not been without criticism, however; her white, privileged, Millennial female protagonists have irritated those who call for more diversity in publishing, and who doubt how subversive her work really is.    

Rooney herself has batted back against these accusations, and her many devotees remain enthralled. This week fans queued outside bookshops in the early morning to get hold of Beautiful World, Where Are You. Faber opened a “pop-up Sally Rooney shop” to celebrate the launch of the novel: it is also offering candle-making and calligraphy classes. Bookshops gave out limited edition goody bags and the already iconic Beautiful World, Where Are You bucket hat is in short supply. What next? I wonder—Normal People World, somewhere in the outer suburbs of Dublin, that offers not only an emotionally intense sex club in the back of a library, but also several internet cafes and a miniature Irish village, complete with a nice but tired pub? Classes in Gaelic football? Tours around Trinity College, Dublin? A gift shop selling Connell’s gold chain? I would probably enjoy all of this, to be honest—if I weren’t aware that the author is not likely to be thrilled by the jarring commodification of her work, given her self-professed Marxism and ambivalence about her literary fame.

Merch aside, though, it’s worth exploring why Rooney’s work resonates so deeply with so many people, particularly in my age group, and why it has given rise to such unusual hype. If Rooney’s novels are the new Harry Potter books, then sex has replaced magic. If Trinity is the new Hogwarts, capitalism is the Dark Arts.

This is not to trivialise or mock Rooney’s books—which I love—at all. There are many reasons that her work has struck such a chord, not least her realistic and romantic depiction of love and sex. The author’s rendering of the strange landscape of digital life also contributes to her appeal. Rooney’s flawed, awkward characters carry immense emotional pull—but their habits and insecurities are so familiar to us and so carefully wrought that they come across as genuine, rather than melodramatic. Rooney's lean style is very accessible. Her depiction of internet culture, and her co-option of the language of texts and emails, gives her work a very modern disjointed rhythm—a sense of language failing to work properly, and therein a feeling of longing and confusion.

It can be very powerful to find out that so many other people relate to Rooney’s stories. Sharing an enthusiasm for her work has connected me with other people. When I come across someone else who has been to one of her talks, or loved her latest book, I instantly have a sense we understand one another.

There are a lot of good writers out there and so it can seem strange that one author receives so much attention. But a phenomenon like this is symptomatic of a communal yearning for connection, a yearning which Rooney’s own novels examine. Whether or not it is “fair,” the Rooney phenomenon has become self-fulfilling to some degree. By being swept up in the collective hype about Rooney’s novels, there is a sense, once again, that the magic is real, and that intimacy can be found not only with another individual, but with other readers, too. That books can do that is to be celebrated, with or without the bucket hats.   

Read the Prospect review of Beautiful World, Where Are You