The cult of Normal People

Five years since it was first published, Sally Rooney’s hugely popular novel has sparked countless imitations—and an inevitable backlash

July 27, 2023
Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

A 27-year-old author is talking about her second book. The book is about “two people, who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone”. This is not exactly the most exciting of synopses. The author’s precociousness though, and the popularity of her debut, released the year before and much of it written in three months, mean that the interviews are all imbued with a huge amount of excitement. Oprah calls her “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. Hazlitt calls the book “the most talked about of the year”. One journalist tells her she finished the book in 24 hours, staying up till 3am to read it. The themes of the interviews—sex, class, the impact of the recession, how much being on Twitter is too much being on Twitter—are the kind of things you would expect in any literary press tour. The novelist is Sally Rooney, the novel is Normal People, and what follows in the next half decade is not what you would expect in your average literary press tour.

Normal People turns five next month, and in those years it has become not just a famous novel but a cultural phenomenon. It was longlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Booker, and won both the Costa and British Book Award in 2018. It sold over one million copies. It allowed Rooney, already a kind of literary wunderkind, to ascend to a level of fame that forced her off social media, a level that she has repeatedly spoken about being deeply uncomfortable with. It led to a TV series, which itself was phenomenally successful; launching the careers of both Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, the latter of whom won a BAFTA for his portrayal of laconic GAA heartthrob Connell Waldron. It introduced into the cultural lexicon laughably specific pieces of Irish paraphernalia that are now considered Instagram thirst trap material. Suddenly people wanted to wear O’Neill’s shorts and St Christopher’s chains, because that was what Connell wore. 

Undoubtedly helped by the pandemic, the BBC’s Normal People mini-series captivated a generation outside of Rooney’s literary world, introducing her characters to Brits and Americans, who fell as deeply in love with them as Connell and Marianne supposedly were with each other. "Rarely have I seen the sort of cultural dialogue that I saw post the release of Normal People in April 2020,” wrote Film Companion’s Prathyush Parasuraman of the show, which became the BBC’s most-streamed series of the year, and was watched by 62.7m people in the first year of the pandemic alone. (The show also broke RTÉ records in Ireland.) Its impact in the world of television extends beyond the fame of its actors even; the sex scenes on Normal People helped to normalise the work of “intimacy coaches” on set. The show’s own intimacy co-ordinator, Ita O’Brien, went on to work on Netflix’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and planned to run the world’s first degree in how to direct a sex scene.

But Normal People’s biggest impact is not on TV nor in publishing—where it has become a shorthand for millennial novels, Irish novels, novels written about love, novels written by women, and anything that might be sold under the reductive but flattering promise that it’s been created by “the next Sally Rooney”—but on social media, where three years on from its adaptation and five years from publication, new audiences are discovering and falling in love with it over and over again. On TikTok the book’s hashtag currently stands at 7.2bn views; filled with edited videos of Marianne and Connell’s doomed love story or passages of the book underlined and annotated with hearts (the platform’s favourite is a line not included in the series: “I’m not a religious person but I do sometimes think God made you for me”). Here, Normal People is universally beloved because it is universally understood to be about love, to be perhaps the quintessential depiction of love for millennials. The cult of Normal People exists because the book is understood to be a love story. 

It’s not a love story. Or at least, not really. Early interviews and previews of the novel focused on the class aspect of Normal People and of Connell and Marianne’s morganatic relationship, a Marxist reading that Rooney seemed to encourage (my favourite line from the book has always been not Connell’s meditation on religion but instead on class; “That’s money”, he tells Marianne on holiday in Italy, “the substance that makes the world real.”) But as it became more and more popular, a class-based reading of the work fell away to be replaced by a depiction of it as nothing more than an artfully told love story for a generation that are chronically unable to communicate with one another on a meaningful level. Partially this is the fault of a disconnect in how Normal People is understood within Ireland as opposed to how it's understood elsewhere; for American audiences, the differences between Marianne and Connell’s lives in small town Sligo to slightly larger town Dublin are not geographically or culturally vast. For Irish readers, the social vastness is obvious. Irish audiences understand the significance of their lives not just in Dublin but in the smaller world of privilege that is Trinity College. For lovestruck TikTokers, the characters’ Irishness “becomes incidental”; they are simply two hot people who exist in a “dark academia” setting. 

Even the love story within the book is one that exists within the paradigms of power that Rooney says (in her increasingly rare interviews) is what she’s most interested in writing about. “He feels that she has a loyalty to him that he doesn’t necessarily have to return in order to get it,” she told Esquire about the uneven dynamic that fuels Marianne and Connell’s years-long love affair. “Sometimes he is loyal to her, but he doesn’t have to be in order to receive her loyalty back. His awareness of that makes him feel he has a huge amount of power over her. That her feelings for him are unconditional. He’s proven that to himself because he treated her poorly and she came back. Once he learned that lesson, he feels this dangerous, almost heady sense of, ‘It doesn’t matter what I do to this girl. She’s so willing to be mistreated by me that it’s kind of scary.’ At the same time, it feeds his ego to think he’s so important to her that she would do anything for him.” Rooney writes about sex as power, basically, and her fans read the sex as love. 

Readings this saccharine and a novel that remains this popular—2023’s buzzy debut, Nicola Dinan’s Bellies, is already being called “the new Normal People”—will inevitably inspire a backlash. Normal People catapulted Rooney to such heights of success that it was inevitable her next book, the pandemic-inspired Beautiful World, Where Are You? would disappoint readers. It’s not that the book is bad. It’s just that it’s not Normal People. At the same time, it is no longer considered a cultural or intellectual choice, if it ever was one, to like Rooney’s books. Instead the du jour way to communicate cultural and intellectual taste is to dislike them. Whilst on TikTok teenage girls from Australia to Florida sobbed in their bedrooms over the romantic agony that was seeing your ex at the Centra self-checkout, on Twitter self-serious Men Who Write railed against Rooney’s popularity and basicness. Liking Sally Rooney is akin to liking the Love of Huns Instagram account. Sally Rooney becomes for these people the literary equivalent of Coldplay, air fryers, cockapoos. Sally Rooney is too woke, too sweet, too basic. “Why is Rooney’s work so highly regarded as generation-defining commentary? Why do people think it definitively skewering of our social age and atmosphere?” one article asks, and then doesn’t answer.

 But the backlash to her work reveals its influence just as much as the social media superfans too. “A lot of the hatred towards Sally has been quite pointedly jealousy and ageism and just the mere fact of her being a woman,” writer Barry Pierce tells me. “I don’t think she’s been helped by her imitators in any capacity; the fact that her name has become a PR buzzword has really destroyed her and her reputation. But when you go back and read the books and the essays and the short stories it is almost impressive how much has been made from so little. I suppose that just shows her power.” The fact that in five years Normal People has gone from being a buzzy literary release to a publishing, television and social media juggernaut does illustrate its power, no matter what’s been lost in translation in the interim. “Sometimes I think that it’s maybe reaching an audience that aren’t necessarily familiar with the texts that influence the style”, Rooney told author Michael Magee. That was back in 2015. She couldn’t have known just how far that influence would extend.