The Reluctant Celebrity of Sally Rooney

In Beautiful World, Where Are You, fame is the death of intimacy.

Photo: Linda Brownlee/Guardian /eyevine/Redux
Photo: Linda Brownlee/Guardian /eyevine/Redux
Photo: Linda Brownlee/Guardian /eyevine/Redux

Sally Rooney’s third novel will be published next week, which means that the grinding apparatus of publicity has long since shifted into gear. Previews, reviews, and interviews have begun running online; branded bucket hats have been promised to lucky winners; a Vogue profile has appeared. The latter includes a picture of Rooney standing some distance from the camera, hands clasped stiffly before her, in a pose that looks archaic or possibly arthritic. She wears a long skirt and a stoic expression. I would describe it as “a photo of someone deeply uncomfortable being photographed for Vogue.”

To be fair, it is also a photo that suggests the professional good manners required to show up, do what you’re told, and listen to the poor publicist who, after all, is just trying to get people to read your book. Once an artist is swept up in the exigencies of fame, it becomes hard for them to object without sounding like a diva, or to complain without sounding like an ingrate. Fame and success are understood as so closely linked that any refusal tends to be regarded as eccentric in the extreme (e.g., Elena Ferrante). As with Ferrante, the question of the writer’s public role now hangs over Rooney’s work — and, in her new book, it is a question she addresses directly, in several extended reflections on the culture of celebrity. Reviewing Beautiful World, Where Are You for the New York Times, John Williams called these passages “among its least inspired.” While fame may be a “mixed blessing,” Williams wrote, “everything that rock stars (literary and otherwise) seem to have discovered about that fact is simple and repetitive.”

This pat dismissal seems, to me, to neglect two significant things. First: Writing books, unlike being an actual rock star, is not an activity that traditionally takes place onstage. Second: To treat fame as the province of “rock stars” is to ignore the present reality of fame — which has become the kind of pervasive cultural force that makes it difficult to imagine the world any other way. Among actual celebrities, the ability to wield fame effectively has come to figure as a formidable skill, whatever other talents a given celebrity might possess. Among ordinary civilians, for whom the pursuit and management of a public reputation now looms as a duty too, the affirmation of an audience seems to offer a kind of democratically validated self-esteem. For many aspirants, the incursions that celebrities resent would seem to be part of fame’s allure, or perhaps just the part within easiest reach: the chance to circulate photos of one’s latest romance, or broadcast one’s skin-care routine. What is sometimes called the “wedding industrial complex” has been built on the premise that people will spend tens of thousands of dollars to feel famous for a day.

Bemoaning selfies or influencers now sounds slightly quaint, like fretting about “selling out.” Of the dark side of fame, grim tales abound, but as much as anything these reflect a general inclination to identify with celebrities. The notion of fame as powerfully appealing in itself — this seems to persist largely unchallenged. It is, therefore, bracing when one of Rooney’s characters issues a flat condemnation of celebrity:

People who intentionally become famous — I mean people who, after a little taste of fame, want more and more of it — are, and I honestly believe this, deeply psychologically ill. The fact that we are exposed to these people everywhere in our culture, as if they are not only normal but attractive and enviable, indicates the extent of our disfiguring social disease. There is something wrong with them, and when we look at them and learn from them, something goes wrong with us.

The character is an Irish novelist named Alice Kelleher, who shares some biographical contours with the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You. As she nears 30, Alice has already published two fantastically successful novels, met with lavish acclaim and backlash to the acclaim. Alice receives awards and invitations; she gets interviewed, photographed, and recognized. The money she’s made has enabled her to do things like pay off her mother’s mortgage. It has also enabled her to rent a large country house alone following her hospitalization for a nervous breakdown. Shaken by the roller coaster of literary celebrity and horrified by the state of the world, Alice doubts she can write another book.

While it would be foolish to conflate the character and her creator, Rooney does seem to share some of Alice’s sentiments regarding their professional terrain. Fame, she recently told The Guardian, is “hell.” Rooney does an admirable job in the Guardian interview of articulating what she’s observed, but even so, Alice has the greater freedom of being fictional — and Beautiful World, Where Are You sketches the problem of celebrity for a writer, or at least a writer like Rooney. The issue is more fundamental than the day-to-day hassles of invasive press and publicity headaches. The issue is that fame is hostile to human relationships, which are the essence of her work.

In Conversations With Friends, Normal People, and now Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney’s interest is intimacy — not strictly in the euphemistic sense, although there is plenty of sex. She is interested in the ways people come to understand each other, and she writes novels that render Jamesian convolutions of psychology in prose that goes down like a glass of water. She has said that her ideas for stories always arrive in the form of a particular dynamic between characters. Fame, though, is antithetical to any actual mutuality. Necessarily a one-sided relation, it guarantees a situation in which its object is objectified. Making matters worse, fame produces the illusion that something besides a deadening transaction is taking place. This is what horrifies Alice, she explains in an email to her friend Eileen, after a woman on Twitter airs her disapproval of Alice’s love life. This woman, Alice writes, “is an example of a presumably normal and sane person whose thinking has been deranged by the concept of celebrity”:

An example of someone who genuinely believes that because she has seen my photograph and read my novels, she knows me personally — and in fact knows better than I do what is best for my life. And it’s normal! It’s normal for her not only to think these bizarre thoughts privately, but to express them in public, and receive positive feedback and attention as a result. She has no idea that she is, in this small limited respect, quite literally insane, because everyone around her is also insane in exactly the same way. They really cannot tell the difference between someone they have heard of, and someone they personally know. And they believe that the feelings they have about this person they imagine me to be — intimacy, resentment, hatred, pity — are as real as the feelings they have about their own friends.

As if in contrast to this sort of specious overfamiliarity, Rooney’s new book — at least to start — holds its characters at a careful remove. It begins on a blind date, where Alice (first identified only as “a woman”) and Felix (“a man”) meet at a hotel bar. The third-person narration takes its time drawing any closer, and when the account of Alice and Felix’s date gives way to one of Alice’s long emails to Eileen, the effusions of long-standing friendship sweep in like a flood. Alice and Eileen have known each other since college, closing in on a decade; while Alice and Felix embark on their stumbling courtship, Eileen is contemplating romance with a childhood friend. This is a book that insists on the power of enduring relationships and also on their difficulty. In certain moments, even as characters draw nearer to one another, their inner lives remain explicitly mysterious. As Felix watches Alice interviewed before an audience: “Did Felix find her answers interesting, or was he bored? Was he thinking about her, or about something else, someone else? And onstage, was Alice thinking about him? Did he exist for her in that moment, and if so, in what way?”

Onstage, for Alice, is a constricting place to be, and Felix’s appeal seems in large part to be that he’s the rare person oblivious to her fame. That sounds like the premise for a romantic comedy, which the book is not, but like the rest of the Rooney oeuvre, it has the momentum of a love story. In Everything and Less, his forthcoming study of “the novel in the age of Amazon,” critic Mark McGurl writes that “the urge to post selfies and the urge to publish a novel are on a continuum as modes of self-exposure and attention-getting and would-be self-aggrandizement.” The getting and keeping of attention are, as McGurl points out, “mechanisms internal to the novel’s form”: They’re what keep a reader turning pages. Sally Rooney’s skill at holding attention in this way has brought her attention of a very different sort. So exhaustingly predominant is this other mode of attention that it threatens to overshadow everything else. Beautiful World, Where Are You offers the same pleasures as Rooney’s previous novels, and, in the discursive emails that Alice and Eileen exchange, the additional pleasure of her voice as an essayist. (It is a voice that can be enjoyably sharp-edged: “I hate pretending that the personal vanity of attractive young women is anything other than boring and embarrassing,” Eileen writes to Alice. “Mine worst of all.”) Through this structure emerges an argument that celebrity is not merely inconvenient, or unfair, or tacky, but corrosive to everything that makes life worthwhile. The self-protection required for life as a public figure stymies art and intimacy both.

A question that has long dogged Rooney’s work (and that the characters here grapple with, too) is why anyone should care about petty personal feelings when the world is on fire. Emotional life and contemporary capitalism converge in the figure of the celebrity — and with her new book, this figure helps Rooney make a forceful case for caring about such seemingly insignificant matters as “whether people break up or stay together” (as Alice puts it in another email to Eileen). I hope that Rooney will tell her publicist to say “how kind, but no thank you” the next time Vogue comes to call.

The Reluctant Celebrity of Sally Rooney