Sally Rooney is unhappy. Sally Rooney has everything and Sally Rooney is unhappy. Sally Rooney is unhappy because Sally Rooney has everything.
If literary careers are like games, and they are, then Sally Rooney has won: the massive bestselling debut, the even more massive, even more bestselling follow-up, the successful television adaptation, the profiles, the prizes. “I write to you from Paris, having just arrived here from London, where I had to go and pick up an award. They never tired of giving me awards, do they? It’s a shame I’ve tired so quickly of receiving them,” she writes in her new book Beautiful World, Where Are You (no question mark). Her own celebrity, for Sally Rooney, is evidence of insanity, both in the people who envy it and in the society that values it.
“Okay, it’s been a small experience in its own way, and it will all blow over in a few months or years and no one will even remember me, thank God,” she writes. “And then that’s it, I’m finished, and the next flashy twenty-five year old with an impending psychological collapse comes along.” Her new novel is, in a sense, the collapse that has been impending. Sally Rooney has jumped through the world’s hoops, and found, at the end, the emptiness of all hoops.
But Beautiful World, Where Are You is more than a young, healthy, successful, rich, famous woman in love complaining about youth, health, success, wealth, fame and love. It arrives at a particular moment in literary history, a point of transition, or properly speaking two simultaneous transitions. The literature of the voice is dying. The literature of the pose has arrived. The basis of literary style has shifted.
When I was in university, and friends with mainly fellow literature obsessives, or—let’s be honest—geeks, we would play a game where someone would read the first sentence on page 149 of any given book and the rest of us would have to guess who wrote it. Examples:
The nephew came back from peeing inside the house, and after touching his lips for silence, pointed his thumb to say that what they were looking for was round back.
And God—look out!—the Portobello Road, the whole trench scuffed and frayed, falling apart, and full of rats.
He was a young man and he refused and having recognized the harnessmaker for a white man spoke to him in a way that made the harnessmaker ashamed so that he invited the young man to come to his dwelling a few miles distant on the road.
The idea at the time—this was the 1990s—was that any well read person should be able to figure out who was writing from any given sentence they wrote. (In this case, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Martin Amis’s London Fields, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.) Some writers, like Thomas Pynchon, nobody would ever pick. Too easy.
It is next to impossible to play the page 149 game with the 21st-century novel. But let’s try anyway.
Four hours later his alarm clock woke him.
The show was a “brutal success,” one critic called it.
But I’m okay actually, I just need to get cleaned up.
There is not a word out of place. Each sentence passes quality assurance: The above sentences are certified, not wrong. The writing of the pose is, first and foremost, about being correct, both in terms of style and content. Its foremost goal is not to make any mistakes. Its foremost gesture is erasure and its foremost subject is social anxiety and self-presentation. One never loses oneself in the writing. Rather, one admires, at a slight remove, the precision of the undertaking. (Those particular examples are from Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People respectively.)
Rooney’s misery is neither fake nor unjustified. It’s registering reality.
One sensibility is giving way to another. This is not to say that there are no contemporary writers with strong voices—you could easily tell Raven Leilani from page 149 of Luster for example, or Joshua Cohen from page 149 of The Netanyahus—but the writing that defines the moment, the writing that feels most here and now, is the writing of the pose.
Amanda Gorman, after her reading at the inauguration of Joe Biden dressed in a magnificent Prada yellow coat, caused Google searches for “yellow coat” to increase 1,328 percent. She signed a modeling contract with IMG shortly after. The first thing a young poet needs to be heard today is not mastery of language nor the calling of a muse. It’s a look. The writing of the pose is the literary product of the MFA system and of Instagram in equal measure—it brings writing into the ordinary grueling business of the curation of the self which dominates advanced capitalist culture today.
We are dealing with sensibilities, inevitably mushy around the edges, but they are in conflict, in irreconcilable conflict, exactly because they’re so vague, because they underlie assumptions and fundamental approaches. So much of contemporary discourse generally, not just in literature, is people talking past each other. The Voice and the Pose cannot comprehend one another; they occupy different spheres of meaning. The loathing and the fury that define the political struggle over the use of language—interchangeably referred to as “political correctness” or “cancel culture”—emanate in large part from that chasm.
Sally Rooney is the definitive writer of the Pose. Stripping down personality is both the primary subject of her work and the foremost aspect of her style. But she is only the first among equals. Beautiful World, Where Are You appears in the middle of a great rift in language, a rift with consequences that far transcend literature. Somewhere halfway through Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney casually lets it drop: “I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again.” I’m pretty sure she means it. At stake in the moment of transition is the capacity to make meaning itself.
The books written by the literary cohort that includes Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Michael Ondaatje, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver and so on shared a vision of literature, an understanding of their social purpose, and even a moral certainty. They were distinguished by the distinctness of their voices.
A generational shorthand is tempting here—Boomer writing v. millennial writing—but it makes little sense except perhaps in terms of the audiences. Everyone on the list above was born before the outbreak of the Second World War. And the matter is even more confusing for later writers. Zadie Smith is obviously a writer of the Voice. Sheila Heti is just as obviously a writer of the Pose. They were born within a year of each other. (My generation, Generation X, was always doomed to be stuck between these categories. Generation X writers are either a Voice too late or a Pose too early.)
The great power of the writing of the voice is how swiftly and totally it consumes you. You open Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, eight hours later you close it in a daze. The voice of Beloved is so clear it leaves a palpable trace in the memory; Toni Morrison will haunt you. And it is the haunting that matters. Every other aspect of the literary craft is subservient to the voice. In Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there’s hardly any reporting and there’s no analysis; there’s no real insight into American government or electoral politics. But who cares when you’ve got lines like “We can’t stop here, this is bat country”? Christopher Hitchens was wrong about every important question he covered as a columnist, and he was gratuitously nasty to boot, but the man had a voice. And that was enough.
So much of contemporary discourse generally, not just in literature, is people talking past each other.
The love of the voice was a love of others’ voices, though in a way distinct both from modernism and from contemporary literature. Women’s voices, homosexual voices, minority voices achieved prominence in an unprecedented way—probably its most important legacy on the current scene. Works in translation became central to literary culture. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera are part of this cohort every bit as much as Margaret Atwood or Philip Roth. But the cosmopolitanism was only in the aggregate. The experience of reading the great Dickens’ novels or Joyce’s Ulysses is the feeling of entering a grand city and having been in every corner, feelin what it is like to be the boy who cleans the knives and the Duchess in her bedchamber, a singer of popular songs or a trader in hides. No novel from the subsequent cohort attained that humanity-embracing openness. A work like Martin Amis’s London Fields that tried to cross class and gender lines resulted in the end in a series of comic stereotypes. One does not get a tour of late 20th-century London so much as a tour of Martin Amis’s taste, which is redolent and hilarious.
Philip Roth has the most delicious voice because the limitations of his empathy are so extreme. He is a Jewish man from Newark. No other perspective makes sense to him and he expends little to no effort trying to make sense of what others might feel or think. In The Human Stain, Nathan Zuckerman dreams of Bill Clinton’s persecution: “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.” It never occurs to Roth, not even as a passing thought, that the women in the White House might be human beings too. The women in his books are always sexual stooges, one step up from the characters in Penthouse Letters. African-Americans are, almost exclusively, sepia-toned, like photographs of MLK’s family at his funeral. Jews with other histories, from others places, are inaccessible to him. He is not capable of empathizing even with Israelis. But in literature every strength is a weakness and every weakness is a strength—American Pastoral is the greatest novel ever written about the failure to understand the people you love.
This fulfillment of voice is distinct from the project of the great modernist writers, for whom the fluidity of voice was grand strategy. The Faulkner of The Sound and the Fury is intentionally distinct from the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying. The immense variety of modes in James Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov or Virginia Woolf are dreams of the escape into multiplicity. The Joyce of “The Dead” is virtually unrecognizable from the Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake. Even a writer like John Steinbeck, whose style remained more or less consistent over the course of his career, was not necessarily pursuing his own voice. His personality emerges much more clearly in his letters, which are extremely funny and much more vivid than his fiction.
A book like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea—in which a rich white man living in a Finca where movies stars swam in the pool identified the best part of himself in a starving Black fisherman—would be impossible for a writer of the voice. They could only manage to love themselves and they taught themselves over the course of their careers to love themselves more intensely and more fully. That’s not a criticism. Those were the set terms. The fulfillment of the voice was the essence of their artistic project.
Personal fulfillment, as an aspiration, even as a motivating concept, is entirely missing from Beautiful World, Where Are You. Contempt and social anxiety are the dominant modes. The action of the novel, slight as it is—a party in a small Irish town, a trip to Rome—serves as occasions for contempt and social anxiety. The contempt moves swiftly: the main character Alice, an obvious stand-in for Rooney, has contempt for her parents, she has contempt for capitalism, she has contempt for her own people, she has contempt for the cosmopolitan elite, she has contempt for the literary world, she has contempt for literature itself, and eventually she has contempt for herself.
“It was important to me then to prove that I was a special person. And in my attempt to prove it, I made it true,” she writes. “Only afterwards, when I had received the money and acclaim which I believed I deserved, did I understand that it was not possible for anyone to deserve these things, and by then it was too late. I had already become the person I had once longed to be, and now energetically despised.” Her friend Eileen, an editorial assistant at what I believe is the London Review of Books, has a more pedestrian hatred for herself since she isn’t famous: “Frankly if we have to go to our deaths for the greater good of humankind, I will accept that like a lamb, because I haven’t deserved this life or even enjoyed it.” These women experience their elite status and vast good fortune as aspects of themselves they actively despise.
The social anxiety is nearly as fierce as the contempt. Beautiful World, Where Are You consists mainly in dialogues between people who are trying desperately not to say the wrong thing. This early exchange is typical:
And what are your books about?
Oh, I don’t know, she said. People.
That’s a bit vague. What kind of people do you write about, people like you?
She looked at him calmly, as if to tell him something: that she understood his game, perhaps, and that she would even let him win it, as long as he played nicely.
“As if to tell him something” might well be the motto of the entire book. Rooney has always been obsessed with how not to say the wrong thing, how much, exactly, to give away. The happy ending of her previous book Normal People is the achievement of half-invisibility, a disappearance from society itself. “Marianne is neither admired nor reviled anymore,” Rooney wrote. “People have forgotten about her. She’s a normal person now. She walks by and nobody looks up.” This is what happiness looks like. This is Marianne’s victory! Achieving normalcy, the absence of what used to be called a personality, has required immense effort.
Sex is only peripherally about pleasure or even lust; it is about articulating and achieving the correct position, in every sense.
In a sense, Beautiful World, Where Are You is simply an extension of the earlier work: Alice wants to be just like everyone else but also the most important person in the room. She wants to pare herself down into an idealized abnegation. She wants to achieve the perfect pose.
Almost all major writers of the Pose attended elite schools and creative writing programs—even an exception like Tao Lin took a journalism degree at NYU. They have jumped through hoops. They have not screwed up. Perhaps for that reason, the definitive gesture of their writing is erasure. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation constitutes a series of experiments in non-existence; no work has ever given such rich, sustained attention to oblivion. It is a masterpiece. Moshfegh’s contempt, like Rooney’s, embraces the world and then herself: The narrator decides to sleep for a year rather than commit suicide. Suicide would be a meaningful statement. If she killed herself, what would people say?
Abnegation and erasure defines the approach to writing as much to life. In Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, a rhetorical ecstasy comes through a high school debate competition: “He began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him… In a public school closed to the public, in a suit that felt like a costume, while pretending to argue about policy, he was seized, however briefly by an experience of prosody.” I, personally, cannot cross this particular gap. To describe an argument as “like something from a high school debate” is a straight insult to me. High school debates are juvenile and deliberately obedient. You succeed by ignoring truth or any claim to authenticity, and you impress your elders by saying what they want to hear.
But for these writers, they want to say what they are expected to say. (Sally Rooney’s first successful story, “Even If You Beat Me” was about being “the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe.”) The Topeka School ends with a form of purely socialized speech, with the narrator saying exactly what the crowd is saying, literally. “The ‘human microphone,’ the ‘people’s mic,’ wherein those gathered around a speaker repeat what the speaker says in order to amplify a voice without permit-requiring equipment. It embarrassed, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.” Lerner’s vision of literary success involves channeling what others expect him to be.
The deep anxiety of these works, both in terms of style and content, has lived consequences. From an outside perspective, the most remarkable feature of the literature of the Pose is its sexual immiseration. If there is one contemporary short story everyone has read, it’s probably “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, but You Know You Want This, Roupenian’s collection of stories, is a litany of more gruesome sexual horrors. A story called “The Good Guy” begins this way: “By the time he was thirty-five, the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it.”
A lengthy section of The Topeka School involves a discussion of the significance of the narrator, as a child, covering his entire penis and scrotum in chewing gum. Marie Calloway, the most original and most daring of the writers of her generation, published “Adrien Brody” in 2011. In one version it contained a picture of herself with cum on her face. (Unfortunately for Calloway, the writing of the pose is anathema to originality and daring. She hasn’t published a book in over a decade.)
The sex in Beautiful World, Where Are You is banal. It won’t make it into any of the anthologies of lousy sex writing, but that’s because there’s not enough there to be lousy. “How are we ever supposed to determine what kind of sex we enjoy, and why? Or what sex means to us, and how much of it we want to have, and in what contexts?” Rooney writes. “Our ways of thinking and speaking about sexuality seem so limited, compared to the exhausting and debilitating power of sexuality itself as we experience it in our real lives.” No Catholic bishop could have put it better. Sex is “exhausting and debilitating.” The characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You are as repressed, in their way, as the most Victorian of Victorian characters. Sex is only peripherally about pleasure or even lust; it is about articulating and achieving the correct position, in every sense.
One way to see the war over language is as a collective response to loss—shared grief expressed as rending anger.
The enormous control of these works leaves the impression of fundamental futility: They are language trying not be language, with the combed-through feeling of cover letters to job applications in which a spelling mistake might mean unemployment. The style grows less personal even as the auto-fictional content grows more confessional. The more prominent the writer, the less individual the style.
You will love one of the following poems but not both—they are each the result of a different system of meaning, different modes of dissemination and different sensibilities. In 1991, Seamus Heaney published Seeing Things, which begins with this miniature jewel of synesthesia.
Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
One by one we were being handed down
Into a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied
Scaresomely every time.
In 2020, Rupi Kaur—“Writer of the Decade” according to The New Republic—posted the following poem on her Instagram feed:
for one person to
fill you up
in all the ways
you need to be filled
can’t be your everything
Both of these poems, in their moments, were wildly successful. Heaney won the Nobel Prize four years after Seeing Things. Rupi Kaur has four million Instagram followers, and the poem above received 184,000 likes. But other than their popularity, these two poems are not alike in any way. Rupi Kaur’s poems are not manipulations of language like Heaney’s are. They are manipulations of the images of language. Recently, Kaur has invented a new ambition for poetry; she appeared on a one-hour special on Amazon Prime.
In the hallways of power, literature loiters in the vestibule. It has little say, but it sees who comes and who goes. The stylistic turn I’m describing here—the replacement of the voice with the pose—registers a rupture in political language. A politics of the Pose is replacing a politics of the Voice.
The firing of James Bennett at the New York Times opinion section was just another skirmish, already forgotten and surpassed by dozens of other incidents. But it was uniquely instructional, I think, about the mechanism of the language war. Within the previous decade, Bennett had run opinion pieces by Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Taliban and other writers who could only be considered either explicit enemies of the American people or figures of outright evil. He was fired for running the opinion of a sitting US Senator whose position—that federal troops should be called into quell urban unrest—was shared by a significant proportion of the public. Bennett didn’t do anything differently from what he had always done; language itself changed around him. It was no longer a vehicle for the expression of conflicting voices but an act of institutional representation.
John F. Kennedy inaugurated Boomer politics with the line: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” The Boomers listened closely; they did the opposite. One of the most absurd aspects of intergenerational conflict over the last few decades is the commonplace description of millennials as “entitled.” It is a case of pure projection. Entitlement is the defining feature of the Boomers, an entitlement so deep they don’t experience it as entitlement, only as a condition of life. To meet almost any writer of the voice in person, especially the minor ones, is to be confronted with a pomposity that borders on mental illness. They cannot stop themselves from the instinctual belief that institutions of all kinds exist to allow them to pursue personal self-expression and self-fulfillment. Which is why no institution survives their stewardship. The pursuit of voice was beautiful, a pursuit of freedom as a freedom to express. But it ate the world.
Sally Rooney has jumped through the world’s hoops, and found, at the end, the emptiness of all hoops.
The obliviousness to the future has affected every institution. In academia, the older generation maintained tenure for themselves and supported it over the course of their lifespans by generating a permanent adjunct underclass. The literary community defined itself by prizes: That’s the Boomers all over. They managed to convince themselves that throwing fancy parties for themselves was a service to the spirit. That same selfishness has defined their broader politics. The legacy of their cohort is that they were given the greatest series of institutions the world has ever known—the postwar political order—and they pissed it all away so they could feel good about themselves. The driving force of politics from 1970s to the present has been their expectation of a full array of government services and an unwillingness to pay taxes alongside total indifference to the incipient environmental crisis brought about by their lifestyles.
But anyone who places hope for the political future in the next generation should spend some time reading their novels. Normal People, in particular, captures the insubstantiality of the politics of the Pose. Marianne and Connell meet at a café.
Sorry, I’m late, he says, There was some protest on so the bus was delayed.
He sits down opposite her. He hasn’t ordered anything yet.
Don’t worry about it, she says. What was the protest? It wasn’t abortion or anything, was it?
He feels ashamed now that he didn’t notice. No, I don’t think so, he says. The household tax or something.
Well, best of luck to them. May the revolution be swift and brutal.
The idea that millennials, through their righteousness and their precision of language, will lead a progressive vanguard into a bright egalitarian future is naive; the hope that generational replacement will create a progressive majority is silly and dangerous. Remember when everyone thoughts the kids at Woodstock were going to usher in an age of Aquarius?
Reading these novels it is not hard to see the outline of an emerging millennial reactionary turn. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator becomes the muse of a male artist who poses her body when she’s passed out. In Normal People, Connell comes to the rescue of Marrianne after another boy abuses her. “If you ever touch Marrianne again, I’ll kill you, he says. Okay? That’s all. Say one bad thing to her ever again and I’ll come back here myself and kill you, that’s it.” The hero declares sexual dominion through the possibility of violence. These sexual models are antiquities. They are also apparently current.
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Eileen ends up discovering meaning in standard bourgeois existence: “I know it’s not the life you imagined for me, Alice—buying a house and having children with a boy I grew up with,” the novel ends. “But it’s the life I have, the only one. And as I write you this message I’m very happy.” The life of writing : unhappy. Baby-making : happy. Again, the bishops would approve.
It’s also worth remembering that millennials don’t believe in democracy too much. Seventy-two percent of people born in the 1930s believe democracy is “essential.” Only 30 percent of people born in the 1980s feel the same. One thing is sure. Millennials will never sacrifice themselves for a political cause. They are too busy being sacrificed.
In 2018, Ottessa Moshfegh described an encounter with an older writer, whom she calls Rupert Dicks. The internet has a pretty good guess at who this is; you might look it up, I couldn’t possibly comment. The man’s actual identity is not particularly relevant anyway. Rupert Dicks represents a type just as Moshfegh does.
“He wasn’t a large man, but his body vibrated with the demanding neediness of a man who had once been very beautiful and powerful. At 65, he now had age spots on his face, jowls, thin white hair edging out from under his hat. I remember thinking his waning vitality could be used to my advantage.” She is young and wants to be taken seriously. He is old and wants to have sex with her. To put it another way: She wants his voice, and he wants her pose. In the end, the chasm is too wide between them.
The literature of the voice is dying. The literature of the pose has arrived. The basis of literary style has shifted.
“The last time I saw Dicks, I brought a new story. Dicks read it over my shoulder in the love seat in his immaculate bedroom. He edited the entire piece, explaining his reasoning for every move—it was a private masterclass, just what I’d always wanted. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘This means so much to me.’ Then Dicks went to his closet and began a show-and-tell of lubricant gels, dirty movies, contraceptive sponges, etcetera. So, we argued about sex again. None of it turned me on, not the argument, not his erotic devices, not him. He’d given me what I wanted, teacher to student. I didn’t feel like paying him back.” Both sides got ripped off in the exchange, the elder still trying to screw the future, and the young woman who wants to be seen by a man who only recognizes himself.
Rooney’s misery is neither fake nor unjustified. It’s registering reality. Sociological explanations come easily enough. There’s the rise of the internet, of the smartphone, of social media rendering and distributing banality through satisfying fragments of unmeaning, all the stages of a visual culture replacing a lingual one. Beautiful World, Where Are You is also registering a dead end, both creatively and spiritually. The literature of the Pose is unsustainable. Ultimately, in the process of erasure, you erase yourself. The perfect pose is silence. That’s why I take Rooney’s casual remark that she may never write another novel again seriously. I can’t see why she would.
There’s also the underlying condition that the world is falling apart and that the literary world in particular is in rapid decline. Both sides of the language war are registering the same loss, trying to heal the same wound, coming to peace with the same fate: the Image triumphing over the Word. That triumph is evident everywhere, in literature and in politics. Newsroom employment declined by 23 percent in the United States between 2008 and 2019. In academia, history enrollments have declined by 45 percent since 2007, English enrollments by half since the 1990s. Literary culture no longer produces common points of meaningful reference.
One way to see the war over language is as a collective response to loss—shared grief expressed as rending anger. The stakes of the conflict could not be higher—how will meaning be made?—but in a sense the conflict registers a foregone defeat, a war that is already lost—the written word in retreat. The rage of the moment is a misbegotten elegy, a way of hiding from ourselves the fall of the Word itself.
I remember, at my son’s childhood birthday parties, we used to organize a game called “shark attack.” It was a version of musical chairs, in which the children dance around a blanket, and the music stops, and they all have to jump onto the blanket. Every round the parents make the blanket smaller, so that little by little fewer and fewer children can jump onto the available space until they all fall down and there’s room for just one standing. This is an allegory for the world as it is coming. There is less and less room. There is less nature, there is less humanism, there is less capacity for argument, there are fewer places to publish, there is less attention to go around. There is less space, generally, from which to affirm life. Sally Rooney is the one standing on the blanket now. “Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended?” she writes. “We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.”
And what is that something? All writers today, of all generations, exist in resistance. The escape from ourselves is narrowing and the network grows wider, tighter. Sinking down into impotent cruelty, we avoid, by whatever means available, the deepest darkness: Perhaps we are no longer meaningful to one other.