Me, an interviewer: “So, Mr William Self, esteemed author and journalist, what did you think of Normal People?”
Mr Self, esteemed author and journalist: “I read a few pages of Sally Rooney’s book. It may say things that millennials want to hear reflected back at them, but it’s very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see.”
Me: “Come now, Mr Self, surely that’s a bit harsh?”
Mr Self: “What’s now regarded as serious literature would, 10 or 20 years ago, have been regarded as young-adult fiction.”
Me: “I don’t really think you can generalise…“
Mr Self: “You only need to look at the kind of books being lauded at the moment to see how simple-minded they are.”
Me: “Simple-minded…simple. Right. Got it. And your own books, Mr Self?”
Mr Self: “I have published, like, 1,500 f***ing pages of serious fiction in the past 7 years, so that’s what’s happened to me.”
William Self is an English fiction author and regularly contributes to The Guardian, The New York Times, and other publications. Of course I didn’t really get to interview him, but he did say all those things in relation to Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People. With over one million copies sold, Normal People is a short read which follows the love and friendship between Marianne and Connell, two smart young Irish adults who navigate their way through school and Trinity College Dublin, each forced to contend with a complicated identity and wavering sense of belonging. Rooney’s story has also been adapted into a beautiful, though poorly representative and very white, TV series.
As a novel, Normal People has received almost unanimous high praise. In 2018, it won the Costa Novel Award and Waterstones’ Book of the Year, and was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Guardian calls Rooney’s novel “the literary phenomenon of the decade”. But does Normal People deserve its place next to Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, or Romeo and Juliet? In other words, is it a literary classic?
There are some, like our good friend Mr William Self, who think Rooney’s novel is essentially too “simple” to be a classic. If we take a look at this extract:
Then all of a sudden, out of a clear blue sky, old Sally said, ‘Look. I have to know. Are you or aren’t you coming over to help me trim the tree Christmas Eve? I have to know.’ She was still being snotty on account of her ankles when she was skating.
‘I wrote you I would. You’ve asked me that about twenty times. Sure, I am.’
‘I mean I have to know,’ she said. She started looking all around the goddam room.
All of a sudden I quit lighting matches, and sort of leaned nearer to her over the table. I had quite a few topics on my mind. ‘Hey, Sally,’ I said.
‘What?’ she said. She was looking at some girl on the other side of the room.
‘Did you ever get fed up?’ I said. ‘I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something? I mean do you like school, and all that stuff?’
Okay so you may or may not have noticed that this isn’t from Normal People, but from J.D. Salinger’s classic coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). It just goes to show that “classic” doesn’t necessarily equal ‘old-and-complicated’ (I mean, sometimes it really does – try reading 1500 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to impress your friends, only to realise no one gives a sh*t).
Did you know that, despite its apparent simplicity, it took Salinger 10 years to write The Catcher in the Rye, to make the conversation between Holden and Sally seem lifelike on the page? But it’s not enough for a book to sound real – what makes it interesting? Here’s another extract (this one is actually from Normal People):
At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her. Knowing that they’ll probably have sex again before they sleep probably makes the talking more pleasurable, and he suspects that the intimacy of their discussions, often moving back and forth from the conceptual to the personal, also makes the sex feel better. Last Friday, when they were lying there afterwards, she said: That was intense, wasn’t it? He told her he always found it pretty intense. But I mean practically romantic, said Marianne. I think I was starting to have feelings for you there at one point. He smiled at the ceiling. You just have to repress all that stuff, Marianne, he said. That’s what I do.
There’s something in Rooney’s writing which is delicately accessible and quietly electrifying. All she describes here is a pair of teenagers talking before sex, but the simplicity radiates beauty. For me, a book is incredible if
a) documents the extraordinary
or b) makes the ordinary seem extraordinary.
Next to a), I would place maybe Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Next to b), Normal People.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that Normal People “capturing the zeitgeist” makes it a classic (sorry Waterstones review). The “zeitgeist” is ‘spirit of the age’. Normal People explores a particular experience: it might capture the spirit of straight white people, but I would really dispute claims of its universality and total relatability. Our ‘age’ must be an age for people of colour, queer and disabled people too.
So, what else could make it a classic? We’ve already established that it’s won loads of awards. Perhaps a sense of timelessness? Books from different time periods differ in excitement levels partly because their contemporary readership held different values. For example, at points in British literature of the 1600s, it was sexy to bash the Catholic Church and all the rage to point out that the planets orbit the sun. The question is, can novels stand the test of time? Can they prioritise different social values and understandings but fundamentally remain true to human nature? Shakespeare might not have studied 20th-century psychoanalysis, but when that vision of a dagger appears to Macbeth after he’s killed the king (for anyone who hasn’t read/seen Macbeth, basically, a vision dagger appears to him after he’s killed a king), the character’s feelings of guilt-driven-madness transmit to all ages.
Honestly, we can only guess as to whether future generations will connect to Normal People as many contemporary readers do. In which case, for now, the measure of a classic might simply be a reader’s own opinion – that’s how Wikipedia advises we judge anyway. And in the words of a more reputable source (lots of love Wikipedia), “there’s nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”. So, here’s a snippet of my official list of Classics That Are
Not Boring F***ing Incredible, even if some of them might appear to be “simple”:
- The Aeneid by Virgil
- Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Normal People by Sally Rooney