For all of the acres of prose devoted over the past few weeks to the Irish writer Sally Rooney and her new book Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber, 7th September), the words that most stuck with me came from the Twitter account of the Paris indie bookshop, Shakespeare and Company: “A talented, serious writer who has touched millions, published by an amazing independent house, causing QUEUES outside bookshops... Honestly, what’s not to love?”
That Rooney elicits such strong emotions—from far and wide—is testament to her power as a writer and individual, her publisher’s good judgement, the booksellers who have promoted her work, but also the medium through which she expresses her ideas. Here is a book leading the cultural conversation—and it’s not the only one. Michaela Coel’s Misfits: A Personal Manifesto was published on the same day—and comes in the week when the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded, the shortlist for which, as we reported online, has seen sales surge.
All this excitement comes at a good moment for publishing and bookselling too: in the UK, printed book sales are up 8.1% so far this year (well, from March), while in Ireland—it is a happy coincidence that Rooney is published in the same week as we run our Irish Focus—book sales have rocketed 14% in volume and 15% in value year on year, with 6.4 million books sold for €75.3m. Adult Fiction alone is up 12% in volume year on year. This all follows a strong pandemic showing for the written, and published, word.
For all that, it is perhaps an irony too enjoyable to ignore that Rooney’s exposition of Millennial discomfort arrives just as publishing must shake off another bruising summer of discontent, during which it has been asked some searching and far-reaching questions about its own essence. If Rooney’s characters are disappointed by the material reality of their lives despite their hopes, dreams and intentions, they share such emotions with many who work in a books business that offers much but so often falls short. This is not to cast shade on the entire sector—in fact, you could reverse the previous sentence and it would still make sense: publishing often over-delivers—but the fact remains that the business is buoyed by an aspiration and ambition that is only rarely matched by success.
The Rooney phenomenon offers a wider lesson for the book trade. Few authors break out in the way Rooney appears to on both a commercial and emotional level, even fewer popular writers get to define and then mould their own readers. Of course, Rooney appeals to a core book-buying demographic as all good writers should, but she also brings with her a newer audience that closely identifies with her, what she stands for, and the themes explored in her books. Not since J K Rowling and the Harry Potter series have we witnessed such a generational connection to a set of novels.
All of this makes Rooney a beacon for a sector that needs to figure out its own identity—and in doing so, will need all the friends it can get.