Conversations with myself: the joy and despair of writing a novel
Sally Rooney still hopes there is value in writing honestly about the life she knows
Sally Rooney: 'I wondered, probably for the first time in my life, what a truly socialist or feminist novel would look like.' Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
I didn’t mean to write a novel. The idea for Conversations with Friends – two college students who befriend a married couple – struck me at first as a concept for a short story. I started to write it, under the title “Melissa”, and eventually it got too long. I continued writing it until it seemed to be finished, and at that point it was about novel-length. This was not a particularly intellectual way to approach the grand tradition of the English-language novel. I was so busy working out the particularities of my own plot and characters that I hadn’t really given much thought to what a novel was, what purpose it served, or why anyone should write or read one.
There are good reasons to be sceptical of the novel as a form. As Marxist critics have long noted, it is a structurally and historically bourgeois genre. In terms of its chronology, the novel originated alongside an emerging capitalist class in the 18th century; in terms of its concerns, it emphasises as a primary focus the lone individual, both as writer and as reader. As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936: “The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual” – and to some extent the reverse is also true. The philosophy of individualism owes a great deal to the tradition of novel-writing and novel-reading. In its development and in its aesthetics, the novel is not politically neutral; it has been a participant in history all along.
None of this was on my mind while I wrote Conversations with Friends, or if it was, I didn’t know how to make it relevant to the work of writing. The plot of my book is very small, not at all world-historical, and not obviously related to the advent of industrial capitalism in eighteenth-century Britain. Besides, in the process of writing, I seemed to be following my own interest and amusement at every turn. Not once, I can honestly say, did I feel the invisible hand of the free market reaching to guide my hand upon the keyboard. I was conscious of certain political realities, but I felt that I addressed them by my own choice; I didn’t sense the burdensome history of the novel itself dragging me in any particular direction.
Of course it’s not enough to say: I didn’t mean to write a novel. I still wrote one. A plea of personal ignorance can’t prevent my book from taking its (infinitesimally small) part in the tradition of the novel. Worse, Conversations with Friends is not a book that confronts the limitations of the form in any meaningful way. It doesn’t play with conventions of linear time. It doesn’t give a new voice to a marginalised community. It doesn’t call attention to its own textuality. It’s just a linear story about several relationships within a defined social world – the same could be said of Jane Austen’s novels, or George Eliot’s, which were at least doing some new things at the time.
I know that I found great joy in writing the book, enduring joy, of a kind that changed that my life
In the months before my book was published, realising I was going to have to talk in public about what I had done, I started to despair. I’d enjoyed writing it, but I had no serious idea what it meant. Was it even defensible? Ethically I felt opposed to individualism, never mind market liberalism; but had I, in writing a novel, unwittingly offered aesthetic support to the philosophies I rejected? I started to take a sincere interest in the relationship between genre and politics, and to read works of critical and aesthetic theory with a mind to my own work. I wondered, probably for the first time in my life, what a truly socialist or feminist novel would look like. Unfortunately, this came too late for Conversations with Friends, which was already on its way to print.
In the end I wasn’t sure the book offered any resistance to anything at all. Granted, all the main characters despise capitalism, but that’s mostly because I do. They don’t really do anything about their radical beliefs, besides espousing them; in this sense and in many others, they are similar to myself. Like me they are young, white, college-educated, urban-dwelling. In the broadest and most superficial sense, aren’t there already a sufficient number of books about such individuals? When so many people and classes of people are effectively shut out of the literary world, what is the value of yet another campus novel, or another story of a young white woman trying to find herself, or another extra-marital love affair?
I still don’t know the answers to those questions. I know that I found great joy in writing the book, enduring joy, of a kind that changed that my life. Whether any small part of this feeling is contained in the novel, available to those who read it, I don’t know, but I hope so. Though I was regrettably ignorant of many things when I wrote it, I think I can say that I wasn’t cynical. I gave myself the small task of writing honestly about the kind of life I knew. I believe there is some value in carrying out that task, however limited. Whether I have succeeded, I don’t think it’s for me to judge.
Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is November’s Irish Times Book Club selection. Over the next four weeks, we shall explore the work through a series of features by the author herself, fellow authors Thomas Morris and Gavin Corbett, Gill Moore and an interview with Michael Nolan. Sally Rooney will be in conversation with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times on Thursday, November 16th, at 7.30pm in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Admission is free. The podcast of the interview will be available on November 30th.