by Scarlett Colquitt
How do Sally Rooney and Natalia Ginzburg define success?
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Sally Rooney, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
'My Vocation' in The Little Virtues
Natalia Ginzburg, Daunt Books Publishing, 2018 (1962)
When I write something, I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.’ In quoting Natalia Ginzburg’s essay ' My Vocation' for its epigraph, Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, announces that its focus will be on interrogating the mirage of literary success.
Rooney’s discussion of stardom in her latest novel is placed in continual relation to other novelists. It is no coincidence that she begins with Ginzburg, nor that one of the main characters of the novel has written on, and read extensively, the works of the seminal French writer Annie Ernaux. Rooney brings up these writers for good reason. They are key figures in contemporary women’s writing: both write about their lives, passions, and struggles; both are known for the autobiographical focus (or speculated autobiographical focus) of their work. For a writer who has been so closely guarded about her life, the inclusion of such references speaks to a growing openness to reveal her struggles through the introspective focus of her latest project. The cost of fame is at the centre of such discussion, as Rooney interrogates the impact of being under the intense scrutiny of the public eye.
It is the works of Ginzburg in particular that converge with Rooney’s concerns on fame, and it is through Ginzburg’s comments on self-doubt that Rooney centres her own feelings on the writing process. Superficially, the trajectory of the two writers’ careers could not be more different. Rooney’s meteoric rise to fame, propelled in some part by the screen adaptation of Normal People (her debut novel Conversations with Friends following suit with a forthcoming BBC3 series), draws a stark contrast with Ginzburg’s more modest success amongst her contemporaries, writing during the era of Italian Fascism. Yet, despite their sharply contrasting lives, both grapple with their position as a writer and the necessity of pursuing their vocation despite its challenges. In many ways, Rooney and Ginzburg’s struggles are a tale as old as time: writers have always been plagued by self-doubt, and writers’ block is accepted as an inevitable, almost clichéd part of the writing process. What makes Rooney’s depictions of fame interesting is the way in which in Beautiful World, Where Are You she sets them in conversation with those of Ginzburg, thus highlighting the changes in the glorification and commercialisation of the novelist over the last century.
Rooney is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of critical success. Her new novel has been hotly anticipated, accompanied by an intense publicity campaign complete with tote bags, pins, endless shop window displays, and even bucket hats. Such a marketing frenzy speaks to the profitability of Rooney’s novels, with publishers eager to capitalise on her previous success. Beautiful World, Where Are You was released to a wave of polarised critical opinion, yet even before its publication, readers and critics alike fell into the trap of basing their potential feelings on the book on their opinions on Rooney, rather than on its own merit. Rooney’s image has been commercialised, and her position in relation to her work magnified. She has been simultaneously lauded by critics as an Austen-esque millennial mouthpiece and an out-of-touch Marxist millionaire. The juxtaposition between the seemingly ‘normal’ lives she is depicting and her status as the literary sweetheart of the publishing world has not gone unnoticed. Yet Rooney consciously wrestles with the issues that her critics sling back at her, deftly exploring the rippling effects of fame, the seemingly irrelevant status of the contemporary novel and the often superficial and hypocritical world of literary production, all through what appears to be a thinly veiled alter ego, the prize-winning writer Alice.
Rooney begins the novel with Alice, whom we meet as she moves into a rent-free mansion in the Irish countryside following two globally successful novels and a mental breakdown. The book charts her budding relationship with Felix, a warehouse worker whom she meets on Tinder. Running counter to this is the story of Eileen, Alice’s university friend from Dublin. Eileen is the disillusioned former ‘gifted child’ who finds herself stuck in urban precarity in the city, working a low-paid job for a literary magazine to make ends meet. Eileen is hopelessly in love with her childhood friend, Simon, a well-meaning yet non-committal figure with whom Eileen has a complicated relationship.
The lives of these four protagonists intertwine throughout the novel and, with her characteristic class consciousness, Rooney traces how fame complicates these entanglements. Alice and Eileen rarely see each other anymore, communicating almost exclusively through musing emails that regularly intersperse the novel, where they discuss such topics as the decline of politics, class hierarchy and climate change. The most illuminating facet of their conversations is their discussion of Alice’s career, which broadens out into an exploration of the literary milieu. Both Alice and Eileen have careers in this field, and some of Rooney’s most humorous and biting prose is on the artifice of the publishing world.
‘When I submitted my first book, I just wanted to make enough money to finish the next one,’ Alice writes to Eileen. ‘I never advertised myself as a psychologically robust person, capable of withstanding extensive public inquiries into my personality and upbringing.’ Fame is figured as the undesirable by-product of commercialising talent, rarely the motivating factor for a writer to put pen to paper. Alice views the publishing world as a necessary evil, where ‘everyone you know is bloodthirsty and wants to kill you or fuck you to death’. Yet Alice’s career is presented as a form of mimicry: on a press trip around Rome, giving book talks and interviews, she tries to play the part of ‘the writer’. This imitation means she lives a double life, public and private. This creates a disconnect: ‘I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything.’
Given what Rooney writes about the conflicted self-image of the writer, it would be somewhat disingenuous to claim that Alice is her carbon copy. Critics often attempt to divine writers’ innermost thoughts and feelings on the basis of their fictional works. This is particularly true with women writers, whose works have often been accused of drawing more on their own lives than their male counterparts.
Rooney’s critics often accuse her — a Trinity College Dublin graduate with three novels under her belt at the age of 30 — of being out-of-touch with the realities of ordinary people, whilst simultaneously claiming to be the voice of her generation. Rooney appears to be alive to this risk when she has Alice claim (of famous writers): ‘The truth is they know nothing about ordinary life. Most of them haven’t so much as glanced up against the real world in decades … now when they look behind them, trying to remember what ordinary life used to be like, it’s so far away they have to squint.’
Rooney’s literary fame is the exception rather than the rule, as many authors never even get published, let alone make a profitable career out of writing. This is partly what makes Rooney’s allusions to Ginzburg in the epigraph of her novel all the more elucidating. Rooney may place herself in conversation with Ginzburg, but Ginzburg did not enjoy the same financial stability as her during her lifetime. In her essay 'My Vocation', she writes that writing ‘does not produce much money and it is always necessary to follow some other vocation simultaneously in order to live.’ Ginzburg likens payment from writing to ‘receiving money and presents from the hands of someone you love’; a reward rather than a profitable exercise. Ginzburg confesses at the start ‘I know that writing is my vocation. When I sit down to write I feel extraordinarily at ease, and I move in an element which, it seems to me, I know extraordinarily well.’ When she does not write, she feels ‘in exile’.
Ginzburg charts her growth as a writer, from the rudimentary poems of her childhood and her first novel to her brief hiatus from writing after becoming a mother. Motherhood eventually offers the possibility of reinvention: ‘now I no longer wanted to write like a man, because I had had children’. Her later grief following her husband’s death changed the trajectory of her writing once more: ‘the tools were still the same but the way I used them had altered'. Ginzburg charts the continual renegotiation of her status as a woman writer. Her vocation is personified: ‘its vigilant, shining eyes’ forever watching, it is a figure that ‘swallows the best and the worst in our lives’. Yet despite this tumultuous relationship, and even though she believes she is never going to be well-known, Ginzburg views writing as a necessary endeavour.
Ginzburg is steadfast in her belief in the transformative power of literature.
Rooney has already reached a level of fame that Ginzburg has not, but there is also a recognition of the necessity of writing in her work. Both writers, then, share the conviction that literature is more than simply a means to an end, cementing their belief that fame is incidental to the job. Ginzburg is steadfast in her belief in the transformative power of literature. Whilst Rooney seems to believe the same as Ginzburg to an extent, she also ponders on the relevance of contemporary literature. In one of her emails to Alice, Eileen writes, ‘Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? It seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse.’
There is a certain existentialism in Beautiful World, Where Are You, which is coupled with an extreme anxiety about one’s personal role in the various crises facing humanity outside of literature. The two protagonists are racked with guilt; they worry about their plastic consumption, their inability to express their views fully within the framework of existing political language, and even whether motherhood is inherently selfish in the modern age by inflicting suffering on others. All generations think that they will be the last, and Alice and Eileen worry about their impact in a world where ultimately nothing matters.
Rooney may suffuse the novel with this contemporary malaise, but she is not pessimistic. The protagonists find meaning in the world in the beauty of human connection: ‘I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live, the world will be beautiful to me.’ This search for beauty in the world is where Rooney’s writing converges most strongly with Ginzburg. Both ultimately champion the importance of human connection over vain attempts to become successful. In a time of rampant consumerism and climate change, Ginzburg’s assertion that she would like to teach her children the ‘little virtues’ rings more important than ever, and chimes with Rooney’s search for authenticity.
The immediate solution to these challenges may appear to be to remain anonymous and so avoid the barrage of criticism that comes with the job. Being in the public eye is not a necessary part of being a writer per se. Anonymity is inherently linked to the history of women’s writing; Virginia Woolf famously asserted in A Room of One’s Own: ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’ Yet attempting to remain anonymous can be a double-edged sword; in recent years, the most striking example of this is in the case of Elena Ferrante. The media's obsession with Ferrante’s identity speaks to the public’s desire to find the missing link between women’s lives and their literature. Attempts at anonymity lead savvy readers to try to track down the author’s real identity. You would be hard-pressed to find an interview with Ferrante that does not mention her anonymity in some way.
‘What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway?’ Alice asks in Beautiful World, Where Are You. There is a disconnect between Alice’s self-image and the image that has been constructed for her by the media. Her anxieties tap into a dilemma facing contemporary authors. The figure of the author has been brought to the forefront of marketing, and nowadays they are expected to play a large role in selling their work. Viewed in this light, Ginzburg’s slow meditations on grief, death, and the tribulations of motherhood, feel like the product of a different time. Rooney explores the modern writer’s hyperexposure when Alice gives an interview where she casually states that her partner does not read her work, only to be inundated with abuse from strangers on Twitter who claim that she deserves better than him.
Fran Leibowitz once joked that if someone tells you they enjoy writing, you should run a mile. When Ginzburg muses on the frustrations of writing, she talks about her struggles in childhood to find rhymes for her poems: 'speranza; lontananza; pensiero; mistero; vento; argento; frangranza; speranza' ('hope; distance; thought; mystery; wind; silver; fragrance; hope'). Finding herself at a dead end, she returns to where she started, ‘speranza’, hope. This hope is the reason to continue writing for Ginzburg; despite the arrival of the pandemic at the end of Beautiful World, Where Are You, it is also how Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon find the strength to go on. Rooney has spoken of the ‘countless millions of forgotten people who worked away quietly in obscurity’, who nevertheless had the faith in their own ideas, big or small, to write. Success is all very well. But for all that it might sound like self-deprecation or false modesty when she calls herself a ‘small writer’, Ginzburg’s message is that humility in itself can be a source of strength.
Scarlett Colquitt reads French and Spanish at Lady Margaret Hall. She did not speak until she was three and a half, but now her parents joke that they would like a refund from the speech and language therapist as they cannot stop her from talking.
Art by Autumn Clarke