Skip to main content


Forget Sally Rooney – you’re better off with Austen

A kiss in Normal People: one of many things Rooney thinks is “nice”

The new TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is “over-long and emotionally laborious”, says John Maier in UnHerd. But it’s a damn sight better than the book. The 31-year-old Irish author might be a millennial literary icon, but her novels are crammed full of “flat, affectless prose”. In her other book-turned-telly hit, Normal People, the dialogue sounds “as if it is being translated from a foreign language off-the-cuff and by someone with a slightly limited vocabulary in English”. Sentences can be wildly obvious. “I feel like our friendship would be a lot easier if certain things were different,” muses one character; “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you’re feeling bad about this,” says another. And the word “nice” abounds. Al dente pasta is “nice”, the university therapist is “nice”, Christmas with grandma is “nice”. During one sex scene, the heroine says: “I want this so much.” The hero replies: “It’s really nice to hear you say that.”

I truly have no idea why her work is hailed as “generation-defining commentary”. Rooney herself has encouraged comparison with Jane Austen: one character in Normal People waxes lyrical about Emma. But it’s a “strangely ill-advised” allusion. All it does is remind readers they could be enjoying Emma instead.