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Simon & Schuster in the US, and Penguin Random House in the UK must be looking on in envy at the incredible success of the Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose third novel Beautiful World Where Are You has just been published. Both houses published another young woman two years ago who also seemed to capture a particular moment for millennial young women and who held out the promise of being a hugely successful author for the houses.
That author was the US writer Kristen Roupenian. Like Rooney, she is a similarly clever young writer, who burst on the scene to huge acclaim. Roupenian’s short story Cat Person, about an internet date that goes wrong, was published in the New Yorker in 2017and went viral. The story was published at the same time as #metoo movement and was the subject of think pieces, and op-eds, and a huge amount of media discussion and online debate.
On the basis of this single short story, Roupenian received a $1.2m advance from S&S for a book of short stories and HBO snapped uprights for a TV series based on the collection. At PRH in the UK, Cape acquired the short stories and a novel and also published Cat Person as a standalone short story, something that publishers hardly ever do.
For Roupenian, perhaps inevitably, it created a weight of expectation that she has so far been unable to live up to. The short stories – You Know You Want This – appeared, and then all but disappeared. Interestingly, Roupenian took to the New Yorker again to reveal what she felt like during the height of her fame. She didn’t like it. Commenting on the effect of social media, she wrote: ‘But knowing, in that immediate and unmediated way, what people thought about my writing felt… the word I keep reaching for, even though it seems melodramatic, is annihilating. To be faced with all those people thinking and talking about me was like standing alone, at the center of a stadium, while thousands of people screamed at me at the top of their lungs. Not for me, at me. I guess some people might find this exhilarating. I did not.’
Rooney has had – still has, in fact – the same issues with fame.
She told the Guardian recently: “As far as I can make out, the way that celebrity works in our current cultural moment is that particular people enter very rapidly, with little or not preparation, into public life, becoming objects of widespread public discourse, debate and critique…They just randomly happen to be skilled or gifted in some particular way, and it’s in the interest of profit-driven industries to exploit those gifts and to turn the gifted person into a kind of commodity.”
It will be interesting to watch what happens to both these writers. Roupenian has been overtaken somewhat, but her novel is yet to appear and her writing is arguably more imaginative, dark and fantastical at times, meaning she is not just drawing on her own life. Rooney is hugely successful – Normal People became a hit TV series and Conversations with Friends is about to receive the same treatment. But she seems to be narrowing in on a smaller canvas – one of the characters in Beautiful World is a successful novelist who, like Rooney, lives in rural west Ireland to escape attention.
Whatever the paths of their careers, both writers’ work have led to masses of comment – and that brings consumers into bookshops which is to be celebrated.