I recently finished Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. One of the characters in the book is a novelist who is adjusting to life in the public eye and can’t understand why strangers on the internet feel the need to analyze and comment on her life. It’s easy to imagine that Rooney herself shares this character’s perspective. Unfortunately, after reading the book, I was struck with the urge to write about Sally Rooney on the internet. Sorry, Sally Rooney.
Things people complain about in negative reviews of Sally Rooney books
I looked at negative reviews (3 stars or fewer) and plotted the most common phrases people used in them:
A few things jumped out at me. First, lots of people really dislike her disdain for quotation marks. She explains her stance in an interview: “I can’t remember ever really using quotation marks. I didn’t see any need for them, and I don’t understand the function they perform in a novel” (notice my use of quotation marks here). I actually don’t find it distracting, but it appears to have bothered some readers.
Second, many reviewers appear to have read her books for a book club, and so perhaps they read and reviewed it reluctantly. They are pretty good book club books, although as noted in the Beautiful World reviews, the sex scenes can get to be a bit much.
Finally, a lot of the reviewers found the books boring, or lacking in plot, or didn’t like the characters.
Distinctive Phrases in Reviews of Sally Rooney Novels Overall
When looking at all reviews and not just negative ones, some more interesting patterns emerge.
Aside from references to specific plotlines or characters, I find these to be interesting themes:
- Normal People and Conversations with Friends reviewers note how easy to read they are
- Some Conversations reviewers were disappointed after reading rave reviews and found it to be pseudo-intellectual
- Beautiful World reviewers mention Rooney’s previous works, approve of Rooney’s taking on some larger subject matter in climate change, and complain about filler in the novel
The Difference in Ratings Between Rooney’s Novels
Based on this data, early reviewers of Beautiful World aren’t as fond of it as her last books. There are lots of things that could factor into this outside of the quality of the novels: her readership has grown, expectations are higher after the huge success of the previous books, perhaps early reviewers are harsher than later ones. As it so happens, I didn’t like Beautiful World nearly as much as the other two.
How did the Normal People Netflix Show Impact Sally Rooney’s Sales?
I was curious to see the impact that getting a book made into a hit TV show had on Rooney’s book sales. Plotting the Amazon reviews of her three novels below, it’s clear that there was a massive jump in reviews of Normal People in late spring of 2020 when the show came out, roughly quadruple the baseline from before the show.
There is also a smaller jump in Normal People reviews in mid-2019, which I am assuming is due to it winning British Book of the Year in that time period.
Looking at the number of reviews on separate axes, we can more clearly see how reviews of Conversations with Friends rose following the release of the Normal People show in late spring of 2020. This seems like people who watched and enjoyed the show, perhaps read the novel, and then were so taken with it that they bought Rooney’s first novel. This is an interesting property of having multiple books as an author; if someone really loves one of them they will read the rest of the catalogue. It is a metric I would want to know if I were an author.
The difference in scale of the reviews (which I am assuming translate fairly directly to sales) makes me think about how discovery is a difficult problem with novels. Normal People isn’t 10 times better than Conversations, and yet it has 10x more reviews because it happened to get picked up for an award and a TV show which help people discover books.
There are so many novels to choose from that people have to rely on things like awards lists and shows to find good things to read, but it leads to a very uneven distribution in outcomes between books of similar quality.
How have book launches changed with Rooney’s increasing success?
I expect that an element of writing “successful” novels is that the sales at launch grow with each new release. For example, I’d imagine the sales of the second Harry Potter book during its first month were a great deal more than the sales of the first Harry Potter book during its first month.
Rooney’s novels are following this trend, based on the number of reviews, and the launch of Beautiful World seems much bigger following the enormous success of Normal People. It will be interesting to see if her fourth novel continues to follow this pattern.
And finally, some qualitative data
My definitive rankings of the books are as follows:
- Conversations with Friends: Extremely fun story about a group of confused but entertaining people figuring out friendship and romance and what they’re doing with their lives. Lots of scenes set in European vacation homes, very aspirational.
- Normal People: A really captivating romance between two confused people with extremely engaging writing and an entertaining if frustrating plot. Also some good scenes in European vacation homes.
- Beautiful World, Where are You: A reasonably easy to read story about a group of confused and mildly entertaining people. The requisite scenes in European vacation homes are there, but it’s a bit less aspirational than the others.
Would love to hear your thoughts! Email joe @ this website.