Reconciling with the effects of consumerism on the literary world.
By Emma Marttinen
There is a scene near the end of Normal People by Sally Rooney, where one of the novel’s leading protagonists, Connell Waldron, attends a book reading at his college. Despite his anxious attempts at enjoying the event, Connell can’t help but become mildly uncomfortable with the entire affair. Eventually, he observes that “literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured” (Sally Rooney, 228) and feels generally unconvinced by his classmates posturing. Despite loving literature and remaining attached to the idea of becoming a writer, Waldron sees its production as something fetishized, oftentimes used as a performance of intellect and class.
“[A]ll books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated in some degree of this market,” Connell admits (Rooney, 228). This begs a critical question, how does one reconcile with literature when it has become so inextricably linked with a consumerist market? How has the identity of the modern reader and writer changed along with it?
It is characteristic of Sally Rooney to make conscious critiques of the literary world within her own work. Alongside the myriad of other identifiably Rooneyesque characteristics, examination of a consumerist and individualist culture seems to be a particular fixation in her novels. This is particularly the case in Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You. This criticism is ironic when recognizing the cultural monolith Sally Rooney has become. Having generated tremendous conversation after the publication of her first two novels, it wasn’t until the 2020 release of the television adaptation of Normal People that using a word like Rooneyesque could begin to conjure a particular image. It was the tumultuous and misinterpretive relationship between the book and the show’s romantic leads that appealed to so many during a time when much of the world was absorbing any content they could get their hands on. Despite the claims about her literary ability, popular consumerist spheres were still in many ways removed from the initial intellectual outpouring about her work. However, after 2020, TikToks about novels with “Sally Rooney vibes” or people who labelled themselves “Sally Rooney girls” appeared. In fact, she seems to have catalysed an entire literary aesthetic, one that is distinctly contemporary, oftentimes plotless, and focused usually on intellectual, misinterpreted women. The “sad girl” genre of literary fiction exploded, but not just as a popular archetype. Almost instantaneously, with the masses of immobilised TikTok users suddenly interested in the form, it became a well performing identity — one that if you read enough books in the genre, you could properly embody.
The popularisation of particular literary themes, like the “sad girl”, do not exist in a vacuum. They initially represent the interests of people within a market that want to be engaged by alternative ideas. Sally Rooney addressed various contemporary angsts in a distinctly new and literary way. She represented women as unlikable and obscure, she gave them depth in a way that appealed to a younger generation of women who were in many ways ignored by the publishing industry. In response however, when this industry got hold of the writing style’s market potential, its impact became obscured. Books in the same cadence of Rooney could come to represent a persona. Readers could buy them and be closer to embodying the same remote, resentful tone. Understandably, women wanted to challenge stereotypical representations of themselves. They wanted to see the ugly parts. They wanted to feel different. It is unsurprising that this “difference” was not all encompassing. That is, it quickly came to exclude swaths of women who did not fit in the distinct “sad girl” aesthetic. White, thin, sickly, selfish. But if you bought more books, maybe you could get close!
It wasn’t just the “sad girl” genre that became a popular market in the literary world but various niche, oftentimes consumer-imposed identity markers. With TikTok’s rising influence on the publishing industry specifically and, in turn, much of the literary world, less attention was paid to the books’ literary merit. Suddenly, they were characterised by what facets of its buyers’ identity it would appeal to.
I started working at a local bookstore in 2020 and watched as its shelves quickly warped to appeal to this new form of literary consumerism. The romance genre skyrocketed from being supported by a niche but devoted audience of longtime readers to a supermassive phenomenon supported by new readers—some whose reintroduction to literature since mandated reading Colleen Hoover. With this explosion came a new kind of identity as a reader —one that required you to have a kindle with stickers all over it, a TBR (to be read) you could never conceivably approach, box subscriptions from your favourite companies, and pristine white bookshelves from Ikea lined with hundreds of uncracked books, preferably organised in a neat rainbow line.
Connell’s observations on intellectual fetishism is a longtime phenomenon seen in many artistic communities. It is already undeniable that the novel in its material form serves a multiplicity of purposes. Both writer and reader can become easily enamoured with the exchange of ideas as a commodity form, rather than an artistic process. Literary spaces have, for much of their existence, been closely connected to classism, posturing, and pretension. Partly, these issues arise from the tradition of publishing where one must sell art as a product, no matter how much they may disagree. Literary marketing, however, has taken a new form —one that in mimicking a culture where identity is bought and moralism is sold, has created a rapidly expanding spiral that threatens the authenticity of expression.
When questioning the identity of a contemporary reader or a writer, it can often appear like a complete dismissal of literature’s connection to the personal mystique. This is not the case. Literature is most fundamentally an attempt at understanding. The processes of reading or writing are some of the most human ways of developing a sense of self and a sense of the world around them. Where harm occurs is in the myth that one must read a certain way, most often to satisfy the needs of a capitalist market — to appear cultured. Even more concerning is the cultivation of entire personal mythos based on limited, highly atomized popular archetypes seen on platforms like TikTok, where branding oneself as a “sad girl” can only truly come from an endless cycle of uncritical consumption or consumption that brands itself as critical when it is really just a thinly veiled repetition of itself. There can only be so many litfic books marketed around sad, selfish women until their themes become reductive—created to fit in a well performing market rather than earnestly interrogate lifes conditions. Not every novel must be completely philosophically current or masterpieces of intellectual engagement, nor must every reader be constantly on their toes. Reading and writing should be fun, sometimes frivolous. It should bring joy, it should be honest.
Connell admits that no matter the writer or the reader’s posture, in a capitalist market, literature will partly come to embody a particular status or identity. It is what one does with this status that is important to be aware of. Consume not for the sake of it, but because it is what you love. Read slowly. Buy less books. Be honest. This is where the words mean most.