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Read Like a Writer: Henry James and Sally Rooney by Liza Birnbaum

Posted Fri, 2/07/2020 - 11:57am by  |  Category: , , ,

Sally Rooney’s novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People have been two of the most talked-about books of the past five years.

Profiles of Rooney tend to feature her age (she’s not yet thirty) and to deploy descriptions like “phenomenon” or “of the moment”; the New York Times deemed her “the first great millennial novelist,” a line that’s been repeated in a half-dozen other articles. 

I love Rooney’s work, but this fixation on the timeliness of her novels feels to me like it both undermines the seriousness of her projects and misses something crucial about them. While her books do set down the particularities of a certain time (the past decade or so), one of the things I love most about reading them is that they feel in conversation with the preoccupations of the best novels across the past few hundred years, including many books from far before Rooney’s “time.” 

I’m not the only person to notice this about Rooney’s writing—Claire Jarvis, in Slate, wrote an essay with the subtitle: “Is Sally Rooney a millennial novelist or a 19th century one?” But I’ve been particularly thrilled that when Rooney herself talks about the writers who interest her, one name almost always comes up: Henry James, whose work I also love. 

In an interview with the New Yorker, she says: “Chief on my list for the last few years has been Henry James. I feel extraordinarily connected to his novels, like my whole life is there.”

James, probably best known for his novel The Portrait of a Lady and his novella The Turn of the Screw, also has a reputation that precedes him. Before I’d read him, what I’d heard was that his writing was dense, sometimes described as “mannered,” and that his sentences went on forever. This male American writer who worked over a hundred years before Rooney and whose prose stands in contrast to her sometimes stark lines—why is he the writer with whom Rooney claims so much affinity? 

The more I read the two of them, the more overlap I see in their skills and preoccupations, and the more I learn from them both. Some of what I most admire:

Both Rooney and James privilege the internal contradictions of their characters. 

The people in both writers’ novels are the sort you keep living with far after reading the books—the protagonists are open to us readers even when they refuse to be vulnerable to each other. We see their less appealing qualities—our narrator Frances’s relentless envy and comparison with others in Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, for instance—and watch them make mistakes that harm themselves and those around them. 

But both James and Rooney bring us close to these characters, and refuse to look at them without compassion and interest, even as they finely sketch their flaws.

Both writers’ work has a page-turning quality.

If you start reading Normal People or Conversations with Friends, you might find it difficult to stop; you might find yourself, as I did on my first read of the latter, starting your day by holding the book in your hand while brushing your teeth. Despite his reputation, the same can be true of James; while reading The Portrait of a Lady, I rushed home to my couch every day after work, eager to be back in Isabel Archer’s company. 

Besides the lovingly drawn and complicated characters, part of what generates momentum in these books is a tension between what’s stated and what’s left unsaid. An example: Early on in Conversations with Friends, Frances and her friend Bobbi are discussing another character. Bobbi says, “She’s amazing, isn’t she?” and Frances replies, “I like her.” 

Through the simplicity of this dialogue, the scene Rooney has just shown us, and the absence of narration around it, we’re able to see that the opposite is true—Frances does not like Melissa much—and to wonder what will come of the friends’ differing feelings. Both Rooney and James excel at this sort of small engine of intrigue, and as a writer it’s a skill that I can’t stop coveting.

James and Rooney show character to be both revealed and made by relationships. 

“I don’t really believe in the idea of the individual,” Rooney said in a 2018 interview with the New York Times. “I find myself consistently drawn to writing about intimacy, and the way we construct one another.” 

This is one of the things fiction does best: it can show us, through scene and interiority and the passage of time, how we are always co-constructing our identities. I remember James and Rooney’s characters, but more than that, I remember certain moments between them in which their interdependence is most visible: Bobbi helping Frances after Frances faints, or Isabel Archer thinking of her cousin Ralph Touchett: “There was something in Ralph’s talk, in his smile, in the mere fact of his being in Rome, that made the blasted circle round which she walked feel more spacious.” 

The truth, set down on a page, that we are not merely ourselves, that our lives are made up of others and that they both comprise and alter our understanding of our world—this is one of the things I read for, and why I want to write.

In my class on Rooney and James, which begins February 22, we’ll read a novel by each writer, and we’ll revel in all the affinities I’ve mentioned, as well as many more. We’ll use close readings to discuss craft choices, and we’ll also borrow techniques and themes from both writers in order to generate some new work of our own. 

Do you need a book (or two) that will really draw you in? Do you want to learn from two masters, and to discuss how to draw writerly inspiration from what you read? Or have you just been meaning to read Rooney and James for a while? If any of the above apply, please come and join us!


Liza Birnbaum‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Web ConjunctionsjubilatOpen Letters Monthly, and other publications. She is a founding editor of Big Big Wednesday, an annual print journal of literature and visual art, and has taught creative writing in a number of settings, most recently at an alternative school for young women who are pregnant or parenting. In 2019, she will be a funded resident at the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.