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Emails I Didn't Send

In the last few years, Irish author and screenwriter Sally Rooney has taken over the literary fiction and romance genres. I was first introduced to Rooney’s work through her novel Normal People a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve read her latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, and watched the television adaptations of Normal People and her debut novel, Conversations With Friends. Like many other people, I have been completely captivated by Rooney and her work. I was intent on writing about her, but I didn’t have any idea where to start. I genuinely believe that you could write an entire novel on the significance of the ordinariness of Rooney’s characters and narratives, how her choice to remove quotation marks from the dialogue acts to immerse the reader in the flow of conversation, or even how she, as a Marxist, was able to weave her political ideologies into her stories in a way that, let’s face it, Karl Marx never could. Sally Rooney’s work is full of content to ponder and build upon, including miscommunication, classism, sexuality, and politics, among other things. Nonetheless, I decided to write about emails. Let’s say I was inspired by Sally Rooney’s inclination to the mundane.

Last week, I read an article by journalist Katie Hanson called “Throw away the junk mail in Sally Rooney’s ‘Beautiful World Where Are You?’”. Hanson is a fan of Rooney herself, which I would never have guessed from the opening line: “Say Sally Rooney’s name around any Dr. Martens-wearing, overall-clad college student and you’re likely to get a positive response.” Needless to say, I was immediately on the defensive. That said, I do think she brings up some common, valid criticisms of Rooney’s work. From reading and watching the things that Sally Rooney has created, it’s clear that her storylines are purposefully unremarkable in order to let Rooney’s impressive characterization shine. In all of her work, Rooney’s primary focus is on the way people communicate with each other. But, in addition to the spoken conversations, these books are chock-full of written communication, including text messages and, of course, emails. In her article, Hanson argues that the emails in Beautiful World, Where Are You were an extreme distraction from what she claims to be Rooney’s biggest strength: her dialogue. She says, “Rooney used to rein over the perfect beach, light-read genre, but reading this book required an almost detective-like analysis to draw any conclusions from the emails…between the pages and pages of emails, there was too much to draw from. Full of contradictions and completely unprompted thoughts, the emails felt more like testimonies from Rooney, rather than the characters.”

When I began reading Sally Rooney’s novels, I was surprised by the emails’ presence. The prevalence of emails in Conversations With Friends and Normal People are explained away because they both take place (at least at the beginning) in the late 2010s. Email didn’t become too popular among the public until the mid-90s, so this form of communication makes complete sense within those settings. What perplexed me then was the number of emails in Beautiful World, Where Are You, which takes place between 2019 and 2020. I use email every day, so I won’t try to convince anyone that email is “dead”. That said, I do think that it is a completely outdated method of communicating with people in non-academic or professional settings. If I want to talk with my friends or family, I can’t imagine choosing to draft an email rather than send them a text. And yet, this is the main form of communication between the protagonists of Beautiful World, Where Are You. In fact, every chapter of the novel is followed by an entry in their email correspondence. These emails, at first, felt bizarre. Full of religious and political commentary, self-revelation, and so, so much more that I can’t imagine ever sending to a friend. The emails are so strongly opinionated that, yes, they often seem like Rooney’s testimonies, and, although the two main characters are supposed to be best friends, the emails are written in a way that often seems too academic to be genuine. Having said that, as I continued the book, I found myself often looking forward to what the characters were deliberating. When it comes to Sally Rooney’s previous novels, I think it was easy to overlook the emails and focus on her examinations of the way people communicate when they’re speaking. In a book where these writings are so deeply ingrained, they cannot go unnoticed. Still, for many people, email has become a negligible method of having personal communication. So, why does Sally Rooney continue to include them?

In an interview with The Irish Times, Sally Rooney says, “For me, I spend so much of my time, as you know, writing emails to my friends. And the voice that I have when I’m writing feels like my voice. That’s me writing, trying to communicate something to someone, who I trust, as I would like to trust a reader. I mean, that is my voice, isn’t it? I can tamper with it and I can change it, but the idea of switching register into some lyrical form of prose writing that bears no resemblance to how I communicate on a day-to-day basis, for me, didn’t work.” At this moment, I’m thinking of all the emails I didn’t write and wish I had. As I writer myself, I felt a bit ignorant for not recognizing the importance of the writing we do outside the “professional” realm when it comes to discovering our unique voice. This quote gave me a much better understanding of what Beautiful World, Where Are You was trying to accomplish. This novel is not a subversion from Rooney’s fascination with communication, but a more personal depiction of how communication can occur. I think the disconnect that has occurred among readers here is that most people, unlike Sally Rooney, don’t have an “email voice” they feel is representative of how they communicate in their daily lives. Rooney has stated in the past that the implication that her work is based entirely on her own life experience is insulting to her work as a creator, so I don’t want to insinuate that I believe the abundance of emails in this novel are the result of her incompetence as a writer, quite the opposite actually. After reading about the importance of emails in Rooney’s life, whether that be as a means to communicate with the people she loves or place to hone in her voice as a writer, reading her story has made it abundantly clear that the characters of Beautiful World, Where Are You are the most authentic she’s ever written.


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