Will Self caused a stir in literary circles earlier this month when he laid into novelist-of-the-moment Sally Rooney, a 27-year-old whose novel Normal People has been nominated for the Booker and Costa book awards. "It's very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see," he complained in an interview with The Times. "I don't mean to be overly critical but in terms of literary history, it does seem a bit of a regression." It was not quite on a par with the most memorable literary put-downs – after being punched by Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal famously managed to mutter from the floor: "As usual, words fail him" – but it was titillating enough nonetheless.
It’s unlikely the notoriously contrarian Self, who once accused the Harry Potter books of turning out a generation of “dumb kidults”, will be remotely concerned but his comments have provoked a prickly backlash (not to mention generating publicity for his latest literary work – penning 88 fortunes wrapped around macarons and distributed to diners in Hakkasan restaurants in London).
According to all the right people, Rooney is "the voice of the millennial generation". Critics and readers adore her. She has been profiled in the New Yorker. There are quickly diminishing piles of her novel in every bookshop window. And if you fall between the ages of 16 and 35, the chances are you received at least three copies of Normal People, a love story about two childhood friends in Ireland, at Christmas.
The response was particularly angry, I suspect, because it was Self who made the remarks. One gets the impression you’d never have to ask Self what he’s reading; he’d have told you already. If, as the saying goes, “intelligence is like underwear – it’s important that you have it but there’s no need to show it off”, Self has certainly never really grasped the concept. It’s why he irritates plenty of people. My favourite riposte came from Self’s ex-wife, the journalist Deborah Orr, who, with the weariness of firsthand experience, tweeted: “Imagine him standing over you sneering in real time as you read your Sally Rooneys.”
But, pompous as he may be, Self makes a valid point about the state of literature today. What he went on to say is that "if you consider that Nabokov's Lolita was on the New York Times bestseller list for nine months, it's a different order of literature". That is indisputable. And it wasn't just Lolita, published in America in 1958, capturing readers' imaginations. The novel that knocked Lolita off the top spot was Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which stayed there for nearly 30 weeks. In 1961, it was Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy that dominated the list. Leap forward to 1983 and you'll see that Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose was one of the most popular novels of the year.
Just take a look at the current Sunday Times bestseller list for fiction, based on sales data collated by Nielsen BookScan. The top 10 is made up almost entirely of crime fiction and thrillers. There is nothing wrong with either of those genres but the risk is that the commercial success of such novels persuades publishers to dismiss literary fiction when it lands on their desks.
So is Normal People, currently at number four in the Sunday Times bestseller list, the exception? No – and again, Self is right (albeit a touch bombastic) when he says: "What's now regarded as serious literature would, 10 or 20 years ago, have been regarded as young-adult fiction".
To be absolutely clear, I enjoyed Normal People. It is an elegantly told love story, written in crisp prose, which neatly exposes millennial habits and hang-ups. But its success is down, in large part, to the fact that it fails to challenge in any meaningful way its core readership – millennials. There were many better novels published last year but none of them were quite so accessible.
Normal People stands out because it is different – more literary, if you like – than everything else on the bestseller lists. But this is not quite the same thing as saying it is of great literary significance. The value of Rooney's writing has been inflated because most of us don't read enough literary fiction. We have therefore mistaken something quite ordinary for something exceptional.
So what is going wrong? Phones, social media, YouTube and Netflix all jostle for our attention, offering immediate gratification in a way that literary fiction never will. How can it possibly compete? As an exceptional example, you might point to Anna Burns's Milkman – a tricky novel that has been commercially successful – but copies only started shifting when Burns was awarded the Booker Prize in October last year.
Reading shouldn’t just be about pleasure. That’s a part of it, of course, but fiction should do more than entertain. It should infuriate you and make you question yourself, as well as bringing great joy. It often takes time and no small effort to unlock a novel’s magic; it's that investment of hours that pays dividends. We risk depriving a generation of readers of these life-affirming experiences for fear of overexerting them. Self’s comments should be read not as a personal attack on Rooney but as an assessment of why the best literary fiction is not being widely read today.
Self raised some legitimate concerns when he questioned the literary value of Normal People. The furious response to his comments suggests that he is onto something – and that many people can't bear to admit it.