How Sally Rooney's Normal People Became An 'Instagram Cool-Girl' Symbol

Kathryn Lindsay

Long before Sally Rooney's Normal People hit shelves, booksellers were preparing for a tidal wave. It had already made huge waves in the UK when it was released last summer, and its arrival in America this April was expected to make just as much of an impact. McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in New York City, normally orders 30 copies of a book when its author is coming to speak. Ahead of the store's Wednesday night event with Rooney, they've ordered 300.

In fact, almost every bookstore Refinery29 spoke to, based all over the U.S., was seeing unprecedented interest in the novel. But while its popularity may sound similar to other buzzy novels that gained rapid success thanks to platforms such as Instagram (a notable recent example being Stephanie Danler's Sweetbitter in 2016), Rooney — and her millennial characters — would be uncomfortable to hear her books were getting Instagrammed with oat milk lattes next to tubes of Glossier Balm Dotcom.

Rooney has blown up this past year after her first book, Conversations With Friends, won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2017 and was praised by everyone from acclaimed author Zadie Smith to actress Sarah Jessica Parker. In both Conversations and Normal People (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), Rooney deftly intertwines philosophy and Marxist theory with college party scenes and illicit emails, perhaps for the first time fully capturing the nuances and scope of the conversations and behaviour of young people. It doesn't hurt that the stories are packaged in irresistibly Instagrammable covers, the combination of all this launching her reputation from her work's more muted beginnings as a popular 2015 essay in The Dublin Review to an emphatic recommendation on Emily Ratajkowski's Instagram Story in a matter of years.

After much anticipation, Normal People finally hit US shelves Tuesday morning, 16th April. From the whimsical Books Are Magic in Brooklyn (owned by novelist Emma Straub) to the bright and welcoming Dog-Eared Books in San Francisco, booksellers told Refinery29 that patrons have been asking every day about the sophomore novel in eager anticipation of its arrival. When they host their event, McNally Jackson is expecting to fill up their downstairs event space, which has a capacity of around 175 people, and seat overflow in their cafe in front of a livestream. Books Are Magic, who is holding their event with the author tonight, had to move the event to an entirely different venue in order to accommodate the over 250 people they expect to attend.

Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago says they received several pre-orders for the book, and have sold 13 copies already which is "pretty extraordinary for a brand new release," the seller on the phone told me. BookPeople in Austin is also seeing increased interest, telling Refinery29 that of their 20 copies, six have been pre-ordered or put on hold — which, for independent bookstores in 2019, is unfortunately still impressive.

At the same time, Books Are Magic says Rooney's first novel "has been number one our best seller [list] this week, and it’s been on the list consistently the last couple months." As those who were already fans of Rooney's clamour for the first copies of Normal People, the rest of the public is catching up on Conversations With Friends with equal gusto.

Last week, Ratajkowski Instagrammed and tweeted about Conversations With Friends, saying it was Lena Dunham who introduced her to the novel.

"Read this in one sitting," she wrote on Instagram. "Go get!"

Then, just today, Camila Morrone, actress, model — and reported girlfriend of Leonardo DiCaprio — posted a photo of the novel to her Instagram story.

"I am finally reading this but need more book recommendations!!!"

Like Sweetbitter before it, a Sally Rooney book has become the perfect Instagram cool-girl symbol. Additionally, Normal People is taking over the feeds of actual normal people:

It's worth noting that Rooney would probably hate to hear her books classified as a symbol of an "Instagram cool girl," because it's antithetical to the ethos her books preach.

"I don’t know if I should say this, but I didn’t actually take any interest in how much the book sold," she admitted to Gulf News last September, later adding, "Because, the thing about books is that anyone can read them. There are a lot of people who probably enjoyed Conversations with Friends who are part of the system that is actively exploiting other people’s labour. I am sure there are landlords who read it and thought it was a great read. Am I happy that I have given those people 10 hours of distraction? Not really!"

But that's the magic of Sally Rooney novels — how they can trojan horse hard politics and leftist theory into an unsuspecting demographic, while at the same time representing a demographic that rarely makes it to the bestseller list. Is it ironic that part of that is through Instagram, a company owned by Facebook, which has recently taken responsibility for both its role in spreading misinformation in the 2016 election and its misuse of user data? That's a subject for a dinner party in the next Sally Rooney book.

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