In reaction to the pandemic, people have indulged in melancholy. Though Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People was neither her debut nor her most recent, it was the one that made her famous. The gloomy but beautiful novel was published in 2018, and adapted for television by the BBC two years later. The television series, released right in the midst of the pandemic, became a smashing success, and BBC’s most streamed series of 2020. Dubbed this generation’s Salinger, Rooney did more than create a bestselling book: She changed the romance terrain. Fueled by BookTok and the rising popularity of melancholic literature, the deglamourized romance of Marianne and Connell provided comfort for many readers.
Along with this influx of melancholic, domestically themed novels like A Little Life, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and of course Normal People, the trope of the self-aware narrator has become increasingly popular in contemporary fiction. Protagonists, such as Marianne, weave self-criticism and eerily astute observations about their own flaws into the narrative, creating a sense of nonchalant introspection that makes their stories seem more realistic. This transparent style of writing walks a thin line between poignant awareness and cliché. No one wants to read a novel where the protagonist spends the whole time complaining—no matter how self-aware they are—but Rooney’s characters emotionally level with readers. The writings of melancholic authors like Rooney or Emily Austin are especially pertinent to struggles of the pandemic era.
This genre certainly deviates from the previous trends of romantic fiction literature. As the pandemic continues, many seek comfort in reading, and while before people turned to fantasy or cheesy rom-coms, now, these dark, and domestic, fictions are growing in popularity. Without leaning too heavily on the self-aware narrator, these novels embrace the melancholia of the everyday. These novels’ unforgettable ability to languish in the uncomfortable has become indicative of their genre.
With social media’s increasing popularity, it is no surprise that the literary market is also affected by this shift in trends. BookTok, a subsection of TikTok, is a worldwide reading community that discusses books and drives sales. All of the larger-name book stores have some sort of a “Trending on TikTok” section—if a book blows up on BookTok, it is bound to sell out in stores. The hashtag #normalpeople has amassed 6.2 billion views on Tik Tok, proving the Gen Z literary influencers have spoken.
However, there is a distinction between timeless and trending, and for these novels, it lies within the characters. Especially for novels like Normal People, the characters are the core of the story, and they are endearing because they are so unfiltered. They nest in the perfect middle ground: Realistic but not too realistic, relatable but not too relatable, funny but not too funny. And especially when touching on more sensitive topics, like abuse, addiction, and fluctuating power dynamics, authors must tread lightly. But what allows these novels to resonate is their almost unintentional disregard for their readers, as they appear to remove the performative aspect of character development. It’s always most difficult to do the simplest things well, and Rooney masterfully created a love story that is as raw and brittle as her characters, shattering the illusion of the tried-and-true romance.