The New Banal: Contemporary Fiction’s Interest in the Ordinary

books, Essays

A discussion on Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends  and  John William’s Stoner

The Collins English Dictionary defines the banal as something that is “so ordinary that it is not effective or interesting” (“Definition of ‘banal’”). Yet, there has been movement in contemporary fiction towards pieces focused on the ordinary and employing the techniques of literary realism. Literature has become increasingly interested with the ordinary; no longer do readers crave escapist fantasies, but instead a focus on recognisable, everyday events. No writer epitomises this as much as Sally Rooney. Her work has seen huge success, particularly with the release of the BBC’s adaptation of Normal People.  But why is it that we are currently so interested in reading about the everyday?  

This is not a new phenomenon. An obvious example of literature’s interest in the ordinary is John Williams’ 1965 academic novel Stoner. Gaining little literary recognition when first published it is only in recent years that Stoner has become popular; with the novel awarded Waterstone’s 2013 ‘Book of the Year’ in Britain. The novel’s brutally honest account of life can be read as “depressing” (Preston), yet it is also an ideal example of how the banal can be effective. Williams’ novel documents the life of a man who “did not rise above the rank of assistant professor” and who “few students” remember “with any sharpness” (1). 

It is the complete ordinariness of this man which makes Stoner so heart-wrenching to read. We worry about being forgotten; his seemingly unexceptional life could just as easily happen to anyone. Stoner may be a “depressing” novel about the ordinary life of an “everyman” (Almond), but it still produces an incredibly emotional read. Stoner portrays real people and real problems which, however inconsequential to the greater world, can destroy an individual’s life. Edith’s rearranging of Stoner’s study is a particularly poignant moment, “Edith had, with the help of a local handyman, moved all of his belongings out of his study”, leaving his clothes and books in a “careless jumble” (129). What may seem like a simple act, is heart- breaking for the reader because we know how much those books mean to him; they are one of the only constants in his life. In comparison to other literary events, this may seem an insignificant act, but in real life it is often the minor events, like this, which have the most considerable consequence in our everyday life. 

Steve Almond writes modern life is “distracting us from the necessary anguish of our inner lives”, thus Stoner’s raw exploration of the ordinary is a much needed “antidote” (Hampson). Stoner is an “antidote” to the constant, modern pursuit of happiness and success and, arguably, this is the reason for the recent popularity. Williams reminds us that “a life that looks like a failure from the outside, that will be quickly forgotten once it ends, can be a noble, quirky and somehow beautiful experience.” (Hampson). In the modern Western world, there is constant pressure to maintain a perfect image of your life and yourself. Magazines, television and the rise of Influencers do not portray the average life, only an idealised concept. It is Williams’ positioning of Stoner as an “everyman” (Almond), and his focus on the seemingly mundane, everyday problems, that makes the novel appealing for contemporary readers. 

The need to recognise and understand “the necessary anguish of our inner lives” (Almond), has not only caused a renaissance in Stoner’s popularity, but arguably helped create this new fascination with the ordinary, which has allowed for Rooney’s success. 

Rooney’s two books have been described as “the literary phenomenon of the decade.” (Cain) and “cult-hit[s]” (Canfield). Through Conversations With Friends, Rooney demonstrates how everyday events can be portrayed as significant. Rooney draws on ‘what-if’ scenarios to transform events from banal into captivating. Rooney’s description of Frances’ “non-existent” (169) miscarriage, is a particularly good illustration of this effect of the ordinary. In reality, the bleeding was nothing but the possibility of what it could have been will remain with her forever. Therefore, it becomes not banal but in fact life-changing. Rooney writes “the non-existent baby entered a new category of non- existence, that is, things which had not stopped existing but in fact had never existed” (170). The emotive use of “baby” reminds the reader exactly what the possibility was and how life-changing it could have been. In addition, the phrases “I sat on the bed…and cried” and “it was okay to cry because nobody could see me, and I would never tell anyone about it” are written incredibly simply, and this allows them to be very effective. We understand exactly. We do not need Rooney to describe in vivid detail the room or exactly how Frances’ is feeling; we have all, at some point, sat on a bed and cried and never told anyone. Through this simple phrase, Rooney allows us to remember how it feels to sit and cry alone, and this is what makes it so effective. The reader is able to identify with the character and so the scene evokes an emotive and personal response. Although Rooney allows us to project our own feelings on the scene, we are reminded it is Frances’ “non- existent” miscarriage through the line “I would never tell anyone about it”. We can empathise, but the line establishes Frances’ shame and reminds us she is alone, alone in her room, alone without Nick’s support and alone without a baby. 

Arguably, we enjoy reading about the ordinary and everyday events because that is what our lives are immersed in and we want to make sense of it. As Andrew Martin argues “Rooney’s novels have the unusual power to do what realist fiction was designed to do: bring to light how our contemporaries think and act in private… and allow us to see ourselves reflected in their predicaments”. Just because something is small and seems unimportant doesn’t mean it won’t have a huge effect on our lives. Through writing about seemingly “non-existent” problems and the everyday, Rooney is giving people a voice. She is putting our own emotions on paper, and it can become much more personal to read than any imaginative scenario. 

It is also Rooney’s focus on characters and the relationships between them, which allows her novels to present ordinary events as extremely poignant. Anna Leszkiewicz writes that Conversations With Friends “is forensically engaged with the constant, small ways in which we interpret and perform in our relationships with others”. For example, chapter fourteen begins with a description of Frances, Nick and Bobbi eating breakfast. Rooney writes “Bobbi called me [Frances] a little pig, though she said she meant this ‘in a cute way’. And I brushed Nick’s leg under the table” (117). As David Canfield states Rooney’s work is propelled by the “nuances and revelations of everyday interaction”. These simple descriptions of unnoticed moments tell so much about the characters and allow a seemingly everyday scenario to gain significant. Through Frances’ comment “Bobbi called me a little pig, though she said she meant this ‘in a cute way’” the reader gains an honest view of their friendship and its dynamics. The reader understands the disrespect Bobbi’s “little pig” comment holds and Frances’ use of quotation in her response “she said, she meant this ‘in a cute way’” suggests she doesn’t believe it was meant “in a cute way”. In just a few words, Rooney clearly portrays the imbalance between their friendship. This imbalance is again emphasised through Frances’ “brush[ing] Nick’s leg under the table”. Frances’ comments that she gets a “spiteful sense of joy” through this secret activity. This covert action allows her to regain some power over Bobbi, as Frances is actively keeping something from her. The imbalances in their friendship’s power dynamics are levelled. 

Brushing Nick’s leg is both an insignificant event, but also incredibly poignant. As Alex Washam, Rooney’s editor, commented “what I love most about Sally’s writing is how closely she is attuned to the subtleties of human relationships… her characters and their situations are specific, but their psychological and emotional experiences are universal” (Canfield). From an outside viewpoint, “I brushed Nick’s leg under the table” (117) may seem trivial, but for Frances with her feelings for Nick, it is momentous. The reader understands this completely because they also have experienced moments like this, catching someone’s eye or brushing against them, which are both nothing but also can be interpreted as eve. 

It is the characters which allow pieces focused on the ordinary and everyday events to become extraordinary. Rooney said, “the kind of novels that I’m interested in writing are observations about what it feels like to be alive right now” (Canfield). Rooney writes about what it is like to be alive right now for the ordinary person, giving them a voice in a noisy world. Stoner is popular because no matter how much of a “failure” a life looks, purely being alive is a “beautiful experience”. Rooney and Williams’ novels are purely on the complexity of human relationships and how they affect us, and this is what makes them so interesting to read. 

We enjoy reading about the banal because it allows for an in-depth analysis of human relationships and gives a voice to the everyday person. Although literary realism focuses on the mundane, it can still produce a piece of intimacy and rawness through the use of character. A piece based on everyday events can produce just as big extremes in emotion as famous tragedies; they are a portrayal of everyday life and allow the reader to see themselves reflected in the work and put their emotions on the events. It may be that as our lives become more complicated and dominated by the aim to appear perfect the new banal will become even more popular. 

Works Cited:

Almond, Steve. “You Should Seriously Read ‘Stoner’ Right Now.” The New York Times Magazine, 9 May 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/magazine/you-should- seriously-read-stoner-right- now.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A% 22RI%3A7%22%7D&_r=0. Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.

Cain, Sian. “Normal People: how Sally Rooney’s novel became the literary phenomenon of the decade.” The Guardian, 8 Jan. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/08/normal-people-sally-rooney-novel-literary-phenomenon-of-decade. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019.

Canfield, David. “Sally Rooney is capturing what it feels like to be alive right now.” Entertainment Weekly, 11 Apr. 2019, ew.com/author-interviews/2019/04/11/sally-rooney-normal-people-profile/. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019

Hampson, Sarah. “Stoner: How the story of a failure became an all-out publishing success.” The Globe and Mail, 11 May 2013[Canada] , p. 4+, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/stoner-how-the-story-of-a-failure-became-an-all-out-publishing-success/article15803253/. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

Leszkiewicz, Anna. “Sally Rooney on sex, power and the art of being normal.” The New Statesman, 12 Sept. 2018, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/09/sally-rooney-interview-normal-people-booker-prize-bbc-three-adaptation-conversations-with-friends . Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

Marriott, James. “The first great millennial novelist. Sally Rooney, 27, the literary senstation from Dublin.” The Times, 19 Jan. 2019, p. 4+.

Preston, Alex. “Stoner by John Williams.” Alex Preston, 12 Sept. 2018,