'A Question of Literary Value: A Review of Conversations with Friends', by Cosima McGrath

'A Question of Literary Value: A Review of Conversations with Friends,' by Cosima McGrath Conversations with Friends book cover

"I had an internship in a literary agency at the time ... [my] job was to read stacks of manuscripts and write one-page reports on their literary value."

Frances, Conversations with Friends

When I read Conversations with Friends for the first time in 2016 it was just a manuscript, unedited and raw. In fact I didn’t even know the title, so to me it was just a series of words I scrolled through on my laptop (the file was locked from printing). Each page had a menacing watermark leaking underneath the words. I had to read and critique the story as part of my assessment for a publishing course I was enrolled in. The manuscript, we were told, was a real submission to a real publishing house, though we didn’t know which one. The author and title were blanked out.

And so, for me, the manuscript existed in a vacuum, untethered from any type of context – no author, no title, no category, no literary tradition, no publishing house logo, no imprint, no endorsements. I was asked to “Write a two-page readers report and tell us if you would publish this submission.” Was this story, this raw naked story, worthy of publication?

When I read Conversations with Friends for the second time it was a newly published book with an intriguing cover. It was marked with the Faber & Faber logo, shiny and validated. This was a book that had been judged worthy: worthy of being published, and worthy of being slated as the big fiction title for Faber that year. In fact six other publishing houses had also judged it worthy, and had engaged in a fierce bidding war, all hoping to pick up the next hot thing. Of course those publishers had not approached the manuscript in the same way I had. They were privy to details that helped contextualise the work, details that also helped convey value: the name of the literary agency attached to the author; the publication history of the author; oh and basic details like the author’s name – Sally Rooney.

I work in publishing now so I read manuscripts nearly every day. Naturally the best way to read a story is with an open mind, free from preconceived ideas or judgements. But, from a sales perspective, context helps. It helps to know that the author has an existing readership, it helps to know that the story touches on subjects that are growing in profile and interest, it helps to know that there are contacts who would provide endorsements or publicity opportunities. Mercenary as these concerns may seem, they are ever-present in the publishing industry. And so how do we judge literary value? And can we ever approach a story on its own terms?

What follows is a somewhat confusing patchwork review: partly made up of my initial assessment, written in 2016, of the unedited manuscript (shown here in italics); partly of my review of the recently published book; and partly of other strange, amorphous feelings and questions that my two readings of the book inspired – questions of worth, value and subjectivity.

This work of literary fiction tells the story of Frances, a poet, twenty-one years of age, living in Dublin. Frances has a close friendship with Bobbi who she once dated in high school and who now performs poetry with her. They are inseparable though they differ in terms of temperament – Bobbi is self-assured, extroverted and intellectually fierce, while Frances is reserved, creative and cautious with her emotions. The novel’s central focus is the way this intimate female friendship is challenged by the intrusion of two new figures, Melissa and Nick, a bourgeois married couple. Frances, who begins an affair with Nick, is the emotional force of this story and it is through her eyes that we witness the subtle power struggles taking place in social contracts between friends, family members and lovers.

When I first read Conversations with Friends I was propped up on my bed in my parents’ house in the Sunshine Coast Hinterlands. Through the window I could see the neighbour trundling across dew-soaked green hills, his tractor tilted sideways at such an alarming angle that I wondered he didn't topple off. The Glasshouse Mountains were just dark smudges on the horizon. After I finished reading it I was bereft. This usually happens when I read great fiction (and explains why I tend to stick to nonfiction). The dam holding back my emotions, normally strengthened by anti-depressants, begins to crack and I’m left feeling drained, desperate for connection, desperate for someone to redefine my boundaries. And so I texted someone I shouldn’t have texted.

- Are you awake?
- Yeah.
- Can I call? I've just finished a novel. I hate fiction. It gives me ~feelings~

He called. We spoke for a few minutes. I hung up on him. Our conversation, whether in person, on the phone or online, was always full of rhetorical tricks and barbed banter. It was also full of misunderstanding and evasion. But it was fun. I got a kick out of the conversational sparring matches. Frances in Conversations with Friends gets a similar high when talking to Nick, who is much older than her, and married; their conversation is “like a Word document which we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke which nobody else could understand.” Like Frances, I found I enjoyed conversation “in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music.”

The author shines when describing the anxieties surrounding the way we negotiate relationships over the internet. Frances’s struggles with online communication are uncomfortably relatable. The dizzying excitement of a new message, the agonising wait for a reply, and the masochistic urge to read through old conversations to discover new meaning – these are all situations we encounter living in the digital age. In this way the story is reminiscent of Chris Killen’s novel In Real Life (2015) where the characters feel an “email-shaped ache”.

Frances and Nick start their flirtation online. A polite email snowballs into song suggestions, playful teasing and loaded questions. Conversations multiply and spread, running parallel to each other over various platforms – email, instant messenger, texts. The anxieties unique to these types of conversations are deftly described by Rooney. Frances drafts messages meticulously but deletes them for fear of accidentally clicking send. She also pores over archived conversations with Bobbi, her ex, in a masochistic and yet almost academic way, searching for evidence of old feelings like a scientist alert to confirmation of a hypothesis:

I’d taken on a similar project once before, shortly after our break-up, and now I had whole additional years of messages to read. It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and the factual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.

Relationships are moulded by conversation, boundaries established through words, social contracts made and broken. All of it recorded and archived. Emotional connection imprinted and fossilised in online spaces. Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick are constructing their world, and their identities, through rhetoric. Of course, this very rarely results in anything that could resemble authenticity. Frances is always “preparing compliments and certain facial expressions”, ready to play the role that will best fit the social situation. She uses words to hide her real feelings and agonises over her self-presentation as a cool, unflappable modern woman: “We can sleep together if you want,” she tells Nick one night, “but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.”

Even as the boundary between the public self and the real emotional fragility of the private self begins to break down, Frances still employs words to protect herself: “I just don’t have feelings concerning whether you fuck your wife or not. It's not an emotive topic for me.”

There are many positive aspects that stand out in this manuscript. In the opening pages, for instance, when we are introduced to Bobbi and Frances, we immediately get a strong sense of their personalities – they are well realised and engaging characters. The author skilfully outlines each of the four main characters as they enter the story, explaining them only so far as to pique the interest of the reader but leaving space to add light and shade as the relationships develop. This is a story driven by characters rather than by plot. The friction between the four central characters builds gradually and naturally, leaving the reader intrigued and expectant.

Despite the effective characterisation in Part 1, there are some aspects that could benefit from further revision. Characters on the periphery feel tokenistic and weak. For example, Frances’s relationship with her alcoholic father and erratic mother feel underdeveloped and unsatisfying. If her family situation could be addressed earlier and incorporated more fully into Part 1 the disintegration of Frances’s relationship with her father later in the novel would carry more weight.

When I started reading Conversations with Friends for the second time I was on the 96 tram headed to an appointment with my psychologist. This time I approached the story with caution. I was reading for pleasure now, not for an assignment. I wondered if the bumps I had identified in my assessment had been ironed out and the storyline revised. Had the opinions of a bunch of wannabe editors in a publishing course helped shape the final manuscript?

As dull-eyed morning commuters pushed past me and the tram jolted left onto Spring Street, one thing became clear to me as I read: this story was still giving me an intense case of ~feelings~. Later I told my psychologist about a line I had read that seemed to capture my mood: “I looked like something that had dropped off a spoon too quickly, before it had time to set.” Spoon-goo. While I struggled to articulate my own emotional life, the story once again offered me a glimpse into the emotional life of Frances and thoughtfully sketched the profound interiority of desire. Free from embellishment or garnish, her raw desires were alarming and immediate. The central characters were as bewitching as ever and I was hooked and devastated all over again. When describing the spoken word performances she does with Bobbi, Frances acknowledges that “the acclaim also felt like part of the performance itself, the best part, and the most pure expression of what I was trying to do, which was to make myself into this kind of person: someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.” Her sense of self is constructed by those who validate her and judge her as worthy – another all too relatable aspect of the story that hit me right in the feelings. Bobbi’s judgements are the most valuable: “When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time…I asked Bobbi questions like: do I have long legs? Or short?”

But the value of each character, as seen through Frances’s eyes, is delineated in more subtle ways. Rooney is an astute and unforgiving observer: “Bobbi came back and refilled her own wine glass without asking”; “She [Melissa] made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make someone eat something when they don't fully want to eat it”; “Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to the dinner, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear.”

Frances’s mother and father, I noted, played larger roles in the narrative than they had previously; their storylines had been fleshed out and strengthened since my first reading. For a brief moment my raging impostor syndrome went mute; it was nice to imagine that something I had identified in my assessment had also been noted by an editor at Faber. Perhaps my subjective value judgement had been the right subjective value judgement.

This is a work of literary fiction with a lot of potential. The writing is pared back, cool and as minimal as is fashionable. The author has a keen eye for manner and behaviour; the four central characters are beautifully drawn. But as it currently stands this manuscript lacks cohesion. There are a number of promising threads throughout the story—the relationship with the father, Frances’s attitude to money and class, the emotional labour and power struggles between friends and lovers—that, if developed, would make for a more robust narrative. After further edits I believe this book would be suitable for publication.

After submitting our two-page reader reports back in 2016 we, the students of the publishing course, met with the editor in charge in the mysterious manuscript. Emily from Faber told us that yes, the story of Frances and Bobbi had been acquired; it would be the big literary fiction title for 2017. Those of us who had deemed the story worthy of publication in our reports breathed a sigh of relief; the students who had recommended a polite rejection shrugged, it just wasn’t their cup of tea.

Value is subjective, of course, but it is also conditioned by context. Details about a novel and its author help to provide cultural context and situate the work within a previously acknowledged tradition. The cliché ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is trotted out ad nauseam, but the fact is it’s hard to avoid judging a book by its cover, and by its author’s reputation, and by the publisher’s reputation, and by its placement in bookstores, and by the title and type, the design and packaging. We may not mean to, but we do.

How would I have judged the story of Conversations with Friends if I had approached it first as a shiny newly published book? It’s impossible to say. Perhaps I would have been more forgiving, perhaps the flaws I reacted to when I read the raw manuscript would have been excused, perhaps the context – endorsements, beautiful cover design, Faber logo, favourable publicity – would have blinded my critical eye. As a reader I would love to engage with a story on its own terms, to approach it free from preconceived ideas and value judgements. I would love to read every book the way I first read Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, but context colours and blinds, and sometimes we do judge books by their covers.

Cosima McGrath is an editor from Brisbane. Her writing has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Stilts and The Big Issue.