The curse of the cool girl novelist

From The New Statesman:

When George Eliot wrote her merciless takedown of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in 1856, she did not intend the genre to survive her attack. This wasn’t a mere hatchet job, where the axe takes out a few chunks from the body only for the thing to stagger on, but a complete decapitation inflicted by a sharpened machete. How vexed Eliot would be to learn that this monstrous genre has recently grown a new head.

In their 21st-century guise these novels inevitably look different, but bear the unmistakable marks of the original silly breed diagnosed by Eliot: they mistake “vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality”, they treat the less enlightened with “a patronising air of charity” and, despite their obvious mediocrity, are hailed by the critics, in the “choicest phraseology of puffery”, as “stunning”, “magnificent”, a “tour de force!”

Whereas the original silly novels were romances, the new breed come to us in the form of a genre dubbed “sad girl lit” (romances of the self, perhaps), otherwise known as millennial fiction. And in place of the original “lady” author we have the cool girl novelist.

Like the silly novels of Eliot’s day, the newest iteration has come to dominate the literary scene, indeed, it seems to be a prerequisite for publication today that young women writers are incurably downcast. Just a cursory look at Granta’s 2023 Best of Young British Novelists list (judged by the godmother of cool girl novelists, Rachel Cusk) will give you an idea of the genre’s ubiquity.

In Britain alone, the depressed and alienated woman is the subject of such novels as Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms, Chloë Ashby’s Wet Paint, Natasha Brown’s Assembly, Sarah Bernstein’s The Coming Bad Days and Daisy Lafarge’s Paul. In America, the terminally sad girl is the subject of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Halle Butler’s The New Me. Irish examples of the genre include Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, Nicole Flattery’s Nothing Special, and, it almost goes without saying, any novel by Sally Rooney. This is only a brief overview of a trend that has continued to lure new disciples for coming up to a decade now. Time enough for the genre to coagulate into parody.

While the silly novels of the 19th century were “frothy” and “prosy”, their heroines inclined to “rise to a lofty strain of rhetoric”, cool girl novels are uniformly spare, and their depressed protagonists hardly speak at all. If Eliot’s silly novelists forged their prose style in rooms adorned with silk ribbon and taffeta trim, the cool girl novelists of today write from white Scandi-inspired rooms, their prose monochromatically dull.

The anti-heroine of these novels is usually a PhD student (or at least an MA), crucially distinguishing her from the common undergraduate masses. Her knowledge of intersectional theory has left her crippled by a near constant anxiety about power imbalances and inequality. She is also perpetually worried, to the point of exhaustion, nay burnout, about the plight of the individual under capitalism. Her eyes have an unmanned look about them, while her brain anxiously jumps from one devastating indictment of our society to the next. Words like ecocide and patriarchy thrum inside her skull.

Her body, she understands, having read the second-wave feminists, is chronically objectified. She has no agency (a favourite word of hers), and passively submits to whatever misfortunes assail her. The residual power she does have over her body is concentrated on the act of nail biting, which she does constantly and savagely. There is always something the matter with her tongue, her skin crawls, her stomach is tight, her eye twitches, her throat is swollen. She loses hours in the day watching the light move across her bedroom wall, taking enormous notice of her breath and the sombre shadows cast by her succulent plants.

If the American novelist Henry Miller was narrating from inside the whale – a metaphor for passively accepting civilisation as it is; fatalism, in short – then these novels come to us from a sunken whale that will never again rise to the surface. Passivity is taken to its logical extreme, in that our (anti) heroines either pointlessly die, play dead, or feel dead. The contemplation of suicide is never much more than a page away, to the extent that the reader is inclined to remind the novelist of Camus’ advice: decide promptly “whether life is or is not worth living”. Henry James said that tell a dream and you lose a reader, and the same goes for tales of disassociation.

Yet the “most pitiable” type of silly novels, as Eliot observed in her essay, are the ones she calls the “oracular species – novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories”. Such novels are the inevitable consequence of a writer’s head being stuffed with “false notions of society baked hard” and left to “hang over a desk a few hours every day”. We might have hoped that a university education (not to mention the proliferating Master of Fine Arts programmes) would have cured writers of producing such novels, but it has only served to bake in a different set of orthodoxies.

Link to the rest at The New Statesman

PG notes that he does not always agree with items he posts.

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