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.
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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.
Unlike the great writers who, Eliot opines, “thought it quite a sufficient task to exhibit men and things as they are”, silly novelists are forever trying to give us a moral lesson – to force us to eat our greens. Each character is served with a side salad of left-wing evangelism, each scene accompanied by instructions on how to behave progressively, paragraphs are given over to sermons on privilege or unconscious bias. But, as the novelist Jonathan Franzen has come to realise in the latter half of his career (having served up a few bowls of broccoli), readers “don’t want a lesson, they want an experience”. We don’t go to the novel to improve our health, but for the far humbler reason that we wish to be entertained. Novels, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “are there to be devoured”. Their health benefits should be the furthest thing from our minds.
The silly novelist has no desire to entertain, she wants to do something far worthier: to impress us. It is for this reason that the cool girl novel is glutted with irrelevant references to artworks and philosophical texts, sewn in like badges on a Brownie sash to display the accomplishments of the writer. It is for this same reason that we are often presented with etymologies or paragraphs on the mating patterns of molluscs. Like the student in a class, their arm stretched so high it begins to quiver, all these novelists want is for someone to say: “Well done! Top marks! Haven’t you read a lot!”
These writers, however, also know that it’s deeply uncool to be so eager, which is why they carefully mask it with a veil of teenage angst. If Jean-Paul Sartre gave us the original novel of existential angst, the adult version, then these books are written by his decadent great-grandchildren. The exiled artist, once a revolutionary figure, has become a brand. To be an exile, these writers believe, is not only a guarantee of your artistic sensibility, but of your social status. Alienation is cool. Our (anti) heroines are never at home – not in their bodies, not in their houses and not with other people. It would, after all, be a sign of unexamined conservatism to be anything other than deeply unhappy under capitalism.
Egged on by the publishing industry – which appears to be working under the deluded notion that angst and alienation amount to the entirety of human experience – young women writers have, for too long now, been engaged in the practice of “onedownmanship”. This fallacy, which Martin Amis warned against back in the Nineties, deceives writers into thinking that “unless you’re depressed, you’re a frivolous person”. If only a handful of the writers of the aforementioned novels, some of whom are clearly very talented, would withdraw from this death spiral and chart a route upwards. This would likely involve opening some windows, going outside, meeting other (different) people and reading something besides Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath and Annie Ernaux. By such means, their novels would claw their way back towards the light, and away from the joyless mud they have all been wallowing in.
What would cure these novels at a stroke would be a huge helping of humour, not the sophisticated funnies these angsty novelists mistake for humour, but that which Clive James said is “just common sense, dancing”. We find the same call for common sense in Eliot’s essay: she calls it a knowledge of “just proportions”.
Those with common sense, who see themselves and the world in “just proportions” have “absorbed… knowledge instead of being absorbed by it”. They do not write to “confound” or to “impress” but to “delight”. They understand that the novel is not a vehicle for moral lessons, or for the display of intelligence, or for preaching, but a place where human beings can go to laugh at – which is to try to make sense of – the human condition.
In angsty novels by cool girl novelists it is the student condition, not the human condition, which is rendered. Perhaps it’s time to finally leave the quad and graduate to adulthood, not least because, to paraphrase the poet Robert Lowell: we are tired. Everyone’s tired of your turmoil.
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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers