Joyce Carol Oates called y’all a bunch of wan little husks, and I am absolutely screaming. One day, I hope we can have the conversation about why so many people feel attacked whenever someone they perceive as influential talks about art. My sense is that it’s a delayed trauma response from that one time a college professor made you feel bad for not having read Moby Dick.
I finished Edmund Wilson’s study of the Symbolist movement Axel’s Castle, and I’ve started Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds. It’s a history of Realism in America, but it’s also just a lucid, sharp chronicle of the American literary tradition from the end of the 19th century and up through the early mid-century period. I know that sounds dry, but it’s really not! It’s funny and intelligent and warm. And, honestly, it speaks to a lot of the conversations we’re having today re: the tension between the political and art. And how art, specifically criticism and the novel, can be used in furtherance of political goals, mostly in this case meaning a socialist or populist agenda or exposing political corruption.
It seems to me that we use the word political in the context of art more and more, meaning less and less precise things. So many things are subsumed into this construction, which has now re-entered mainstream parlance along with the usual tedious dichotomies. It’s commonly evoked in fiction and also at readings and elsewhere writers gather, that American authors have friends from other countries who marvel at the American tendency to avoid politics in art, meaning mostly literature. It’s an anecdote so common to casual conversation among writers that I’ve started to wonder if all the writers have the same single friend and whether this person goes around telling all of their American writer friends that American writers are so apolitical. The anecdote is usually delivered in a chiding, baffled tone, a way of saying that there’s something driving our cultural production in such a way that deprives it of a political impulse. It’s silly, of course. In the way that all anecdotes are silly, but it’s also ubiquitous. And in that way, it’s not an anecdote at all. It’s just a thing we tell ourselves…about ourselves. It’s also not new. Americans have been citing their friends in glamorous cities in other countries on the subject of the political impulse or lack thereof in the American novel for at least 125 years.
Anyway, that is not what I am thinking about this week. I am thinking about the Millennial Novel. I love Millennial Novels. I love it when people describe them as sharp, by which I think they mostly just mean that the book faithfully recreates certain patterns of thought. The content is mostly irrelevant. It’s like putting on a Philip Glass score while you write. What the Millennial Novel recreates to the delight of its audience( me, I am the audience) is an attitude, a posture toward the world. What physicality there is to a Millennial Novel exists solely to create the pattern of a social life. The physicality in a Millennial Novel is a kind of anti-physicality. Character vapor. What matters are the vibes. Reading a Millennial Novel feels like listening to songs from your middle school dance on Spotify. The emotional recall is intense. Immediate. But then you realize, oh, that’s not the song. That’s the song that sounds like the song. The sharp Millennial Novel is just a novel in which someone is kind of in their body and kind of out of their body, but mostly, they are self-aware re: the most humiliating and obscene parts of being a person in the world. The primary virtue of the Millennial Novel is the thinness of its surface.
I’ve had this idea since the first time I read Conversations with Friends that the Millennial Novel is a Naturalist novel. By which I mean, that the Millennial Novel takes as its central conceit that a person’s life is bounded and organized by some superseding force or forces, and that through careful examination of the effects of that force in a character’s life—as read out by relationships, psychic embodiment, social alienation, and on—one can begin to understand the shape of that force. It seemed me that Sally Rooney was slotted in next to Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner because their prose is of a kind. That shaved-down globalist MDF prose. But if you examine Conversations with Friends and to a greater extent Normal People, Rooney is a Naturalist in a way that the other two are not. Lerner and Cusk descend from Modernism by way of Sebald. At the heart of their work is the question of knowability or unknowability. Their project is the text destabilized, the text made turbulent under inspection. The text is a reactive substance in Lerner and even in Cusk, as in Knuasgaard, as in Virginia Woolf, Thomas Bernhard. One cannot but engage the constructedness of narrative.
Rooney is not a modernist. She is not even particularly modern. But she is a Naturalist. Like many writers of her time, she is invested in tracing out the after pulses of capitalism and gender and systems of power. But not investigating those systems directly. Rather, she obliquely mines and portrays living a life that has already been circumscribed and curtailed. The very idea of intimacy in a Rooney novel is that it is a commodity that depreciates over time and only ever exists in a finite supply. There is some talk too that Rooney descends from Jane Austen. But she does not. I mean, maybe in terms of witty banter and social commentary, okay. But in Jane Austen a person may—by virtue, by chance, by love—transcend the limits of their station and circumstance. Nobody in a Sally Rooney novel transcends anything. They all sort of go about doing the things that people expect them to do, aware that they are performing said behaviors, aware that they are doing the thing, but unable, ultimately, to break free from it.
Katy Waldman, in a piece on Rooney and Naoise Dolan puts it this way:
These books, so reluctant to engage with change, agency, and suffering, turn instead to awareness, which they frame as atonement. Meanwhile, the actual substance of living—a person’s history, hopes, and contradictions—is rendered as fixed, external, and inert.
Yeah, that’s Naturalism.
I’m sorry, but it is!
So much of the Millennial Novel as an aesthetic and genre-- icy detached narrators, restrained prose that flares from time to time into lyricism, ennui, social alienation, overdetermined answers to questions about the nature of work and capitalism, new idioms to describe our increasing entanglement with technology as the environment suffers—are right out of the Naturalist playbook. When I read Normal People and Conversations with Friends and Luster and Early Work and Cool for America (very good!) and Such a Fun Age and Private Citizens (a perfect and extraordinary novel) and Severance and My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Memorial and Black Buck and Fake Accounts (though I maintain that this is a Gothic novel) and even the excellent stories in Clare Sestanovic’s Objects of Desire, novels and collections of stories that wouldn’t be inaccurately described as being social fiction I didn’t think of Jane Austen. I thought of Zola’s terrifying Thérèse Raquin or François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux.
For all of the sharp social commentary and wit and humor and keen insight about the ways we talk at parties and steal from our offices and engage in virtual sex and troll each other online and do microaggressions to one another, these works are by and large about how we cannot escape racism and sexism and homophobia and the limitations of our class. These books have more in common with Theodore Dreiser than Jane Austen. I think we’ve become a little too fixated on the ability of these skilled, talented authors to recreate the way we banter in life and we’ve forgotten to really look at what it is they’re saying. They aren’t just mimics. Mimicry is a hollow ethic. So read more deeply, more closely, I suggest that the Millennial Novel is just a Naturalist Novel. And what frustrations we have with the Millennial Novel—the inertness of its characters, the lack of warmth, the lack of transcendence, the stiff, scathing Hopper-esque moral attitude—all flow from the same frustrations we had with Naturalism.
But. Maybe that’s from a faultiness in the question, not from the texts themselves.
What if the active tension at the heart of most Millennial Novels is between Naturalism and Existentialism, between Zola and Camus. What if the Millennial Novel seeks to answer the question of whether or not a person’s experience is actually unique and individual or whether it is truly just an emanation from the various systems we are subjected to. I think some novels tend to fall on the side of the purely naturalistic—that is, race, gender, sexuality, class, and on are bounding phenomena that determine how people will treat you and what you can expect. And some are more existential. That is, a life is unique, that one’s choices are not predetermined.
When I think of my own novel Real Life, I very much wanted to write a Millennial Novel for the snappy, precise aesthetic of it. For the way it reproduces certain idioms and attitudes. I also very much considered myself a Naturalist when I wrote it. Because I loved Zola. And because I did at the time have a very narrow, pessimistic view re: race and class in America. I wrote it to replicate the truth as I understood it then. But I also acknowledge that there were many moments in the writing of that book where I made choices that I considered at the time non-naturalistic. Non-deterministic. I let characters behave in ways that had more to do with my understanding of their individual psychologies than anything else. Places where I thought I had betrayed my artistic principles. But in essence, I was just writing a book and following my instincts and doing things to amuse myself, and so maybe I wasn’t betraying anything.
I like to think that the Millennial Novel isn’t the next new thing in literature. I like to think of it is being the Last Old Thing. Don’t call it a comeback.
Naturalism never left.
also: My review of Michael Lowenthal’s Sex with Strangers was in the New York Times Book Review. I had an essay on going to the movies up at The Cut. I’ll have a story out later this week at Joyland. I might send a little note about it later this week. And check out Lincoln Michel’s excellent craft substack: Countercraft.