Sad girl novels: the dubious branding of women’s emotive fiction | Books

Sad girl novels: the dubious branding of women’s emotive fiction | Books


What do we mean when we say a novel is a “sad girl novel”? I could list a dozen popular novels published over the last few years that have had this term slapped on them. What do they have in common? Most often a protagonist who is at times miserable and disaffected, who is suffering under capitalism, who is ambivalent about their sexual experiences and their relationships with others. Usually they are highly educated and frequently analyse their own situation. Sometimes they are grieving, often they are bored. By this metric Karl Ove Knausgaard is perhaps our foremost sad girl novelist, a master of the form. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life also meets many of these criteria, as does Fuccboi by Sean Thor Conroe. You might even call this type of novel the dominant mode in literary fiction – so why is it a girl problem?

The term sad girl novel is sometimes used interchangeably with “cool girl novel”, another dubious term that lambasts women for, among other things, dressing well and throwing parties. We’re free to like or dislike any of these books, and there’s no question that – just as in publishing more generally – middle-class and white stories continue to dominate, but lumping unrelated novels by women together whether their characters lie in bed all day or stay out all night is hardly identifying a coherent literary phenomenon. Describing Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts as sad would be like describing American Psycho as sad. When I read Natasha Brown’s Assembly, I don’t find sadness. I find glittering, righteous anger. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the protagonist’s detached register carries anger and grief. Indeed, a lot of what we’re identifying vaguely as “sadness”, is rage.

Rage … Eliza Clark, author of Boy Parts. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Perhaps we aren’t able to identify more complex emotions, in particular those that are unpleasant, like anger, in these novels, because of our increasingly infantilised view of women authors. Everywhere we look, women are being en-cutened, via “girl dinners” (meals, but smaller), “hot girl walks” (walks), “girl math” (inaccurate calculations). What seems to have begun as a self-deprecating in-joke has risen in popularity alongside frightening and reactionary ideas about women’s roles online (the surging popularity of tradwife content for example). I return again and again, pissed off, to this quote from Ursula Le Guin on the so-called cult of women’s knowledge:

All that all too often merely reinforces the masculinist idea of women as primitive and inferior – women’s knowledge as elementary, primitive, always down below at the dark roots, while men get to cultivate and own the flowers and crops that come up into the light. But why should women keep talking baby talk while men get to grow up? Why should women feel blindly while men get to think?

If things described as “girl” are cuter, smaller, sillier, then what does that mean a “girl novel” is? A novel, but not as important?

There are more novels being published by women than ever, and the readers of novels are also overwhelmingly female: according to YouGov, more than a quarter (27%) of women read daily, compared to a sixth (13%) of men. Men are also less likely to be readers overall, with 22% saying they never read, compared to 12% of women. But this is no guarantee that fiction by women about women garners respect. Instead, it is still variously considered to be frivolous, boring, overwritten, underwritten, too violent, too passive, unrealistic, thinly veiled autobiography, and so on and so on. Consider the Madievsky rule, the writer Ruth Madievsky’s theory that 3.5 stars on Goodreads is the best score you can get for contemporary literary fiction written by women about women (writing by men tends to sit comfortably around 4).

So why write a girl novel at all? Writing a novel about the fears, desires, anxieties and grievances of a young woman wasn’t my intention when I began my novel Dead Animals. But I have often found that the act of writing reveals what is important to you. Not just the subjects that interest you but those which annoy you, terrify you, wake you up in the middle of the night. When I look back at it now I realise my novel’s dominant feeling is not sadness but rage. The narrator’s lack of agency in London, in her job, in her relationships, another character’s obsessive desire for revenge. There are no sad girls to be found, just angry women.

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About the Author: Tony Ramos

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