When George Eliot wrote her merciless takedown of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in 1856, says Charlotte Stroud in The New Statesman, “she did not intend the genre to survive her attack”. How vexed the Middlemarch author would be to learn that this literary monster has recently grown a new head. The 21st-century versions – Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh and the like – 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 mediocrity, are unfailingly hailed by critics in the “choicest phraseology of puffery”.
While the silly novels of Eliot’s day were romances, the modern breed offers a new genre dubbed “sad girl lit” – the “lady author” has been replaced by the “cool girl novelist”. It seems to be a “prerequisite for publication” that young woman writers are “incurably downcast”. The anti-heroine of these novels is invariably a PhD student (“or at least an MA”), whose knowledge of intersectional theory has left her “crippled by a near-constant anxiety about power imbalances”. She is worried to the point of exhaustion “about the plight of the individual under capitalism”. And these books are forever trying to improve our morals, for Eliot the “most pitiable” crime of all. If only one of these clearly talented novelists would try injecting a little humour. After all, the novel is not meant to be a vehicle for moral lessons, or for the display of intelligence, but a “place where human beings can go to laugh at – which is to try to make sense of – the human condition”.