The case against “the great millennial novel”
Now that millennials are growing up and seizing the means of cultural production for themselves, the race to write **the** great millennial novel is on, and two books have been dominating the conversation lately:
The first is Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which is finally becoming available in the U.S. on April 16 after being published in the UK last fall, which is why there’s already much ado made about it in the literary circles. It’s a coming-of-age novel and an endearing love story between two Irish millennials, and it’s just full of prim, lovely sentences like “The cherries hang around them gleaming like so many spectral planets,” and “She loves to be alone with him like this. It makes her life seem very manageable suddenly.”
So, just to be clear, we read & loved the book itself and definitely recommend Normal People. But some of the reception around Rooney’s novel has made us a little wary, because apparently now that like one (1) millennial has written a good novel about people her age who use Twitter and worry about student loans and live in a post-recession world, it **must** be crowned as **the** millennial thing to speak for all other millennials, apparently. Here’s a small taste of what People Are Saying:
Rooney has been successful enough in Europe that googling ‘millennial author’ results in a first-hit thinkpiece on her work in the Guardian … In a moment when there’s been so much media focus on the emotional and financial precarity of being a millennial, Rooney appears to have captured the zeitgeist.
From The New York Times:
Her voice has been greeted as something identifiably new: the arrival of millennial fiction. She has been called “the Jane Austen of the precariat,” and compared to hipster luminaries like Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker just reviewed Halle Butler’s The New Me, wherein “the story of a temp worker in Chicago feels like a definitive work of millennial literature.”
The reasoning behind that praise makes sense: the novel’s central character is a 30-year-old named Millie who makes $12 an hour, worries about being laid off, puts coconut oil in her hair, and wears suede DSW boots — and apparently, it’s that “ordinariness — the familiarity — that makes Butler’s work so wretchedly riveting.”
Which begs the question: for whom, exactly, is this specific narrative really all that “ordinary”??
So listen: we loved Normal People, and we bet The New Me **is** fucking wretchedly riveting, but our issue with this ~there can only be one~ weird arms race that has the literary industrial complex running around trying to dub ***The One*** like it’s Harry Potter up in here or some shit is……a little ridiculous.
For one thing, hi, hello, this generation is still growing up and there are going to be PLENTY of books to come that examine the enormous range of unique and weird neuroses of our time, but also…………………………………………………….…………………..….let’s just remember that the adjective “millennial” should not be considered synonymous with “white collar white people who live in metropolitan areas,” and if those are the only books that get to be considered as The One, well, that’s denying an entire swath of this generation the dignity of their experience.
At the end of the day, we’re not saying that novels about white affluent millennials don’t have enough literary merit on their own to actually **be** the definitive millennial anything. Plenty probably are, and these two books certainly do feel like the “arrival” of something fresh and relatable.
But we **are** saying that, hey, before you throw the “definitive millennial” descriptor around? Maybe you check your literal definition of “millennial” first.