“Something as definitionally useless as art”: Contemporary Women Writers’ Künstlerromane and the Possibility of a Beautiful World

By Orlaith Darling

The Künstlerroman has seen a resurgence of interest among millennial women writers. Describing novels in which the main character progresses toward the creation of art, the Künstlerroman is the perfect vehicle for metafictional interest in creative production—for instance, in the question of whether the novel can at once be imbricated within the market system and level meaningful aesthetic critique against it. The novel which takes writing as its central issue is no novelty. From Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) to Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), the novel has long been a form turned in on itself in order to investigate the nature of storytelling as a creative, imaginative, documentary, or realist project, as well as to interrogate the role of the writer. More recently, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018) both feature—to a greater and lesser extent, respectively—a writing motif which is taken up in greater detail in her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). 

This article is concerned with the resurgence of interest in the Künstlerroman among millennial women writers from the Anglosphere. At a time when young women writers seem increasingly interested in addressing systems of late capitalism in their work, I argue that the Künstlerroman provides occasion to examine the novel’s imbrication in the very systems it sets out to critique and, by extension, the novel’s ethical purpose or potential within these systems. There are simply too many novels which fall into this category to address in detail here. The last three years, for instance, have seen the publication of a raft of debut novels which might be classed as Künstlerromane: Saltwater (2019) by Jessica Andrews, Boy Parts (2020) by Eliza Clark, Luster (2020) by Raven Leilani, Wet Paint (2022) by Chloë Ashby, and Cleopatra and Frankenstein (2022) by Coco Mellors. In this article, however, I focus on Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, The New Me (2019) by Halle Butler, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh. It is my contention in this article that these novels use the Künstlerroman’s generic interest in art as a lens on the novel’s ethical, political and aesthetic value. What is in question, however, is these novels’ success (or lack thereof) in proposing visions of the world which depart from those they depict. In other words, do these novels use art to trouble the predetermination of the constructed systems they represent, and are they successful in, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, imagining “alternative[s]” to the status quo (n.p)?

Writing about feminist phenomenology in some contemporary British and American women’s novels, Madeleine Gray argues that texts of the sort examined in this article display a “conscious, affective reorientation in times of sociopolitical upheaval” (67). In the context of what Mark Deuze calls the “mediapolis” of the contemporary west (140)—wherein reams of information on everything from rising wealth disparity, climate collapse, and wars across the globe are streamed directly to our pockets—said sociopolitical upheaval can seem intransigent, and out of an individual character’s control. In his seminal text Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher summarises this feeling as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it” (2). In this context, and with “capitalism seamlessly occup[ying] the horizons of the thinkable” (Fisher 8), Gray suggests that the novel can reveal “the constructedness of things we previously presumed to be predetermined” (69). Particularly with novels invested in other forms of creative practice and imaginative work, “art” arises as a tool with which to probe the “constructedness” of the seemingly immutable worlds around them (69). 

Beautiful World, Where Are You is keenly focused on creative practice and its ethical purpose and political value in a world which increasingly feels like “the last lighted room before the darkness” (Rooney, Blurb). The divisions of labour between the novel’s four main characters—Eileen, Alice, Simon and Felix—speak to several anxieties regarding the intersections of art and work. These include the difference between work doing no harm and doing good, (art)work as a political act versus the artist as a privately political being, and, more generally, the role of art in the public sphere. Eileen works for an independent literary journal, and Rooney pays almost pedantic attention to the nature of her labour in the creative economy: 

Using the soft greasy roller on her computer mouse she skimmed over the document, eyes flicking back and forth across narrow columns of text, and occasionally she stopped, clicked, and inserted two full stops into the name ‘WH Auden’, in order to standardise its appearance as ‘W.H. Auden’. When she reached the end of the document, she opened a search command, selected the Match Case option and searched: ‘WH’. No matches appeared. (19)

Eileen’s best friend, Alice, is a novelist who has recently been met with swift and great acclaim but has come to doubt the value of the novel, while Simon works for a small left-wing political party (though in what capacity is unclear). Finally, Felix is employed by a large, Amazon-like warehouse where days of packing and sorting consumer goods invoke questions of the relevance of art to the majority of workers in the globalised western economy, let alone the exploited global south.

As with Rooney’s previous work, there is an a priori assumption that the capitalist, neo-imperial status quo is unsustainable, but there is doubt as to how best to meaningfully address or intervene in this situation. Politics “is an open question,” and one which is articulated with reference to linguistic and semantic touchstones: “our political vocabulary has decayed so deeply and rapidly since the twentieth century that most attempts to make sense of our present historic moment turn out to be essentially gibberish” (Rooney 74, italics added). While this suggests the inextricability of the literary sphere and the political one and implies a connection between the linguistic and the real, Alice—whom we might read as Rooney’s fictional stand-in due to her occupation as a novelist—is nonetheless sceptical as to the value of the novel. “Have I told you I can’t read contemporary novels anymore?” (94), she asks Eileen in one of the many emails between the two which intersperse the narrative chapters of the novel. She continues: 

The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth […]. Who can care, in short, what happens to the novel’s protagonists, when it’s happening in the context of the increasingly fast, increasingly brutal exploitation of a majority of the human species? […] So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world – packing it tightly down beneath the glittering surface of the text […] For this reason I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel again. (96)

This disillusionment is nestled within a wider, novel-long dialogue on the value of aesthetics. While Eileen suggests that the existence of, and widespread social reverence for, beauty is necessary to the preservation or creation of the “beautiful world” of the title (Rooney n.p.), both she and Alice are unsure whether beauty is any longer possible. Alice elaborates that, for her, the novel imbues aesthetic beauty with a desire which is distinct from the consumerist, acquisitive desire we experience in other areas of life. That is, Alice says that: 

when I read books, I do experience desire: I want Isabel Archer to be happy, I want things to work out for Anna and Vronsky […] when we love fictional characters, knowing that they can never love us in return, is that not a method of practicing in miniature the kind of personally disinterested love to which Jesus calls us? (231–2) 

To cap this brief overview, then, Rooney’s text is interesting in being overtly polemical about art’s implication in the hegemonies it seeks to critique. Further, it makes its ambition—and the limitations thereon—clear; the blurb asks whether the characters (and therefore the novel) are “standing in the last lighted room before darkness” or whether they will “find a way to believe in a beautiful world” (Rooney n.p.). But Rooney does not, to reiterate, contend that the novel is capable of changing oppressive structures; in fact, she suggests that the novel is often part of perpetuating them. What she does propose, however, is that the value of the novel is to dispel the disinterest of pure aesthetics, to actively engage the reader’s investment in another world, and to spark the hope that this other, “beautiful” world is possible (Rooney n.p.). 

The New Me and My Year of Rest and Relaxation share Rooney’s interest in the relationship between capitalism and art, and also Rooney’s use of highly educated, intelligent young female protagonists who sometimes experience “analytical and dissociative” disjuncture with the urban worlds around them (Gray 67).

The New Me centres on a depressed temp worker who formerly worked in the art industry as she carries out her mundane Quotidien, seemingly going nowhere in a parody of the novel’s title. The narrator, Millie, is highly educated but unambitious, acerbic in her assessments of the futility of late capitalism but unimaginative when it comes to alternative lifestyles. Sometimes she imagines, with some degree of trepidation, being hired permanently in her admin job, seeing this as an introduction into the world of culture, where she would read novels. By contrast, the culture of her low-level temp work is restricted to “scripted-reality” TV:

I drift in and out of consciousness, letting their reality be my reality, eat the pizza, fall asleep with the TV on, wake up with the TV on, in and out, in and out, alone and lonely and I like it. Doing all this intentionally, of course. Intentionally grafting the imaginary lives of imaginary prime-time soap opera characters, hard workers in their jobs at the FBI or in a hospital, working half in the office half in the field, getting it done, wide webs of people, personal and professional overlapping seamlessly. (Butler 70)

Here, the TV characters’ lives are imaginary, but the lives imagined are drawn from an existing structure, offering nothing new. In other words, the TV merges together the fiction of ‘scripted reality’ with the mundanity of ‘the real’, harnessing ‘art’ to re-establish the status quo as the only available reality.

In another section, Butler proffers a meta-commentary on the very type of narrative she is writing—one in which the acute self-awareness (bordering on self-loathing) Millie evinces is posited as a vaguely subversive indictment of the system in which she lives and participates. Watching another TV show, Millie notes:

I know that Forensic Files is propaganda for the Justice Department, like all of these crime shows are, and that they instil a weird deference to authority and a childish fear of the other, and that TV in general messes with your perceptions of time and influences your desires and gives you unattainable expectations for life, but I still can’t make it through the night without it. It’s okay for me to watch TV because I’m aware of what’s really going on. I take it one step further, recognizing that that last idea is wrong. Recognition is not the first step to change. Not in my experience, anyway. (Butler 13)

That is, noticing the wrongness of a system, or logging its “constructedness” to borrow Gray’s term (69), is not tantamount to change.

This knowing irony is similarly evident in the fact that close reading of the novel will suggest autofictional elements that are not overtly flagged. As well as being titled The New Me, alluding to the ‘me’ of the author, in the few instances in which Millie’s surname is used, we learn that it is shared with the author. As such, the first-person narrator has a two-syllabled first name ending in ‘e’ and the surname ‘Butler’, as does Halle Butler. And yet, this is not a memoir, essay or even overt autofiction, suggesting an intentionality to Butler’s use of the novel form, and of fiction as a means of refracting certain realities in a way that can depart from a fixed rendering of the way things are. This suggestion of, at least, an interest in imagining the future is signalled in the final chapter in which the narrative flashes forward, assumes the third person, and tells the reader that Millie is firmly installed in an office job, seemingly content. Facing down “[t]he vast expanse of hours laid out in front of her. The countless hours between now and the end” (Butler 191), the novel signals “recognition” (13) of the “constructedness” of “reality” but does not go further (Gray 69).

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is set in Manhattan over the course of the year 2000-2001. It follows a beautiful, 26-year-old Columbia graduate who spends the year in a sleep induced by prescription drugs she attains from a dodgy psychiatrist. Previously, the unnamed narrator writes essays of appreciation on ‘made-up’ art works for her studies in the History of Art—a subject of which she is mildly disdainful—and then works as a gallery girl in the Ducat private gallery, where it is her job to be detached and derisive of her customers (Moshfegh 66). She is, however, not narratively reticent in expressing her opinion on the futility of the art exhibited at Ducat. For example, she describes one exhibition which consists of two monkeys made from pubic hair with cameras attached to their protruding penises. These cameras film gallery goers, who can then pay $100 for a passcode with which they can download the footage from an external website. The monkeys themselves are priced at $250,000 for the pair (Moshfegh 39). Another series of works comprises the gallery’s star artist ejaculating onto the canvas. 

Despite occupying a privileged position within this would-be subversive art world, the narrator chooses to opt out of society in general; as she says, “I had no big plan to become a curator, no great scheme to work my way up a ladder. I was just trying to pass time” (Moshfegh 35). This response to the perceived futility of the art world—as a symptom of the futility of the world writ large—could be taken up in several ways from an ethical point of view. That is, her course of action has two possible ethical implications. Either the narrator is unaware of her power to potentially “work [her] way up” (35) and have sway on the world of art which is currently failing to deliver on its promises of subversion, or she is disillusioned with the very idea of art’s ability to challenge anything and sees art as another cog in the very machine it is meant to be subverting. Either way, and as she outlines, the idea that “art create[s] the future” seems laughable (66). Indeed, the novel’s very interest in art is arguably undercut by the narrative’s ending. At once active and impassive, Moshfegh’s evocation of the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers serves to destabilise the future and, in so doing, further underscore art’s hitherto imaginative failure and the space now opened for transformation, dismantling of former hegemonies, and, ultimately, the construction of a new world order. And yet, that the novel is written at a 17-year distance in 2018 also highlights the fact that none of this has come to pass.

To conclude, it is clear that art, its aesthetic and ethical value, and its role in a world beset by narratively identifiable problems, is an area of interest to a swathe of millennial, female writers of English-language prose fiction. The visual art motif at the centre of many of these novels allows enough distance from the novel form itself so that the authors can meditate on the novel’s value to contemporary western society and, in particular, the novel’s interaction with systems of late capitalism. 

Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, does not instrumentalise this narrative distancing between the novel and visual/art in general, instead offering a commentary on the form within the form through use of the Socratic dialogue-esque emails between Alice and Eileen. In hashing out the limitations on, shortcomings, and reasonable expectations of the novel, these emails dissect questions raised by the likes of Fisher, asserting (despite Alice’s scepticism) the ways in which the novel might have value. Rooney, however, does not make overly grandiose defences of the form which, as she notes in the acknowledgements, remains imbricated within a market system (Rooney n.p.).  

Rooney’s novel also provides a good standard against which to compare other similar novels, which set out to critique capitalism as a system but sometimes fail to extend beyond narrating the disaffection of its subjects/objects. While Butler seemingly concedes to capitalism’s inevitability, Moshfegh comes closer to at least unsettling the ‘realism’ of capitalism—the idea that capitalism “occupies the horizons of the thinkable” (Fisher 8)—in ending with the collapse of the Twin Towers in their symbolic function as pillars of globalised capitalism. Like Rooney, however, Moshfegh does not provide a neat, narrative solution—the narrator records footage of the Twin Towers, “watch[ing] the video tape over and over to soothe [herself]… And [she]continue[s] to watch it, usually on a lonely afternoon, or any other time [she] doubt[s] that life is worth living” (289). She thus bears witness to the falling of one “realist” world order, but, like the figure she sees jumping from the burning Towers, there remains a “div[e]” to be done “into the unknown” (Moshfegh 289).


Orlaith Darling, “‘Something as definitionally useless as art’: Contemporary Women Writers’ Künstlerromane and the Possibility of a Beautiful World,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2022): n.pag. Web 8 August 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.2.03

About the Author

Orlaith Darling is a PhD candidate in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. Her doctoral project – which examines representations of neoliberalism in contemporary Irish women’s short fiction – is fully funded by the Irish Research Council. Previously, Orlaith obtained an MSc. with Distinction in Literature and Modernity from the University of Edinburgh (2019) and a BA (Hons.) with first class honours in English Literature and History from Trinity College Dublin (2018), where she was elected Scholar in 2016. She is a co-founder of Contemporary Irish Literature research network (CIL) and co-producer of the The Hublic Sphere Podcast, Season 2. Her work has been published in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Literature, Feminist Media Studies, Contemporary Women’s Writing, Irish Studies Review, Estudios Irlandeses, Rejoinder, FORUM, The Modernist Review and Alluvium, as well as on several academic blogsShe is currently based in Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute.

Works Cited

Butler, Halle. The New Me. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2019.

Clark, Eliza. Boy Parts. London: Influx Press, 2020.

Deuze, Mark. “Media Life”. Media, Culture and Society 33:1 (2011): 137-148.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2009.

Gray, Madeleine. “Making Her Time (and Time Again): Feminist Phenomenology and Form in Recent British and Irish Fiction Written by Women”. Contemporary Women’s Writing 14:1 (2020): 66-83.

Leilani, Raven. Luster. London: Picador, 2020.

Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation. London: Vintage, 2018.

Rooney, Sally. Beautiful World, Where Are You. London: Faber, 2021.

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