By Claire Shang
Art by Ellen Klein
The rise of 'Best Young Woman Job' genre fiction.
Novels about work have become ubiquitous. Like the myriad office jobs their protagonists begrudgingly undertake, these books are often formulaic, capturing the dreariness of late-stage capitalism in form and content. Genericness is passed off as style. One distinct subgenre, almost always penned by a female writer, follows a young woman who turns to her work in cathexis, finding herself alternately subsumed and undermined by it.
Usually, but not always, these jobs are temporary, arbitrary, menial. In the face of precarity, our female protagonists become good at learning the rules. Her competence is rendered by a bemused, droll narrator; marketing copy for these books call her ‘clever,’ ‘ironic,’ ‘sharp-eyed,’ ‘strange,’ ‘darkly funny’. She asserts a love of imagination (scenes abound of the young woman walking around her city, gazing into windows, and hoping for the lives of others), but ultimately cannot imagine herself elsewhere. Idealism crashes against the shores of material reality. Woman worker novels conclude along the lines of: late-stage capitalism is insufferable and still, women suffer through it.
In the spring of 2022, Canadian writer Emma Healey published Best Young Woman Job Book, its title a nod to the emergence of such a genre. The subtitle clarifies that it is a memoir, but one situated in a novelistic context. The title’s garbled syntax references SEO optimisation, one of the many occupations Healey slips into as she forges a life as a poet.
This chronological parade of jobs is the memoir’s narrative thread: she inherits her first part- time gig as a ‘standardised patient’ from her actor mother; in college she works a publishing internship and cafe job; then, she writes copy for a music festival and software manuals at an international porn conglomerate, works as a TV writers’ assistant, pens book reviews and feminist columns for a local paper, crafts ‘fortune gift guides’ for a shortlived gallery/gift shop, serves as a receptionist at a massage parlour, and takes the night shift at a closed-captioning firm. The jobs come from job websites or Craigslist, or her dad’s wife, or her friend’s ex-boyfriend; each promises to be ‘the job I need, the one that will save me’.
That a real-life memoir can render itself in terms of fiction is perhaps indicative of the final form of what Katy Waldman calls the ‘reflexivity trap’: Contemporary novels find themselves vastly constricted by female narrators who are so obligatorily self-aware that even plot is swallowed up by their, in Noor Qasim’s words, ‘vast and anxious interiority’.
At the same time, critical treatment often threatens to push working woman novels into the realm of autobiography. Nearly every piece about Sally Rooney’s work, for instance, points us to its creator, a marketing impulse Rooney herself leans into.
Helming many contemporary novels, then, are real women pointing at our real world. One example, Ling Ma’s Severance, features Candace, listless and orphaned, who works in the specialty Bible division of a publishing house. (The narrator of Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, an interpreter at the Hague, is also an orphan; so too in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation.) Amid apocalypse – a fungal infection spreads, causes its zombified victims to mindlessly repeat themselves – Candace shows up to the office until her contract expires, at which point she flees from New York with a cult.
What the novel delivers is not so much entertainment or reflection but, in the words of a New York Times review, ‘blatant commentary’. The novel concludes that maybe the real disease was capitalism, for if the infected are stuck in a constant replay of the past, ‘what is the difference between the fevered and us?' In the sparse, reflexive, anxious worlds of working women, capitalism steps in as a setting, a place, a character
in itself. The sun is, after all, ‘an unstoppable force, bringing in a new day of work’.
As novels focalise late-stage capitalism through the expansive, particular anxieties of one mind, they also gesture to a collective experience. This latter inclination enables reviewers to read fiction as commentary. Healey’s memoir has been subjected to the same treatment. The Globe and Mail, listing the memoir among their top 100 books of 2022, generated a backhanded sales pitch: a ‘truly Millennial tale – self-aware and
clever enough to make you forget the depressing circumstances that shaped it’.
Her individual account is so real it can be vaunted as emblematic of a generation such that, despite being a memoir, it loses the traces of its own specific circumstances. ‘You’ll see yourself in these pages in the best way possible,’ reads a promotional quote by a fellow author.
And so the reflexivity trap is also a collectivity trap. One Goodreads review explains its three- star evaluation: ‘I think this book partly missed the mark for me because I have the great chance/luck/privilege of having had one real job in my post-university adult life...a job that society mostly values...without precarity’. With apologetic self awareness, the review implies that the memoir only succeeds when read by someone
as precarious and undervalued as Healey herself.
Healey is of course aware of the demands a woman worker book keels to, and her decision to actively position her memoir in this canon is a brilliant one. Still, this association leaves her with a daunting task: asserting collectivity while ensuring Healey is singular enough to support a memoir, a genre sustained by stories noteworthy for their very deviance from reality.
Healey does lean into the idea that the memoir is collective. She’s prone to saying her two best friends, Deragh and Doro, were its co-authors. A standalone vignette of the trio opens each of the book’s chapters. They watch a movie together every week, and Healey revels in the wordless moment of unity; convening at the theatre, it is ‘like the three of us are a single person’.
Later, when Healey dissects the predatory behavior of older, established writers and faculty in her university’s program, she notes the scanty presence of women by adopting the first-person plural: ‘We glimmer like a mirage...they fuck us aggressively or tenderly...we walk home hungover’. And when she writes the music festival’s newsletter, she takes ‘pleasure and satisfaction from the exercise of speaking as a collective noun’.
Many young woman job books, funnily enough, feature corporate copywriting; constructing an identity on behalf of others is a generic pleasure. But it is a pleasure of writing marketing copy for a client, not one of literature. A Goodreads review for Hilary Leichter’s Temporary – a temp worker’s fantastical romp through positions as a mannequin, barnacle, pirate, mother of a little boy, and murderer’s assistant – has haunted me for months: ‘Reading this is like attending a party to celebrate and grieve how unemployable you are’.
Surely, commiseration is not the point of literature, neither memoir nor fiction. (For one, these women are typically quite competent. Or else, it is gently implied that menial work is beneath them.) Nor should it be to deliver ‘blatant commentary’. Again, Healey knows this. She describes her first panic attack at age 14, to which the school receptionist says, ‘This is so much more common than you think’. The imposition of solidarity can itself be isolating.
Though Healey avoids the flatly therapeutic or critical purposes with which contemporary literature has become associated, she fails to posit an alternative thesis as to what its purpose should be. In an interview at a Toronto book fair, she discusses genre. ‘The difference between fiction and nonfiction is always dissolving a little bit more and more in my mind' says Healey, continuing 'again, everything is mediated by capitalism. The reason why you need to categorise a book in a certain way is so that you can know where to put it’ for marketing purposes.
But genre is important, and it's more interesting than clocking a continued cognisance of capitalism. - note, too, how capitalism materialises as a readymade explanation when one finds oneself otherwise at a loss for words. Dismissing genre as an arm of capitalist machinery overlooks its continued function for readers. In setting expectations, genre can also guide rather than restrict.
In the final pages, Healey tells her peers at a writers' residency that she is there ‘to write a book about work...written on my own terms...that will amplify the things I want to talk about and quietly make the rest disappear’. It is a striking artist statement. As we follow Healey from job to job, what’s implied is that all of this work makes possible her writing – that the indignities of the means are, in some way, redeemed by the ends.
But writing is not salvation. As she works onthe memoir, Healey describes it on her public Substack as ‘terrible’ and ‘stupid’. The work of writing ‘just made me feel sad and unsure of myself and freaked out,’ a process not of self- illumination but one instead rooted in a feeling of isolation.
Healey had wanted to be a writer since childhood, when she first conceived of a novel idea that, once written out, is really just ‘the same scene, again and again’. A girl discovers a swimming pool in the basement of her high school that appears to be a black hole; she stares into it, notes its pull. There is also a black hole at the center of this memoir. An account of a writer’s life, there is very little about writing in it.
Right after she shoots off pages of dryly humorous prose about her closed-captioning job, for instance, Healey inserts a section break, then tells us she goes on a small tour for her second poetry book. Why include a scene featuring a phone interview with her prospective boss at the closed-captioning firm, but not the collation of her poetry collection or the logistics of this memoir’s book deal?
It was from her actor mother that Healey first learned that work is ‘strange and lonely and rewarding...It feels good to speak into the darkabout her thoughts and feelings and fears’. But why it feels good is supposed to be self-evident.
In A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux reflects on her memoir: ‘There is a need to make writing an untenable enterprise, to atone for its power (not its ease, no one feels less ease in writing than me) out of an imaginary terror of consequences’.
But in woman work books, writing – which is to say living – is illogical not for its consequences, but because of its conditions. It retreats into the anxiety in which it is produced rather than imagining the terror of its own power. Writing is not made ‘untenable’ but in fact is inexplicable, turned invisible.
‘Something that has always saved me was knowing that I was first and foremost a writer,’ said Healey in an interview promoting the book. But for writing to be personally salvational, it must first be materially sustainable. Which is to say any critic or poet or short story writer must eventually produce and sell a novel – or a memoir that disguises itself as one.
Produced for the demands of the literary marketplace, these novels are not necessarily pleasurable to write or to read. For Healey, writing is ultimately important as a ‘spiritual’ affair. No longer a craft or practice or even labour, this disembodied writing seeks not to provide aesthetic or emotive value as its primary objective. Instead, what it offers is the promise of sanctity found in private belief.
CLAIRE SHANG is a visiting student reading English at Lady Margaret Hall. She is happy to be here.