Lately there’s been a spate of novels written by young women that have a remarkably similar plot. I’ve been calling them the “hit me” books. Let’s be less incendiary: let’s call them the “remaster novels.”
They go like this. A woman in her twenties drifts into a relationship with an older man. She lives with roommates, by necessity. She works an entry-level job involving the food or culture industry, but she has artistic aspirations. She is Marxist-ish: she notices class, complains of capitalism, spouts bits of theory. She is queer-ish: she has fantasized about and/or slept with and/or dated women. The older man is generally wealthy, high-powered, charismatic, attractive, good in bed, and—somewhat anachronistically—always white. This is the master.
They fall into an uneasy romance. The master begins in effect to sponsor the young woman, financially or professionally. It seems like he’s still taken—an ex or a wife lurks in the background—and this makes him emotionally unavailable. His distance wounds, but there’s no threat of harmful physical violence in the relationship. The gender imbalance remains, however, intensified by other structural inequities. The novels ensure that he remains more powerful than her by making her weaker on the putative census form: she’s poor/disabled/queer/nonwhite/an alcoholic/mentally unwell/a combination thereof. This familiar script—master and maiden—is established and anxiously examined for its bad politics.
Then it gets flipped. First, the idea of hurting the young woman in bed will come up, sometimes at her explicit request: “hit me.” If the man obliges: presto, mutually pleasurable BDSM. If he doesn’t: drama. Either way, much soul-searching for the young woman: When you say “hit me,” are you doing sexism? Or is sexism doing you? The master’s power is then reduced somehow. He’s humbled. He stumbles. He falls—in love. Now he’s weak, for her. The master is remastered. The lovers are made equal. They both choose to submit, she to dominance, he to romance. A happy ending awaits. And, to crown it all, the young woman will make a work of art, often one that depicts this very relationship as the crucible through which she has achieved her own self-mastery.
There are variations, of course. In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017), which appears to be the origin of this trend, the master refuses the woman’s invitation to hit her; their post-breakup reunion seems like it may be absorbed into an open marriage. In Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation (2020), we hear stories about different women’s will-she-won’t-she relationships to submission through a central protagonist, who strays outside her “nice” marriage to find a master to knock her around; she becomes a single mother. In Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (2020), the hitting is deep-throating, the tone is charmingly satirical, the woman is living in Hong Kong, and to our great relief she ditches the dull master for a lovely Singaporean woman.
In Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020), the woman’s final artwork depicts not the master but his wife, with whom the black narrator has a tangled relationship, knotted tighter by the presence of the couple’s adopted black daughter. In Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation (2021), the master, well-off but penny-pinching, fails to hit the woman in the ways she wishes; he eventually rapes her when he learns that she’s been cheating on him.
Imogen Crimp’s rather solemn A Very Nice Girl (2022) makes the master a banker and the woman an opera singer, a set-up that occasions cash transfers and meditations on the body as instrument. In Lillian Fishman’s icily cerebral Acts of Service (2022), the heroine’s rape fantasy is fulfilled, but the master mostly hits another woman, the third in their ménage; the novel juxtaposes the two women’s artworks, a literary portrait versus literal paintings of the master. In Alyssa Songsiridej’s lighthearted Little Rabbit (2022), the master is rich because of his ex-wife and is himself an artist—a choreographer; in the end, master and maiden marry both their persons and their art in the form of a collaborative performance.
Sheena Patel’s I’m a Fan (2023), set in the art world, is more about the woman’s obsession with the ex-girlfriend than the master, and the desire to be hurt in bed is denied by her milquetoast boyfriend; it drifts off in a fantasy of getting knocked up to tie the master down. This Happy (2023) by Niamh Campbell is a baroque account of an abject relationship to a sadomasochistic master; the heroine marries another man but leaves him before descending into postpartum mania. She does end up writing the book, though, which we are holding in our wilting hands.
That’s ten novels. (At least.) Ten! What is going on here?
One theory is that these works are part of a recent boom in women’s fiction. According to NPR:
Once upon a time, women authored less than 10 percent of the new books published in the US each year. They now publish more than 50 percent of them. Not only that, the average female author sells more books than the average male author.
It’s hard to say whether this statistical fact reflects a real change, given that the CEOs of the Big Five publishing houses are all still men and most readers have been women for quite some time. But to take another index of literary success, the 2023 Granta Best Novelists list of twenty writers features just four men. Compare this to its first year, 1983, when it featured just six women, and it does seem, as Will Lloyd says, only slightly begrudgingly, in his article “The Decline of the Literary Bloke,” as though “literary fiction written by men is increasingly irrelevant to the culture at large.”
The culture at large tilts womanward of late. “This book. This book. I read it in one day. I hear I’m not alone,” the actress Sarah Jessica Parker wrote on Instagram of Conversations with Friends, which was sold after a seven-way auction and went on to be a best seller. Another, more cynical theory for the emergence of this new crop is that this particular novel’s breakout success led publishers to hunt for “the next Sally Rooney,” and a flurry of eager imitators followed. (Four of the ten writers I’ve named are Irish; two have been anointed “the next Sally Rooney” in print.) The blurbs on these women’s novels are often penned by or refer to one another, such as this comparison-cluster for Crimp’s A Very Nice Girl: “Absorbing and gripping…. Like Raven Leilani’s Luster, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, or Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.” Critical responses that group the novels, including the one you’re reading now, perpetuate the cycle. Run this through the media machine of the like (“if you liked”; “this is like”) and a period style is born.
So far, so familiar. But why “hit me”? Yet another low-hanging theory for this trend is that this is simply what women want now. Every day, I see posts and articles and shows expostulating about the kids these days. They’re saturated with porn. They’re too judgmental. They’re obsessed with their bums. They’re all playing some kind of alphabetical Mad Libs with their gender and sexuality. They’re but a paycheck away from an OnlyFans account. Kink is normal; the real sin is kink-shaming, et cetera.
Do these novels really reflect what it feels like to be a young person in the early decades of the twenty-first century? It certainly looks rough out there. There’s the widespread “heteropessimism,” as Asa Seresin first dubbed it in The New Inquiry; the creeping deflation of Me Too; the threat of financial precarity in a gig economy; the addictive labyrinth of social media, those digital lines on a black mirror. We are choking on all of it—so why not do some choking in bed? Is that the idea? Turn the trauma into pleasure? Maybe this is just the latest-breaking wave of what some have called “fuck-me feminism” or “do-me feminism.”
This assessment feels a bit presentist, though. Pornography, sadomasochism, gender fluidity, fetishism, ass play, breath play, misogyny, bad dates, poverty, dissipation, narcissism, various opiates of various masses? None of it is novel, especially not for the novel. In 1979 the critic Tony Tanner proposed that “the novel, in its origin, might almost be said to be a transgressive mode.” We can easily trace a kinky shadow line through literary history, including such works as Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724), the Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1791), Colette’s Chéri (1920), Pauline Réage’s Story of O (1954), Samuel Delany’s Hogg (1969), Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984), Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior (1988), and Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion (1991). But though they poach from it and even allude to it, the recent “remaster novels” are not really joining that smutty countertradition. They’re far tamer—both in their softcore content and, more surprisingly, in their form. They seem totally uninterested in the stylistic playfulness of precursors like Virginia Woolf or Jeanette Winterson or Kathy Acker. No gender-ambiguous narrators or shattered prose or willful plotlessness here.
Compare their staidness to two novels published in 2013: Marie Calloway’s what purpose did I serve in your life? and Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. In both, a young woman seeks out validation and degradation from an older man. Calloway’s narrator wonders if masochistic self-exploitation is third-wave feminism. She describes more than demonstrates her interest in Marxism. She muses self-consciously on the power dynamics of hetero romance: “I’m totally powerless in the face of men.” Yet these novels are far less conventional. Their heroines have sex with many “masters,” in many configurations, which run the gamut from willing to unwilling, for pay and for pleasure. Marriage seems unlikely (McBride’s first “master” is the half-formed girl’s uncle). Calloway features screenshots from real social media posts and pixel-blurred photographs of her nude, BDSM-bruised body. McBride uses a bitty-gritty, flotsam-jetsam prose style. They are both blunt and recursive in a way that feels markedly different from—and more difficult than—the straightforward, televisual style of Rooney & Co.
In the title of her essay in The Drift about this newer batch, Noor Qasim classifies them as “The Millennial Sex Novel,” which seems right. But while the formal features of these novels—transcriptional, self-aware, jaded—do feel millennial, the other authors who regularly wrote about and occasionally relished such dynamics are notably older, and male: Philip Roth, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller. And if the New Yorker critic Alexandra Schwartz is right that with Conversations with Friends, Rooney has written a new “novel of adultery,” the classics that she and her peers would seem to be referencing go even farther back: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856).
So if these women are agonistically forging a canon, it’s not a matter of sibling rivalry. They appear to be writing back to “Daddy,” the very same Electra complex they dramatize in their pages. Their aim is to remaster—repeat, remix, take revenge on—that stately master narrative we call The Novel.
Sally Rooney admits to this. “A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing,” she said in one interview. In another, she noted, “There are a lot of experimental novels that test the boundaries of what the novel is, and Conversations is not one of those.” Perhaps this is why the story arc in the remaster canon she’s inaugurated feels so old-fashioned. There are in medias res plunges, maybe a flashback or two, some essayistic meditations, but generally these novels start with boy-meets-girl and end with some version of happily ever after. The climax is female only insofar as it is multiple. The woman, having suffered for her sins, wins and wins and wins…sexual bliss, domestic security, psychological growth, vocational success, or several of the above. She brims with wish fulfillment. And the master? Well, he mostly just gets the girl. As a character, he’s woefully flat—or flattened, a punishment on the page. For “sexism,” one assumes.
Even with this metafictional comeuppance, these novels are still basically about, as Qasim puts it, “a bisexual woman besotted with a man she might otherwise find objectionable.” While they may plumb the depths of contemporary heterosexuality, the misunderstandings and injustices that haunt it, they cannot truly resolve the gender trouble they raise. They can only rehearse, analyze, and ultimately domesticate it—that is, contain it. Their authors are, as ever, writing in the wake of the previous generation’s feminism, each trying to wipe out the last one’s ideas of what gender means. And it seems that for these women, gender is neither nature nor nurture. Gender is power.
Critics, including me, have focused on how this mantra affects the representation of desire in the sex scenes. But having read more of these remaster novels, I feel now that they care more about the words “hit me” than about the erotic frisson of the act of hitting itself. In my previous essay in these pages, I emphasized Judith Butler’s theory that gender is akin to a performative utterance—a cultural construct that has real effects.* In these novels, gender has been condensed into a single command: “hit me” makes something happen; it is the drama. We know this because, otherwise, why would these novels even bother to say it? After all, in an era of sex positivity, once consent is granted, anyone can freely express their dominant or submissive impulses. You can have your feminist cake and (b)eat it too.
But when a woman says “hit me,” she transforms this double reward into a double bind. If the man does hit her, he has confirmed that he wants to, that he likes to hurt women; if he doesn’t hit her, he may fail to satisfy her sexually. It’s the kind of catch-22 most women still face: damned if you do; damned if you don’t. The post-third-wave bedroom isn’t an Eden. It’s an arena, and the contestants are fighting to out-shame each other. Ashamed of her weakness—whether it be her relative lack of worldly success or her unfeminist wish to be hit—the woman in turn shames the man for his power. She can’t punish him materially, not even with her absence. If playing hard to get doesn’t work, playing easy to hit will do. In this way, she makes him complicit in a desire to wound her—which even if he doesn’t feel, she can conjure into being, simply by naming it. “Hit me.” You know you want to.
This is why the actual sex scenes in the remaster novels are sometimes clinical, sometimes titillating, sometimes boring, but largely beside the point. The demand to be hurt, the political torque it produces in the characters’ gender relations, is far more pivotal than whatever orgasms may precede or follow it. “Hit me” is de rigueur less because literary fiction has absorbed a pornographic script than because it is expressing the contradictions of an ideological one. The transgression at the pulsing center of these novels is not of sexual or social mores but of feminism itself, which has indeed calcified into an ideology with specific practices and contracts and badges of honor.
So we find that in Conversations with Friends two young women join, then leave, their college’s feminist society, and discuss what one “disparagingly called ‘pay gap feminism.’” In Exciting Times, the heroine haggles with herself: “Staying in his flat was possibly a rupture from the capitalist notion that I was only worth something if I paid my own way economically. Or maybe it made me a bad feminist.” In Topics of Conversation, two girlfriends bat the same words back and forth in a fight: “The point of feminism…isn’t to replicate existing power structures only with women in control.” When the narrator picks up a man at a bar, they decide to role play: “Let’s say he’s a vegetarian. Let’s say he’s a feminist. A Marxist, even.” A Very Nice Girl wonders:
Maybe—I said—you need to accept that women are free to make their own informed choice to buy into the patriarchy. That perhaps that might even be a feminist act, you know—the freedom to collude in your own oppression?
In I’m a Fan, the narrator announces outright: “Relationships are sites of winning or losing—not connection and safety, but dominance and subjugation.”
In Acts of Service, the master gets accused of harassing another woman at work, and the heroine is subpoenaed to testify. A female attorney asks her, “Would you call yourself a feminist?” Yes, she replies unblinkingly, then goes on to define it:
Feminism, I said. Okay. It means an awareness of difference and an awareness of its social effects. Conscious and unconscious, personal and systemic. A commitment to this awareness and to acting in accordance with it. Toward justice…
Not equality, the attorney asked, her brow raised, but justice?
I think equality has become an empty word recently.
The personal is political has always been susceptible to a bathetic inversion: the political is personal. These novels depict a feminism in flight from demands for equality—the right to vote, the right to a bank account, the right to equal pay, the right to divorce, the right to abortion, the right to be free from assault—and toward a politics of grievance as it plays out in the bedroom.
“Hit me,” then, names a crisis in the Janus-faced senses of the original Greek krisis: the act of judgment for or against; the turning point in an illness that means either recovery or death. Again, this crisis is not between the genders. It is within the ideological form of feminism, which now has to square ongoing, pervasive misogyny—bias, harassment, abuse, rape, lack of autonomy, femicide—with women’s growing gains in higher education and recent dominance in white-collar industries like publishing. The latest wave is cresting.
What does this mean for literature? In The Female Complaint (2008), Lauren Berlant located this “displacement of politics to the realm of feeling” in “the complaint genres of ‘women’s culture’” that “tend to foreground a view of power that blames flawed men and bad ideologies for women’s intimate suffering.” Berlant’s main examples back then were works of sentimentality and melodrama, “middlebrow popular genres [that] are about the management of ambivalence, and not the destruction of pleasures or power.”
This might explain why, despite their high literary pretensions, these remaster novels seem of the same zeitgeist as Colleen Hoover’s meteoric rise, and why they call to mind, as Becca Rothfeld has noted in The Point, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Toward the end of that earlier series, after Anastasia Steele has married Christian Grey, he says to her: “You’re topping from the bottom, Mrs. Grey.” This phrase from the BDSM lexicon refers to how a sub can slyly command her dom. It is the perfect slogan for these fancier novels, too. The woman waits and watches, willingly submits—then captures the wealthy master on paper, so to speak: in a work of fiction, in a marriage contract. We might call it literary passive aggression.
It has a pedigreed history. In Fifty Shades, the Greys’ bondage room is called The Red Room, an allusion to the room in which the young heroine of Jane Eyre (1847) is locked to punish her for tussling with her cousin. If you think about it, all of these novels—high, low, mid—are in fact secretly sampling the beats of Charlotte Brontë’s master plot. A poor, frail, smart, young creative finds love in the arms of a redheaded girl at boarding school, rails against gender and social inequality, then falls under the sway of a rich, magnetic, brooding (married) master who loves power play:
For caresses…I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender.
Eventually, the master gets cut down in material and emotional ways, leading to a triumphant reunion, capped by a resounding declaration that combines artistic and amorous agency: “Reader, I married him.” The coming-of-age narrative, the portrait of the artist, and the marriage plot climax in the same line.
Brontë was destined to hybridize the genre of the novel this way. As a child, she read Sir Walter Scott and old copies of The Lady’s Magazine that had belonged to her deceased mother. Brontë’s juvenilia—the adventures of a swashbuckling king in a land called Angria—was cowritten with her brother and two sisters. And her first attempt at a novel, The Master, retitled The Professor, was written from the first-person point of view of the eponymous man—a thinly veiled (and passive aggressive) portrait of the Belgian teacher she’d had an unrequited crush on. Brontë wrote it, she said, because she wanted to put aside an “ornamented and redundant” style to depict a hero working “his way through life as I had seen real living men work theirs.”
Jane Eyre, which she published to great success after The Professor was rejected by publishers, is marked by traces of this motley apprenticeship. The book plays a thrilling game of gendered genre swapping. It launches with a boyish bildungsroman, only to swerve into a sentimental lane, then heads down a Gothic alleyway, but diverts us with a marriage plot that becomes a bigamy plot, which conjures a brief excursion to the colonies, then reverts to the Gothic, and so on. Set beside this zigzagging melee of genres, rendered in the lightning flashes and thunderous strokes of Brontë’s prose, the hip, wry realism of most of these recent remaster novels feels, well, a little plain.
Brontë’s latest literary daughters seem to have forgotten that “Reader, I married him” wasn’t revolutionary because of what Jane said; after all, many earlier works had staged marriage as a détente in the gender wars. What was revolutionary was how Jane said it. It’s all in the syntax. Apostrophe, subject verb object. Marriage is something Jane does to Rochester; reading is something she names us into doing. Even the fact that the line is in the past tense means she has known all along that she married him, but has only now deigned to tell us. This authority would have coded the line as stereotypically masculine at the time, as would its directness, brevity, and lack of filigree. Yet its subject, in both senses of the word, is feminine. In effect, “Reader, I married him” is in drag, its two pronouns as queerly married as the persons they name.
I would call this sensibility ambisextrous. It exemplifies the argument I made in my last essay that women writers have long forged their literary style through some negotiation of male and female imitatio. Last year Sally Rooney gave the T.S. Eliot Lecture at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which was later published in The Paris Review. She elaborated a version of this idea that the novel is “a complicated synthesis of masculine and feminine traditions”:
From its earliest history, the English-language novel has occupied an unstable position in the gender system: a form invented by women who dared to claim a literary authority reserved for men; a form appropriated by men who struggled to conceal the influence of women; a form perfected by a woman who was drawing on the lineage of those men; and on and on.
The title of Rooney’s smart and funny talk is “Misreading Ulysses.” The critic Harold Bloom argued in The Anxiety of Influence that the canon was forged by authors who figuratively kill their literary forefathers by willfully misreading and rewriting them. Rooney gently mocks her interpretation of James Joyce in this way: “Ulysses is an updated version of the marriage plot? That’s enough misreading for today, thank you.”
But Rooney seems interested less in this Oedipal drama than in what I’ve described as the performativity of both gender and style—how when we repeat preexisting forms, as Butler argues, “the productions swerve from their original purposes.” Rooney concludes: “When it comes to the question of who owns Ulysses, I believe the contemporary reader—perhaps particularly the contemporary novelist—must permit themselves to answer: I do.” That is, she closes her “misreading” of Ulysses as a marriage plot by repeating a classic speech act, the marriage vow—with a difference.
Her Conversations with Friends is the old-school hit that the “hit me” girls keep doing one more time. But Rooney herself has swerved on. Plots in her subsequent two novels flip the remaster structure: now the man is poor and vulnerable, and the wealthy woman is the one who doesn’t know what to do with her power. Rooney has also been experimenting with narrative closeness and distance; unlike all ten of the remaster novels, her two latest works are in a floating third person. Her tone, always droll, now continually teeters between deadpan and dead serious. Some readers miss these oscillations of irony, but Irish English can turn even the stolid pronoun into a sly joke: “Oh look, it’s herself.”
But the most distinctive feature of Rooney’s recent work is the fact that she seems to care about the male point of view. Yes, in Normal People the woman again asks the man, “Will you hit me?” but her motivation isn’t reducible to a fetishized precarity. Yes, the man again politely declines, but we later come to understand that he feels “frightened,” “sick,” “ashamed” about this episode. Later, the two lovers figure out how to subsume their misaligned desires into their relationship:
In bed he would say lovingly: You’re going to do exactly what I say now, aren’t you? He knew how to give her what she wanted, to leave her open, weak, powerless, sometimes crying. He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence.
This young man’s admixture of innocence and awareness, fear and desire, ambition and insecurity, awkwardness and charm, is finely calibrated—as we see in Paul Mescal’s delicate, glinting portrayal of him in the TV adaptation that Rooney scripted. The character doesn’t feel like a cipher of masculinity, a master to be conquered, a flat fantasy. He feels like a female author’s genuine attempt to depict what Brontë called “real living men.”
This literary androgyny finds its stylistic apogee in Raven Leilani’s Luster. Its one-page single-sentence sex scene, to which the novelists Garth Greenwell and Kaitlyn Greenidge have each devoted lengthy analysis, seems at first to satirize in miniature the remaster plot. It begins with the older man’s “grand, slightly left-leaning cock,” carries us through a joke about the younger woman’s dominance (“if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch”), relays the duel of their dialogue (“I call him daddy and it is definitely not my fault that this gets him off so swiftly that he says he loves me”), then leaves him emasculated, stranded on the porch “in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s,” a queer foreshadowing of this woman’s centrality to the story. Literal orgasms slip past in the middle of this involute sentence (“gets him off”; “we are collapsing back in satiation”), but aesthetic bliss shudders across it. Leilani closes with a simile about New York City “insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself.” This meta-self-description tips the hat to that genre’s braggadocio even as Leilani’s own extraordinary prosody swerves from it.
These versions of the remaster novel suggest that you don’t have to win the gender wars on the page, or even give witness to them. You can dance instead with the fluctuations of power among men and women; the old and the young; the self and the social; the dominant and the vulnerable; the norm and the swerve; the substance and the surface. The way these dialectical negotiations emerge in literary form—the interstices of irony, the crosscutting of viewpoints, the nooks and crannies of syntax—is far more interesting to me than any bedroom-cum-courtroom battle about the sins of feminism. But maybe I’d just prefer to be struck by style than hit over the head with another sexy sob story.