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Becca Rothfeld on Sanctimony Literature

Building on her critical reading of Sally Rooney’s Normal People a year ago, Becca Rothfeld surveys the characteristics of a genre she calls “sanctimony literature” in Liberties:

Sanctimony literature is, in effect, an extension of social media: it is full of self-promotion and the airing of performatively righteous opinions. It exists largely to make poster-cum-authors look good and scrollers-cum-readers feel good for appreciating the poster-cum-authors’ goodness. In ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel,’ James Baldwin wrote of sententious reformist fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.” Sanctimony literature has similarly affirming and consoling effects: it serves to make us feel proud that we share its ethical assumptions.

Though it purports to treat themes of great gravity and complexity, such as sexism and economic inequality, sanctimony literature is suspiciously easy to read. Perusing a sanctimony novel feels like binge-watching a series on Netflix or scrolling through Instagram, pausing every now and then to read an inspirational caption. … The vocabulary of both texts is often unambitious, and the syntax undemanding, for despite the sanctimony novel’s pretensions to subversion and system-smashing, it is usually formally unadventurous. … The little exploration that the genre permits is so easily digestible that it hardly constitutes experimentation at all: in place of Proustian effusions we get fragments, strewn strategically amid complete sentences, to signal that the text at hand is capital-L-Literary. Emma Cline’s The Girls, a gem of a sanctimony novel, is full of such shards: “Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name. Women reaching for their boyfriend’s hands.” These slippery non-sentences may seem daringly ungrammatical, but they are so easy to gulp down. A good person knows that ethical consumption and creation are impossible under capitalism, so she sets out to write a blockbuster, reminding herself that naked clauses are Tweet-adjacent and therefore apt to sell better. Like the protest novels that Baldwin so deliciously excoriated, sanctimony novels contain morals that are, as he puts it, “neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving mottoes sometimes found on the walls of furnished rooms.”

Above all, sanctimony literature is defined by its efforts to demonstrate its Unimpeachably Good Politics in the manner of a child waving an impressive report card at her parents in hopes of a pat on the head.