My favorite scene in Christine Smallwood's adjunct novel The Life of the Mind (2021) takes place at a graduate school colloquium featuring the protagonist's academic rival, Alexandra. As their shared dissertation advisor praises the talk, our protagonist, Dorothy, watches in consternation as Alexandra begins to blush: 

A blush was the kind of thing you couldn't possibly fake. It was an involuntary rushing of blood to the surface, and yet this blush was so perfectly calibrated to win [her dissertation director's] affection and to defuse the jealousy of her peers that Dorothy could not help but lean over and whisper to her friend Micah that Alexandra must have taught herself to blush, the way actors can cry, on command.1

Neither Dorothy, who studies the gothic novel, nor Smallwood, who wrote a dissertation on Victorian literature, can fail to recognize the narrative power of a blush. It functions as a matchmaking device across sentimental fictions. See, for example, the encounter that presages the engagement of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: "Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush."2 It testifies simultaneously to the body's uncontrollable feeling and, as Mary Ann O'Fannell notes, its perfectly calibrated attunement to social norms.3 Like any blushing sentimental heroine, Alexandra will make a fine match (here, a tenure-track job at Northwestern). Dorothy, unblushing, will not.

My enjoyment of this scene lies with how well Dorothy's near-delusional belief in careerist method acting exemplifies the mindset of the academic job seeker. If it were possible to command one's blushes, I'm sure some well-meaning commentator would have instructed me to do it by now, alongside cautions about how to pitch my voice, when to wear lipstick, and which is the appropriate heel height for a campus visit. 

Obsession with bodily comportment is just one quality that invites comparison between the academic job market and the sentimental novel's marriage market. Smallwood's novel depicts academic precarity as a condition that replicates the affectively charged genres its victims study. As Dorothy's bitterness suggests, both job and marriage markets function as zero-sum games in which an "exceptionally beautiful" candidate has a better hand to play, with lifelong social status and financial security as their elusive prizes.4 Smallwood plays up the analogy by framing the question of employment in the language of desire. Dorothy doesn't find Alexandra "more deserving" of a job but nevertheless recognizes her superior attractions: "She was what the world wanted."5

While The Life of the Mind, alongside other recent novels of academic labor (see: Jenny Offill's Weather [2020]), tends to liken the collapse of the university to more universal forms of apocalypse, the rivalry between Dorothy and Alexandra remains intimate, petty, and personal. Unlike Dorothy's depressive fantasies about a post-apocalyptic earth, their competition belongs to a world in which someone is still winning (though it's not you). The Life of the Mind's fraught approach to market desirability evokes the tropes and techniques of sentimentalism, defined broadly as a transhistorical genre of literary affect-building identified with "women's culture" and its socialization of feeling. While adjunct novels are rarely mawkish in tone more often, the opposite they grapple with sentimentalism, first, as a narrative tradition constitutive of the novel form and, second, as a long-dominant technology for telling stories about the fluctuating fortunes of white women.6 Dorothy's envy for Alexandra, entangled with the intricacies of female friendship, conduct codes, and fortune-hunting, indexes a nostalgia for sentimental hermeneutics within the ultra-modern adjunct novel. 

For sentimental rivals, personal qualifications matter deeply, as discerning and acutely perceptive judges seek to elevate the worthiest competitor. Liberal individualism undergirds an economic system that relies on the careful cultivation and evaluation of character. However, The Life of the Mind stages Dorothy's sentimental rivalry with Alexandra against a counternarrative that undercuts the marriage market metaphor, raising some more disturbing questions. What if academic hiring no longer functions as a market should? And what if the novel form lacks the generic frameworks to represent new systems of precarity?


Before its skillful depiction in The Life of the Mind, envy already had a rich history in the campus novel, including the canon of dark academia. One popular addition to the genre, M. L. Rio's If We Were Villains (2017), poses its protagonist conspicuously reading René Girard's Theater of Envy (1991) with all the portentousness of a thematic skeleton key. The college campus, historically imagined as a space of class mobility, serves as an ideal stage for dramas of envy and desire. However, unlike the envy showcased in, say, The Secret History (1992), Dorothy's feelings toward Alexandra stem not from stark class differences but from minute distinctions in marketability. 

In one wickedly funny scene Dorothy overhears their shared advisor praise Alexandra's research as "significant," an adjective never used to describe Dorothy's work, which is merely "clever," "relevant," and "stylish."7 Dorothy imbues these micro-distinctions with fatal import. When Alexandra finds a tenure-track post and Dorothy doesn't, Dorothy acknowledges the correctness of this outcome: "Was it Alexandra's fault that she was so finely fitted to the times, so capable of punctually executing the necessary tasks?"8 The language of "fitting" echoes matchmaking truisms about job "fit," that elusive, undefinable quality that makes a candidate suitable for a potentially lifelong appointment. The "finely fitted" Alexandra incites envy not through her qualifications which Dorothy shares but through consummate performance of employability. 

Justifying her rival's success, Dorothy indulges a version of meritocratic thinking that rarely appears elsewhere in the novel. Alexandra, she believes, has earned her place in the academic hierarchy and will "ascend with her iron grasp to the next rung and the next" a description that blurs the metaphor of the tenure "track" with the mechanisms of social climbing.9 Dorothy's envy of Alexandra signals not only identification but also differentiation. To envy her rival requires her to exaggerate the tiny differences between two equally qualified white women PhDs with the same dissertation advisor. Emulation, Sianne Ngai notes in her theorization of envy, "often works as a sort of prophylactic against or antidote to identification: it makes manifest an incongruity or disjunction, enables one to forcefully assert one's difference from the other whom one emulates."10 For Dorothy, envy evinces an ingrained attachment to ideologies of merit, a need to rationalize the market's decisions. If one woman lands a tenure-track job and the other ends up in "adjunct hell," the difference between them must be profoundly important, even if it lies in something as fleeting as a blush.11

Dorothy's drive to distinguish herself from competitors by fixating on her own shortcomings, aligns with other contemporary narratives of precarity. Writing about TV comedies, Rebecca Wanzo argues that precarious women protagonists tend to "embrac[e] the otherness found in abjection as a desired end and expression of an authentic self," rejecting "the possibility of solidarity with people of similar historical identities and social locations."12 If envy exaggerates the minute differences between subjects, abjection reifies them, shoring up individuality by producing the self through a sense of unique debasement. As in the TV shows Wanzo studies, abjection plays a prominent role in the adjunct novel: The Life of the Mind's first sentence has Dorothy "taking a shit at the library" while fielding calls from her therapist.13 For Dorothy, abjection coexists with envy; it explains why she doesn't have Alexandra's job.

Wanzo outlines how precarious women's disidentification from more successful peers charts the "unfulfilled promises of feminism and other civil rights projects," which only created viable opportunities for the respectable Alexandras of the world.14 Abject individuality becomes the consolation prize for the market's "disappointed subjects."15 Indeed, precarious subjects need abjection because they are disappointed, rejected from what they desire and left with the task of making meaning from that rejection. I may not have a tenure-track job, but at least I'm not the kind of psychopath who would teach herself how to blush on command. This mode of thinking erodes any meaningful grounds for solidarity between me and the people I envy, but it also allows me to live in a world where the rules of the market still make sense. I resentfully accept the market's determination that my rivals and I are fundamentally different kinds of people. The contrast between Alexandra blushing and Dorothy flushing indexes the limits of feminist uplift, academic solidarity, and market desire. 


The Life of the Mind, however, casts doubt on Dorothy's abject individuality and the vestiges of liberal market thinking it represents. Late in the novel, Dorothy learns from Elyse, another more successful academic frenemy, that Alexandra has struggled to find a publisher for her book manuscript, jeopardizing her progress up the academic ladder. The news shocks Dorothy, calling into question all the micro-distinctions that have allowed her to cast Alexandra as the eternally superior market competitor. 

Amusingly, Elyse discloses this information as part of a longer story about a soap-opera-style love quadrangle involving herself, Alexandra, and a set of identical twins. Dorothy, ever the literary critic, drunkenly interprets this dizzying anecdote as "a parable" about how academia ruins pleasure and introduces "contingency." She suggests to Elyse that the experience of swapping twin lovers is disturbing because it allows for an eerie substitution of one woman's pleasure for another: "You could be Alexandra, and she could be you?"16 

Dorothy does not include herself in triangulation with her more successful friends, who get to do things like sign book contracts and hook up with twins. But the novel nonetheless drags her into the mix. As Dorothy offers her interpretation of the twin story, Elyse inexplicably mistakes Dorothy for Alexandra, an apparently hallucinogenic moment that underscores the functional likeness of the three women. Dorothy doesn't get to be uniquely abject; instead, all three PhDs could easily swap roles in the story. 

With this incident, the metaphor of job-market-as-marriage-market collides with a gig economy sensibility that renders Dorothy and her friends all equally disposable. Alexandra is not the flawless ideal of marketability but, rather, a scholar whose "significant" work still struggles to find a publisher. If she failed to publish, either Dorothy or Elyse could easily take her place. The cherished differences among scholars do not matter; rather, their industry thrives on having an undifferentiated pool of equally qualified laborers who can be traded in and out of various roles as needed. Dorothy loses her footing in the sentimental narrative of competition and tumbles into a different kind of story. 

This story the one that gig economy novels such as Smallwood's endeavor to tell hinges not on competition but on fungibility. I cite this term from Black feminist scholars such as Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman, who used it to describe the objectification of Black subjects as the primal scene of both racialization and capitalism. Theories of fungibility provide a foundational understanding of how capitalism creates and destroys individuality; to be fungible means that the market views you as interchangeable with identical others, easily and seamlessly replaceable. The representation of fungibility in the adjunct novel should give us pause, since this emergent subgenre overwhelmingly features white authors, white protagonists, and white institutions. As other entries in this cluster for example, Annie Bares on Brandon Taylor's Real Life (2020) and Mel Monier on Black women's dark academic content   demonstrate, this does not extend to all campus media, but it does apply to a distinct majority.17

What does it mean for novels of precarity to bring fungibility to bear on white subjectivity? As a basic premise, we must recognize the difference between being a fungible subject, afforded humanity and a measure of agency in the eyes of the market, and a fungible object, afforded neither. I don't believe that adjunct novels are trying to draw comparisons between job insecurity and racial objectification; those things are incomparable (though, as I will discuss in a moment, they interact in Black fictions of precarity). Rather, adjunct novels register how shifting market dynamics produce crisis in the ultimate strongholds of whiteness, including elite universities. In her account of twenty-first century fungibility, Shannon Winnubst argues that neoliberal capitalism requires that everyone learn to view their own "living, human bodies [as] quantities of commerce."18 Under present economic conditions, more and more white women must let go of the fantasy of being a protagonist in an economic marriage plot even an abject one.

"When becoming a subject begins to be entwined with becoming fungible," Winnubst writes, "the hallmarks of subjectivity as whiteness e.g. transcendence, universality, individualism, rationality, and interiority begin to fracture and lose their moorings in the liberal ontology."19 Clinging to the hallmarks of sentimental genres is one way to resist that fracturing, to keep the faith in individualism and market competition. As long as Dorothy can envy Alexandra, she knows that the power of white femininity remains intact for those beautiful and cunning enough to wield it. 

Capturing the reality of academic precarity requires a radical reimagining of the novel itself. Adjunct novels wrestle to forge new aesthetic vocabularies of whiteness, even as elsewhere, in the wilds of the internet, the old aesthetics thrive independent from narrative (becoming, as Mitch Therieau discusses in his contribution to this cluster, vibes). Describing The Life of the Mind and Lynn Steger Strong's Want (2020), Maggie Doherty observes that "plot the literary structure that signals progress gives way to an atmosphere of anxious uncertainty, one familiar to many of us who came of age during a moment of financial and ecological crisis."20 Against this anxious background, the flashes of envy that punctuate The Life of the Mind connote a vestigial sentimentalism, nostalgic for the marriage plot as both a system of meritocratic differentiation and a linchpin of the novel form.

In contrast, Black women's novels of precarity tend to take the logics of fungibility as a fundamental premise. For example, 2020 and 2021 saw two bestselling novels with nearly the same opening gambit: a young Black woman working in the publishing industry weathers the arrival of a new colleague, also a Black woman, whose mere existence threatens her job security. In Raven Leilani's Luster (2020) this rivalry plays a small role in the book, which ultimately focuses on the protagonist navigating extreme precarity after she loses her job. (Her rival will, the novel suggests, take her place.) 

As its title implies, Zakiya Dalila Harris's The Other Black Girl (2021) builds its more overtly satirical plotline entirely around the conflict between the two rivals. In both novels, the characters take their fungibility for granted, with tensions emanating from the basic conviction that their white employers view them as interchangeable with other Black women. The Other Black Girl carries this idea to its logical extreme with (spoilers!) a vast plot to brainwash Black women into identical states of corporate compliance. Across these novels, envy still negotiates distinctions among womenfor example, in their relative identification with narratives of racial uplift and authenticity. However, all four competitors contend first and foremost with a market that obliterates their individuality, reducing them to fungible units of diversity.


Consciously or unconsciously, representations of precarity within adjunct novels contend with lingering attachments to white generic histories. The Life of the Mind pays homage to a crumbling narrative of market competition, revealing glimpses of envy as the final refuge of a besieged individualism. Over the course of the novel, the affective lexicon of the marriage market falls short of accurately capturing the realities of academic contingency. Nevertheless, gestures toward sentimental fiction such as Alexandra's blush recall the long cultural tradition of white women's genres working to justify disappointed hopes. To paraphrase Lauren Berlant, adjunct novels witness and explain the tenuous relation of academic fantasy to lived precarity.21 A key task for the adjunct novel is to confront and either justify or dismantle the pervasive fantasy that some Alexandra, somewhere, is living her best dark academic life while the rest of us fight with jammed copy machines. To justify academic inequality requires all of sentimentalism's tricks for making meaning out of unmet expectations. To dismantle it requires reckoning with the logics of capitalist fungibility and their long, violent racial histories. 

In one of The Life of the Mind's final scenes, a karaoke mix-up leaves Dorothy fumbling through an unfamiliar song while her best friend claims Dorothy's intended track (appropriately, Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise"). Watching her friend crush the performance, Dorothy decides that there is no reason to be envious of her friend's success. This last playful substitution of one woman for another strikes me as troublingly ambivalent. What does it mean for Dorothy to stop envying? Is it a moment of feminist solidarity or depressive self-abnegation? Either way, Dorothy doesn't worry about the mistake. "It didn't have to be her who did what could be done so well by someone else."22 

Deborah Thurman is an Instructor at the University of South Dakota, where she feels neither abject nor envious. Her first book project focuses on affective labor and diversity work in contemporary U.S. fiction. Her research has appeared in American QuarterlyArizona Quarterly, and MELUS.


  1. Christine Smallwood, The Life of the Mind (New York: Penguin Random House, 2021), 51.[]
  2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition (United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2010), 292.[]
  3. Mary Ann O'Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 17-18.[]
  4. Smallwood, Life of the Mind, 51.[]
  5. Smallwood, Life of the Mind, 162.[]
  6. In Downward Mobility: The Form of Capital and the Sentimental Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), Katherine Binhammer demonstrates that sentimental fiction evinces a particular fascination with narratives of financial loss, a quality that makes it all the better suited to the adjunct novel.[]
  7. Smallwood, Life of the Mind, 47-8.[]
  8. Smallwood, Life, 52[]
  9. Smallwood, Life, 52[]
  10. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 143.[]
  11. Smallwood, Life, 119.[]
  12. Rebecca Wanzo, "Precarious-Girl Comedy: Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, and Abjection Aesthetics," Camera Obscura 31, no. 2 (September 2016): 29.[]
  13. Smallwood, Life, 1.[]
  14. Wanzo, "Precarious-Girl," 32.[]
  15. Wanzo, "Precarious-Girl," 53.[]
  16. Smallwood, Life, 168, 171.[]
  17. Annie Bares, "Dark Academia, Dark Money," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022; Mel Monier, "Too Dark for Dark Academia?Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022. Unlike The Life of the Mind, some adjunct novels do address race for example, Strong's Want. However, that acknowledgement indicates recognition of the genre's fundamental whiteness its thematic interest in white families, white institutions, white angst over downward mobility.[]
  18. Shannon Winnubst, "The many lives of fungibility: anti-blackness in neoliberal times," Journal of Gender Studies 21, no.1 (December 2019), 105.[]
  19. Winnubst, "Fungibility," 110.[]
  20. Maggie Doherty, "Adjunct Hell," The Nation, May 3, 2021.[]
  21. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 1-2. Diegetic allusions to Berlant's work (specifically, to the concept of cruel optimism) indicate self-consciousness in The Life of the Mind's tangle with the sentimental.[]
  22. Smallwood, Life of the Mind, 207.[]