The Love Story That Riled Up BookTok

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Kooshgraphics

Cecilia Rabess never saw herself as a novelist. But when she turned 30, she wondered why she wasn’t taking the risk of putting all the stories she’d had in her head for years on paper and decided to abandon her corporate career to write full time. She didn’t care if anyone would read her book or even like it — she’d write it anyway.

That novel turned out to be Everything’s Fine. In this coming-of-age tale, inspired by a 2018 New York Magazine story, “Donald Trump Is Destroying My Marriage,” protagonist Jessica Jones comes to grips with her place in the world as a Black woman and the everlasting tension she’ll face as she blooms in places that are unfriendly toward her culture. She grapples with how the generational wealth of so many around her distorts their views of reality and the overwhelming pressure of juggling politics with our identities in the frenetic Trump era. Then there’s her relationship with her co-worker Josh Hillyer, which causes her to question everything she thought she knew.

Months before Everything’s Fine was released, the novel attracted negative criticism on TikTok, thanks to the publisher’s official blurb, which some argued tried to make the relationship between a Black woman and her racist, white co-worker steamier than it should have been. Romance readers were up in arms at this new iteration of the liberal-meets-conservative love story and took issue with racism being one of the underlying tensions in Jess and Josh’s relationship. Others felt the book had been incorrectly marketed as a romance novel. “It’s really trying to give enemies to lovers but … when we say enemies to lovers, we don’t mean oppressor and oppressed,” said BookTok reviewer @satrayreads. The book is currently just over the edge of a three-star rating on Goodreads — with one-star ratings having the slight majority over five stars. But ultimately, Everything’s Fine asks readers not to paint anyone, especially Jessica, with broad strokes.

Rabess wants her first novel to crack open the complexity of dating and love today, but she does not profess to have the answers to everyone’s questions. Speaking to the writer, it’s clear that she has a deep relationship to books and knew that writing a love story set against the backdrop of the 2016 election could be controversial. But what’s most important to her is that readers walk away from Everything’s Fine with empathy — not just for the author but for the flawed protagonist at the center of her novel.

What has been your relationship to books from childhood to now? Did you always want to be a novelist?

My mom encouraged me to start a journal when I was very young, so I have about 30 years of journal entries that I pretend don’t exist. It always felt cathartic to write. As I grew up, the pressures of the world and the capitalist context in which we live imposed themselves, because writing was cool, but I wanted to pay the bills too. I didn’t abandon writing then, but I reframed myself as a journalist, since that was a job and I could go to school for it. But there wasn’t a great fit between my personality and journalism, so I gave up for a while. That experience is reflected in the novel — the protagonist, Jess, makes similar compromises. I worked in corporate America for many years, but I was always writing freelance. Then I turned 30 and wondered what my life was.

Social media has exposed how difficult it can be to write a book. What has the journey of writing your first novel been like for you? Is it what you expected?

For someone who’s a writer and uses her imagination quite liberally, I do find it hard to imagine the future for myself. But, like with any other industry, once you’re on the outside looking in, it’s way more and way less interesting than anyone could imagine. The same could be said for finance, which is why people are interested in an insider perspective.

One of the things that inspired me from my detour into the tech industry was naïveté and brute optimism. People make fun of it, but there’s a real commitment to getting things done — whether that’s the 80-20 principle or the idea that “done is better than perfect.” All of those tech maxims worked on me, because I’ve always been a perfectionist but also a procrastinator. The book people envision in their heads isn’t always the one they write, which is frustrating and disheartening to varying degrees. But I absorbed enough of the tech ethos to just do it. I didn’t care if anyone liked it or if it got published. Getting it done is really half the battle, and that doesn’t seem true until you’re at the end.

My friends and I often talk about how there’s something in rom-coms of the past that recent movies don’t seem to re-create well but that novelists are getting at. We want to see things with layers. But why a love story? What about those have always inspired and intrigued you? 

When I think of a couple, it feels like the most elemental connection between people. I’ve loved coming-of-age stories, which is a trope where you find yourself through someone else. But in this story, Jess finds herself through the opposition to this person. And in the end, it’s what she does with that relationship after she has outgrown it. I love rom-coms so much, but lately, they aren’t going all the way. There’s a lot of opportunity to mine richer stories and identities.

In 2018, we were reasonably deep into the Trump presidency and the discourse had gone completely sideways. We were left versus right, shouting back and forth across a very bright line. Many people on the left, like myself, were still processing and figuring out who we were as a country and what had happened. The popular narrative was all about reaching across the aisle, and there were all these mythologized, shallow takes on the Trump voter. It was extremely frustrating, but it was getting at something. So that’s the headspace I was in as I was sitting down to write this novel. I wasn’t intending to write about politics, but I did want to write a love story. I wanted to ask some difficult questions about race, class, and identity. People are actually living this story, where one person in the couple is liberal and the other conservative, and they’re just muddling through. I wanted to figure out how. This book is about observing, exploring, and examining. It has some judgment, because I’m a human being, but I didn’t want to write a book about who’s good and who’s bad.

Your book was marketed as a romance or love story, but romance is only part of what is covered in the novel. Do you think that caused an issue with the audience response? Or is it just an issue in the publishing industry overall? 

That was an education for me. I don’t think I, my editorial team, or anyone close to me described the book as capital-R romance. But it is a love story — among other things. I think I learned that the word romance means a lot of specific things to a lot of readers, so there are certain conventions and expectations when it comes to tone, plot, the ending, and more. I’m familiar with all of those, and I did want to celebrate in the book even as I subverted those expectations. But I didn’t know romance carried as much weight as it did. I didn’t think that was ever the word I’d use to describe the book.

It gets really in the weeds when you think about what makes a romance and what makes a love story, and I don’t think most people would know the difference. But people feel really protective of romance, and they want to know what they’re getting. If their expectations are not met, they’re dissatisfied. That was an interesting takeaway, but I don’t feel uncomfortable describing the book as a love story, because there are love stories that exist between romantic partners, families, and friends. It’s a much broader term, and this is about love and self-love. But — spoiler alert — there’s no happy ending, and I wasn’t necessarily sticking tightly to genre conventions. I don’t know where it all came from, but maybe it was a miscommunication at some point.

What led you to create Jess? I always want more Black women to be at the center of love stories and romance, because we’re getting it in real life but not always seeing that on the page. 

Jess is flawed, which means she’s real. But she’s likable and relatable. She’s not a hero, which some people find challenging, because she’s still figuring herself out. Jess is a victim of racism, but she’s complicit at times in her erasure and how she lets herself be treated. That was interesting for me. I think we want people to be perfect, winning, or saying the right thing in the right way all the time, and that feels satisfying. But sometimes, people are muddling through and they don’t necessarily deserve what’s coming their way, even though they’re inviting it.

She’s initially very focused on whiteness, and she has her friend Tenley as a foil, who exists as this ideal white woman. Jess is smart and not selfish enough to think, I want to be like that, but she definitely idealizes Tenley. As Jess grows, she’s still defining herself in opposition, but she’s challenging people and not letting them make her feel “less than.” She stops straightening her hair and is daring people to say something about it. Jess is still focused on whiteness, but it’s a different frame. I don’t think she’s fully self-actualized by the end of the book, but she’s no longer seeing whiteness as something she has to put herself in the context of. The insidiousness of white supremacy can lodge itself in you pretty deep, but she’s trying to get past it. But then Josh is not necessarily the person you want to be in a relationship with when you’re doing that work.

I’m curious about Josh. We all know a Josh type — or think we know one. Especially during the Trump years, we’ve gotten to know that kind of character on the surface, and they’ve been quite centered. Why did you make Josh the love interest but someone who is in opposition to Jess — challenging and pushing her?

Why does he have to be like that? And why does she have to pursue a relationship with someone who may not fully see her and meet her on terms that most would consider healthy and helpful? I wanted to reject those easy binaries of right and wrong. The insidiousness of it all means there’s good in bad people and bad in good people, so we have to do more work. Jess has internalized a lot of the bad and things that Josh takes for granted and doesn’t see fully. I tried to give Jess and Josh enough in common that you can see they’re both products of their environments. If Jess had grown up as a white guy in Greenwich, she could very well be treating other people’s humanity as a talking point. But they’re both strivers and outsiders and missing a key role model — him in his father and her in her mother.

I wanted to undermine the idea that it’s as easy as excavating the rot when this energy and thinking is everywhere. I would’ve loved to write an easy, breezy rom-com, but I couldn’t — with everything weighing on me and the reality of society. A book doesn’t have to be an approximation of reality, but that’s the kind I enjoy reading. So once I set that criteria, I opened a whole can of worms. I wouldn’t have chosen Josh if I’d intended for there to be a happy ending.

At the beginning of the year, before the majority of readers could even interact with your book through snippets or published chapters in the press, there were already some very fiery and spirited responses to Everything’s Fine on social media. How did you feel about the criticism when it started to roll in? And has your point of view changed since then? 

I didn’t have much of a philosophy on this before thinking about publishing a book. I was building the plane as I was flying it when it came to figuring out how I wanted to engage with readers and social media. In January, when the first early-reader copies started going out, there became a narrative that the book was racist and I was racist. I definitely did not see that coming, and I didn’t have a plan for how to engage with that narrative. Over the subsequent months, I developed an approach that feels comfortable, which is to not engage with reviews, reviewers, and readers. If they find me, I’m happy to talk to people, but I’m not seeking out reviews and online chatter. A lot of the good-faith conversation can get lost in the troll campaign that emerged about the book being racist.

The thing about it that surprised me most was the quite strong racist undertones to some of the blowback I received over the book. People were questioning the limits of my imagination as a Black writer, and they were conflating me with my character, suggesting there’s no way this could be fiction and nuanced.​ That there was no way I could write a story that asks more questions than it answers. And, more damning, I felt like a lot of the feedback was about holding a Black character to a higher idealized standard than we do white characters, who are celebrated for their messiness, their flaws. When a messy, chaotic 20-something character is a white woman, that’s fine, but I was hearing that people didn’t want that same amount of nuance from a Black-woman character. It surprised me, because it felt quite dehumanizing. Demanding perfection either in the form of perfect victimhood or the perfect hero doesn’t reflect who people are, and it doesn’t reflect their full humanity.

People were calling the book racist when you’re a Black woman and we know racism exists in a certain power dynamic. Right now, elected officials use terms like “reverse racism,” which we know isn’t real. How did it feel to have people lob that word at you?

It was really hard, and I felt it more in my body than my mind. I spent a lot of time working on this book and thinking about it, trying to capture the very complicated relationship this character has with her Blackness. It’s a huge part of the story, but it’s outside the coming-of-age genre where someone gets comfortable in their own skin, is learning to do that, and is reckoning with it in the ways she does. I feel 100 percent confident that this book isn’t racist, but when people came at me and said that not only the book was racist but I was racist, it felt really bad. It made me uncomfortable — a little bit dispirited and frustrated. It felt so removed from the actual content, intention, and heart of the story. People were saying terrible things, calling me a “coon” and telling me I should die.

It’s a hard time to be alive, so maybe this was an outlet for a lot of people, but trying to weave through that part of the discourse so I could get to something real that I could actually respond to was difficult. I’m not sure I was able to do that successfully. My ultimate conclusion was that their interpretation of the book was much more about the fears and frustrations they carried in this political moment we’re living in than about what was on the page.

Was the potential for fierce reviews of your book something you discussed with your team beforehand? The racial reckoning in 2020 brought a lot of conversations forward, and I’ve seen Black women novelists and women authors of color talking about getting a flood of comments that are outside the appropriate conventions of book reviews. Were you given any preparation on what the landscape is like? 

We definitely talked a lot about race, because that is a huge component of the story. So more than trying to manage the media landscape or find out what’s happening on Twitter, we wanted to get that right. And by “right,” I mean making it feel realistic, plausible, and representative of one individual’s reality. Not to make any sweeping statements about what it means to be Black in the U.S., because it’s just one person’s experience. We spent a lot of time talking about times when Jess did and didn’t adhere to expectations for a young Black woman in predominantly white spaces. Part of what’s interesting about this character is that she wants to surprise people. She doesn’t want to be put in a box. She understands that people see her in one way, but she wants to be seen more fully and differently.

We thought there would be more blowback from the right wing, because I’m writing outside of my experience when I write white characters — including white men who don’t share my politics. We thought people would have questions about that, but it came at us from a completely different direction than we’d expected. None of us anticipated that.

After this experience, what are your thoughts on how writers should engage with social media? 

I think some readers just want to know what the answer is and what the takeaway is. Sometimes, knowing the writer or thinking you know the writer can supply that insight. I do that myself, because it adds another dimension to the experience of reading a book — especially when the book is challenging.

We have so much access to so many people that it’s part of the way we live now. You read someone’s book, then you find out what they had for lunch. It’s the full 360 experience. I admire authors for not participating in it when they don’t want to, and I think that’s happening more and more. But social media is a direct channel to consumers, so depending on your relationship to your art and what you want to accomplish, it can be a very beautiful, nurturing thing to be able to reach out to your favorite creator and tell them you feel connected to their work and, thus, feel connected to them. It’s not all bad, but it’s definitely a lot.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Love Story That Riled Up BookTok