Fran Lebowitz famously said, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door.” And yet Sydney-based writer Diana Reid skillfully crafts an entirely new space with her debut novel, Love & Virtue — one between door and mirror.
Ried propels us into the world of Michaela and Eve, two intensely sharp young women who meet during their first year of university. We join them on drunken escapades on King Street, doing ‘juicys’ on dorm room floors, their whiplash-inducing debates and their navigation of the fragile world of performative activism, backdropped by institutionalised privilege.
As their story unfolds, Reid quietly weaves an intricate web around us, one of power, sex, privilege, feminism, consent, and morality. Only when we are squirming does this web crystallize into a mirror. Ever-so-gently, we are prompted to take a closer look at ourselves, and ask the pivotal question: am I a good person, or do I just look like one?
Baked into the vibrancy of Reid’s humming literary style, moral challenges invite the reader to investigate and evaluate the parameters of what they believe makes a good person. Exploring the liminality between the boundaries of good and bad — and the consequences once those boundaries are crossed — is how Ried artfully unfolds the delicate balance between morals and actions, revealing the unsettling and sometimes bitter truth: it’s complicated.
Without once drifting into the dangerous waters of didactics, this deafeningly quiet interrogation on Reid’s behalf, will (hopefully) teach you a few things. Tackling enduring questions faced by our generation, Reid carves a strong voice for herself within modern-Australian fiction.
Vertigo editor Erin spoke with Diana Reid about Love & Virtue, university culture and creating during lockdown.
EE: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Could you please introduce yourself to Vertigo?
DR: I’m Diana, a debut author, and my book Love & Virtue is an Australian campus novel. Like the characters in the book, I studied philosophy and graduated at the end of 2019. I also studied law but and deferred my job as a lawyer to try and do theatre stuff... but COVID cancelled theatre, so in lockdown last year, I thought I’d try writing a book. It ended up getting picked up and now it’s my life... crazy.
EE: Love & Virtue has just been released. How are you feeling about your debut novel hitting the shelves?
DR: It’s a weird thing. I think that my book coming out remotely, in lockdown and all, is kind of good. It feels like it’s happening somewhere else. I’m not nervous, even though I think I probably should be, and probably would be if the release was happening in person.
EE: Consent and feminism are two major themes in this book. Were discussions surrounding these issues part of your own university experience?
DR: Yes, while the book is fictional and all the events in it are fictional, the way the characters talk to each other is very much like the way that me and my friends talk to each other.
It was kind of based on two things. So in philosophy class, we would have these very abstract, vague debates about morality. And then also on campus, in-person and also in online culture, I saw a lot of black and white arguments about the right way people should be thinking about things. Both of which are important and are great things about going to uni, but these themes were definitely things I thought about and had been exposed to before.
EE: Yes exactly, that’s what’s so great about uni.
DR: My heart breaks for people who’ve done two years of uni online now. As you can tell from my book, I just loved uni. I think it’s a really fun place; you meet lots of people and you get drunk. It just breaks my heart that what’s written in the book might be an experience that a 19-year-old who has been at uni for two years can’t actually relate to. It actually makes me want to cry.
EE: It’s so interesting you say that because obviously I read it during lockdown and maybe that’s why I dove so deeply into this world. I was missing it.
DR: It’s so formative. Michaela makes heaps of mistakes, but she’s the person she is by the end of it because of all of them.
It stresses me out thinking about how people have missed out on that time to make those mistakes and meet people. And have friendships that don’t work out.
EE: And do juicys on the floor.
DR: Exactly, when else are you going to do that? It’s important.
EE: That’s what I loved so much about this book. I’ve sat in those rooms and listened to those stories. I’ve laughed at those jokes.
DR: Yeah, and it sounds stupid, but when I think about the new students who haven’t sat in those rooms… I think they are just as formative as the lectures. Maybe I shouldn’t say that… I’m not encouraging drunkness riotousness. It’s just the people you meet and the experiences you share with them cannot be replicated online. They’re really important.
EE: This book is clearly a story about morality, yet you really let the reader wade through those murky waters without too much guidance from yourself. I can imagine two people forming entirely different opinions and conclusions about your characters and their relationships, despite having read the same book. What inspired you to explore the liminal space of morals?
DR: Well, that was definitely my aim so I’m very glad that you feel it’s sort of ambiguous. I think it was sort of an aesthetic decision on my part, which kind of shows what I like in literature and why I think books are important.
Basically, I think we live in a culture where there’s a lot of black and white moral thinking and a lot of that is performed online. While I think that’s important and especially good for social progress, I also think that morality is complicated and the world is confusing. I think literature is a good space to explore the grey areas.
I guess that’s because literature deals with individual people and individual people are complicated. If your characters are real, and if you’ve done your job properly as an author, your characters shouldn’t be embodiments of different political positions or a way for the author to perform their own moral goodness. I think characters should just be people. And I think people are really complicated and confusing.
That just shows my take on reading and what I think a good book should be. Some people might like reading because it clarifies what they think, and that’s totally their prerogative. I just don’t like books that tell me what to think.
EE: Yes exactly. When I got to the end of this book I felt uncomfy but in a good way. I felt like I had been tested because I was forced to think, what do I actually think about this?
DR: I think I was trying to use feminism and consent almost as an example of a bigger theme: are you a good person, or do you just look like one?
Even for those who haven’t engaged with themes of consent and feminism, I think a lot of people our age — if they’ve existed on the internet — have probably felt that pressure to perform as a good person. I think for our generation it’s really hard to tease out that idea and explore the concept that looking like a good person actually might not be the same as being one.
EE: Performative activism is another theme quite cleverly explored in Love & Virtue. Do you think the political climate of the past year inspired your writing or has this long been a topic you’ve wanted to write about?
DR: So I started writing this in March 2020, obviously post-#MeToo, so it’s not as if I thought of that myself. But it was before the current consent discussion around the Australian Government really fired up, and the issue of consent being taught in schools.
I certainly didn’t write it with any current activists in mind. I think it was more inspired by the performative student activism that I had seen on campus, rather than anything that’s happening now in the public sphere.
In the book, I think I do have a bob each way — well, I try to — insofar as I think that the activist character in the book does objectively leave the university a better place as a result of her work. Even though she might not go about it in the most morally perfect way, I think that she does good work.
I wouldn’t want people to think that the book is anti-activist, because I genuinely don’t think that. I do see that kind of work as necessary for social change. I guess I just want more people to think about if someone being an activist is the same as them being a good person. I think the two often get conflated.
“...as frustrating as it is, you can’t just wait for someone to give you a prize or single you out... You just have to sit down with a lot of faith — and maybe a bit of delusion — and write the whole thing.”
EE: You have two young, female characters who are in clear and intense competition with each other throughout the novel. The ‘competing women’ trope is something that I feel gets shied away from for fear of being problematic, but you tackle it head-on. Were you ever concerned about this representation?
DR: Yes, I actually just wrote a blog post about competitive female friendships for Booktopia so I’ve got a whole lot of thoughts on this, you’ve opened the floodgates.
I think I was worried about it for a few reasons. The first being that I was concerned it was just a symptom of my personal, internalised misogyny. I was worried that it was how I related to some women when I was younger and that people would read it and be like, ‘Wow, she’s so toxic and weird.’ But it’s interesting because overwhelmingly women who have read it have said, ‘Oh, I had an Eve.’ None of my male readers have said this; they’ve said lots of other insightful and helpful things, but they’ve not said that.
It is toxic, but I also think that it seems to be something that a lot of women can relate to. At the risk of being gender-essentialist in talking about experiences of womanhood and friendship, I do think that there’s something to be said about the point of representation of minorities in any art form, but particularly literature has to be to represent them not as tropes or as types but to represent them as real people. If these are the kind of relationships that real women are experiencing then representing the truth is probably better than representing a kind of rosy version where being a woman is all about sisterhood and supporting each other.
I think Michaela does have some positive friendships with women, but the one that drives the book happens to be a toxic one. It was also a dramatic choice because friendships that are calmer and maybe more wholesome just don’t make for interesting reading.
My other point would be that insofar as it provides a kind of unsavoury picture of female friendship, it needs to be said that they’re in a male-dominated academic environment. Hopefully, it’s implied that their circumstances create an environment where it feels like female space is limited; so, it seems natural for them to compete with each other. They don’t really care what marks the boys in the class get, they just want to be the best woman philosopher. It’s as much social commentary as it is a comment about those specific women and their personal competitiveness.
EE: I definitely found it refreshing because at times, the concept of sisterhood is done well, and at others, it just feels so transparent.
DR: While the ‘competing women’ stereotype can be really negative, there are a lot of dramas that hinge on a rivalry. I don’t know if you’ve seen Hamilton or the film Amadeus, with Mozart and Salieri, but in a way that’s sort of similar to the Michaela and Eve type dynamic — they’ve always been rivals and one of them ends up more successful than the other.
There is an element to rivalries that doesn’t need to be derogatory because I think part of having a rivalry shows that you’re ambitious. I think that it’s cool seeing women being academically ambitious and taking themselves seriously. They’re not at uni to get a boyfriend. They are at uni because they want the university medal.
EE: We also publish a lot of fiction in Vertigo so I’m sure people are going to want to know how you transitioned from being a student to a published author. Can you talk about the experience of writing and publishing your first novel?
DR: I didn’t have plans to publish a novel, which I can see might be unhelpful and infuriating to hear so yes, I do apologise for that.
At uni, I was in a lot of revues and was involved in that scene. I wrote a lot of sketches and in my final year, I co-wrote a musical that we put on at the New Theatre in Newtown. So, I hadn’t written fiction but I’d been writing the whole time I was at uni, but none of that went anywhere. Then I wrote Love & Virtue in lockdown.
My path to publication was one of just sheer luck, I guess. I gave the manuscript to a friend to read and that friend had worked with someone who had been published before. Then that person was able to give it to someone in the publishing industry. After that, I contacted an agent to tell them my manuscript ended up in the publishing industry and asked them to read it. The agent read it, liked it, and that’s how I went from there.
If I were to say anything to people who are trying to get published, as frustrating as it is, you can’t just wait for someone to give you a prize or single you out and say, “You! You’re talented. You should write a book.”
You just have to sit down with a lot of faith — and maybe a bit of delusion — and write the whole thing. And, when it’s done, people will hopefully want to read it.
At first, I sent the first three chapters and they said, “Oh, we like it. Can you give us the rest?” So you might have to be in that position where you’ve got the whole thing.
I remember at the time of writing it, I was kind of embarrassed because I’d never so much as won a university competition for fiction writing. I was like, “Who do I think I am? I’ve got 80,000 words and I’ve spent months on this thing that no one has asked me to do and it might not be any good.” But the moral of the story is no one will ever ask you to do it, so you’ve just gotta do it anyway.
It’s hard because obviously, I went to uni and got a law degree. I think that with a lot of those structured systems of education employment, it’s very lockstep. You sit an exam, you get a mark. There are annual application rounds for a job, so you apply, then you interview, and you either get it or you don’t. Whereas in the creative industries, no one’s gonna put out a call asking for people who fit certain boxes to apply to this thing on this date. You just kind of work in this vacuum… but you should do it anyway!
EE: There has been a lot of hype surrounding your debut release. You’ve been heralded as the new Sally Rooney — how does that comparison sit with you as a young female novelist?
DR: It is totally bizarre for me. It’s a very strange experience. I think I feel quite disassociated from it because it is really a case of this thing that I wrote in my bedroom on an 11-inch, eight-year-old laptop because I literally had nothing else to do. And now, it has become my life. I genuinely didn’t think it would ever be published. It’s very strange.
As far as the Sally Rooney comparisons go, I know that there’s a political answer to that — that you shouldn’t equate novelists by virtue of being white, female, and young. But Sally Rooney is obviously so talented — she has created a whole new style of writing which my book is certainly in the shadow of. I could sit here and winge, and be like, “Oh it’s so sexist,” but I’m just grateful for the comparison and at the end of the day, people love Sally Rooney. If a comparison can get people to read my book, then who am I to complain about it?
EE: Not to dismiss the fact that you’re about to release your first novel, which is obviously a huge achievement, but what’s next for you?
DR: I’m working on a second novel.
EE: Is it the vibe of lockdown that just chains you to your keyboard?
DR: (Laughing) I know! I was thinking about this the other day and it’s a bit alarming if I want this to be a long career — which I do — but I can’t only write when there’s a plague on. Unfortunately, to date, that has been the case.
EE: (Laughing) Yeah, I’m not sure if that’s the most sustainable environment.
DR: No, it’s a bit sick. I can’t be wanting this to go on.
EE: Lastly, I just couldn’t help myself. Are you a good person, or do you just look like one?
DR: I personally think neither... I basically think that all people are quite selfish and not what we conventionally think of as good. The act of striving is the work of a lifetime. So when I say someone’s not a good person, I don’t mean to condemn them. I see that as very normal and they can join the masses... Wow, that makes me sound so cynical... I should say that I think being a good person is about striving. But I am very suspicious of people who position themselves as morally perfect because I think that that’s very, very, very difficult to achieve.
. . .
Speaking with Diana only made me realise that, as a current student, writing for a university magazine, themes of consent and feminism feel nauseatingly close to home. So much so, it’s almost astonishing to see a new release like Love & Virtue become the campus novel we’ve needed all this time. We have sat in those lecture halls, we have heard these conversations. We know these people.
Razor-sharp, provocative, and thought-provoking, everyone should be talking about this book. Talk about it with your friends. Talk about it with your colleagues. Talk about it with your parents. Talk about it with the people who you know don’t want to talk about it.
Love & Virtue is out now through Ultimo Press.