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Bri Lee. Image: Canva collage, Allen & Unwin and @bri.e.lee.

Eight years ago, I spent two weeks on a writing retreat with the well-known writer Bri Lee, before her name was well known. At the time, I was twenty-six and had recently published my debut short story collection. She was twenty-four and had recently sold her debut memoir. We didn’t vibe. I suspect that my style of working didn’t look like work to her, that I annoyed her by doing stuff like banging the ice tray on the counter while she typed at the kitchen table. Her working style looked like work. She struck me as equal parts ambitious and insecure—qualities that I shared and didn’t enjoy seeing in another.

Lee’s bestselling memoir Eggshell Skull came out in the same year as my second book. Her rise to prominence discomforted me. Largely, this was for reasons of professional jealousy: here was a young (younger than me) writer making actual money from her writing, while it became increasingly clear that the book I’d centred my life on for the past few years would struggle to earn back the modest advance I’d sold it for.

There were other things, though, that contributed to my unease. Lee’s writing, while proficient and often galvanising, seemed secondary to her capacity for brand building. She was a skilled speaker, in that Law-degree-to-public-intellectual-pipeline way. She had a background in fashion and content creation, having spent time in New York interning for the influencer Zanita Whittington. She became, as well as a bestseller, a marketable Australian face of #MeToo—a movement that I felt ought to be incompatible with individual faces and brand campaigns.

Lee’s writing, while proficient and often galvanising, seemed secondary to her capacity for brand building.

I have greater appreciation now for the ways in which Lee’s ascent—young, rapid and bound up with the publicisation of trauma—may have been punishing. I also have greater appreciation for her range—not as a writer specifically but as that more millennial beast, the multihyphenate girlboss. Unlike dilettantes, multihyphenates (aka ‘slashies’) are competent at the various things they do. In the years since her debut, Lee has made a name for herself as a justice and women’s rights advocate, authored two further non-fiction books, published serious journalism, collaborated with brands such as Marimekko, hosted a book club, co-hosted a podcast, leveraged her Instagram into a lucrative Substack, and led luxe literary tours of Morocco, Turkey and Egypt.

This year has seen her diversify into yet another category: novelist.


I contextualise my discussion of Lee’s debut novel, The Work, in this manner, first, to emphasise that the author is not dead, and neither is the author-critic. Critical objectivity, already a far-fetched concept in this country, is further complicated when the subject of critique has clout. While a critic who heaps praise on such a subject might be accused of playing politician, currying favour, courting friends in high places, a harsh critic might be seen as baiting controversy, cutting Tall Poppies short or, in the event that both critic and subject are female, being a woman who tears down other women. It’s a double bind, for the author as much as the critic. Perhaps the obscure debut novelist’s greatest blessing is the expectation of something resembling a blank slate.

Second, as wary as I am of effective self-promotion being conflated with artistry (or, in any case, becoming a prerequisite for attracting a readership), I recognise that it shouldn’t be a disqualifier. I am interested in the intricacies of making and selling art. And given Lee’s knack for brand building, I am especially interested in what her debut novel has to say about this often contradictory work.


The Work is, on an industrial level, a work of commercial literary fiction written with consideration for readers who enjoy Big Themes (art, money) but feel cheated if these themes aren’t signposted regularly. It’s a savvy book in this regard—if cynical. The Work’s patina of artistic expertise and moral complexity conceals a more mechanical intellect, which understands that, while many readers claim to enjoy being challenged, these same readers are often, above all, seeking validation.

Lee’s characters are, to use a word beloved by this kind of reader, ‘unlikeable’—which is fine, provided that their unlikeability is explained via expedient, legible backstories and presented as redeemable through Trials and Tribulations. It’s also New York, which means ‘culture’. The novel references old art, like Ingres’ Portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville, and new art, like a glass installation of a polluted ocean. If I was in bookseller mode, I might describe The Work as (don’t quote me, Allen & Unwin) a younger, arts-worldlier Fleishman is in Trouble—a commercially viable work of literary fiction whose cover art it evokes. I might also describe this gravitas as meeting the frothy delights of Emily in Paris, with main characters who conceive of themselves as leftists, broadly appealing to readers who similarly identify as leftists but also consider the accumulation of capital to be ‘empowering’ as long as it’s done by a woman.

The Work’s patina of artistic expertise and moral complexity conceals a more mechanical intellect.

On a plot level, The Work is about Annoying People of the arts-world variety. Not artists. Tastemakers and chasers; people who sniff around art, go to arty parties, maybe fuck artists, maybe envy them, maybe hold them in contempt, maybe all of these things. Annoying Person #1 is Lally. She’s a Holy Trinity of Annoying, being an art curator, a New Yorker and also a woman. When we first meet Lally, she’s getting railed by one of her artists against a view of Big Apple skyscrapers—a scene that’s more comically Randian than sexy (‘I’m gonna make you rich, Rivera,’ is her preferred dirty-talk). After the artist covertly films her, Lally goes full Karen, dialling 911 and calling him an ‘aggressive Mexican working on a tourist visa’. The explicit reason for her outrage: her consent has been breached. The unstated: she doesn’t want the world to know she’s fucking him. Later, he overdoses, and Lally asks her friend if profiting off his death is a ‘feminist act’. You go, girlboss? Obviously not. Lally’s gross, and Lee seems well aware of it.

Annoying Person #2 is Pat. He is less annoying because he is a man from rural Queensland with relatively humble aspirations: an apartment (in Sydney, mind), a dog and a more senior position at the auction house where he works. Still, he is as fixated on money and status as Lally is, while disdaining both his roots and the old boys’ club he camouflages himself within. At one point, Pat snidely reflects on an old boy who asks about his job: ‘This guy was such a dumb fuck!’ Elsewhere, he laments over his sister’s pregnancy: ‘What the fuck was Beck going to do? She still rented.’ (Non-landowners reproducing? Quelle horreur!)

The Work is, on a genre level, arguably a satire of the gaslighting, gatekeeping girlboss and elitism in the arts. But how expertly does it handle irony? Despite poking fun at the Annoying People and their neo-liberal arts world, it also seems enamoured of them. While the redemption arc that is hinted at throughout is somewhat averted by Lee’s choice to make Lally and Pat’s faults more glaring in the third act, it is never wholly subverted. If the Annoying People often appear to be caricatures, they are nonetheless invested with more humanity than anyone else, their desires, tastes and possessions too diligently documented to not seem at least a tad aspirational. They have arty debates, class-conscious sex, work hard, learn lessons, engage in corporate diversity practices, and ultimately find their way to work-life balance, regardless of whether they deserve it—or believe that those less hardworking, lucky and taste-possessing than themselves deserve it. The Work’s denouement is neither broad enough in its sympathies nor savage enough to convince as eat-the-rich satire (in itself, an increasingly toothless genre).

Lee adeptly wields class-signifying details to make readers feel like arts-world insiders, as well as to highlight her characters’ shortcomings. For example, there’s a bit where Lally condemns her one-night-stand’s Ralph Lauren polo as a moral failing, since it means he has ‘no taste’. What makes this moment is the subtext: Ralph Lauren was popularised as streetwear by hip-hop artists way back in the nineties. It can be purchased from op-shops and direct factory outlets. When I worked for such an outlet, our customers were predominantly non-white suburbanites. Lally’s elitism has layers, like an onion. But what does this layered depiction mean, in the absence of genuine subversion, except that Lee recognises elitism and finds it chuckle-worthy?

While nobody wants to commit the cardinal sin of conflating the female novelist with her characters, it seems dishonest to insist on total separation between a novelist whose success is so bound up with personal branding and the concerns of her girlboss protagonist. ‘My business now and the work I do is, in a way, being Bri Lee,’ Lee stated in a 2023 interview.

If the Annoying People often appear to be caricatures, they are nonetheless invested with more humanity than anyone else.

Read through this lens, The Work can feel incredibly meta. In the aforementioned interview, Lee poses in her tastefully decorated, antiques- and art-filled Potts Point apartment in a wardrobe courtesy of bassike and Camilla and Marc. She is selling The Work baseball caps and punctuating posts about the work with blueberry emojis (a reference to a self-consciously symbolic sex scene, which doesn’t quite hit in these times of climate chaos and Colesworth price-gouging, where a single lemon may cost roughly as much as a punnet of berries). Meanwhile, just days after Israel mounted attacks on the southern-most Palestinian city of Rafah—a former safe zone that shares a border with Egypt—Lee posted an Instagram story from her ‘Ancient Expedition’ tour with the caption: ‘When I said 2024 was gonna be the best year of my life I meant specifically that I would wear Simone Rocha to the Pyramids of Giza’.

So when Lally wonders, ‘Sometimes I can’t tell if I love the art or if I just love the hustle’, it felt like an earnest Bri Lee question—and one with potentially troubling implications, given her choice to represent artists as a desperate, undignified lot.

In The Work, artists are either model minorities, such as the painter from Harlem who is so guilelessly grateful that he sits on a palette while receiving good news, or id-driven children who make public messes, such as the abusive photographer Chuck Farr. The devaluation of the artist is mostly fine because if they aren’t arrogant sex pests (Farr, Rivera), they are probably talented and diverse, and may get their due if they’re in the right place at the right time and appreciative enough. Scarcity is also mostly fine because there’s too much mediocrity, and art is meant to be elite and the good will rise to the top if the pressure’s on—but even if it doesn’t, so what? The Lallys of the world will keep getting richer and congratulating each other on their good taste.

The only sympathetic artist who offers anything resembling a voice of dissent isn’t a character so much as a diversity checklist (Latinx, female, poor). At least, this is just all she is to Lally and all she is in The Work. This artist serves only as a mouthpiece and tool for Lally’s development. While Lee seems cognisant of the ugliness of girlbossery (‘Hadn’t she done enough to champion marginalised voices?’ Lally reflects. ‘Hadn’t she made the diversity pie chart to show she represented artists of varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds?’), she fails to humanise artists. On the page, she grants them no depth nor the capacity to resist the constraints of patronage for reasons other than ‘good politics’ or chauvinism—limiting The Work’s effectiveness not only as satire but as art.


If The Work isn’t satire, what is it? A conservative fantasy, with frills. A complicated romance where the girl gets everything she wants but also gets to have complicated feelings about her wants. A white feminist consolation, which calls out the vices of its white feminist readership, insofar as they are like Lally, while assuring them that they are not as bad as Lally, who is not as bad as men. A novel about art that preserves a familiar blue vein of contempt for working artists, while suggesting that to patronise art is essentially—if complicatedly—good.

She fails to humanise artists. On the page, she grants them no depth.

There are a couple of noteworthy counterpoints to this pessimistic reading of The Work. Pat’s family, particularly his female relatives, are given the space to articulate themselves without being mere mouthpieces. The pregnant sister, Beck, is well-drawn and provides my favourite assessment of Pat at a rural hens’ party: ‘One of the bridal party said something about getting his number but Beck shut it down, saying something about Pat not being into “women like us”.’ And although Lally’s assistant, Leah, isn’t characterised much beyond being an Asian-American with a pixie cut, she offers a (polite) challenge when confiding in Lally about her aspiration to be a critic, remarking: ‘[criticism] can be a gun pointed at art.’

It is difficult to know whether this quiet call for better critical culture will be heard by Lee’s wider audience over the clamour of Big Themes, baseball caps and blueberry emojis—or even if Lee intends for it to be heard. In a self-aggrandising move that seems to mock rather than encourage the notion of independent cultural criticism, Lee is commissioning writers to cover her oeuvre for a special ‘BriLeeRama’ edition of her Substack (following on from ‘RooneyRama’, ‘YanagiharaRama’ and ‘GarnerRama’). Given this context, Leah’s pointed gun seems more like a plastic toy than a weapon.

Image: ‘BriLeeRama’ promotion. Source: News & Reviews Substack.

Likewise, it’s difficult to know how Lee’s audience will respond to her send-up of arts-world girlbossery more generally: will Lally be seen as odious for turning her nose up at hobbyist art and relishing the indebtedness of diverse creators, or only for platforming an abuser? A self-aware theme of Eggshell Skull was that she was a sexual assault survivor who was a more perfect victim than most. There’s reason to be cynical of a culture that, presented with a survivor in possession of a Law degree, Éowyn hair and a strong voice off the page as well as on—not too girly, pruned of likes and ums, capable of projecting, unaccented—made her a brand ambassador for high-end women’s wear. One can only hope that The Work will generate genuine reflection about concentrations of power and gestural diversity in the arts, rather than just garnering praise for its—and Lee’s—self-awareness.

Putting aside these reservations, it is refreshing to see Lee break from the ‘Privileged Girl vs. Institution’ formula that has defined her non-fiction. Eggshell Skull, while rousing in 2018, already feels like a relic of a more naïve and bossy era of feminism, with its skull-emblazoned millennial pink cover and ‘stand up, speak up’ messaging. Beauty, when I read it around its release in 2019, seemed rushed to me, let down by oversights such as references to numbers on the scales (as many eating disorder survivors will know, the metrics stick) and a neoliberal focus on the individual conquering body dysmorphia. I have not read her 2021 non-fiction exploration of the education system, Who Gets to Be Smart, but was amused upon learning of Lee’s decision to frame its basic thesis (more money = better education) through the lens of her woe about not being a Rhodes Scholar.

It is difficult to know whether this quiet call for better critical culture will be heard by Lee’s wider audience.

While The Work’s limitations are consistent with those of Lee’s earlier books, these limitations are comparatively palatable when presented through the medium of fiction. Even though art that purports to be apolitical has ideological underpinnings, fiction lends itself to moral greys and extremes of character. Lally and Pat aren’t their author, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suppose that they represent certain authorial qualities and impulses, taken to the extreme. Shadow selves, if you will. Which is perhaps a way of thinking of Lee: a materially successful shadow-self of the precariat artist who wants to be a good socialist but also wants to be exceptional at what she does and to live beautifully.