The Author Is Not Dead: Rachel Cusk (Part I)
THE ROLE OF THE SELF IN NOVELS
AN ARTICLE SERIES
THE FAKENESS OF FICTION
I have long realised, through my own writing, that the Self is a kind of instrument I have to learn to help find my true voice, and that my true voice speaks from some kind of natural pool of authenticity, an authenticity that is universal and belongs to all of us.
To reach that pool, I need to fictionalise my story to you. I need to create a filter of prose or poetry, like a deep-felt description of the scenery I see around me just now (The subtle smell of thyme that suddenly fills the air, reminding me that I am far away from home. The stillness of the morning, where not even the water is moving, and the only sound I hear is the faint ringing in my ears, a familiar disturbance, like the distant ocean roar in a large shell).
I believe we – the authors, artists, people – use fiction as a method of finding our way past the many defence mechanisms of our daily lives and into something more true and essential. A natural resource, if you will, that can guide us in the right direction, and simply put: make us better humans, more attuned to the needs of others and to the planet we live.
Personally, I can only reach that depth if I venture into the fiction part of my mind, where the mild, or wild, protests of my rational-logical defence mechanisms become dulled and muted. And I believe it is the same for the reader, or the receiver, as I sometimes name you. Because no one likes to be told how it is, or how it should be. (I am a vegetarian, so I know how difficult it is to convey your belief onto other people, even how obvious they seem to you). People like to find out for themselves. They want to discover, not be told.
Writing is the same, or should be the same: We are explorers of our inner worlds, patient archaeologists, meticulously digging into the layers of mud and sand that has accumulated over the years and centuries, to re-discover our ancient history and hidden truth. And it is always a RE-discovery of something that has always been there, readily accessible for those who are willing to search and to listen.
Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk referred to his own writing voice as “… an Angel on my shoulder whispering into my ear.” And that’s exactly how I have always felt that my own words come to me: Like someone, or something, whispered those words to me and lined them up in sentences that at first I might not understand, but which I always recognised as something true: Like a melody you have never heard before, but can predict the next tone that will follow; or the dream that gave you the answer to a problem you have been struggling with for days; or the sentence in a book that seemed so obvious and true that you must have read it before.
So if it is true that fiction is so essential to our artistic output, how come the British author of eight novels Rachel Cusk said in an interview that fiction has become fake and embarrassing to her?
I first became aware of Rachel Cusk when I read the bio of the authors and poets who had been selected to teach the creative writing course I had signed up for in Athens, Greece. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to meet her then, as she taught another class than mine, but a couple of years later I heard a rumour among the organisers that she had written a book about her experience here. Her seventh novel Outline includes the somewhat unfavourable exposure of one of her fellow teachers, and apparently created a bit of a stir among the school. So naturally, I was intrigued.
I researched a bit online and found quite a few articles about the author, and by the author, and both her story and her thoughts about writing, were even more intriguing than I had imagined. Here was someone who relentlessly refused to accept the premises of contemporary fiction and who shared my own feeling that narrative plotting and character invention were something belonging to the past and something that seems to hinder true artistic expression, serving only as obstacles to authenticity.
The first article I read was an interview with The Guardian where Cusk reveals that after her controversial last novel Aftermath, an autobiographical novel where she was dealing with her divorce, she could not write or read for three years. Her creativity was dead she tells the interviewer and she felt fiction had become "fake and embarrassing.”
The article explains that using herself as the "template" was judged by some readers as a "wilful exposure of self, a washing of dirty laundry in public". It all sounded very British to me and I wanted to find out more about this willful exposure of self and why she made some readers so angry.
The second article I read was a review of Outline, the novel inspired by her visit to Athens, and where she had regained her writing abilities again. I realised when reading this that Cusk must have been on the receiving end of quite a lot of public scrutiny and media bullying, leading up to this point in her career.
The title of the review was indeed rather odd: “When Rachel Cusk went to Greece: would she be nice or nasty?” And the under-title added to my curiosity: “A surprisingly compelling, dream-like new novel from the acclaimed but difficult author”. The acclaimed but difficult author? What on earth does that mean, I thought, and read on: “The author of seven novels, she was amongst Granta’s best young writers in 2003, yet her memoirs about the horrors of having babies (A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother) and about the break-up of her ten-year marriage (Aftermath) provoked outrage as well as adulation. It was thus with curiosity and some trepidation that I began Outline, fearing that her version of events in Athens might be unflattering to the people I have lived among and admired for many years.”
First she writes about the horrors of having babies, and now the potential unflattering of Greek people, who the journalist considers her friends. I can see why she was so worried. Turns out the review is full of praise for the novel, but I was now more interested in finding out how an author in the 21st century could end up becoming a kind of “menace to society” for writing a couple of thought-provoking works of art. So I did something I usually try to avoid: I read the comment section below the articles.
The debate was pretty one-sided and pretty heated, and I was surprised by the anger of the readers, making me think of the back-way ignorance from times long past. Especially Cusk’s statement about fiction as something she found “fake and embarrassing”, created strong responses. One male reader says: “But that's pretty much what fiction is for. And even people who have genuinely suffered - real stuff like imprisonment, hunger, persecution - still manage to create. If she doesn't like using her imagination, maybe she should just write non-fiction and have done with it.” Another male reader goes on: “Not 'maybe' but certainly! Quite obviously her total lack of empathy for other people prevents her from successfully writing fiction. She seems to be unable to get into the skin of somebody who isn't her.”
This last comment hit me personally, as I have had a fear that I might have had a lack of empathy myself when writing. I always found it hard to create credible characters and to really put myself in their shoes. I also found it difficult to create dialogues that didn’t seem stifled and fake, and I always write in the first person, which comes most natural, making me feel self-absorbed. Hell, lately I can hardly read books of fiction that do not have a first-perspective narrator. Because why would an author say 'She', when she obviously means 'I'?
So is it my own lack of perspective and empathy that makes me agree with Cusk that fiction increasingly seems “fake and embarrassing”? Or is it something else going on here? Why are so many current authors writing autobiographical fiction/ fictional memoirs? And something I find especially interesting: Why are so many female authors publishing such work? (Cusk, Funder, McBride, Yuknavitch, Nelson, Harvey, to mention just a few from my own Kindle library). Is it not related perhaps to the sensitivity of the Self and the beginning of a kind “Self-revelation/revolution,” finally bubbling to the surface after decades of system error and mind-control? The Self has been neglected for too long. There can be no doubt about it. And I believe it is the artist’s, sensitivity that is needed to lure it out of hiding. But what exactly is the Self?
The "Self" article series is a hunt for authenticity and true artistic output. It investigates the thin line between fiction and non-fiction in contemporary and modern literature, from Bruno Schultz to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors who poured their own life history into their novels without compromise, in search for the authentic voice within themselves that resonates so clearly with their readers willing to listen.
Comment below to let me know what you think!
A life balance artist with a determination to get the best out of both worlds while refusing to accept limitation of time and demanding social obligations. He has been a regular contributor on the magazine and his short story "The Weight of Those Flies" was published by Kingston University Press in 2016. He is currently working on his debut novel.