The Author Is Not Dead: Rachel Cusk (Part II)



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I often write a sentence or a paragraph in a kind of stupendous trance and when I re-read it later, I cannot understand where it came from, but I can feel the truth of it and recognise its authentic form. It is often the same when I read other authors’ works. Here is just an example from Cusk’s Outline: “I thought the whole idea of a ‘real’ self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.”  

It is our ability to sense that underlying truth that enables us to lure it to the surface. Sensitivity is indeed the main trait of any true artist, and it can often seem that this is more rare to find in men than in women. Reading the comments section under the Cusk interview, I noticed that it was in fact the male voices that spoke up most strongly. And it is understandable: it's their masculinity that is under attack, and their artificially created storytelling, so essential to maintaining power and control of other people’s life, something men are especially skilled in.

Fiction is embarrassing, Cusk says, and it is also dangerous, I might add. Hiding the truth and camouflaging reality has always been a dangerous business. While telling the truth, as close to it as you possibly can, is always liberating and most times constructive. The problem comes when an author or artist attempts to tell the truth, but fails to really listen to her Self, to accurately communicate what she senses inside. The “recreation of the false self” as Cusk puts it:       

The novel seems to be the book of self: the problem is that, once you start to write it, you see that it has taken on certain familiar characteristics. It begins to seem not true but false, either a recreation of the false self or a failure to externalise the true one. It is a product, your product: in other words, more of the same. How, then, to produce the ‘true’ writing?
— Rachel Cusk

I think all true authors, like all other types of artists, have the ability to access this truth, and that they can only find it through honest self-exploration; that is, with few, or no filters applied. However, the author/artist can only present her findings to the public through some kind of fictional account that gives the appropriate stimuli to interpret and analyse the meaning of her words, and the emotional connections of her revelations. Fiction has also the ability to “switch off” the rational part of our minds, which is an absolute necessity to access the inner, universal, knowledge pool.

In Outline, there are detailed retellings of stories that the narrator has been listening to from friends and strangers. Unless Cusk had a secret tape-recorder during these encounters, there is no way that she could have recollected all these details when she later sat down at her writing desk. I believe however that she noted down the essence of the stories or conversations she heard; they gave her the outline, and then she filled in the rest. In the writing class for example, where I was present in the room next door where she was teaching, there would not have been any long accounts told by the students. At least there were none in my classroom. Unless these were stories written and handed in as assignments (which would mean Cusk would be involved in plagiarism), they must have been something the author created herself.

So in this way, she is fictionalising everything, and proves beyond any doubt that she is in fact able "to get into the skin of somebody who isn't her." So why does she still insist that fiction is fake?

I think that fiction is a necessary and essential part of her writing. It is the plotting and construction of fiction according to a set of predetermined rules (beginning, middle, end) that is fake.

I recently became aware of the fact that Stephen King also believed that the construction of a story was a hindering of true artistic expression. He wrote this in his brilliant book On Writing and it surprised me to learn this. Both King and Cusk prove that the structure of novels/stories follow a similar pattern whether they like it or not. It is like a classical piece of piano composition that will always start and end with the same harmonious tone. It is like any jazz song, which might seem wild and chaotic, but always ends up finding its way home, or an abstract painting with a randomly sprayed pattern of dots and lines that you somehow recognise as a true and beautiful expression derived from something familiar, but unexplainable.

We simply cannot escape construction, I believe. We cannot fully disconnect from form, because everything that makes us human is related to seeing and experiencing patterns, and we need structure and interpretation to understand. But does it really matter? In the end, if the art of writing is about connecting, to your Self first of all, and then to the reader, who cares how it is done? In my view, an author has only the obligation to explore and to reveal her findings as truthfully and accurately as she (re)discovers them.   

Generally the greatest writers have written about what they’ve seen around them, about - in the parlance of creative writing schools - what they know. Yet again and again this knowledge has been taken as a sign of limitation. It has been left to time itself to prove the simplicity of truth and the durability of the work of art that expresses it. ‘The ones that last are the ones that are true,’ the writer John Gardner said. ‘Because great writers tell the truth exactly - and get it right.’
— Rachel Cusk (The Outsider)


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!


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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.