utterly ridiculous: Rachel Cusk reaches a literary dead end, then presses on (in The New Yorker)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Among the various challenges we writers face is believing in the job we've given ourselves to do (for no one but us, let's be honest, requires us to take the storytelling burden/privilege on).

In her writing about Rachel Cusk in this week's The New Yorker (January 5, 2015), Elaine Blair explores Cusk's own growing uneasiness about the literary enterprise:

Since the early nineties, she has reliably published a novel or a memoir every few years. But in an interview with the Guardian last August, Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction "fake and embarrassing." The creation of plot and character, "making up John and Jane and having them do things together," had come to seem "utterly ridiculous."

Blair goes on to write of the novelists who today speak of "trying to expand the possibilities of the novel" by "incorporating the techniques of memoir and essay, of hewing closer to the author's subjective experience, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal nonfictions." Blair then asks: "Haven't novelists always put autobiographical material to use in novels? Haven't we been reading about a character called 'Philip Roth' for years?"

I am easily accused of personalizing my fiction—doesn't matter where (Berlin, Seville, Florence, Juarez, a mental institution, a cortijo) or when (1876, 1871, 1983) the story takes place. I've never known whether that makes my stories more or less ridiculous, never imagined myself trying (in that way) to expand the possibilities of the novel; these personalized fictions are just the only stories I've held within, or been capable of writing through.

But I wonder how it is for you. How much of you is inside your fiction. How you protect yourself from drawing the conclusion that the conjuring of story lines is finally ridiculous?


Sarah Laurence said...
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Sarah Laurence said...

You can feed the body or you can feed the soul. Art gives us pleasure and fine art teaches us something new about the human condition and exercises our imagination. We learn by thinking as much as by acting.

I do draw from personal life experiences when I write, but my characters are not real people; they take on lives of their own. My stories draw as much from imagination, research and literature as from my own life although everything is filtered through my mind. Even an historian is writing a somewhat subjective rendering of the world.

I've read six of your novels, and rest assured, your writing is not ridiculous.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Fiction is the right vessel for many stories. It's just not the right vessel for every story, which may be what Cusk is running up against.

As for autobiographical fiction--it's hardly new. Ask Erica Jong. John Updike. Jack Kerouac. Sinclair Lewis. Mark Twain. Charles Dickens.
So many novels take place in the town where the novelist grew up and feature a protagonist very much like the author in gender, ethnic background, and economic circumstances. Why should a novelist ignore such gold mines of material? And, with the freedom of fiction, why should they not take some liberties with that material?

Cleo from Jersey said...

One of my most influential writing professors told the class to "write what you know....then take that experience in any direction that feeds your mind, your soul, your imagination." We are products of our lives and everything that enters into those lives.

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