Embarrassed by fiction?
An American novelist writes to tell me he's read one of my books. There are things in it he admires, such as 'the evocation of atmosphere' and 'the urgency of suspicions of adultery'. But the plot bothers him – the fact that there is one. 'Plot always bugs me,' he says, 'and I couldn't help thinking – if you'll forgive me – that almost all novels would benefit if they (we) could break loose of the imperative of A leading to B leading to C, etc.'
A friend, writing from Japan, is less apologetic. He has already told me, to his own great amusement, having read only the publisher's blurbs, that my books are 'silly'. A social historian who has lived on four continents, he just can't see the point of made-up stories when there's so much real life to learn about. He writes, 'I'm reading about Karl Ove Knausgaard and he says the same kinds of things about fiction as me. I'm not as mad as I'd thought!'
Knausgaard's unflinching memoir has won him notoriety far beyond his native Norway and has given new impetus to an old critical trope: the death of the novel. 'Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,' he writes in the second of six fat volumes of the bizarrely titled Min Kampf (My Struggle). The British novelist Rachel Cusk is also reported to have given up on fiction, finding it, according to a profile in a recent New Yorker, 'fake and embarrassing', and the creation of plot and character 'utterly ridiculous'.
As I wrestle with the familiar challenge of bringing fictional characters to life and giving shape to their experiences, I begin to feel disheartened. Perhaps I should just write about my life. But I have no appetite for self-revelation. On an impulse I download Cusk's latest book, Outline.
Some books I buy in the expectation of pleasure, others for work. This one I encounter as an enemy. If Cusk considers ridiculous what I put so much energy into, it follows that I will either hate what she's doing or be defeated by it, recognising that my craft has indeed been superseded.
But the headlines have misled me. Outline is no memoir. The first person narrator, of whose life we gather only fragments, is mainly a recipient of other people's stories, which are delivered with arresting eloquence. I'm reminded of the strange fictions of Borges, or of a Chekhovian play in which characters take it in turns to reveal something of themselves. Many of these narratives lead to moments of illumination. The effect is elaborately fictive.
It occurs to me that I have mistaken Cusk's self-reflective musings for literary analysis. Her embarrassment is, of course, purely personal. Pushing herself to solve problems thrown up by her earlier works, she is acutely aware of what she perceives, justly or not, to be their shortcomings. This is a feeling I understand. I finish Outline exhilarated and ready to get back to my novel.
Joe Treasure is the author of two novels: “The Male Gaze” and “Besotted”, and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.