“If You Want To Be Liked, Don’t Be a Writer” (this post originally appeared on Goodreads blog)
When fiction writers use a first-person narrator, especially one that shares their gender, I sometimes find myself wondering after only a page or two if the story is autobiographical, and if so, how much of it?
This is a topic I think about frequently, as both reader and writer, especially in an age where memoirs penned by writers from all walks of life—doctors, poets, recovering alcoholics, book editors, cancer survivors, children of abusive parents, film directors and film stars—to name a few, continue to appear on bestseller lists.
Two recent novels that I very much admired, UK author Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Transit (the first two books in a planned trilogy), are based on events in Cusk’s life, although she has said in interviews that she did take liberties with many of the characters and scenes in which she dramatizes her narrator Faye’s interactions with them. Nonetheless, Cusk isn’t coy about these novels having been inspired by actual occurrences: a move back to London from a less populated part of England, along with various experiences related to her work as both writer and teacher, and the events chronicled in Outline and Transit take place after her divorce (which Cusk also wrote about more directly in her 2011 memoir Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.)
A number of critics have written in reviews of these two books that Cusk has redefined the contemporary novel—the plotting, for one, is skeletal, and some resist labeling it a plot at all. As Monica Ali states in her January 23, 2017 review in the New York Times, Transit is a novel that all but dispenses with plot.” Plot or no, I couldn’t put either of these books down, and perhaps this speaks as much to my habits as a writer as it does to my preferences as a reader: I often find plot the least compelling aspect of the stories and novels I read—it is the dialogue, the characterization, the precision of the writing that draw me in and keep me invested. Similarly, as a writer, I’d rather work on characterization than on plotting.
There are voyeuristic tendencies probably at play here too—I want to see what Cusk will reveal about people I imagine to be her intimates, and what she will reveal about herself in the process. I’m not sure why I’m interested, never having met Cusk, but I’m seduced by her voice and writing style—its litheness and lyricism, its subtle humor, its beauty and insights into the contradictions in human character.
Cusk also said something in a recent interview published in The Telegraph that I can’t get out of my head: “If you want people to like you, don’t be a writer.” This statement is in direct conflict with one a graduate school professor of mine once made, “We write because we want to be loved.”
I think truth must reside in both of these views. There’s a lot of pressure today for writers to frequently engage with each other and their readership on social media. This is a difficult thing for many writers to do, however, and it’s even harder to do well. “Our books should speak for themselves,” some writers say. This is definitely a valid point of view, though on the whole, publishers all but insist their authors interact with readers more than once every few years (or however often they publish a new book).
I’m not sure what the answer is, or if there is one. The only feasible one I can think of could likely be used in reply to many different questions—you learn your aptitude and appetite for things, and your tolerance for them, as you go.