Making things up: what does it mean to ‘make things up’ in literature?

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Who is allowed to make things up? What does fiction writing have to do with life? Is a novel a document? This is the second lecture in the If Project series, Thinking Between the Lines: truth, lies and fiction in an age of populism. Dr Katie da Cunha Lewin (@kdc_lewin) explores what it means to ‘make things up’ in literature, especially looking at writing by women.

“I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to imagine anything. It’s in the living room with me. – Sheila Heti

The quote above from Sheila Heti, a Canadian writer whose recent work Motherhood (2018), dealt with the many questions that underpin the idea of mothering and child-rearing, helps us think about the central idea of this lecture: what does it mean to ‘make things up’ in literature? Who is allowed to make things up? And what happens if writing avoids doing that all together?

In my argument for this lecture, I want to unpack some of these questions, but I also want to suggest something about the politics of making things up.

This lecture will be split into two sections: in the first, I’ll be talking about writing and its relationship to life; that is, writing and our idea of its relation to truth. In the second section, I want to discuss the relationship between writing, invention and reality in contemporary American writing by women. I want to think about how this relation to truth changes according to who is doing the writing, and importantly how that truth is perceived by the wider reading public. In this, we find lots of issues to do with authority, agency, and labour – but there is also a wider question about why we want our fiction to be ‘made up’ and what it is that our fiction looks like. And also want to look ahead slightly to (perhaps the not so distant future) about the effect on technology and our ‘truth.’

This theme has come from my own research on the idea of the genius and who is allowed to ‘be’ a genius. I don’t particularly like the term, but the way it is used, thrown around in reviews, or used as selling points for exhibitions interests me. Much of what comes to define a genius is, I suggest, that we know what the genius looks like: a single, solitary man, brooding somewhere remote: like THIS [SLIDE – Image 1] or THIS [SLIDE – Image 2]. The first image shows us the isolated romantic hero, surveying the land and looking out at the contrasts and beauties of nature, isolated in a wild landscape beyond human reckoning. In the other we have the idealised image of solitude, the man alone in his room, thinking deeply and engaging with the world from within his own domain. This image of the solitary genius is defined the space in which the genius lives: this space, the ‘writing room’ as we may think of it, is quiet, owned by them in some capacity, out of way enough to allow them to work undisturbed, and often full of particular possessions, books, posters, artwork, comfy chairs, writing equipment, and a desk.

I’ll be looking at some extracts from novels, and some short stories, but I’ll also be including some extracts from interviews and also reviews. In this way, we can see not only what women were writing about but also the reception of the work. This is how the lines of culture are drawn: it is not only through readers that authors meet their fate; it is also through the tastemakers, those who help facilitate the production of culture, publishers, editors, cultural critics, magazine editors, radio programmers etc. etc. It’s important to remember that by the time a book is published it has gone through many hands already; once is out there in the world it also has to be sorted, assigned a genre, a place on the bookshelf, the sort of home it goes to – pre/post. In today’s world of publication – which, we mustn’t forget is also a business – there are certain trends and certain styles of writing which are of interest. So, in the book industry, we now have an interesting tension between writing that dubs itself autofiction (or other versions of this genre) and the people who stand to make money from it. This is another problem that underscores my argument here: between what lives matter, who can make things up, AND what people are willing to publish and disseminate into the world. We can no longer pretend that writing is produced in a direct link from the writer to the reader in an unfettered way. It makes its way through channels that also obfuscate themselves – if you’ve been taught by me before, you’ll have heard me say this a lot! But any idea of what is natural or normal needs unpacking – the journey of fiction is by no means a straight or simple path.

Section 1

So, in this section, I want to tease out the central problem of writing and reality, or, more specifically, think of the way that writers have always considered this problem.

I want to start off with some questions that could form the basis of our discussions in seminars:

  • What does fiction writing have to do with life?
  • Is a novel a document?
  • Is any writing a document?
  • Can fiction represent life?
  • What does it mean for writing to be representative?
  • ‘Where are we when we write?’

I think it’s probably obvious to say but fiction has tried to deal with some of these problems for a long time: regardless of the genre in which someone may work or we may read, the idea of the ‘truth’ of reading comes in many forms, and many guises. It may be that true comes to mean a way that a text can make itself recognisable as a world we live in – [recognition]; it may refer to a truthful ‘idea’, that is an idea about life that resonates with us, which is a form of [universalising] human experience. It may simply be that it recounts ‘true’ stories, its historical, its political, its engaging with things we know to be true.

But there is another question that underscores this which is about our relation to and expectation to fiction, as if fiction owes us certain kinds of experiences, thoughts or after-effects. This is perhaps a question which leads us down an interesting route, often down the same route which comes from people wondering about the use of fiction, which is a separate but related question. Affective response: how do we want to feel, what do we want to know?

It seems often that this expectation is drawn from the genre of realism, the origins we find in the 19th century novel. A wonderful quote I always like to use to think about this is from write George Eliot:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.

So in this opening gambit, Eliot talks of pens, of ink, of writing and of history. But she also talks about sorcery, and rituals. Though the relationship between her and writing is presented in a fairly straightforward way in the second sentence, the first sentence in its visions sits in rather strange contrast. Eliot sets out not only the world but her relationship to it – she will conjure, like the sorcerer she mentions, the ‘far reaching vision of the past.’ She names the ‘reader’ to whom this image is directed, and she names the specifics of what she depicts. Her pen and ink are her tools to render the scene. The second sentence aims to ground it in a further specific reality but the opening sentence not only renders a locale outside of Eliot’s immediate moment, but through a ritual that calls for us ‘far-reaching visions of the past.’ So, does Eliot ‘reveal’ a ‘vision’ or does she ‘show’ us reality? She’s playing a kind of trick.

D.H. Lawrence sought to write of the importance of the novel in his essay ‘Why the Novel Matters’ and interestingly chose the same object, the pen, but put it more readily into the hand:

‘My hand, as it writes these words, slips gaily along, jumps like a grasshopper to dot an i, feels the table rather cold, gets a little bored if I write too long, has its own rudiments of thought, and is just as much me as is my brain, my mind, or my soul. Why should I imagine that there is a me which is more me than my hand is? Since my hand is absolutely alive, me alive.

Whereas, of course, as far as I am concerned, my pen isn’t alive at all. My pen isn’t me alive. Me alive ends at my finger-tips.’

Lawrence dwells on the image of the writing hand, this feverishly alive image, as it darts about ‘slips gaily along’ and generally lives, but this life stop shorts of the pen. The pen is distinctly not alive, it records the vivacious life that fills the hand. Later he writes of the novel:

‘The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do.’

In the essay, he asserts the higher status of the writer over all other disciplines because they can see a wholeness which other disciplines just cannot. In books being the ‘bright book of life’ but not ‘life’ itself Lawrence makes a careful distinction it the relationship between the composer and what is composed. It is a ‘tremulation on the ether,’ a kind of wave that communicates. But, as he says, ‘books are not life’, they cannot be made into a replica of life, they are an illuminated version of that life.

Throughout the essay, Lawrence writes often of the experience of writing the book, bringing it back to himself in the role of the writer. This role of the writer becomes extremely complex when thought of in line with the questions I posed above: it is a question of the author as mediator, as the boundary between the world and the text produced. This is another idea that I want to address in my lecture here: that question of authority, and what it means for a writer to have or be an authority on the world.

In modernist art, and particularly writing, writerly authority did not quite function in the same way as it had done in earlier novels; that is, the idea of the writer asserting themselves as a confident, assertive ‘I’ was troubled, as events such as WW1/WW2 had profound impacts on the idea of subjectivity, and psychology and psychoanalysis gave new insights into the workings of the mind. We can think of the writing of Samuel Beckett and of Franz Kafka who gave extraordinary new insights into the possibility that lies behind the ‘I’, the speaking subject who no longer knows how it is that they can speak, and if they can speak at all.

In 1967, this idea of authority, or indeed the lack of it, was taken a step further, through one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th century Roland Barthes, who wrote several influential works, but probably none so influential as his essay ‘The Death of the Author’. In this famous work, Barthes maintained that the ‘death of the author gives birth to the reader’, meaning that the authority of the author to be able to determine the meaning of his own work (and I say his deliberately) was no longer feasible in culture. Instead, in giving birth to the reader, Barthes was essentially promoting a new readership, one that no longer had to believe in that direct relationship, the ink, the pen and the hand in the author.

However, this is all well and good, but unfortunately Barthes failed to take into account that for some writers, being able to speak with some form of authority was crucial! This is not to say that the feats of modernism are to be discounted, – which I would never say! – but that, for some contemporary writers, including women writers, it is not possible to dismiss the ‘I’, nor is it possible to relinquish an idea of authority.

In Barthes claiming the death of the author, he was doing nothing to the history of the canon, which was determined by a very particular set of writers, viewpoints and languages. In fact, one critic Marjorie Perloff notes, going back to my earlier idea of genius, that in some ways, he was in fact reaffirming the idea of the canon – he wasn’t saying, what had come before needed to be ignored and that those canonical texts were no longer relevant, but that they could be studied in new ways. Essentially he opened up their possibility, and this was concurrent with the rise of reader-response theory which specifically looked at the reader as a new area of study, whilst minimising the importance of authority for others.

At this point, I’d like to think about something Will Davies said in his lecture, about our knowledge, in terms of what we want it to do. As he was talking, I was also thinking about other questions: what do we want our knowledge to do? What do we want our knowledge to show us? Where should it be going?

There is also a question here of the aim of writing, or should I say, particularly lofy or high aims of writing – writing is metaphysical, writing exists on another plain, or writing is escapist. Reading about cooking, or travelling to work on the tube or buying toothpaste does not seem to allow for any lofty ideas. But I think in keeping writing in this sort of ‘elevated position’ we do many lives, experiences, ideas a disservice. This is part of the problem of thinking about writing of the public/private life as somehow separate to the rest of our lives – it means that we continue to demarcate different areas that are and are not for art.

How can women have authority? How can people of colour have authority? What does this mean?

The self-regarding woman

So now my lecture comes to its second half, in which I think more explicitly about the idea of women and the way that writing ‘truth’ becomes a lot trickier in a world that privileges certain experiences over others. Now in my argument, I am not pitching men and women’s writing necessarily against each other, or suggesting that men’s writing does one thing and women’s writing does another, as there will also be times when this is not the case or more likely to be the case etc etc. However, there may well be a tendency towards a gendered reading of particular styles or content choices in the work of women than of men and I want to explore this tendency.

To return to Sheila Heti, in the same interview from which the above quote is taken, she responds to the interviews ideas about writing about the self when one is a woman and narcissism and she answers in this way:

“I once interviewed Elena Ferrante and asked her about that narcissistic question,” says Heti. “And her answer, I can’t remember it verbatim, was that women have always been surveilled by their husbands and their fathers and their brothers, and the beginning of being an independent woman is to surveil yourself. And I just loved that. You can call that narcissistic if you want, but it just seems like it’s a way of preventing women from thinking about their own lives.”

In Sheila Heti’s eye, this ‘surveying’ culture has had a remarkable effect on the way we see ourselves – hardly a surprising idea! – that we cannot help but turn on ourselves. But that though there may be something too close, too icky about this, it may help women develop another sense of agency and about their own control. Now, though Heti puts this in fairly simple terms, I think what she describes her is extraordinarily and fundamentally a challenge to the way that anyone wants to think of themselves. To turn the penetrative gaze of misogyny onto oneself is an extraordinary ask of any fiction but its an important starting point for any discussion about the gendering of the truth because it means that the ‘truth’ we are being told is a very definitively from one perspective – perhaps this gaze, turning it back on ourselves, reveals that process to us.

So, I want now to talk a bit about a genre of fiction which might fit into what Heti is talking about above and what some are describing as a contemporary trend. This is the genre of autofiction. ‘Autofiction’ is a rather slippery idea, and one I’m not even sure we can define as very different to the normal novel, however, it is used at the moment to describe fiction that basically fulfils three ideas: Main character shares the same name as author; Roughly mappable onto the author’s life; Written in an ‘I. Basically, its thought of as a ‘thinly veiled’ version of the author. Recent examples include Chris Kraus’s famous example I Love Dick, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely and Citizen, Siri Hustvedt’s recent novel Memories of the Future – and this is just a few. It’s interesting to note that it is seemingly favoured by women – a certain kind of middle class, privileged woman mind you. Now this is where we might want to ask why? Why do women want to write in a way that fictionalises their life or that contains details that might signal out there life? This led critic Alex Clark to suggest that perhaps people had stopped ‘making things up’ as it were because:

‘In the perpetual present of social media, when personal presentation, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, is everything, these autofictions offer an alternative, experimental narrative of self. They are attempts to reshape and repurpose a literary form, and their sudden popularity speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

Now I want to come back to this idea. But before I do, I want to look at a case study of what happens when a woman may write in this way – in a memoir form that could also be potentially fictional. There is a very interesting parallel to be found between two different writers, British-Canadian writer Rachel Cusk and Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard which gives an interesting insight into the perils and pitfalls of autofiction or life-writing for women in comparison to men.

So both authors have written books which document their life looking after children, the mundanity of domestic life, and then subsequently documented their divorce. Knausgaard’s book My Struggle (provactively named and done on purpose) is a project of 6 parts that tries to document absolutely everything that has happened to the writer throughout his whole life. Cusk’s book A Life’s Work documents the birth of her two children born 15 months apart, whilst Aftermath, traces the disintegration of her marriage to the children’s father. Both books for Cusk and the book series for K have been called controversial – and both authors are now labelled that often. The critical responses to these texts are extraordinarily telling about some of the things this lecture has already touched on – what art should so us, gender imbalance, authority – and some of them are rather staggering. I won’t dwell too long on lots and lots of reviews, but the difference between critics responses to either of these projects are amazing.

Knausgaard’s project is met with (not universally!) rapturous applause – it is Proustian, it is Joycean, it is staggeringly detailed.

The language praises the style, how mesmerising it is to read details of a man’s life, his opinions etc., the size, the gargantuan scope yadda yadda yadda!

Now let’s turn to Cusk. The responses to her work are extraordinary. Here is a particularly choice one from Camilla Long which covers both books.

Cusk actually wrote a response in The Guardian – which I’d like to look at in our seminar – in which she outlines the criticism she received about her skills as a mother, a wife, a human, in response to this text. What we can see here is what I was lining up earlier, the policing of what kinds of knowledge we want, where we want our art to take us. We could possible define this as a tendency to describe women giving intimate details of their life as a form of ‘oversharing’ – a term critic Rachel Sykes has discussed in relation to its use as a way of defining work by other women writers who are seen to share ‘too much.’ As she notes…

When we consider that oversharing is the disclosure of personal information inappropri- ate to a given context, it further emerges as a term loaded against women, who do not set the cultural context in which others share, receive, and judge their disclosures. In an extensive analysis of just one article on oversharing published in Women’s Health magazine, Jessica Butler suggests that criticisms of oversharing tend to center on “traditionally female realms—children, food/cooking, the body, etc.—in a manner that upholds conservative ideals of femininity and disallows discussion of these arenas by suggesting that they are trivial and inconsequential” (2013, 14)

To write about oneself as a woman is seen as deeply embarrassing, revealing, trivial, and above all, narcissistic. Because underpinning this is a problem of labour: what we count as the truly hefty labour of writing. This goes back to the images I showed you – in those images, there are no children, there are no cookbooks, and there are no piles of laundry. There are men alone. But behind this solitary man there lies many people allowing him that privilege.

Truth and disclosure

Autofiction is also about the need to tell and disclose – we wouldn’t know if the book was based in the author unless interviews, reviews, Wikipedia tells us so. Elena Ferrante has largely escaped this fact-finding mission because she refused (until she was outed) to name herself or give details about her life – Olivia Laing, on the other hand, did not meet that fate, because she was so visible on Twitter, and people knew who her husband was, what flowers she liked, where she went on holiday.

There seems to be another problem here about technology, social media and the compulsion to give ‘truths’ about ourselves. Sykes sees this problem of the overshare of coming from the internet: ‘Oversharing has also become shorthand for a kind of narcissism and moral decay widely associated with social media. Articles diagnosing the contemporary culture of oversharing proliferate.’ So there is a problem here – between what social media may allow us to do, the currency of its creation, and the problem of what literature should do – it seems that some readers, cultural critics at least, want to keep literature in a bygone form – but is this not a dangerous kind of nostalgia – novels used to be better! Novels used to be proper!

Rather than Clark seeing this an ‘alternative version’ of ourselves, I think we can more easily read this trend as simply ‘another’ version of the self and I think the term ‘autofiction’ may be a kind of protection for women writing about themselves – the word fiction in the title, as if to say, don’t worry this is indeed made up, through its drawn from my life! The assurance of its veracity, without the possibility of the attack.

I think the kind of writing I am interested in, is one that takes this central problem of truth and uses it as a means of proliferating more possibility. Writer Lucia Berlin, whose work is sometimes seen as a precursor to the contemporary autofiction movement writes:

‘Somehow there must occur the most imperceptible alteration of reality. A transformation, not a distortion of the truth. The story itself becomes the truth, not just for the writer but for the reader. In any good piece of writing it is not an identification with a situation, but this recognition of truth that is thrilling.

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