By ANASTATIA CURLEY
Pay attention to what contemporary novelists say about novels, and you might start to wonder why they’re writing them at all. Karl Ove Knausgaard writes that “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me nauseous.” Rachel Cusk (author of eight novels) describes fiction as “fake and embarrassing… ridiculous.” Sheila Heti, author of two novels, a book of short stories, and a children’s book, says that “it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story.” Fiction is gross, embarrassing, absurd, fake. But why this frustration and disgust at this moment—what provokes such a reaction, and what do writers offer in the place of those conventions of fiction that they deride? Cusk and Heti’s work operates from the claim that both novelistic conventions and other forms of media representation distance readers from lived experience and its intensity. Their turn to anti- or auto fiction attempts to get to something “intensely real,” as Cusk has put it, or to “a faithful representation of … a worldview,” as Heti describes a successful novel. A great many of the responses to Heti’s 2010/2012 How Should a Person Be? and Cusk’s 2014 Outline amount to journalistic or critical eye rolls, dismissing both the attempt to get to the “really real” and the texts that come out of this impulse as adolescent or narcissistic. And there is something adolescent about the stances these novelists adopt: a stance that embraces refusal and noncompliance always runs the risk of looking adolescent. But these acts of noncompliance also draw our attention to the media environment they’re refusing, and in doing so reveal their aesthetic and political ambition. The novels paint a present ruled by mediated capitalism, which demands polished performances of self. As they refuse to collude, they offer a different character and narrative, in the medium of print: one that looks sloppy or incomplete because it prioritizes openness to revision. Practitioners of the novel who move in this memoiristic direction attempt to duck, in the medium of print, the snares of mediation. They model performances of self that refuse the outlines of novel character, as they argue—via moments of ekphrasis—that visual media has robbed realism of its elasticity.
But first things first: what is it about fictionality that so troubles these writers? And is it the broad category of fiction, or is it fiction in the particular package of the novel? One answer can be found in Heti’s language when she discusses, in the 2012 edition of her “novel from life,” How Should a Person Be?, the different forms that art can take. She writes that “the three ways the art impulse can manifest itself are: as an object, like a painting; as a gesture; and as a reproduction, such as a book.” This is an esoteric set of alignments and contrasts, especially when presented so baldly: certainly a painting is an object, but is a book a reproduction? What form does a “gesture” take? And do all books belong in the same category? The language is useful, though, first as a way of understanding the form Heti’s own novel takes: staking out a place for it as a “reproduction” of reality disavows the way the book we’re reading is a shaped story, points us towards an unedited documentary rather than fiction. More important, though, is the way that “object,” “reproduction,” and “gesture” sit on a spectrum of dynamism: an object is static, while a gesture is a movement, and a “reproduction” falls somewhere in the middle, implying as it does both the prior existence of an object to be reproduced and also a series of actions. Heti’s novel pulls dramatically away from the status of “object,” and argues that people, too, ought to watch out for the impulse to turn themselves into objects: “when we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object.” For Heti, then, art and life operate from the same impulse, and while a work of art can be an object, one that wants to get at what it really means to be human shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking of people as beautiful objects, and certainly shouldn’t aspire to be one itself. In a review of Volume Two of Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle (like Heti’s, a novel that seems as invested in mimetically representing the everyday as in imposing the arc of a plot on the digressiveness of lived experience) Heti uses similar language to describe his achievement: “Most novels carry a whiff of pride, the novelist just over there in the curtains, beaming at what he’s created. But life is not a gold medal, so such a novel is not like life, it’s like a badge the writer hopes to wear through life.” “Badge,” like “object” or “gold medal.” offers the stasis of accomplishment, experience shaped into a form it will continue to hold. Heti’s language also suggests that such a version of the novel wards off life rather than engaging in it: the novelist “wear[s it] through life” rather than moving through life unadorned and unprotected, displaying his badge rather than immersing himself.
Heti’s background—she has been on the editorial board of Dave Eggers’ The Believer for many years—as well as her avowed commitments to “real life” might lead one to align her with New Sincerity enthusiasts like Eggers. But while Heti, like Cusk, is certainly sincere in her frustration with fictionality, her commitment to “the real” doesn’t seem best understood within the sincerity/irony dichotomy that David Foster Wallace famously posed, and that writers like Dave Eggers took up. Wallace (like other critics of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson chief among them) emphasized the culture industry’s, and television’s in particular, appropriation of postmodern irony, and suggested that writers who wanted to effectively critique a culture that’s already self-reflexive needed to risk “the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘How banal.’” Whether or not TV was ever quite as knowingly postmodern as Wallace claims, the media landscape he described in the 1990s is one in which we no longer reside; rather than a nation or a world of television-watchers, we are now Tweeters, Facebookers, SnapChatters. On the one hand, this means that we’re producers rather than passive consumers of media; on the other, our participation is structured by the new media platforms on and through which we interact with others—and in this transition, irony ceased to become the dominant mode of media.
As Ato Quayson usefully points out, the platforms we all use fit into the tradition of the realist novel, and yet also depart from it in a way that’s crucial. Quayson argues that the novel operates by what he calls “the efficacy of audience identification”— identification, that is, with someone or something other than themselves. Facebook, however (and, as Quayson notes, other forms of social media like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram), offers the satisfying story structure that the novel does, and yet people “no longer have to necessarily identify with fictional others in stories, novels, films or on TV, but have all the tools at their disposal to insert themselves into the circuits of spectatoriality for others to look at.” Social media thus both grows out of a novelistic tradition and disrupts one of the key elements of that tradition, the identification with other beings (whether those beings be fictional or real.) Facebook, for instance, provides the opportunity to present oneself to the world—or rather, to insert an image of oneself into the spectacle that passes for the world. That self-presentation isn’t negotiated, but insisted upon. Viewers can “like” it, or refuse to like it, but they can’t revise it. To borrow Heti’s language, it looks more like an object than like a gesture. While we tend to think of networks as implying dispersed agency, in opposition to hierarchical models of authority or the one-to-many delivery system of older forms of mass media like television, Quayson’s discussion, like the work of many media theorists, reminds us that a network’s design as easily facilitates hard nodes of self-insistence as it does interaction and engagement.
Cusk and Heti offer versions of these hard nodes in their novels, pausing on photographs, the primary representation of self in a mediated and always semi-public present. While their novels elide social media, the photographs that constantly surface show how narratives of self have to contend with the images that circulate in the world and on the internet. When the character Sheila buys the same dress as her friend Margaux, Margaux experiences the gesture as a threat to her personhood because “I really do need some of my own identity” and even if Sheila only wore the dress when they weren’t in the same city, that wouldn’t matter, “since of course we only exist in pictures.” By being photographed in the same dress, Sheila impinges on Margot’s identity. A world in which “we only exist in pictures” is the one that Quayson describes, and Heti’s novel acknowledges that Margaux’s diagnosis of contemporary life isn’t wrong, while juxtaposing itself as an alternate claim: look, it says, we also exist in this messy narrative about what happens between and behind the photographs. In Cusk’s Outline, an intriguingly odd moment of ekphrasis puts on display the narrator’s discomfort about the relationship between photographs and lived experience: she describes the café across from her apartment, which has
a long side window … entirely obscured by a photograph of more people sitting outside at tables, so that a very convincing optical illusion was created…. The people in it were slightly larger than life-size, and always, for a moment, exiting the apartment, they seemed terrifyingly real. The sight of them momentarily overpowered one’s own sense of reality, so that for a few disturbing seconds you believed that people were bigger and happier and more beautiful than you remembered them to be.
This moment hovers in Cusk’s novel as Margaux’s claim about existing in pictures does in Heti’s; here, it offers an alternate version of what a realist representation of life might look like. What seem initially to be real people are actually “bigger and happier and more beautiful” than the ones Cusk’s narrator-protagonist encounters. A fairly commonplace design choice, though, is for the narrator “terrifying” and “overpower[ing]” because the photograph makes a claim to represent reality, co-opts the narrator’s own careful attempts to understand and engage with the people around her and how they move through the world. It’s a distorted mirror image of Outline itself, which is almost entirely composed of people having conversations in cafes (or airplanes, or writing classes). Outline rejects the monolithic and non-negotiable version of realism that the photograph represents; by contrast, the novel, as its title indicates, comes down on the side of the provisional; a sketch rather than photographic realism, the notes that help one plan a novel in the place of the finished novel. The photograph is an assault on the sensitive narrator not only because it’s tacky, but also because it doesn’t leave her an opening, instead “overpower[ing] her sense of reality.” It’s akin to the novel that Cusk is refusing to write when she calls making up characters “fake and embarrassing”: realist enough that our narrator mistakes it for real life, yet insistent on a version of that life that’s shinier than lived experience.
Like Margaux’s comment, the cafe photograph gestures towards the larger media landscape through which these novels move. This landscape, and the problem it poses for novelists, aren’t the ones that Wallace describes when he bemoans the way that postmodern television, by incorporating self-aware reflexivity, has appropriated irony as a form of critique. Instead, this landscape is monolithcally pretty, like Cusk’s photograph, and replaces lived experience, as Margaux describes. Teju Cole, in his rewriting of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas for the contemporary moment, captures its operations well when he defines “SUNSET” as “Beautiful. Like a painting. Post on Instagram and hashtag #nofilter.” Cole describes the present moment as a feedback loop of experience and media, one that Cusk and Heti attempt to disrupt by offering narratives that refuse the narrative equivalent of the painterly sunset. Cusk’s novel consists almost entirely of conversations; crucially, they’re conversations in which speakers and writers revise the stories their interlocutors propose. Even as the protagonist seems to withdraw from our sight, offering few personal details about herself, what she offers is a narrative of relatedness, of the potential perils but also the delights and oddities of living open to engagement with other people. Rather than Quayson’s circuits of spectoriality, we have speakers and writers putting a version of the world together in relation to each other. It’s sociable, much like Heti’s novel, which attempts to record or transcribe her friends talking. Cusk and Heti offer a provisional and collaborative version of the novel—rather than a traditional realist novel, and against the backdrop of a media landscape that asks instead for polished performances of self. Heti’s novel quite explicitly positions itself as a failure: Sheila has been commissioned to write a feminist play, which she sporadically tries to finish throughout the novel, yet never quite can. In place of the finished play, we end up with the novel of attempts. Neither of their novels is, of course, actually unpolished in the sense of not having been extensively worked on; Heti continued to revise hers even after its publication in Canada, publishing a different version in the US two years later. That the novel exists in two versions is yet another way that it celebrates and instantiates dynamism, the gesture rather than the object; neither exists as the ultimate or the “correct” version.
This aesthetic of the provisional isn’t the only way of writing the anti-fiction novel; while Karl Ove Knausgaard’s and Ben Lerner’s novels are similar to Heti’s and Cusk’s in their refusal of plot and their use of narrator-protagonists that very closely resemble their authors, their novels turn on the issue of reproduction—not in the sense that Heti deploys when she claims that books take the form of a reproduction, but in the sense that they’re about being parents, having relationships to one’s parents, or contemplating becoming parents. These male novelists wonder whether living offspring can fill the void that opens when a novel no longer seems like a meaningful thing to bequeath to the future, and narrator-Knausgaard acknowledges that his focus on child-rearing aligns him with what are often understood as women’s roles and commitments, but only by occasionally pondering whether his domestic role emasculates him. Narrator-Lerner simply thinks a lot about what it might mean to father a child while living under late capitalism and the looming threat of global warming. Theirs is an alternate path: one way of making good a desire to depict “the real” as opposed to polished fictional versions of everyday life turns to biological and familial reproduction—if the novel is dead, and novelists are performing its exhaustedness as they live in a world full of circulating photographs, they also imagine short-circuiting this media standoff by turning towards other, perhaps “realer,” living descendants. But this path isn’t the one that Cusk and Heti take; they focus instead on developing an aesthetic practice of resistance to the regime of photorealist mediation. They offer conversation, transcription, communal writing, contests to make the ugliest painting, discussions of whether novel form structures expectations, shared workspaces for their artist and writer figures, moments of engagement with strangers on airplanes. These practices are provisional both in the sense that they respond to a particular moment and in the sense that they foreground provisionality as itself a fully considered response to a particular set of exigencies.
Even as they distance themselves from fiction or write, with Knausgaard and Lerner, at the putative end of the novel, beyond the moment when made-up plots and characters satisfy as a way of documenting and understanding what it’s like to move through the world, Heti gestures and Cusk outlines, juxtaposing their provisional novels against other representations that reduce identity to photographs or pretend that people are “bigger and happier and more beautiful” than they really are. In doing so, they affirm their commitment to novel-writing even as they question fiction’s collusion with fakery, striking out a path for the novel and a set of aesthetic practices that expose the restrictions the contemporary moment places on both life and art.
Still, as a principled refusal of mediated capitalism, this approach leaves something to be desired. It’s tempting to align an attempt at communal narration with leftist politics, but the collectives delineated in these novels are only ever interpersonal—Heti can only ask how a person can be, and to the extent that such a person sees herself as a member of a class, it is that of a group of friends and disaffected artists. Cusk’s contested narratives tend to play out within the borders of the family or of a (usually heterosexual) romantic relationship. Their forms of aesthetic resistance, while compelling, don’t imagine political alternatives to mediated capitalism, which they experience as a threat to their personhood, but one that they can resist without recourse to political alternatives. Instead they imagine artistic alternatives, acts of shared creation between two people or three. Yet these collectives don’t reimagine the structures in which they live—tellingly, in a piece for the New York Times about raising teenage daughters, Cusk writers that “Adolescence, it strikes me, shares some of the generic qualities of divorce. The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other.” Here we see the inverse of Cusk’s narrative technique in Outline: family and marriage are both communal narratives, but in the dysfunctional families Cusk charts, the central problem is that each party insists on her own narrative, and insists on it trumping another’s version of the story. And the story is still the story of a marriage, or a family.
The limits of Cusk’s approach, but also her defense of those limits, make themselves clear in another piece she wrote for the New York Times, in which she discusses her attempt to overhaul her family’s home. Cusk’s version of domesticity is one in which she’s painted into a corner: no matter what she chooses to do about her home—whether she invests time and aesthetic energy into it, so that it’s a pleasant place for herself and her family, or she refuses to do so, so that she doesn’t fall into the role of overworked housewife—her actions will be understood within a narrative about women, domesticity, and family life. Before she begins fixing up her home, a male acquaintance comments on how much he appreciates its ugliness: “how rare and refreshing it was to be somewhere untransfigured, somewhere of an authentic ugliness that didn’t look like a photograph in a magazine or a poor imitation of one. He complimented me on taking this stand against the ubiquity of middle-class tastes; he appeared to view it as an artistic and philosophical position. Don’t ever change it, he said with a small smile. I’ll be disappointed if you do.” This acquaintance reads—in fact, insists upon—her home as an instantiation of a political and aesthetic claim. If she tries to make it more pleasant to live in, she’ll risk the disappointment of the male critic. Cusk makes it clear that, in her experience, it is women who bear this burden of their homes’ expressiveness; even when men take up domestic chores, they “never seem quite so trammeled or devoured by domesticity, nor so possessed by its utopian visions.” Cusk can’t imagine a way out of this problem, because the problem is as simple and intransigent as being a woman (and in particular a mother) living in a house: it would be impossible, she claims, to inhabit any of these roles without being aware of how overdetermined they are, and it would be similarly impossible to simply abandon them. She can’t slough off the sediment of history. We are mired in the material, she claims. Even throwing possessions away is nothing but a claim about what the things said about one, rather than a repudiation of property ownership itself.
Cusk’s project, like Heti’s, is limited by her inability to see beyond her own position. And yet, her language when talking about her home returns us to the central and compelling problem of her novel, and Heti’s: she writes that, “[l]ike the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in, a duality that in neither case I have managed to reconcile.” Mediated capitalism asks people—particularly women—to be objects to be looked at; what Heti and Cusk try to offer instead are aesthetic objects that are also structures to live in, and to live in with other people.
Anastatia Curley is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Virginia.
 Knausgaard, Karl Ove. My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love.
 Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be? (New York: Henry Holt, 2012), 184.
 Heti, Sheila. “So Frank,” London Review of Books, January 9, 2014.
 Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13:2 (Summer 1993), 193.
 To some extent, Wallace anticipates this development in “E Unibus Pluram” when he discusses George Gilder’s imagined future of television as one in which all consumers will have tiny portable televisions that allow for viewers to manipulate the images in front of them. He notes that making television interactive isn’t going to solve the problems it presents.
 Quayson, Ato. “I Can, Therefore I Shall: Identifications from the Novel to Facebook,” Arcade: Literature, Humanities, and the World, December 3, 2013.
 Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be? (New York: Henry Holt, 2012), 116.
 Cusk, Rachel. Outline (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2014), 50-1.
 Cole, Teju. “In Place of Thought,” Known and Strange Things (New York: Random House, 2016) 77.
 “The Mother of All Problems,” New York Times 22 March 2015