After the End of Point-of-View

Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.”

It sounded like an interesting comment at the time she made it, although I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant. It was ripe for a follow-up question, and thankfully, at the end of the session, someone in the audience asked her to elaborate. Which she did. She said that what she meant by “point-of-view fiction” is fiction that shifts perspective to show events through the eyes of multiple characters. “John looked out the window and saw this,” then a break, then “Jane looked out the window and saw this.” A la Rashomon, I guess. She added that she’d written something about this technique a while ago. After a little bit of Googling, I take her to have been referring to this piece she wrote for the Guardian in 2011, which includes these key sections:

As numerous masters have demonstrated, there is nothing “wrong” with the narrative passing from Jane’s point of view to John’s in the middle of a scene or even of a paragraph. The problem arises where the concept of point of view itself — rather than any particular version of it — has been inadequately realised. What Jane thinks is one thing; what actually is, is another. Point of view, like all techniques of fiction, has to reflect our own experience of living, and our experience is as human subjects in a world whose objective reality we are unable to breach. …

Some writers find it difficult or do not wish to relinquish their subjectivity: a more objective way of perceiving the world seems to them comfortless and cold. In this case the problems of point of view are often approached by portioning up the terrain of the novel into chapters or sections that “belong” to different characters. Sometimes these sections will be headed with the character’s name in order to make the writer’s position clear. The differences between Jane and John are resolved through enforced separation. The reader is made to travel between their points of view, spending half the time with Jane and her love of the Tuscan countryside and half the time with John and his loathing of it. This may be a fair solution, but it can seem brittle compared to the great organic enterprise that is the novel at its best.

But in fact, at the White Review event, Cusk went much further than she did when she wrote those words in 2011. What she said was that she has a problem with this type of “point-of-view fiction” because it involves a flattening of both subjectivity and imagination. In other words:

  1. if you are writing fiction like this, you are by definition recusing yourself from a heightening of individual subjectivity because you’re creating prose that sort of triangulates between two human subjects and an objective world; and
  2. you are also equalising the significance of imagining both John’s perspective and Jane’s: by proceeding as if it’s just as easy to imagine one as it is to imagine the other, you’re reducing the worth of each of them, and the worth of the imaginative act.

Which sounded to me as if Cusk has come to a point where she can’t credit an act of imagination except perhaps by consciously framing it as an act undertaken by a single human subject, and she did actually say that she has a problem with writing that is purely imaginative, and not embedded (explicitly or implicitly) in subjective experience. Which also sounded to me as if she feels, now, that there’s no way out of writing in the first-person voice — as if she has come to the limits of her discipline somehow, or as if the discipline has reached its limits developmentally. That’s something I tend to agree with, as readers of Blood and Bone will know, even though at this stage I don’t really have a response to it. It was just nice to hear these thoughts come from someone like Rachel Cusk, with her extraordinary erudition and eloquence, and her habit of answering every question put to her as if she is plumbing the very depths of her being, in order to give the most precise, most thorough, most finely nuanced response that she is capable of.

ADDENDUM 1: Take some time to revisit Cusk’s interviews with Michael Silverblatt and Caille Millner if you want to know what her public introspection sounds like in the heat of the moment. It gives her an incredible presence, stripped bare of all soundbite-worthy quips.

ADDENDUM 2: After I posted a summary of the White Review event on Twitter, Jonathan Gibbs remarked that Cusk’s views represent “something more” than noting the practical downsides of using multiple points-of-view. I agreed, and added these comments:

Yeah. I found myself thinking about one of the more abstract things I’ve taught my CW students in the past, which is that every choice you make on the page is a signal of value to the reader. That is, it’s the result of a value judgment on your part because you’re determining that the choice you’ve made (choice of word, of perspective, of image, of focus, etc.) is more valuable than the alternative choices you could’ve made at the same point in the text, and so it transmits to the reader an understanding of what the work you’re writing thinks is valuable. Keener readers who are able to envision the discarded alternatives will also have a sense of what the work thinks isn’t valuable.

But Cusk seemed to be suggesting that this choice, multiple points-of-view, confuses the signals in a way that depletes the intensity of the work: either because the reader can’t understand or can’t decide which point-of-view is the most valuable, the most worth investing in, or because the work is structured in a way that implies (and gives the reader the perhaps subconscious understanding) that there is no distinction in value between these perspectives.

And I don’t think that’s just my reading of her comments. There was a moment where she really did go out there and suggest that if you’re working with multiple perspectives, then you might as well be working with none; you’ve adopted a value-neutral structure which is disingenuous to the reality of human subjectivity and ultimately the subjective experience (and consequent responsibilities) of being a writer. It was such a striking comment. And I suppose the easy comeback is to ask, “Well, what if that’s what an author wants to do? To neutralise subjectivity, to show the distance between various people and an objective event/reality?” Unfortunately, that’s not something Cusk addressed. But to judge by the stance she was taking, she did seem to want writers who use multiple points-of-view to understand that this choice involves a serious concession, that their work forfeits a certain intensity of commitment on the part of its readers.

ADDENDUM 3: Gibbs has elaborated on the implications of Cusk’s remarks, adding his own perspective on Cusk’s novels, at his blog Tiny Camels:

What I love about [Cusk’s brand of] autofiction is that prioritises consciousness (aka subjectivity) as a strong filter through which to view the world, but what I love about the old-fashioned novel is that it does the opposite. And I suppose this is simply what has made the novel such a dominant cultural form for so long: that it has been able to encompass the objective and subjective, the world-as-realistically-presented and the world-seen-through-consciousness. I suppose James Wood would say that at its height – Flaubert’s style indirect libre – it does both at once. And I suppose autofiction is simply produced by people who have had enough of that rather refined literary style, and want to push the novel towards the speculative, the philosophic, the contingent: the novel as scattered notes, Wittgenstein with characters.

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