Rachel Cusk Has Got A Point

The writer reflects on the commercialisation of literature in the third book of her hit trilogy, Kudos.

Photograph by Laura Pannack for The New Yorker

When Margaret Atwood was recently asked for her thoughts on the author's role in book publicity, she scoffed:

A seminal writer since the 1960s, Atwood is one to know about the evolution of book publicity into the twenty-first century. Whereas authors used to 'write in solitude', as Alice O'Keeffe of The Bookseller notes, and leave the marketing to the publishers, their self-promotion is now instrumental to hiking up book sales.

The promotional campaign for Atwood's much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale (1985), The Testaments (2019), was widely recognised as the literary event of the year. Yet Atwood, 79 years old at the time, nevertheless made every effort to boost the book's publicity herself with her own social media presence, interviews and events. O'Keeffe might have tried to tease out a sense of dissatisfaction with this, but, as a Canadian, Atwood says she acclimatised to this book 'promo' a long time ago.

Canadian-born author Rachel Cusk thinks rather differently. Whereas a self-marketisation sensibility might now be second nature to Atwood, who has enjoyed a boom in her audience since HBO serialised The Handmaid's Tale, Cusk laments it. A fine example of contemporary literary fiction, Cusk's latest novel Kudos (2018) interrogates the new face of the literary industry for endangering creative merit to the gnaws of the marketplace.

Cusk's narrator is, like her, a writer. Reserved and critically astute, she travels to an unnamed European country for a writer's summit, at which she reluctantly partakes in the interviews and networking events designed by publishers for her book's promotion. The plot primarily consists of her conversations with those at the summit, with Cusk neatly perching us on the shoulder of her narrator, looking through the writer's wry yet relinquished eyes.

Stepping into a circular hotel lobby overtaken with cameras and spending coupons - surely a metaphor for the Panopticonic media marketplace - she meets with her publisher, a former salesman now promoted to senior editor of England's most prestigious publishing house. The conversation begins with our editor's concern with the writer as central to book sales. The celebrity writer. One who "perform[s] well in the market while maintaining a connection to the value of literature"; a likeable public persona who can produce a "cultural product" of "ambiguous attraction" for the masses.

Such is why he commissions the first "hilarious" novel of chatty writer Linda, who winces at the mention of Dante but is already hungry for a TV deal. Concerned with how she might perform later on in her interview about her new novel, the editor consoles Linda by telling her that:

'The only topic is yourself,' he said. 'That's what people are paying to hear about'.

To this senior gatekeeper to the publication of literary works, the writer is more important than the book in today's literary marketplace. The writer as the brand, who can command an ever-growing audience and incite minimal intellectual effort in the reader, is the writer who will succeed. "The whole history of capitalism is the history of combustion", he notes. As writers must align themselves with contemporary market trends, "in the case of my own successful authors it is the concept of literature itself that is being combusted". As the self dominates our everyday multi-media consumption, the writing behind the author decreases in value.

Margaret Atwood might have built her name before the internet, before self-marketisation became so embedded into the minutiae of the market. But Cusk's auto-critical novel, somewhat inspired by her own experiences as an author, reveals that for those writers emerging today, publication of critical literary fiction is facing an existential threat. Is the writing behind the writer at risk of 'combustion'?