WHEN BEN LERNER’S 10:04 opens, we find the narrator strolling along New York City’s High Line after devouring an obscenely expensive lunch with his agent. The two are out to celebrate. Lerner’s narrator recently clinched a “strong six-figure” advance for an “earnest if indefinite” book proposal based on a short story he had published in The New Yorker. According to his book proposal, a university would approach his protagonist, who will be called “the author,” about selling his papers. But because “the author” feels that his real-life correspondence bears little literary merit, he decides to provide them with fabricated papers instead. This planned novel would depict the author’s forged correspondence with famous writers, “falling somewhere between performance art and political protest.”
There’s only one problem: the first-person narrator of 10:04 (who is quite indistinguishable from Lerner himself) can’t bring himself to sit down and write the thing. Instead, he ambles through wind-whipped Brooklyn, visits museums at midday, contemplates having a baby with his best friend, and, during a writer’s residency in Marfa, Texas, launches into a Walt Whitman-inspired poem — all while not chipping away at a manuscript. “I was going to shave and re-enter time from the heat wave of the poem,” he resolves. “Tomorrow I’d begin work on my novel.” But he never does.
What he ends up writing is a different book — self-serious but also self-mocking, ambitious, expansive. Not about a fraudulent past but about “an actual present alive with multiple futures.” It is, in fact, the very novel we are reading. In describing his jettisoned literary project, the one he gave up in order to complete 10:04, Lerner joins a slew of other contemporary authors who have set up camp on the murky border between fiction and non-fiction. Like them, he is taking part in a recent novelistic turn, a new tradition of sorts, of Writing About Not Writing Something Else. This tendency to limn another literary project — an undertaking whose contents are sprinkled throughout the novel at hand — isn’t quite meta-fiction, which is meant to call attention to itself. Rather than stressing the distance between himself and his reader by alluding to the artificiality of his novel — meta-fiction’s very conceit — Lerner tries to nullify this distance altogether: he lets the reader in on his novel’s inner-workings and on the project he abandoned in the process. It’s as though his “behind the scenes” footage somehow found its way into the final script.
There are, of course, countless literary instances of books-within-books, or of characters knowing that they are being written about; these stretch back at least to the time of Cervantes. Ian McEwan is a master contemporary practitioner of the device: his novels Atonement and Sweet Tooth both describe a writer at work on a book that, in a final twist (major spoiler ahead), turns out to be the very work we are reading. It’s slick literary legerdemain, and one that ultimately leaves the author with the upper hand over the hapless reader.
But the literary conceit I’m referring to here is different. It can be thought of as an X-ray, or a negative, of the book-within-a-book device. In Writing About Not Writing Something Else, the author details the existence of another novel — one that, for the most part, hasn’t been completed and perhaps never will. The emphasis is on a shadowy absence, like a dictionary to a language that doesn’t exist. In this sense, the act of writing about not writing has a direct relation to the reader, not a self-referential one. The author, who struggles and fails to produce, doesn’t have the upper hand here. The reader — entrusted with the entire frustrating process — does.
This isn’t an entirely novel device: think of Hunter S. Thompson’s narrator fretting over his assignment to cover the Mint 400 race for a sports magazine in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But look at the shelves of literary fiction from recent years and you’ll find glimpses of these discarded or endlessly agonized-over manuscripts everywhere, like supporting evidence to Steinbeck’s claim that “book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
Here is Jenny Offill, in Dept. of Speculation: “‘Where is that second novel?’ the head of my department asks me. ‘Tick tock. Tick tock.’” Offill doesn’t tell us whether a second novel even exists; nor does she tell us what she thinks about this surely unwelcome prodding from her department head. She doesn’t need to:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
This, then, is our answer. Offill’s narrator was going to be an “art monster” — she was going to embark on another novel — but life got in the way. Immediately after the department head inquires about her book, the narrator launches into a vignette about her daughter (“We used to call her Little. Little, come here, we’d say”). The transition isn’t accidental. ‘That’s where my second novel is,’ she seems to be stating. The act of writing appears to be inextricably caught up in her role as wife and mother, in her teaching duties, in the 800-page book about space aviation that she has agreed to fact-check for the extra money. And it’s this book, the one by a portentous “almost astronaut,” rather than her long-delayed second novel, that keeps interjecting itself into Offill’s narrative, with all sorts of space minutiae, seemingly random yet perfectly culled (“Russian ground control had a traditional sign-off for the cosmonauts: May nothing be left of you, neither down nor feather”).
But what Offill is telling us isn’t the full story. There is a second novel, after all. It’s not the grandiloquent, “spectacularly ill-conceived project” of the almost astronaut, and perhaps not the one that her department head had been gunning for. Instead, it’s the one we’re holding: slim, jittery, scintillating. “That night, I bring up my old art monster plan,” Offill writes. “‘Road not taken,’ my husband says.”
Road not taken. Frost’s words, by now almost too hackneyed to be taken seriously, serve as a rallying cry for authors who refuse to adopt self-help imperatives that call us to “leave the past behind” and “never look back.” These imperatives stand in contrast to the very essence of literary pursuit, which tends to linger and to ruminate. Rather than move on from projects that haven’t panned out, authors increasingly choose to pore over them instead. Lerner’s unwritten novel becomes so infused with 10:04 that it hijacks an entire section of the book — a section in which the narration suddenly switches from a first person “I” to a third person “the author,” as if lifted straight out of our narrator’s book proposal. By launching into a different literary project than the one he initially set out to write, Lerner employs his abandoned novel as a motif of sorts, a figurative standing-up to his own authorial presumption (forged correspondence! political protest!), as well as to a publishing industry that seems to award writers handsomely for “earnest if indefinite” proposals based solely on their past success and sales metrics.
Open the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mammoth My Struggle and you’ll likewise find the looming shadow of Knausgaard’s other novel — in this case, a sprawling, essayistic book about angels. “My novel was actually finished, a strange hundred-and-thirty-page affair,” he writes. A publishing house wanted to release it. But, before publication, Knausgaard decided to seek the opinion of a writer friend of his. The friend read the book and, addled with a few drinks, phoned Knausgaard to tell him: “It’s no good, it isn’t a novel. You have to tell a story, Karl Ove!” Knausgaard’s response? “I knew he was right and that was what I started doing on this, my first day of work in 2004.”
The rest of My Struggle: Book 1 follows the Norwegian writer as he tries and fails to complete that novel while the daily steamroller of life, with its soul-crushing routines and minor grievances, presses on. In a typical description, Knausgaard walks to his office, a basement room in a satellite town outside Stockholm, and sits by his computer. He writes for a while, but is frustrated with the result. He makes coffee. His wife calls, asking when he will be home. He loses his temper and hangs up. He returns to his computer file and rearranges the paragraphs. “I’d been working on a novel for five years, and so whatever I wrote could not be lackluster,” he despairs. Where Offill keeps her “art monster” at arm’s length, alluding to it as if in an ellipsis, Knausgaard’s is both literal and unsparing.
When what has kept me going for the whole of my adult life, the ambition to write something exceptional one day, is threatened in this way my one thought, which gnaws at me like a rat, is that I have to escape. Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I… do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime. … It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force.
The irony, of course, is that Knausgaard has written something exceptional. But it’s not the book that took him more than five years to complete (and which was eventually published under the slyly apt title A Time for Everything). Rather, it’s the one we’re leafing through.
There is a sense of complicity to reading Knausgaard that is at once thrilling yet somewhat deceitful. We’re with him in the literary trenches, as it were, as he fails to produce the novel he strove for. His defeat, solipsistic as it may be, is engrossing: few actions quicken the mind more than failure. And the particular pang of writers failing to write is a genre unto itself. (Take Charlie Kaufman’s internal monologue in Adaptation: “How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. But I should write something first. Then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the scene. Maybe banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”)
We laugh because we recognize ourselves in it — or some of us, at least, do. But Knausgaard is far from being self-effacing, or, for that matter, light-hearted. The fact that we are reading his finished work, and the fact that there are five more volumes to follow, means that he has ultimately triumphed. After wrestling with his writing for years, Knausgaard tore through My Struggle in a creative blitz, pumping out at least 10 pages a day, he later recalled in an interview. If failure, as C. S. Lewis has it, is nothing but “finger posts on the road to achievement,” then perhaps there is no surer way to a successful book than the depiction of some unsuccessful writing.
Knausgaard tells us that he had been trying to write about his father for years but “had gotten nowhere.” The problem, he realizes, is one of form. “The subject was too close to my life, and thus not so easy to force into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form.”
The third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is equally preoccupied with the question of form. Our narrator, Elena Greco, managed to complete her first novel in the span of three feverish weeks. “The effort of finding a form had absorbed me,” she tells us. “And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me.” Elena doesn’t discard her attempts, as Lerner’s protagonist does. Nor does she struggle with her writing, à la Knausgaard. She publishes her book, and it becomes a bestseller. The problem, however, arises with the book’s reception, with Elena’s creeping sentiment that despite its generally warm reviews she had failed: “Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest.”
Elena suspects that her novel is selling well because it contains several passages about an encounter on the beach that readers consider “risqué” and therefore intriguing. She finds herself silently concurring with this unflattering view (rendered even stronger after it turns out that Lila, her muse and fury, has read the novel and disliked it). But an older professor and longtime friend of her mother-in-law’s makes Elena reconsider her distaste. Through him she comes to realize that “my novel wasn’t simply the episode on the beach, there were more interesting and finer passages.” And moreover, as the professor tells her, “Obscenity is not alien to good literature, and the true art of the story, even if it goes beyond the bounds of decency, is never risqué.”
Elena begins to take ownership of her novel as a whole, deflects criticism, and vows to be “less subservient” from now on. Yet as she does so she becomes increasingly alienated from her book. She wonders if writing it was nothing but a ruse, a way to ensure acceptance into her fiancé’s milieu: “With just a slight exaggeration I could hypothesize that even the publication of my book was part of an emergency plan intended to make me presentable in their world.” Attempts at a second novel don’t fare any better. She wants it to be a political book, one that would be representative of its time, but “I couldn’t get beyond a dozen inert pages.” She is also pregnant for a second time, and yet, like Offill’s shelved art monster, feels “empty.” Even though she winds up being proud of the book she eventually pens, it is said to be overly contrived and doesn’t sell. (Once again, Lila hates it.)
The Neapolitan novels can be seen, then, as a compensation of sorts, a do-over for our heroine’s earlier — lesser — works. Having already earned her battle scars, she finally sets out to write about the one subject that has consumed her since she was a little girl: her friendship with Lila. “We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write — all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”
Writing About Not Writing Something Else, as in the case of Ferrante, implies an agency as well as an active choice. Although one may choose to give up on a specific project, one perseveres with the act of writing itself. (In David Markson’s 2001 book This Is Not a Novel, the protagonist, referred to as Writer, declares himself “weary unto death of making up stories,” though he goes on to do just that.) Yet the writer at the heart of Rachel Cusk’s bracing novel, Outline, doesn’t have the same agency. In fact, she doesn’t seem to do any writing at all. She is so passive, so receptive of others but not of herself, that her identity, the very core of who she is, remains hidden from us, like a blurred picture, except for rare moments of zoomed clarity (she has two daughters, we learn at one point, and is divorced; later on we hear her name for the first time). She is in Greece for the summer, teaching a creative writing course, and most of the novel is dedicated to her meandering conversations with her acquaintances and students. Rather than detailing her protagonist’s literary efforts, Cusk details theirs.
We hear, for example, of the narrator’s friend Ryan, an Irish author who remains friendly with his ex-girlfriend, a former ballet dancer: “She’s always asking him if he’s written another book yet,” Cusk writes, “and in a way he’d like to ask her in return — though of course he never would — whether she’d had a life yet.” Ryan is defensive about what seems like an acute case of writer’s block. He used to write short stories, but:
He doesn’t quite know how it happened; all he knows is that he doesn’t recognize himself in those stories any more, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again.
Another writer who doesn’t write is a woman whom Cusk’s narrator meets toward the end of Outline. “Something had happened to her writing,” we are told. Whenever she conceives of a storyline, the woman finds herself thinking of a one-word summary for it, and “as soon as something was summed up, it was to all intents and purposes dead” to her. She doesn’t see the point in portraying imaginary worlds when they can be explained away in a single theme. “Why go to the trouble to write a great long play about jealousy when jealousy just about summed it up?”
The woman sees herself as nothing but “a shape” or “an outline” whose interior is left blank. She had experienced physical trauma — a mugging during which she was almost killed — and this description of vacuity, or “anti-description,” as the woman calls it, sounds like a classic case of PTSD. Yet this description can also be said to apply to Cusk’s narrator herself, who serves as mere contour for other people’s stories. Cusk adopts what she has termed in interviews an “annihilated perspective,” a first person narrator who makes others her real subject. The result is quite stunning: an impersonal novel that feels deeply personal, intimate but also theoretical. This negated mode of narration seems to lend itself particularly well to a female protagonist — one who is rarely asked about her own work and who is instead used by others as a projector for their own accomplishments and insecurities.
This limning of the narrator is a tool that pushes up against the convention of the autobiographical novel, which so often takes the form of a revelatory tell-all. The same can be said of the detailing of a writer’s discarded literary efforts: the person writing becomes insubordinate to the act of writing itself. Writing About Not Writing Something Else may feel at times stilted or pat, a way of scoring fast points with the reader. But it has given rise to a new mode of storytelling: honest, anxious, seemingly distracted yet painstakingly precise, and yes, perhaps annihilating too.
The narrative that emerges is as much about its shadowy alternatives as it is about itself, as much about the road not taken as it is about the one plodded through. And the writing that materializes echoes the form. It’s as much about undoing as it is about doing.