On aboutism – Yiyun Li in Harper’s:
‘A while ago, I was shocked to hear some aspiring writers discuss a story by first stating the aboutness of the work. To me, aboutness seems a concern for propagandists and influencers. Yet plenty of books are equipped with a GPS system of aboutness: you will be delivered to your destination, without the danger of going astray, without the need to detour. Many writers face the demand for such a system. Once, a writer told an editor of mine that I was paying the wrong kind of attention in a novel, to the anecdotal lives of my characters instead of the oppressive political system in China. So, the aboutness of one’s work is determined by one’s biography: if you’re from China, you’d better write about the evil system; if you’re an expat (as the writer was), you can write about the humanness of your characters, with Chinese culture and politics as the backdrop.’
‘Perhaps a more straightforward way to describe McCracken’s work is by considering what she doesn’t write about: a post-apocalyptic world. Her fiction is strictly pre-apocalyptic. “This is the summer before the world stopped.” Thus opens The Hero of This Book. The novel is set in 2019, shortly after the death of the narrator’s mother. Unmoored from the everydayness of life and suspended in an inarticulable time—as we often are, by travel, by the death of someone close—the narrator walks around London over the course of a day, watching, eavesdropping, and occasionally meeting strangers. None of them is her mother, yet all are capable of bringing her mother to mind: such is the monopolizing power of death.’
‘The narrator of The Hero of This Book, a writer and also a teacher of writing, offers her own withering description of a certain kind of realism: written mostly in scene, in first or third person, attached to a single point of view, lightly populated, nothing out of the ordinary, mostly inside a house, probably in a kitchen, in which the exact location and temperature of every beverage is known—the beer warm, the coffee cold. You could write this story, and nothing would be wrong with it. Not a thing untoward. Not a thing out of place. But would you recognize it in your dreams?’
‘McCracken’s first collection, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, which bears a dedication to her mother:
For mom—whose life history I will continue to mine, but who will never—no matter what she or anybody else thinks—appear as a character in my work, being too good for the likes of me and my characters.
Interpret this image any way you want, but do not call the book a work of autofiction. True, the novel’s narrator resembles McCracken in some respects, and the narrator’s mother, her own. But such resemblances exist merely on paper, pun intended. The novel gives us a few moments with the narrator’s father, but not much with her sibling. The novel provides some knowledge of her extended family—grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins—but her husband and children, briefly mentioned as an essential part of her life, are kept entirely out of the book. Anyone mistaking the novel for autofiction (or worse, memoir) may protest: the narrator’s past and present are not revealed in enough detail for the readers to savor or to judge. To that, the narrator answers: “I don’t write autofiction. I don’t even know what it is, though it sounds like it might be written by a robot, or a kiosk, or a European.”’
‘McCracken’s characters, homo sapiens extraordinaire, are regularly described as quirky. (“Quirky, somebody once called my mother,” says the novel’s narrator. “What a colossally condescending word: I hate it. It means you’ve decided that you don’t have to take that person seriously.”) Sometimes McCracken the writer is called quirky. All adjectives are judgmental—attached to an adjective is a set of standards. To call a writer or a character quirky indicates a scale between normalcy and strangeness. Who installs and maintains these standards? Perhaps those who are ready to discard intuitions and impulses as an unwieldy, messy part of life, and those who equate the aboutness of literature to the aboutness of life, to direction, growth, merit, and value. To some people, an elk in London is not a reliable landmark. (Incidentally, there are a handful of words a reviewer should be fined for using. They are praises doled out from a safe distance, and they are signs of a colossal laziness. High on this list: quirky, whimsical, heart-wrenching. And don’t get me started on unflinching: only corpses and sociopaths are unflinching.)’ (…)
‘The narrator, considering her students’ work, observes: Young writers sometimes catalog every thought and emotion of a character without knowing their weight or their gestures. But if you don’t take your characters’ bodies into account, your work is in danger of being populated by sentient, anguished helium balloons. I tell my students all the time, Don’t forget your characters’ physical selves. If your characters feel distant, remember their specific gravity on the earth. If you know what a character is doing with her hands, you might know what she’s doing with her head. If you know her feet, you may know her soul.’
‘How reassuring it is to have writers like Elizabeth McCracken among us. She has no interest in gaining a few yards on the field. Frontiers do not interest her. Her fiction does not offer us a map. She trusts that her real readers are not interested in being delivered to the destination. Her specialty is the interior, and the interior is vast. We must bring our own compasses, emotional and aesthetic.’
Read the review here.
It’s good to remember how misleading the aboutness of a book or a movie, or a life for that matter. Even though I recently asked my girlfriend, ‘what is it about?’
Also, important to know the weight of your characters. Yes, characters have also bodies, what’s the weight of your characters? I didn’t ask myself that question often, but now I know that might have been a mistake.
I liked the sophisticated variant for Eurotrash. The European writer as nemesis of the American author, his so-called avant-gardism is nothing but a trick to get doors open that otherwise would have remain closed.
And then there are words that reviewers should avoid. Maybe not only reviewers. Only sociopaths are unflinching. A side note, but at least now we know how to recognize a sociopath, on paper and in reality.