Objectivity is a tricky concept to apply to any form of writing, but it fits the novel worst of all. A journalist goes to a war zone, or to a dog show, reports on what she finds there, and is immediately met with accusations of bias. Fair enough: The things she has seen happened as they happened, the people she met said what they did—the drone launched a missile that killed a dozen people who were traveling in a wedding convoy; the dachshund finally won best in show—and the journalist chose what to put in and what to leave out, whom to interview, whom to doubt and whom to trust, where to begin and where to end, in a stream of events whose beginning and end are, at best, arbitrary. But a novelist is in the business of inventing that stream and the people in it, the actions they take and the events that befall them. How ludicrous, you might think, for such a writer to believe that she could present you with a story that has no external existence and claim that she is doing it without consideration for her own feelings or point of view, when those are the very forces—the only forces—that brought her story into being.
That was the opinion of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who spent his writing life protesting the possibility of “objective literature,” even though he was widely credited with having invented it. Roland Barthes had applied the term to Robbe-Grillet’s first novel, and people went ahead and copied Barthes. But Barthes’s phrase had nothing to do with impartiality. He was referring to the objective lens of a microscope, the one focused on the specimen rather than on the eye; he meant that Robbe-Grillet’s style was a way of looking out rather than in. Still, critics kept conflating “objective” with “neutral” or “impassive”—and so, in a 1985 Paris Review interview conducted just after the publication of his memoir, Le Miroir qui revient, Robbe-Grillet became exasperated by his interlocutor’s line of questioning, especially her insistence that as “the spokesman of the ‘objective novel,’” his indulgence “in an eminently subjective exercise, an autobiography, seemed a provocation.” What about his theories calling for the novel to depict reality “exactly,” in all its precise detail? “I never describe something that exists in reality,” Robbe-Grillet replied. “Everything in my novels is pure invention.” The writer at the microscope isn’t bound by any premise of neutrality. He is more likely to be, as Robbe-Grillet insisted of himself, the opposite of neutral: a nurturer of the profligate subjectivity essential to his profession.
Rachel Cusk is an English writer, 48 years old, with eight novels and three memoirs to her name. In the most recent memoir, Aftermath, published in 2012, Cusk writes about her separation from her husband of 10 years. The immediate cause of the crisis isn’t made clear, but the breakup is rooted in the general disruption that followed Cusk’s insistence that her husband quit his job as a lawyer and stay home with their two young daughters so that she could devote herself to writing. As a mother, and her household’s sole breadwinner, Cusk felt herself to be “both man and woman”—powerfully self-sufficient, platonically whole, double-sexed and de-sexed at the same time. Her assumption of male responsibilities, and her ceding of the female stuff to her husband, severed Cusk’s claims to femininity and made her suspicious, even contemptuous, of maternal softness and indulgence. As she puts it, in the glancing, deceptively corseted tone that characterizes the book: “I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly.”