“Being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again”: Literary Empathy in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy

By Craig McDonald

This article contributes to an emerging critical debate about the role of empathy in autofiction, using the Outline trilogy (2014-2018) by Rachel Cusk as its primary case study. It draws on the edited collected, Autofiction in English, for its understanding of the term autofiction, and in particular Karen Ferreira-Meyers’ discussion of the so-called autofictional pact, which “articulates to the reader that the author is not honest, but sincere; s/he will lie, but in an attempt to reflect the world with justice” (28). This article also draws on the important distinction that Ferreira-Meyers notes between Francophone autofiction, whose focus “remains on the endless discussion regarding truth, fact and fiction,” and Anglophone autofiction which is more concerned with questions of “how to live and how to create” (33). Contrary to claims that autofiction rejects the goal of generating empathy, I will posit that Cusk’s works instead aim to produce what James Dawes calls “literary empathy.” Literary empathy, Dawes writes, does not necessarily advance human rights or overtly political goals, and “does not point past the reader,” but instead “points to the reader,” allowing readers to question their own capacity to empathise (431). Meg Jensen has argued that “a similar construction of empathy might be said to inform contemporary works of autofiction” (67). By encouraging readers to interrogate the veracity of what they are reading, Jensen argues that autofiction produces an “active readership [which] does more than intrigue reader-detectives into fact-hunting: it slows down the process of the text’s consumption,” producing more meaningful engagement with contemporary societal issues (76). Linking these concerns with Cusk’s work, I aim to build upon Elke D’hoker’s observation that in Cusk’s earlier text, The Lucky Ones, her depictions of empathetic relationships might constitute a literary response to “sociological accounts of contemporary society in terms of a ‘network society’ (Castells), [or] ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman)” (14). In doing so, I will explore how the affective politics of Cusk’s autofictional texts rely on the establishment of an intimate and empathetic connection between readers and writers.

Other critics have interpreted Cusk’s texts as producing “literary empathy,” as demonstrated by reviews of her work, which often emphasise a sense of empathetic identification.  For example, Miranda Purves claims that when she read Cusk’s autofictional trilogy, she found the “true escapism of finding points of identification” (n.p.). The importance of empathy is stressed throughout the Outline trilogy, and Cusk makes a point of demonstrating that it might be provoked by something other than in-person contact, as if to justify the degree to which her texts might achieve the same thing. In Transit, for instance, one character:

depressed in the wake of his divorce […] admitted that he often felt moved to tears by the concern for his health and well-being expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging, and by the automated voices on trains and buses, apparently anxious that he might miss his stop; he actually felt something akin to love, he said, for the female voice that guided him while he was driving his car. (Cusk 3)

By recounting a story about the emotive force of adverts and service announcements at the start of Transit, we might view Cusk as inviting – or even daring – her readers to believe that a work of fiction could achieve the same thing. Similarly, her books repeatedly emphasise the importance of shared experiences, as something that might establish the opportunity for this kind of empathetic identification. In Transit a character explains their interest in a particular breed of dog by describing a moment when they witnessed two dogs of this breed hunting together. What attracted the man was not simply the efficiency of their hunting, but what it said about the idea of cooperation, since “it suggested that the ultimate fulfilment of a conscious being lay not in solitude but in a shared state so intricate and cooperative it might almost be said to represent the entwining of two selves” (Cusk, Transit 192-3). As Melinda Harvey has pointed out, Cusk subtly underscores the importance of this particular anecdote by later repeating it, narrated this time by the protagonist, Faye, to a man that she is dating and will later go on to marry.

            Moreover, it is worth noting that Cusk’s work also explores the pain of feeling that you are unrecognised and not empathised with, as has already been examined in Cusk’s earlier texts. Maria Tang, for example, has suggested that the epiphanies which the characters of Arlington Park undergo might be understood as examples of Beauvoirian “conversions,” whereby women experience “an uncanny but salutary realisation […] that although a subject to herself, she is an object to others and is exposed to their reading of her which she is unable to control” (17). Likewise, Nicolas Boileau has explored the extent to which “none of [Cusk’s] characters are exemplary or seen as universal,” a point he makes with reference to The Country Life (5). This problem of identification, and the extent to which we ourselves can be empathised with, persists in Cusk’s more recent fiction, but has until now been largely overlooked. In Outline, a character relays a story which at first appears to be a declaration of her ability to empathise with her sister, stating that “when I am with my sister I see things from her point of view rather than my own, am compelled to enter her vision” (218). Shortly after this, however, the moment of recognition dissolves, when she declares that she “was suddenly filled with the most extraordinary sense of existence as a secret pain, an inner torment it was impossible to share with others, who asked you to attend to them while remaining oblivious to what was inside you” (218). It is worth noting that this story is recounted in a creative writing class, suggesting that narration might offer some therapeutic benefits against this vision of loneliness, but at the heart of this would-be writer’s concern is a problem echoed in both Faye, and Cusk’s own project.

            In emphasising the importance of empathy, Cusk seems to resist what several commentators have argued is an apathetic tendency in contemporary autofiction. Nicholas Dames, for instance, has claimed that contemporary autofiction is dominated by “undramatic monologue,” which sets out largely to “reject […] the goal of generating empathy.” Although it could be argued that in one sense Cusk’s novels do function perhaps unmercifully and unabashedly via “undramatic monologue,” unlike typical autofiction, her work is dominated by the monologues of characters who are never the narrator, which serves to re-emphasise, rather than reject the goal of generating empathy. Even where Cusk’s work has been criticised for the way that Faye manipulates the narrative – making implicit authorial judgments that are far from empathetic – it could be argued that the imperative to empathise is only displaced on to a reader. Sally Rooney, for example, claimed in her review that she felt that the moments “in which authorial judgment appears to be withheld but isn’t really, represented a weakness in [Kudos]” (n.p.). It is possible, however, to frame her response itself as the affective product that emerges from the novel, rather than relying on representations of model empathetic behaviour in the texts themselves. 

Pieter Vermeulen has productively argued that the urge to empathise has also long been viewed as part of the “traditional gendered association between femininity and sentiment,” and that because of this Cusk’s use of undramatic monologue might be seen as a critique of “the gendered imperative to feel and feel for others” (6-7). He argues that her works “bracket empathy […] in ways that resist […] baneful gender politics” (7). While it is true that we ought to be wary of gendered associations when examining the imperative to empathise, I want to challenge Vermeulen’s assessment that in her attempt to resist this, Cusk creates in Faye a “quasi-invisible narrator [who] does not become available for empathetic identification” (9-10). The refusal to make Faye’s back story the central plot of the novel does not necessarily mean that she is unavailable for empathetic identification, especially since, as Francine Prose points out, the other characters’ stories seem to deliberately mirror Faye’s own worries and concerns (526-7). Furthermore, alongside the idea that Faye herself is hard to empathise with, Vermeulen claims that Faye evinces “a certain lack of empathy for and connection to [her] surroundings,” but the absence of Faye’s response to many of these monologues does not necessarily mean that she herself is devoid of empathy, since the absence of narrated empathy does not denote the absence of empathy itself (7). Nor does this preclude readers from empathising with characters other than Faye; the absence of her own empathetic response might instead be seen as an invitation for readers themselves to perform the affective work of empathising, as in the Sally Rooney example above. Thus, Cusk’s texts offer a platform for readers to practice the construction of literary empathy, even if they might struggle to empathise easily with the narrator of the text before them.

There is also a precedent for considering this particular affective potential in autofiction. Catherine Cusset, one of the leading French writers associated with the genre, has claimed that autofiction is defined by its “capacity to go back inside an emotion, to erase anything anecdotic that wouldn’t be part of that emotion and would water it down, in order to offer it to the reader in a bare form, devoid of anything too idiosyncratic, so that he can claim it as his own” (n.p.). As a result of this, the “I” of autofiction is to be viewed as “not me, [but] each of us” (Laurens 141). A similar sentiment is evoked in many of Cusk’s declarations about art – for instance, her assertion in The Last Supper, that empathy constitutes the ultimate goal of all art, since “to look at a painting is to feel looked at, comprehended, yourself. It is to experience empathy, for what is art but the struggle to acknowledge the fact that we ourselves were created?” (177-8). It seems clear therefore, that for Cusk the very purpose of art is to evoke empathy, and again this is visible in the discussions of many of the writers in her autofictional trilogy. In Kudos, the writer Luís is said by another character to be revered because he has shown that people’s “superstitious belief in [their] own differences […] are merely the consequence of our lack of empathy, which if we had it would enable us to see that in fact we are all the same. It is for his empathy […] that Luís has received such acclaim” (139). Here, writing – critically esteemed writing – is not only that which encourages empathy, but empathy which is framed in terms of its ability to overcome our perceived differences. While it is not necessarily an overtly political advocation of human rights, this appears to be closer to the kind of ‘literary empathy’ that James Dawes is describing. As Meg Jensen puts it, “autofiction aims to formulate a distinct kind of human subject, one whose inter subjectivity (I, me, us) generates a kind of aesthetic intimacy […]: a readerly experience of compassion that may, or may not, lead to rights-advancing action” (69-70).

Whether we call it literary empathy or aesthetic intimacy, this dynamic is closely linked in Cusk’s work with moments of recognition. At one point in Outline, Faye states, in a metacommentary on the way that reading functions in a work of autofiction, that “these people [her students] wanted something from me; that though they didn’t know me, or one another, they had come here with the purpose of being recognised” (133). In the Outline trilogy, the importance of this is indicated by a recurrent image of readers or viewers of art undergoing an epiphanic moment of recognition. In Outline, the first novel of the trilogy, one of Faye’s students describes the experience of returning to a favourite D.H. Lawrence story in the express hope of feeling a moment of recognition. The character claims of Lawrence that “even though he’s dead, in a way I think he is the person I love most in all the world. I would like to be a D. H. Lawrence character, living in one of his novels […] [because] life seems so rich, when I look at it through his eyes, yet my own life very often appears sterile” (Outline 209-10). She turns to one of his stories, “The Wintry Peacock”, noting that it is an autobiographical story, but realises that when she lingers on the exact details of the story – the weather, the noises – to which she cannot relate,  she felt “for the first time […] that Lawrence was going to fail to transport me out of my own life” (210). It is important that it is the consideration of these particular details that discourages this woman from suspending her disbelief successfully, since it suggests something about the mindset that the reader of autofiction must bring to the work. If emotions are to be universal, the reader must be willing to approach them as such, in spite of circumstantial details that differ – or in Nancy K. Miller’s terms they must be willing to let disidentification affect them as much as identification (429). The inclusion of this Lawrence text also serves to highlight something about the unique way that Cusk makes use of autofiction as a mode. It is not merely the inclusion of autobiographical details that allows Cusk’s text to successfully evoke feelings of empathy – or Lawrence’s work would achieve it too – but perhaps instead the importance it places on interactions with others, a point which autofiction encourages readers to meditate on by positioning them as slower, “active” readers.

In Transit, too, there are numerous images of characters identifying strongly with the creator of an artwork. An audience member at a talk Faye gives, for instance, declares in tears that in the story that Faye had read “it was me you were describing, that woman was me, her pain was my pain” (Transit 121). Perhaps the most striking declaration of identification, however, comes from a character called Jane, who asks Faye to help her write a text about her sense of identification with the painter Marsden Hartley, who, she insists is her: “I’m him […] we’re the same […] [and his artworks] were more like thoughts, thoughts in someone else’s head that she could see. It was seeing them that had enabled her to recognise that those thoughts were her own” (Transit 134). Faye, in disbelief, tries to rationalise this declaration, arguing that “if she was talking about identification, she was right – it was common enough to see oneself in others, particularly if those others existed at one remove from us, as for instance characters in a book do,” but Jane insists this is not the case. Rather than identification, she believes that she shares a consciousness with Marsden Hartley. In fact, she explicitly explains that it is not the facts of his life that seem to mirror her own – not then, the literal truths which the character could not get beyond when reading Lawrence’s work – but the way that these things are told and shown: “rather than mirroring the literal facts of her own life, Marsden Hartley was doing something much bigger and more significant: he was dramatising them” (Transit 137-8). What makes Cusk’s work so affectively productive for readers, then, is not merely the biographical details that she includes, but the way that she uses autofiction to dramatise interactions with others. It is the close attention that Faye pays to those around her that constitutes the empathetic heart of the trilogy, even when Faye’s external responses might not easily be read as empathetic, as is the case here, where she displays few signs of empathy for Jane. In this way, Cusk’s texts perhaps illustrate Hywel Dix’s point that autofiction “is less concerned with faithfully reporting what its protagonist did, or even how that person thought and felt, and […] more concerned with the speculative question of how that subject might respond to new and often imagined environments,” in recognition of the fact that “subjectivity is elusive” (7).

It could, of course, be argued that simply by including these moments in the novels, Cusk does not necessarily endorse this particular idea about art’s ultimate purpose, but if we use her own non-fiction works as paratexts (which autofiction arguably encourages us to do) we can see yet another example of this image taken from her own life. She writes in an essay about the experience of taking a friend to the theatre to watch a production of Three Sisters. At the play’s close, her friend declares, “That’s me […] That woman, Masha. She’s me” (Cusk, “The Outsider,” n.p.). Cusk’s response to this is to consider the moment “a victory,” a judgment that serves as a fitting testament to the importance of empathy in her works. As such, while the issues of the network society that Elke D’Hoker argued were being responded to in Cusk’s earlier work have only worsened over time, Cusk’s way of textually responding to those issues has itself matured. She has moved beyond conventional novelistic representations of empathy to instead draw on autofiction as a mode to encourage readers to interrogate their own capacity for empathy, making productive use of what Meg Jensen terms autofiction’s encouragement of “active readership.” In dramatising and emphasising the interactions between Faye and her interlocutors she resists the tendency observed in many works of autofiction towards apathy, and instead offers a way for readers to perform the affective work of empathising themselves.


Craig McDonald, “Being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again: Literary Empathy in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2022): n.pag. Web 29 April 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.03

About the Author

Craig McDonald is a third year PhD student at the University of Leeds. His thesis examines loneliness as it is represented in contemporary works of anglophone autofiction, with a particular focus on the works of Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, Tao Lin and David Foster Wallace. His wider research interests include contemporary American fiction, affect theory and postmodernism.

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