Rachel Cusk and the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny

"Mumsnet really hate me" says the author of Aftermath.

I interviewed Rachel Cusk, author of Aftermath, the watercooler book du jour, for this week's New Statesman. Aftermath is a memoir of Cusk's separation from her husband of ten years, and it's pretty unsparing - "The blackness of hate flows and flows over me," she writes at one point.

It's conventional to say that Cusk divides opinion. Her 2001 memoir of motherhood A Life's Work was received with equal tinctures of rapture and revulsion, and it looks as if the same will be true of Aftermath. Cusk is fairly stoical about the reactions she incites - especially from women. "[Mumsnet] hate me," she says of the parenting website to which politicians these days pay rather too much attention. "They really hate me. They say such horrible things about me." "Navel-gazing, narcissistic, self-obsessed" is how one poster on the site described Cusk recently.

This has much to do with Cusk's determination to write about what she calls "the universal parts of life" (motherhood, marriage and so on), her outlook on which is decidedly bleak:

Human beings have a need, generally, to destroy things. The Freudian principle of civilisation is correct. There's always, always a difference between the family image and the reality.

In the piece, I ask if it's not so much Cusk's will-to-disclose so much as her commitment to turning her experience into aesthetically satisfying shapes that attracts such opprobrium. She tells me she isn't interested in writing in a more journalistic or discursive fashion about those "universal parts of life":

There has to be some creativity involved. I'm a novelist, not a social scientist or a commentator. I have some pretty forceful ideas about the world [but I] can really only speak about them from within the protection of a literary form.

There is something rather impressive about Cusk's commitment to what Jane Shilling calls, in her review of Aftermath (which also appears in this issue), the "difficult discipline of self-scrutiny".

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.