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Recent critiques appearing in respected magazines, Harper’s (Self, 2021), The New Yorker (Sehgal, 2022), and the literary website Lit Hub Daily (Johnson, 2022), have attacked contemporary fiction for portraying the effects of psychological trauma as central to the development of their characters’ personalities and motivations and, in the case of autobiographical works, as decisive factors in the authors’ own lives. Sehgal and Self each express concern that the weight given to psychological trauma in recent works supplants older narrative traditions which they hold to reflect a higher level of complexity and sophistication. In addition, both Sehgal and Self seem dubious about the legitimacy of posttraumatic stress disorder as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. They contend that the signs and symptoms described are culturally determined phenomena rather than universal human reactions.
While it is beyond the scope of this column to address the over-simplifications and errors (especially in understanding the science in this field) which Self and Sehgal employ in making their cases, it happens that many of their criticisms were anticipated and, to a great degree, rebutted by the masterful and widely admired author, Rachel Cusk, in her 2014 novel, Outline. The first installment in a trilogy of novels, Outline follows the travels of Cusk’s protagonist who relates the stories of people she meets in connection with her work as a visiting professor teaching a summer literature course in Greece. The passage shared here exemplifies Cusk’s artful depiction of the importance of recognizing the power of psychological trauma in understanding people (fictional or real). In spite of the objections of the literary critics cited above, Cusk seems to make her point quite well.
“I asked her (Anne) whether she lived in Manchester, and she said no, she had just been up there to teach another course, and had had to fly straight from there to here. She had hardly done any writing lately – not that you get rich from writing the kind of plays she wrote. But something had happened to her writing. There had been – well, you’d call it an incident, and as a playwright she knew that the problem with incidents is that everything gets blamed on them: they become a premise towards which everything else is drawn, as though seeking an explanation of itself. It might be that this – problem would have occurred anyway. She didn’t know.
“I asked her what the problem was.

“‘I call it summing up,’ she said with a cheerful squawk. Whenever she conceived of a new piece of work, before she had gotten very far she would find herself summing it up. Often it only took one word: tension, for instance, or mother-in-law, though strictly speaking that was three. As soon as something was summed up, it was for all intents and purposes dead, a sitting duck, and she could go no further with it. Why go to the trouble to write a great long play about jealousy when jealousy just about summed it up? And, it wasn’t only her own work – she found herself doing it to other people’s, and had discovered that even the masters, the works she had always revered, allowed themselves, by and large to be summed up. Even Beckett, her go, had been destroyed by meaninglessness. She would feel the word start to rise, and she would try to hold it down but it kept coming, rising and rising until it had popped irreversibly into her head. And not just books either, it was starting to happen with people – she was having a drink with a friend the other night and she looked across the table and thought, friend. With the result that she strongly suspected their friendship was over.
“She scraped her spoon around the bottom of the honey jar. She was aware, she said, that this was also a cultural malaise, but that it had invaded her inner world to the extent that she herself felt summed up, and was beginning to question the point of continuing to exist day in and day out when Anne’s life just about covered it.
“I asked what the incident – if that was the word she had used – what the incident was that she had referred to earlier. She took the spoon out of her mouth.
“‘I was mugged,’ she squawked. ‘Six months ago. Someone tried to kill me.’”
(pp 231 – 232)


Cusk, R. (2014). Outline. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Johnson, C.V. (April 6, 2022) Toward an alternative canon of trauma and literature: A reading list. Lit Hub Daily.
Self, W. (December, 2021). A Posthumous Shock: How Everything Became Trauma. Harpers’ Magazine.
Sehgal, P. (January 3 & 10, 2022). The Key to Me. The New Yorker. 62 – 67.