Ideally, a book review offers both a summary of its subject’s contents and some insight into the book’s themes and what purpose it might serve for readers. Rachel Cusk’s recent cover story for the New York Times Book Review on two new books on infertility, Avalanche by Julia Leigh and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs, doesn’t quite succeed at either. Cusk’s musings on infertility seesaw between obtuse and dismissive; her explanations of the books are confusing and, for Boggs’ book, brief.
There is, however, some incidental value in the review. Cusk’s sideways dismissal of the experience of women going through infertility treatment, the sharpest corner in a largely amorphous piece, is a great illustration of why we need more writing on the subject. The review may not be an endorsement of the books themselves, but it stands as proof as to why they are necessary. Our collective understanding of reproductive challenges is so limited, so lacking in nuance, that even the most perceptive thinkers land in hackneyed, and insensitive, terrain when exploring the subject.
Cusk, a novelist and the author of the unsentimental parenting memoir A Life’s Work, begins by drawing a comparison between women seeking infertility treatment and the aspiring writers she’s met as a professor of creative writing. As a teacher, she found herself worrying about some students, particularly those whose success had yet to match their ambition, and their tendency “to idealize ‘being a writer,’ to detach it from what writing really was or ever could be.” She writes:
Like the I.V.F. industry, the creative writing business has many critics who deplore the notion that creativity can or should be taught and believe some central mystery of life is being violated therein. No one likes to think of himself as peddling false hope in exchange for cash; but the criticism seemed to be aimed at the student too. Part of the humiliation of being helped to bring forth what should emerge naturally (or, by implication, not at all) is the speed with which the most generous impulse—to create—begins to look like the most selfish.
To be a writer, to be a mother: The more these desires are separated from their object (to be the writer of what, to be the mother of whom?), the more they seem to represent not the reaching out of creativity but the inward obstinacy of personal will.
Let’s unpack this a little. Cusk is saying (I think!) that aspiring writers and mothers are both at risk of wanting something so badly that the wanting of it takes over everything. Thus the desire to give back, either through the creation of art or the raising of a child, is transformed into a selfish act that hardens a person over time. Oh, and in a perfect world both writing and pregnancy “emerge naturally,” which is to say without any interventions from an MFA program or reproductive endocrinologists, respectively.
The comparison between writing and trying to conceive is not entirely unjustified. As someone who’s had thwarted ambitions in both areas, I’m familiar with the similarities. Both are motivated by a desire to create something in our image that will, ideally, make the world a better place. But Cusk overextends the analogy by failing to point out the very different likelihood of achieving success in writing compared to baby-making. To want to make it as a writer is to believe that one is entitled to a prize that has been awarded to a tiny minority of individuals throughout time. To want to have a baby is to believe that one is entitled to a child, something the vast majority of people have had over the course of history. Infertile women aren’t suffering from a distorted sense of chosenness, they’re people, or partnered with people, with a medical condition that doctors can sometimes remedy. Seeking such treatment is no more unnatural than seeking treatment for back pain—or getting an abortion. Infertility medicine is far from perfect, but it’s a big and useful part of the expansion of reproductive medicine that took place during the last century, an expansion that women are unfortunately still fighting to access.
Infertility treatment can be physically, emotionally, financially and, sometimes, ethically trying. It can be hard to know when to start, and even harder to know when to stop. To take something this complex and reduce it to an act of myopia or selfishness is really to miss the point.