The Trouble with Knausgaard

  • By Annette Gendler
  • May 13, 2016

How truthful should fiction be?


Volume five of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle came out in English last month. Chances are it will be as wildly successful as the first four volumes. And while I find his style readable and engaging, even addictive at times, and I appreciate anyone’s effort to capture real life in words, I also take great issue with Knausgaard’s project.

I keep asking myself: Why not write this as memoir? Why call it an autobiographical novel? Because, when you call it a novel, you can make stuff up. Now, many novels are autobiographical, or at least contain lots of autobiographical material. Many even read like memoir, and that’s part of their appeal.

When you read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and you have any notion of his personal life in his early twenties, you know that the protagonist is him, and his love interest, Lady Brett Ashley, is based on real-life Lady Duff Twysden, whom Hemingway met during his days carousing about France and Spain in the 1920s. The whole book is a recount of his discovery and enjoyment of the bull fights in Pamplona.

What’s wrong, then, with writing an autobiographical novel when Hemingway did it? Well, actually, he didn’t. Hemingway at least went to the trouble of changing the names of his characters, insisting the story was invention. It might be based on real events and real people, but it was not about real events and real people. Knausgaard, on the other hand, does no such thing.

His novel is about him, his wife, his kids, his friends, and other relatives: real people using real names. He’s telling stories not only about himself that might be true or not, but he’s doing the same with the people in his life. None of these real people has any recourse over what’s being said about them because, after all, it’s a novel. A novelist is not going to be raked over the coals — like James Frey was — for inventing or embellishing facts.

There is this idea that fiction doesn’t hurt those it is based on. Not true. Susan Cheever, daughter of literary icon John Cheever and a successful novelist and nonfiction writer herself, recounted in a 2005 interview in the Writer’s Chronicle that her father wrote a story called "The Hartleys." In it, a little girl, who's obviously Susan, goes on a family ski trip, which resembles the ski trip the Cheevers took:

“The little girl gets killed in the ski tow. That, for me, was far more traumatic than if he'd written a nonfiction piece about that ski trip in which he talked about his fears for the little girl. To me, the fiction is much more dangerous, much more painful for the people who it may be based on, than nonfiction. In nonfiction, at least the writer has some obligation to tell what really happened. If my father had written nonfiction about my mother joining the League of Women Voters, well, he couldn't have had that little girl die. He would have had to say, ‘I was afraid.’ So, in my family, being fictionalized has been ten million times more painful. That's why, when a student says to me, ‘If I did this as fiction it wouldn't hurt the people so much,’ I say to them, ‘You are wrong. It will hurt them more. Because you as a fiction writer have more power.’"

And that, for me, is the trouble with Knausgaard. He doesn’t even go to the trouble to mask those he writes about. Susan Cheever knew that the little girl who dies in “The Hartleys” was her, but at least the whole world didn’t know. Millions of readers hadn’t read about her death.

Imagine (I’m making this up, but at least I’m telling you) having been one of Knausgaard’s early girlfriends. One day, years later, you’re bagging your groceries at your local supermarket, and the cashier says, “Wow, isn’t it something that you slept with every guy in your commune? And now you’re a prim mother of two!”

What can you say? Cite the lame defense that Knausgaard made that up? Right! The cashier is going to believe you, especially when you claim to be innocent of unflattering details. And it’s not just your local cashier who “knows” this about you, it’s your boss, your coworkers, your dentist, anyone who knows you by name, plus millions of other readers. What recourse do you have? None. It’s out there. Your unreal life has a life of its own.

That, for all the high-flying ideas about documenting real life, is the trouble with Knausgaard. It’s the real you — just maybe not your real life — that he’s put on display for all to see.

[Editor's note: Click here to read the Independent's review of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Five.]

Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.

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