Tag Archives: Karl Ove Knausgaard

Links: Autobio fiction, economical art, writerly authority

1. “At the Writing Academy,” a fiction by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’d heard of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” books (here and here) as autobiographical fiction, which interested me because I was inspired years ago by the autobio aspects of Kerouac’s On the Road  and because I’ve long pondered how to publish certain aspects of my journal writings. This selection above is the only part of Knausgaard’s books I’ve read, but I was a little underwhelmed by how much the story felt more like fiction than like nonfiction. It seems as if his story is shaped in a traditional story arc, rather than dealing with the messiness and day-to-day unclarity of live as lived — as my lived-life seems to be, anyway.

2. This essay makes a great point about how one’s economic situation can limit — in a good way, a creative way — the art one can make. Richard Brody writes of filmmaker Joe Swanberg:

Rather than imagining specific stories for films that required some more distant and complex organization, that required travel, specific actors, settings, effects, or crowds, Swanberg has made movies that relate clearly to the specific circumstances of his own life—but his discovery of drama within those circumstances has been nothing less than prodigious.

Everyone has lots of stories; lives proliferate stories, as is proven by most of our conversations. Whatever we tell our friends and relatives and colleagues, whatever we think about our relationships and our work, is a virtual screenplay that, in a thoughtful telling, would fill out a feature film with ease. Swanberg is a prolific filmmaker because he recognizes and extracts the drama from what’s nearest at hand.

3. An intriguing essay I found worth reading, even if I’m not sure I agree with its conclusions. Some points:

In 1980, Michel Foucault gave an anonymous interview for Le Monde because he was, in his words, “nostalgic for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard.” Calling himself the “Masked Philosopher,” he suggested that the unknown author has an “unrippled” “surface of contact” with the reader, and that the book without an author might “land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of.” He temporarily shed the authority of his name, because “a name makes reading too easy.” …

In The Irresponsible Magician, Rebekah Rutkoff gets to the point. Her prose can be perplexing, but only because we are so used to our books coming with elaborate instructions that tell us how to read them. …

IN a sense, The Irresponsible Magician is a book about authority. It flashes brightest when it throws into conflict different ways of knowing … Authority produces blind spots and excesses. As such, it’s a form of eccentricity. We all hold some tattered scrap of authority, and there is no version of it that is not somehow distorted or compromised. …

And yet something crucial distinguishes the famous from the unknown: the fact that the celebrity is both person and image. His image sustains his personal power and authority, but also undermines it. He cannot always control where he appears, what with so many unannounced cameos in books and dreams and unauthorized TV biopics. His image goes wild but leaves him trapped. Like the professional critic, or the anthropologist, or psychoanalyst, the celebrity’s authority is limiting; it leaves him a slightly automated servant to his own identity. …

The most striking thing about The Irresponsible Magician is the fact that dreams function within it as real, legitimate evidence—not just about the author’s inner life, but about the world writ large. This is the lesson we ought to draw from it. We’re used to treating dreams as belonging to the individual; analysts treat them as signposts on the hero’s journey out of neurosis and into an uncertain truce with the-world-as-it-is. But dream-data is not just individual. It’s also social and historical. Each dream reveals a foundational lie—that, for example, the world is a mall—while at the same time revealing there is a truth in the lie—that the structure of the mall commands the world and that the world is falling apart. Our job is to hold tight to these contradictions, to refuse to resolve them but instead to harness their dialectical heat. The result will not be dream-interpretation, but dream-criticism.

The memoirist’s Faustian bargain

An article about the books Karl Ove Knausgaard has written about his own life points out the difficulty of writing about one’s family members.

He also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It’s a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

This is why I don’t want to write about my family or my colleagues in any critical or “truthful” way: I don’t want to piss people off. As Richard Hugo wrote:

In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

I side with Hugo: I want to have good, trusting relationships and stable life-conditions so that I can continue to write. I can’t write when my life is in uproar.

I get that some people may want to use their life experiences as fodder for their art, or they may want to use their art to work through their life experiences. (Or as Tim Parks says here, some authors may intentionally write about others: “[D. H. ]Lawrence frequently and blatantly put people he knew in his novels and seemed to relish the fallout. Joyce was the same.“)

But to my mind, anyone who writes about other real people risks taking his own opinions as being more than just opinions. I have been guilty at times of thinking that my ways of seeing and judging things are correct, which then allows me to label others’ perceptions as incorrect. It seems part of maturity to acknowledge that, of course, my opinions and judgments about other people are no more true than their judgments of me are.

I don’t want to be judged by others (and neither did Sartre) — and even though I know others will judge me, I don’t necessarily want to know what they think. I suppose that a world in which we went around telling other people what we really thought of them (rather than telling “white lies” or just being silent) would be a much less pleasant world.  Some people brag that they don’t care what others think. When I hear this, I hope that they’re bluffing, because people who truly don’t care what others think are just asocial or assholes or asocial-assholes.

So I don’t want to write what can be perceived as accurate depictions of real people. I don’t want to write about how a person “really is,” as if such a thing were possible anyway. (And of course, the celebrity profile in certain popular magazines matters only if it seems to convey a “real” picture of a celebrity, but of course,  how is there anything real or natural about Esquire’s “2013 Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson sitting in a Manhattan bar and asking her interviewer, “What do you want me to write?” on a hotel pad of paper after she has “eagerly” taken the interviewer’s pen.)

So me, I write about ideas. I don’t want to write about reality. I mean, I do sometimes write down exact quotes of things I hear (which accuracy of quotation depends on my auditory acuity and processing) and I sometimes write things I see while I am writing in that place (for examples,  here and here). But I want to be as objective as possible here, reporting only things that can be directly sensed — I try not to characterize. Strictly speaking, I do characterize merely by choosing what to observe, what to pay attention to, and what to write down.

When we write about living people, we writers are, in some sense, trying to say something about how those we write about “really are.” (If we aren’t at least trying to be accurate, we’re simply lying about that person.) Yes, we readers can be skeptical and acknowledge that no description can be fully accurate, etc., and yet the written description may, if we lack contradictory or competing information, become the default understanding we have of a person.

I’m skeptical that any person can be usefully depicted or captured in words or ideas, and I’m not sure that any ideas can be said to capture or adequately convey any reality. But looking at the options and possibilities of ideas, all the different ways that we can experience and conceive real things, this interests me more than writing about real people. Maybe I’d advise writing about completely fictional people, or writing poems about things any person could experience, rather than trying to write about what a real person really did.

Update, July 2016: New York Times essay: When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do