What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias

Karl Ove Knausgaard. © 2010 Kjetil Ree.
Karl Ove Knausgaard (© 2010 Kjetil Ree, via Wikipedia)

The fourth volume of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has reached English-speaking audiences at last. The occasion is long-anticipated: Knausgaard’s opus, a six-volume, Proustian “novel” that really amounts to an autobiography with an ambitious publicist, has been hailed by critics as a monumental break with literary precedent. While other authors languish in acerbic cynicism, Knausgaard pens prose that’s joltingly raw and honest — or so goes the accepted critical narrative. In The New Yorker, James Wood contrasted the cohort of postmodern writers who “reflexively turn to irony” with Knausgaard, whom he regards as a bastion of sincerity. The Norwegian is, he claims, “intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward.”

I caved and bought Volume I when yet another wave of laudatory Knausgaard essays colonized the back of the collective book. But 100 pages into My Struggle: Book One — which I’ll confess is just about as much as I could stomach — I concluded that the struggle in question isn’t Knausgaard’s but his readers’. One glance at the book’s cover, onto which a dramatic photograph of a scowling Knausgaard is ostentatiously plastered, suffices to reveal all that anyone could hope to know about its content. As William Deresiewicz observes in his masterful essay in The Nation, Knausgaard’s efforts diverge from the works of writers like Proust, Roth, or Coetzee, who play with the notion of authorship by integrating fiction and autobiography to thought-provoking effect. Knausgaard relays his experiences without embellishment and without much reflection. Unlike Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which infuses the banality of daily life with literary significance and a kind of renewed magic, My Struggle weighs the quotidian down with details that feel additionally cumbersome. But the book is worse than dull — it’s also insultingly self-indulgent. And this is a dual affront to both my aesthetic and political sensibilities.

I suspect that so many critics have worshipped at the altar of Knausgaard because there’s something very enviable about his unshakable belief in his own value. He manages to enact a fantasy of transparency that the anxious, self-critical, or merely self-aware would never dare live out. And why shouldn’t he? His writing is rarely dismissed as frivolous or self-important: in the eyes of the literary establishment, Knausgaard’s forays into autobiography are canon-shattering, revolutionary, and above all serious.

How nice it would be to be afforded the luxury of narcissism — the luxury of writing about experiences that are taken, prima facie, to matter. And yet the privilege of writing about oneself — of passing one’s vanity off as profundity — is reserved almost exclusively for male authors. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the likes of Knausgaard and Henry Miller get to prance around with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, looking tortured and feeling congratulatory, because they’re men, and male sentimentality is “honest” and “vulnerable,” never whiny and egotistical.

If you don’t believe me, compare the reception of My Struggle with the reception of Lena Dunham’s controversial TV series Girls. Say what you will about Girls’ execution and artistic merits — perhaps there’s much to criticize — but, at the very least, Dunham has the courage and critical capacity to draw on her personal life in order to caricature and parody it: she uses autobiography as a means of self-critique. The most that can be said for Knausgaard is that he makes a few half-hearted and whiny attempts to present himself in an unflattering light for the span of several pages. I didn’t find this self-deprecating posturing convincing: the very format of My Struggle remains a testament to his unshakable faith in his own significance.

On the one hand, my criticism targets My Struggle specifically. To the extent that it raises interesting theoretical questions about the nature of authorship, it does so not in virtue of its content — pages and pages of taking out the garbage — but rather in virtue of its structure. Knausgaard might as well have written an essay raising the possibility of such a novel. He needn’t have actually written one. On the other hand, my criticism targets confessional writing and art more generally. A book or artwork that relays its author’s unadulterated experiences without commenting on or contextualizing them is an exercise in egoism. If a work of confessional art is to succeed, it needs to make itself engaging and instructive for a broader audience — to serve as a point of commonality rather than a point of divisive exhibitionism. But at is core, my criticism implicates critics themselves — critics who are all too willing to think of a work of realism as absolutely detached from a social and political reality.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Four is published by Archipelago and is available from Amazon and other booksellers. 

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