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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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

13 replies on “What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias”

  1. So you read 100 pages of a six volume novel and are ready to dismiss an artist outright? How much do you know about his contextualism from such a cursory reading? And self portrait is just egotism? And your main objection is that we don’t take women memoirists seriously? Lena Dunham has received enormous acclaim despite her youth, so I don’t get your point. Memoir is the dominant literary form of our times and your critique rejects the whole form. I expect better thinking and objectivity from Hyperallergic than this screed.

  2. Shouldn’t the review be at least six pages long, each page entitled Volume 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 with a mournful pic of the reviewer and some aggrandizing headline referencing hero worship?

  3. i must say that i’m slightly impressed by this, i would have been far too ashamed to admit that i’d only read 100 pages before attempting a takedown of a novel of 2000+ pages and counting.

  4. I unfortunately ignored all of my instincts and read the entire first volume even though I wanted to chuck it every fifty pages or so. This review isn’t far off despite Rothfeld not completing the book. It was maybe the most onanistic and hollow novel i’ve ever read. Artlessly spewing every detail of your existence onto the page doesn’t make for especially compelling writing.

  5. Largely agree. Vexed a little about Henry Miller, different story, politics were involved, wasnt navel gazing. But mention of certain Miller also reminded me of certain women writers like Anais Nin, whose lifelong journal was actually a fiction. And published and read almost as such. Peter Handke in Sorrow Beyond Dreams treads this territory carefully, by weighing private “literary” anecdotes against public kinds of formulation.

  6. Wait, isn’t there some kind of process by which this stuff must be checked and run through before printing? How is anyone allowed to admit to reading 100 pages of a six volume literary project and then write critically about it on a supposedly reputable website? Fremdschämen is a German word untranslatable to English that expresses second-hand embarrassment for another person’s ineptitude…

  7. Am I the only one who decided not to bother reading this book based on the fact that its title is actually Mein Kampf? Its not the racial insensitivity that bothers me. Its the utterly ludicrous idea of titling anything not meant to be ironic with such a loaded title that the work is grossly unlikely to live up to.

  8. It’s the fact that it IS about him that makes it so good. Also the writing is wonderful yet not mannered or “fancy.” I have learned a lot about boys and their “struggles” to grow up and handle their own sexuality from these books. I love them.

  9. “If you don’t believe me, compare the reception of My Struggle with the reception of Lena Dunham’s controversial TV series Girls.”

    generally like this essay, generally like Girls, have no interest in reading Knausgaard, and have no doubt some people say some mean things about Girls. But: Seasons 1 and 2 of Girls, at least, received rave reviews from almost every major newspaper and reviewer, and have metacritic scores of 87 and 84. It’s actually a running joke how frequently the NYT writes about Dunham. GIrls was incredibly well-received.

  10. Narcisissm is reading 100-pages of an author’s work, blustering on about it, and passing off your thoughts as a review of his fourth novel. There’s serious critique to be made of Knausgaard’s work. Read it and you you might be able to make a contribution.

  11. What a strikingly mean-spirited article! While I think MY STRUGGLE has been a little over-praised, that’s not Knausgaard’s fault. I’ve only read the first volume so far, but I have found the book to be far from narcissistic. I think Knausgaard really wants to connect above all and would probably be delighted if everyone were to try to tell their own truth or try to make sense of their own lives over a few thousand pages.

  12. LOL! Reviewer is only a year out of college so I’ll cut her some slack; I don’t think she’s mature enough yet to understand what Karlikins is up to. This is entirely forgivable IMHO; I wouldn’t have gotten it either only a year out of undergrad. I couldn’t even approach Infinite Jest until well into my thirties.

    Kudos to her for having even tried to approach My Struggle without having acquired the stripes of real deal adulthood.

  13. Knausgaard is the new Haruki Murakami: his word-piles are almost as quick to read as they were to write; trash lit for lazy elitists who see themselves as being somewhat better than that.

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