The perverse attraction of autobiographical fiction
“I was ruthless,” Karl Ove Knausgaard, the now infamous Norwegian author of the volumes of autobiographical fiction, My Struggle, said at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. “All writers are ruthless.”
This dictum – that ruthlessness is a necessary attribute of writers – is not new, but it has long troubled me, and made me wary of writing autobiographically in my own fiction. A fellow writer friend tells a story from a class given by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who asked the aspiring authors to raise a hand if they would publish a piece of their best fiction knowing it would destroy the marriage of their closest friend. All but two of the students, both women, put up a hand. Tóibín focused his heavy gaze on these two a long while, then told them to leave his class and not come back, because their moral qualms would inhibit their ability to be good writers. “You have to be a terrible monster to write,” he told another class. (A rumour later circulated among the students that Tóibín had himself ruined his best friend’s marriage because of a revelation he made in his fiction; in his 2010 collection The Empty Family, there is a story, ‘Silence’, that has its origins in a passage from Henry James’s journals about a marriage destroyed by a letter from a wife’s ex-lover.)
This vision of the author as heroic truth-teller or “savage artist” – no matter the consequences to others – goes back a long way, at least to the 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert, the founder of the modern realist style of narration. The critic James Wood says of Flaubert’s mode of fiction that “it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us”. The protagonist in O Henry’s 1903 story ‘Confessions of a Humorist’ calls himself a “vampire”, preying on his wife and children for material, offering it to the “public gaze” upon the “cold, conspicuous, common, printed page”. The late American writer John Updike was often accused of cannibalising the people in his life for the sake of his art: “No friend or lover was safe from being turned into fiction,” as Hermione Lee put it. The novelist Julian Barnes believes that “it’s all fair game”, whether “you’ve been told a story by a friend or something happens in your family”. Peter Carey’s 2006 novel, Theft: A Love Story, was slammed by his ex-wife as a cruel “smear campaign” by an “enraged narcissist”.
The sister of the British writer Hanif Kureishi complained of his 2003 film, The Mother, that “it was like he’d swallowed some of my life, then spat it back out”, and his ex-partner publicly voiced her feelings of betrayal after he based his 1998 novel Intimacy on their relationship. Kureishi responded to both women unapologetically: “If you started to censor yourself as a writer you wouldn’t get anywhere at all, you’d have a terrible book. You’d be full of things to say but you’d be too afraid to say them.” In Joan Didion’s view, “writers are always selling somebody out”.
Ruthlessness towards family and friends can equally be a feature of nonfiction genres such as memoir, and it’s a truism that all fiction is to some degree autobiographical, in the sense that it constructs a self for the writer, and that all nonfiction is to some degree fictional, in being constructed. It’s almost impossible to define exactly what constitutes “autobiographical fiction”. The literary scholar Philippe Lejeune wrote in 1973, “Anyone who goes on about ‘autobiography’ (or about any literary genre whatever) is obliged to confront the problem of the definition, if only in practice, by choosing what to talk about.”
Here I’m choosing to talk about the type of thinly veiled autobiography, billed as fiction, written by an author like Knausgaard in the tradition of Proust. (He has been described as “Norway’s Proust” and regards Proust as a major influence on his work.) Knausgaard’s writing burns with a peculiar intensity because of its layered betrayals and the author-narrator’s skilful dodging of questions of identity. My Struggle’s narrator, Karl Ove, reveals hurtful thoughts (that he feels boredom and resentment about being a parent, for example, or that his desire to write is often more compelling than his desire for his wife), and Knausgaard as author then uses the cover of fiction to avoid being held accountable. He has said that “it was actions, not words written about [people] later, that had the most power to do damage”, but it is the act of writing these words down – and making them public – that does the most damage. In his case, the damage done has taken on legendary proportions: his book triggered his wife’s manic depression, his mother begged him to stop writing it, whole swathes of his extended family no longer speak to him, and he’s had to move to a remote town in Sweden to escape constant scrutiny in Norway.
Some might justify Knausgaard’s choices by saying it’s only fiction – after all, he calls My Struggle a novel, not a memoir. But, as the Canadian writer Robert McGill points out in his 2013 book The Treacherous Imagination, in this age of modern confessionalism “some texts are more traitorous than others”. Fictional texts can be the most traitorous of all, for “the violation is often double-edged: people are wounded by the invasion of privacy entailed in the details that are true, while they are equally hurt by what seems false”. The ground falls away from beneath the feet of the victims of this kind of writing. Their public complaints about the revelation of private truths endorse them as true, while complaints about untruths are simply considered inappropriate in the context of fiction.
The genre of any text depends on an unspoken contract between writer and reader, which determines the reader’s orientation to the text. In conventional autobiography, for example, the “autobiographical pact” described by Philippe Lejeune is that the reader can safely assume that the author, narrator and protagonist are one and the same. On this assumption rests the reader’s faith that the author’s attempts to make sense of his or her life are sincere. Yet this pact is broken in autobiographical fiction, even when there is identity of name between the author (Karl Ove Knausgaard; Marcel Proust) and narrator (Karl Ove; Marcel).
And what of the pact between author and subject? The way in which autobiographical fiction is framed simultaneously as “art” and “truth” seems to cause further injury to authors’ subjects and intimates. Kureishi’s ex-partner claimed that Intimacy is “not merely a novel. You may as well call it a fish. Nobody believes that it’s just pure fiction.” Peter Carey’s ex-wife also questioned the moral free pass that authors of autobiographical fiction are given. “People say writers have been doing this forever,” she said in an interview after the publication of Theft: A Love Story. “Then they need to be exposed and held accountable. No one … believes novelists lie, even when they boast of it. They’re regarded as modern-day priests and priestesses.” In this sense, authors of autobiographical fiction are operating outside any pact or contract with their intimates, unlike the authors of autobiography, who are still expected – by subjects, readers, critics – to adhere to basic standards of truthfulness.
Knausgaard apparently first thought to publish his magnum opus as a memoir, but went along with the Norwegian publisher’s proposal to call it a novel. This may have been a commercial decision, since he was already known in Norway for his novels. In My Struggle, he literally writes himself into celebrity, attracting a larger following with each volume. The use of celebrity to sell books is one of the most striking developments in the contemporary book business. Knausgaard’s account of the minute details of his life creates the conditions under which these very details become interesting to readers hungry for the “truth” behind celebrity facades. Obsession or addiction is a common response among Knausgaard devotees. Zadie Smith tweeted that she needed his next volume “like crack”. Another critic confessed to sharing the communal “sick obsession”, unable to stop consuming Knausgaard’s volumes with both “horror and delight”. The reader becomes a crazed stalker of sorts – though we have access to endless details about Knausgaard’s daily life, we are insatiable, wanting more, depending on him for our pleasure.
Reading as voyeurism, then, or what Helen Garner refers to as “perving”. And she would know. Since the publication in 1977 of her first highly autobiographical novel, Monkey Grip, Garner has alternately been praised as honest and criticised as ruthless by readers and critics, most recently for basing her 2008 novel, The Spare Room, on the life and death of her close friend Jenya Osborne. Not only that, but critics like Robert Dessaix have found it galling that Garner calls her books novels. “But they are not novels,” Dessaix wrote in his review of The Spare Room.
They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to nonfiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels?
Dessaix also notes the persistent criticism of Garner’s fiction that has dogged her from the very beginning of her career: “random jottings, they seemed to be saying, about emotional entanglements in dreary suburbs with the odd thought about the meaning of life thrown in don’t make you a writer”. So why, I wonder, when Knausgaard publishes random jottings about emotional entanglements in dreary suburbs with the odd thought about the meaning of life, is he not howled down for colluding in calling it a novel?
Knausgaard has been called the founder of “New Man existentialism” and “one of the great writers about male frustration”, and praised for portraying “with savage honesty the challenges of being a man of genius who is also expected to be thoughtful, sensitive, unmonkish”. No wonder, then, that many female writers have admitted to me that they share my annoyance at the lack of acknowledgement by reviewers – and by Knausgaard himself – that he has essentially appropriated a mode of expression long used by female writers, who have a history of forensically depicting the subterranean war between the banalities of domestic life and the transcendence of artistic life. Why does Knausgaard trace his artistic heritage to Proust but not to Virginia Woolf, who experimented with blending memoir and fiction to explore exactly the same subject matter – the dangerous tug of recalling the past, and the limits that an author’s domestic situation places on her artistic life? One author referred to the Knausgaard phenomenon as “First World fathers having the chance to experience their own Betty Friedan moment”, expressing the simultaneous joy and ennui of parenthood, and how it can be both source of and poison to creativity. “Nobody wants to deny the New Men their moment,” she said, “but give the ladies who’ve cleared the way a little credit!”
Another foil for Knausgaard is the contemporary British-Canadian author Rachel Cusk, who has also published the intimate details of her domestic and artistic life: becoming a mother, surviving a divorce, being a writer. Her books are filled with the same Knausgaardian mixture of the stultifying daily routine, ruthless revelations about intimates, and digressions on art and death. The difference? She calls hers memoirs, not novels. And she has been viciously attacked, not lauded, by reviewers (both male and female), one of whom won the Hatchet Job of the Year award for harshest review, describing Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish” and who “describes her grief in expert, whinnying detail”. (To be fair, the Hatchet Job runner-up was Zoë Heller for her scathing review of Salman Rushdie’s 2012 novelised memoir, Joseph Anton; she calls him out for dismissing anyone who is troubled or hurt by a work of fiction as having an “unsophisticated” or “crude” understanding of how literature works.)
Even Helen Garner, who is by no means a shrinking violet, seems to have internalised the suggestion that a woman who uses her own life as the basis for her fiction is somehow illegitimate, unworthy of being called a novelist, nothing more than, to quote one critic, a lowly “user” or “scab picker”. It doesn’t seem entirely coincidental that her ex-husband, the novelist Murray Bail, is withering about “the age of narcissism”, calling it a contemporary problem “worse than global warming”. (Garner has joked that every time she writes a book she loses a husband.) Garner is more timid than many of her male peers about the legitimacy of this mode of writing, and describes being haunted by questions about whether “a real writer” shouldn’t be “writing about something other than herself and her immediate circle”, and worrying about the inevitability of the damage done to people close to her, and the ongoing “ethical problem” this sort of writing poses.
Garner tentatively justifies her decision to write what she calls “auto fiction” by hoping that she writes it well enough that her “readers will be carried through the superficial levels of perviness and urged into the depths of themselves”. Knausgaard voices the same justification more assertively, saying: “The books are an experiment about the relationship between reality and writing,” and “to reach readers is everything I wanted”. My Struggle does seem to elicit an intense kind of recognition from the reader: as one reviewer put it, “[Knausgaard] reveals plenty about himself and his loved ones, but the people we learn most about from My Struggle are ourselves.” This strong identification seems to arise from what readers experience as the truth, veracity, frankness, honesty, authenticity or sincerity of Knausgaard’s writing. These terms have a complex history that I don’t have space to delve into here, except for noting JM Coetzee’s point in relation to Rousseau’s Confessions, that sincerity in writing is an effect of rhetoric – of literary style – and “an invention of devilish ingenuity, in that it claims to stand outside all systems of rhetoric” and to produce “an art that is above art”. Any dream of an unmediated relationship between writer and reader is bound to fail because realism is no more than a convention that produces the effect of verisimilitude. And the readers who identify so strongly with the protagonists of autobiographical fiction are, no less than readers of fantasy, engaged in a kind of willing suspension of disbelief – deliberately not seeing the writing for what it is.
Perhaps the status of autobiographical fiction today can be understood in relation to the dominance of photorealism in painting in the 1970s, which was a response by visual artists to the encroaching attractions of photographic media, an attempt to undermine and outdo the photographic image by producing a “realer than real” effect in painting. Could this be what autobiographical fiction represents in an age of oversharing? Robert McGill thinks so: it is now considered normal, he says, that “people are publicly disseminating personal narratives all the time”. He sees the currency and power of contemporary autobiographical fiction as resulting less from its revelations and more from its “strategic ambivalence: the simultaneous disguises and confessions it offers reproduce a broader social ambivalence about public disclosure and private life”.
This ambivalence might also be a result of literary theorists and critics being out of touch with the realities of the commercial world of book publishing and the expectations of lay readers. The critic Kate Douglas points out that several generations of literary theorists have been raised on the notion that the biography of the author is irrelevant to the text, yet in the contemporary publishing world authors are expected to cultivate a personal brand by putting out endless performative and promotional “paratexts” (the French theorist Gérard Genette’s term) in the form of interviews, profiles and public appearances, which readers often avidly consume alongside the book. In a networked world of mass and social media, it is difficult to read a work of fiction without knowing something of the private life of the author. Literary fiction in particular is now more often than not read autobiographically, whether or not the author intended to write autobiographical fiction.
So is autobiographical fiction a critique of our confessional culture – and the kind of extreme narcissism it expresses – or merely a symptom of it?
For McGill, the ethics of autobiographical fiction are unquestionably related to its erotics. He sees this kind of fiction as mediating an intimate relationship of mutual desire between author and audience. Authors who are prepared to “cheat” on their real-life intimates by betraying them in their fiction invite the reader into a love triangle of sorts. There is a thrill, but also suspicion on the part of the reader that if the author is prepared to cheat with you, he may also be prepared to cheat on you. His affections are unpredictable. Above you, above everything, he values his freedom of expression, his right to say whatever he likes – and to question that hierarchy of values would make you as reader seem petty and moralistic.
Authors tend to make grand claims about the subversive power of fiction, and insist on their status as iconoclasts, refusing in and through their fiction to be bound by conventional ethical codes. Yet sometimes that means they are blind to the powerful and privileged position they occupy in having the means to publicly disseminate their words. As McGill warns:
[for] authors of autobiographical fiction their framing of interpersonal infidelities as acts of social protest could be considered equivalent to adulterers calling their affairs ethical acts of rebellion against the oppressiveness of marriage … the pleasures as well as the politics of betrayal must be kept in mind when considering authors’ claims to rebel status.
Knausgaard has variously been described as revolutionary, subversive and heroic. The narrator Karl Ove says, “Ibsen [was] right … relationships were there to eradicate individuality”, and Knausgaard as author heroically asserts his freedoms as an individual by ripping out the foundations of those relationships – relationships that constitute his most valuable sources as a writer. He laments his status as a domesticated 21st-century male, but takes advantage of it too. The apparent rebellion in his writing feeds on precisely that against which it rebels.
Coetzee has noted that as readers we like to think “we admire a writer because he opens our eyes, when in fact we admire him only because he confirms our preconceptions”. Our literary culture admires male writers who rebel against domesticity, who cheat on or publicly punish those close to them, who tell us how they really feel, while women who do the same are judged by a different standard. To me, what is truly radical about Helen Garner’s decision in the ’70s to start to write about her own life in her fiction is not that she was prepared to betray her intimates. It was that she was daring, as a woman, to ask readers to pay attention to fiction based on how she really felt, and how she experienced her life – to claim and hold their interest without apology. In The Spare Room, there is a powerful moment where the dying friend, Nicola, bursts into tears, unable to keep up her brave front, and admits to the author-protagonist, Helen, “But you see, all my life I’ve never wanted to bore people with the way I feel.” I have to admit this is another component of my reluctance to write autobiographical fiction: a lurking fear that my life and thoughts as a woman could not possibly command anybody’s interest, a terror of being found boring. I’m not sure that even the most forward-thinking of the New Men existentialists like Knausgaard understand this inherited burden many women writers carry, whether we want to or not.
While I was reading Knausgaard, I tried to keep in mind Garner’s explanation that she started writing about her own life “helplessly” – explaining what she meant by citing an aphorism attributed to the painter Georges Braque: “One’s style is one’s inability to do otherwise.” In other words, the art wants what the art wants. But I kept being distracted by my own horror at what Knausgaard was doing, slashing away at his world, and by the overwhelming feeling that it would cost him too much as a human being. I googled his wife, his uncle, his mother, even his children, fixating on the walking wounded surrounding the living author. And I kept returning to the unfashionable but affecting words of Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst and essayist, in a recent interview in the Paris Review:
Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having.
Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.
“I was ruthless,” Karl Ove Knausgaard, the now infamous Norwegian author of the volumes of autobiographical fiction, My Struggle, said at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. “All writers are ruthless.”
This dictum – that ruthlessness is a necessary attribute of writers – is not new, but it has long troubled me, and made me wary of writing autobiographically in my own fiction. A fellow writer friend tells a story from a class given by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who asked the aspiring authors to raise a hand if they would publish a piece of their best fiction knowing it would destroy the marriage of their closest friend. All but two of the students, both women, put up a hand. Tóibín focused his heavy gaze on these two a long while, then told them to leave his class and not come back, because their moral qualms would inhibit their ability to be good writers. “You...