The Discomfort of Reality Literature

What happens when novels are read as "true"? The Story of a Marriage author digs in.


How does it feel to be written about? I know the answer to that very well; I’ve recognized myself in several books. Or, at least, I’ve believed that I’d been used as a literary model, and I’ve always disliked it intensely. It’s rather like being captured in a photograph and seeing yourself somehow distorted and diminished, gazed upon by eyes that have no real interest in you and no understanding of you or your inner complexities. You are not an aim in yourself—you are merely a vehicle for somebody else’s story.

Or perhaps I’ve been wrong. The things we believe we recognize in a literary text may have come from countless sources. But in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series My Struggle, most of the characters appear under their real names, as do I. I appear in the first installment as the literary editor who accepts Karl Ove’s first novel. In a brief section of dialogue, I’m discussing the cover of his book with him. He tells me that he wants his brother and a friend to design it. Clearly skeptical, I ask whether his brother is in fact a designer. Karl Ove assures me that they are indeed very good designers, and then this comes: “This is how we’ll do it,” Geir Gulliksen said. “They make a proposal and we’ll look at it. If it’s good, OK, then there’s no problem.”

Even now—especially now—as I sit typing these words on my own computer, I feel deeply embarrassed. Surely I don’t talk like that. I am not like that. So confident, so self-important, like some sort of puffed-up publishing man. Am I? Was I? Perhaps I just seemed like that at the time to Karl Ove? Or perhaps to others there is nothing arrogant in my words, but because I am the subject here, I feel misunderstood and misrepresented.

In my experience, most people have similar reactions when they see themselves in a text. We would all prefer to be seen as we see ourselves. I may have just been a bit-player with a little role on the fringes of the action, yet it felt uncomfortable to be written about. But oughtn’t I just tolerate this? Well yes, of course. Fortunately, when I first read this passage in Karl Ove’s manuscript, I went quickly from thinking Is that really how he sees me? to remembering this was an irrelevance.

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As an author, I often write about people who resemble me, who share some of my own character traits. This is a very different experience, of course, because I have some sort of control. Although, oddly enough, it’s always the ludicrous and unsympathetic aspects of my character that I recognize in my own texts. All the things I hope to be—wise, sympathetic, understanding—don’t seem to allow me to use them; they never appear in my books. But I also know these characters aren’t actually me. They have merely been given my old clothes, clothes that still take the form of my body, but no longer feel a part of me.

When my first novel came out, I was 22, and I had no idea what I was doing. But I was certain of one thing: everybody who read my work would look right into me and know my innermost secrets. The real me would show through everything I’d written about, but also through all my word choices and the rhythm of my sentences. I was mistaken, of course. I soon discovered that readers always add something of themselves to what they read, as I do myself. And yet I was also right: once in a while a good reader can, in surprising ways, detect the author’s existential situation. Reality is the pencil I draw with, a friend once said.

A great many readers believe they can see what is biographically true in a text. I have thought the same myself. In fact, I still do; I am always totally convinced that I can detect what’s based on the author’s actual experience and what is “mere” invention. As a literary editor for other authors, however, I regularly have the chance to check my assumptions—and I can say that I, and others, are almost always wrong. The things we believe to be true in a text are often fiction, while those we believe to be fiction may in fact be built directly on events in an author’s life.

Nevertheless, I continue in my belief that I can guess what is, or is not, true in novels. I simply can’t stop myself. Whenever I come across a passage of particular emotional intensity, I almost always assume that I’m reading about something of great importance to the author, which must therefore be “true.” Good texts appear to be more true, or so it seems, though this usually has more to do with their having an emotional truth, which is quite different from being accurate in action or detail.

The term autofiction is now not only used to describe those books which are clearly written to be read as autobiographical, but also books which have, for many years, been read entirely as fiction. The autobiographical tracks are obvious in the writings of authors like Ernest Hemingway and Marguerite Duras; this was presumably always part of their contract with their readers. But it’s also been part of this contract that the source of a literary story undergoes a transformation which prohibits their works from being read as straightforward autobiography. Nevertheless, the works of both these authors are often mentioned as examples of autofiction. No doubt, this results in our reading these texts less thoroughly, as though they were somehow simpler than they actually are.

What are we talking about when we talk about autofiction? Certainly the use of this term is problematic; it’s used imprecisely, and its meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s used to describe novels which present themselves as purely autobiographical (for example, Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy); at other times, it’s applied to novels that claim to be true on some level but explicitly play with our expectations of the autobiographical (for example, J. M. Coetzee’s Summertime).

But it’s also used to describe books which adapt the author’s own experiences and create fiction of them (for example, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy). Most of those who have written about Cusk’s three most recent novels assume that they’re entirely based on biographical material. The reason for this seems to be that the main character, Faye, is a recently divorced author, just as Cusk is herself.

Perhaps all the dialogue and the situations Cusk describes so vividly are authentic, but we’ll never know for sure. All fiction is, of course, based on an author’s experiences; sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly, and usually in ways that are both covert and overt, making it virtually impossible to separate out the origins of the various material used within a literary text. The term autofiction therefore collapses in its current usage.

This has, at least, proved to be so in Norway. In recent years, the term “reality literature” has made its way into various heated debates about Norwegian literature. The expression is meant more as a derogatory rather than explanatory term, making reference as it does to reality TV. It’s considered that writing about real experiences is a rather low-down and morally dubious activity: the divulgence of private experiences that should remain private. Here in Norway, no distinction is made in this debate between the conscious attempt to write autofiction and the more traditional way of writing fiction. Everything that can be said to have biographical roots is now given the stamp reality literature.

This trend was initiated by a few influential critics, particularly in Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper. Two years ago, the author Vigdis Hjorth published a novel about a woman whose family does not believe her when she tells them she was sexually abused as a child by her father. Aftenposten’s critic insinuated that Hjorth was throwing the light of suspicion on her own deceased father—a contentious theory, which the culture editor attempted to substantiate by digging out a souvenir funeral program from Hjorth’s father’s funeral to show that the real funeral program resembled the one described in the novel. As soon as one could “prove” the novel was based on authentic events and documents, it had to be read as a wholly documentary book—or so the argument went. Thus, the novel was transformed into reality literature, something Hjorth never presented it as.

The existence of such passionate debates about ways to read should be encouraging to writers, but the Norwegian debate has led to the notion that writing a novel is questionable, a way to deliver one’s own version of the truth without having to defend it. Everything is permitted in a novel, goes the complaint. Novels are read as private statements by the author.

I, too, was drawn into this debate when a former wife of mine published a chronicle in Aftenposten in which she complained of feeling exposed in my novel The Story of a Marriage. Immediately after it was published in the newspaper, the novel was read as authentic, as a true report of a real marriage. It did little to help matters when I said I hadn’t written it as such, and that if I were to write about my previous marriage, I would have written it quite differently. I sounded like a politician, somebody who was denying the obvious facts.

When novels are seen as the expression of an author’s subjective experience of the world, they decrease in value. The point of literature is that it can, at its best, express something that is true for many. It can be one of the most liberating moments in writing fiction when you have written something that draws its power from something experienced, but which then suddenly releases itself from you and becomes charged with opinions and feelings you never knew you could have. It is crucial to our understanding of literature that a text should stand free from the author, even if the author is writing about himself, and uses his own name in the text.

To many, My Struggle is about an author who writes about his own subjective truth. Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between the Karl Ove in the novel and the author Karl Ove. The novel does not give expression to the author’s truth, but to the truth of the work. (And if the idea of ​​autofiction can be used for something, it is to investigate this duality.) This means that the author does not need to hide behind nor defend the actions or attitudes expressed through his or her characters. Besides which, readers identify—regardless of gender—with Karl Ove in his novels.

Good writers can write about experiences that seem absurd or frightening or even repugnant without distancing themselves from them, but rather the contrary, going deep into them to investigate what this absurd or frightening or repugnant thing might consist of. The task of an author is not to be afraid, but  to delve into things which are uncomfortable, and which we prefer not to talk about. Of course, this comes with the risk of being ridiculed, or viewed as morally corrupt, as Cusk was with Aftermatha book many apparently love to hate.

Even though Aftermath was released as nonfiction, it bears all the main characteristics of fiction. If we read it as a letter from the author to the world about how devastating she found her own divorce, it can seem self-righteous and overly compromising. The book is written with a theatrical edginess, its perspectives delicately balanced, so it makes more sense to read it as a novel about the vulnerability of both adults and children after a family breakup. Read as fiction, it also means that Rachel Cusk is not obliged to defend the views expressed by her protagonist. This allows literature to explore rage and vengeance and other “unworthy” feelings freely, so we can recognize them in ourselves.

When, in a scene in Aftermath, Rachel says that she wants the children after the divorce because she is the one who gave birth to them, I react as a reader. I am in deep disagreement; I think I know something about being a father, which Rachel clearly does not. But I do not think Rachel Cusk describes these feelings here in order to argue that all mothers should have priority over the children after a divorce. Rather, she is investigating the emotions she goes through in a crisis. She takes them up and analyzes them in a manner that can only be achieved in fiction.

Those used to reading literature may find it easier to see how Cusk can describe herself as unreasonable and immature, how, indeed, she transforms herself into a literary character. If we insist on reading Aftermath as a personal statement, a private letter from a writer who is recently divorced, the author simply comes across as rather unsympathetic. When, instead, we read it as fiction, these same unsympathetic aspects of the main character serve a literary function, lending the work maturity and universality.

Reality is the pencil with which we draw.

Translated by Deborah Dawkin.

GEIR GULLIKSEN is a Norwegian writer and publishing editor. His work debuted in 1986, and he has written poems, essays, plays, novels, and children’s books.


Geir Gulliksen

GEIR GULLIKSEN is a Norwegian writer and publishing editor. His work debuted in 1986, and he has written poems, essays, plays, novels, and children’s books.

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