Fame, in the arena of book-writing, is a curious thing. Being a well-known writer of literary fiction doesn't necessarily translate into bestsellerdom. Almost never does it give you the kind of household name that even a lesser Kardashian achieves.
But there comes a season in many talented writers' lives when they start to get a lot of notice. For two writers, Edward St. Aubyn and Karl Ove Knausgaard, that moment is right now. That is made all the more delightful by how they both work in roughly the same genre, which is to say the novel-as-memoir, or memoir-as-novel. Whichever term you happen to lead with, it's a bit of a new thing, something slightly stronger than the autobiographical novels we've seen before.
Of the two, Knausgaard's My Struggle, which is appearing in English translation now, is the book you'll more likely see being toted around bookish New York right now. Or, books, rather, as there are multiple volumes in the series. It takes more than a few hundred pages to capture the full life of his narrator, who is also called "Karl Ove Knausgaard."
Though the book is called a novel no one really seems to distinguish Knausgaard the real person from its "fiction" all that rigorously. See, for example, Dwight Garner's review of the latest volume, where he waxes fairly rhapsodic about its virtues:
The author's struggle is to feel intensely. Despite his bouts of weeping, he is mostly remote and unhappy, unplugged from existence, a blue-eyed zombie going through the paces of adult life. He fears that he feels alive only when he's writing, during the transubstantiation — a kind of reverse tattooing — of blood into ink.
Garner clearly means Knausgaard when he says "the author," but he also learned all that blood-tattoo stuff from "Knausgaard."
Which leads you to wonder why we are making the distinction at all, since pretty much everyone in his native Norway knows that "Knausgaard" means Knausgaard. As Evan Hughes put it in a profile at The New Republic a while back:
Although originally categorized as fiction, the series is an unflinching self-portrait that has Knausgaard as its protagonist and his relatives and loved ones as the supporting cast. Almost all of them are identified by their real names, and the vast influence of his work has changed their lives, too. People close to him have leveled bitter and public accusations that he has trespassed on their privacy and damaged their reputations.
In sum: everyone reading Knausgaard's novel has already gotten a bat signal from the hype, letting them that it really contains "the truth." That might be one reason to keep up the "novel" label, of course. There are debates we can and probably will eventually have about whether every single detail in the book is verifiably true, sure. There are, famously, a lot of details in Knausgaard's book, so many that some might argue they clog it up. But certainly that makes curiosity about the details of someone's actual life part of the appeal of the book itself.
Edward St. Aubyn, who is profiled in the New Yorker this week, is working in a slightly more fictionalized version of the Knausgaard paradigm.
St. Aubyn has a new book out called Lost for Words, which satirizes the book-prize hullaballoo that happens annually in his native UK. I've read it, it's great insidery fun. But it is other books, known as his Patrick Melrose novels, that have made him a Big Deal. And in those books Patrick Melrose, the character, is a clear stand-in for St. Aubyn himself. And while the details of his life have been modified here and there, he has always been open about the books' close proximity to his own experience. And particularly, to his own experience of sexual abuse at the hands of his father:
In 1994, when "Some Hope" appeared, St. Aubyn gave his first interview. Asked if Patrick's experience of sexual abuse described his own, he said, "Yes. Why not say that?"
He told me, "This whole journey is toward the truth, or toward authenticity, agency, and freedom. How could it possibly help to plant a lie in the middle of it? On the other hand, by telling the truth, I've distorted the message."
His frustration with that distortion matches, it seems, St. Aubyn's struggle to write the books at all. In his twenties he was quite a serious drug user, he says, and the books were the way he struggled out of that phase:
"It was 'Either I write a novel which I finish and get published, and is authentic, or I'll kill myself,' " he said. The thought was not melodramatic, or hysterical, he explained. "It was just 'If I don't, there's nothing so far in my life that I'm not ashamed of, and horrified by. But if I wrote a decent novel, that would change the game.' "
Many writers talk like this, of course, about writing, making it sound Heraculean. And many writers also write autobiographically! But there is a new and unique kind of directness to the way these writers are willing to talk about the books and their relationship to so-called "real life." Usually writers like to say they've really modified things, etc. Just ask Philip Roth.
Given the particular arrangements of bookish tastes at the moment it is perhaps not so surprising that things are changing. For even now, when they sell like hotcakes, memoirs are low-status, "confessional," Oprah-like. But writing a Great Novel still has a lot of status and cachet. And yet what readers seem to want is to read about people's "actual lives." Which is what these novels sneakily deliver, without getting the ugly associations. And it's worked!
Which, you know, great. I like these writers.
But would it work for everyone else, not just novelists who were probably eligible for Great White Male status regardless? Only time will tell.