Growing older, it’s not only the wrinkles I notice, but a new sensibility created by a generation of younger writers. If I felt paranoid, their sensibility could rock my boat. But I love new frontiers, so for me, their writing is a reason to get excited.
One of the leaders of the new writing, a generation I call “the new (unromantic) Romantics,” is Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian novelist who has created an explicit and powerful autobiographical fiction that has been standing the literary world on its ear. This spring, the third volume of Knausgaard’s six novel series titled My Struggle is out in English. It follows the English translations of his first two novels. Three more volumes in English are coming soon.
I’ve read My Struggle: Book One and volume two, titled A Man in Love, so I came prepared to Boyhood Island. But before I talk about Knausgaard’s fearless work, let me explain why I see him as part of the new writing. While literary prizes are lost or won, and creative writing schools teach graduates how to shape story arcs, this brash new fiction has been finding a younger, less traditional audience for its very non-traditional approach.
Influenced by the confessional nature of the Internet, with its disregard for literary forms, the younger generation of fiction writers includes Sheila Heti, whose brainy, original novel How Should a Person Be? is quickly becoming a classic; Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station, a virtuoso tale of self-exposure; and Kate Zambreno, who wrote Heroines, a daring personal account about the condescending way modernist fictional heroines were treated.
Countless others under 40 are part of this gritty new sensibility, novelists such as Tamara Faith Berger, author of the vivid, transgressive Maidenhead, and Marie Calloway, who wrote about her sexual exploits in the unclassifiable what purpose did I serve in your life.
Most fiction offers us a story or plot. But the audacious fictional accounts of the new Romantics often have little time for narrative masks or literary frames. They aren’t interested in post-modernism either and its fascination with how stories are told. Disclosure is the spirit of our age, and their work seems designed to bring the reader “close to a self,” as Knausgaard puts it.
For instance, when Sheila Heti started writing How Should A Person Be? she purposefully did everything a writer of realistic fiction is not supposed to do. She disregarded the modernist notion that the novelist should be invisible behind his or her work and she ignored the dictum about coming up with the brilliant, telling detail that conveys the world of a story.
The authorial signature of this generation vis-a-vis most modern novelists is like comparing a naked storyteller to one in an Edwardian ball gown. Or maybe it’s more like the difference between a very intelligent reality TV contestant and an English professor schooled in Victorian literature.
Why do I call them Romantics? This new generation of fiction writers makes the self their subject and describing the self and its emotions was a preoccupation of the early Romantics.
Of course, writers like Henry Miller and Marcel Proust made themselves the subject of their fiction before, but their work is washed through with romanticism and its view of the writer as an Olympian explorer of the human spirit. No such romantic notion of the writer shows up in the writing of the new generation, who report on the deepest, shallowest, creepiest and most unworthy feelings and thoughts that can go on inside an individual. Ultimately, there’s nothing dignified or heroic in their stance, although the authoritative “I” who writes the story always gets the last word, and there’s a tinge of Olympian power in that.
Knausgaard, at 45, goes further than most of them. His fiction is controversial because it says extremely revealing things about real people in his life without bothering to disguise their identities.
In interviews, Knausgaard says that the naming of real people is an ethical issue but he believes that, to create literature of lasting value, a writer must carve a freedom outside the rules of society. That means putting honesty before consideration. These days he tends to beat himself up over the pain his fiction caused his family. But when he was writing My Struggle, he put his art first. He had felt bored and overwhelmed by the millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series whose stories were all about made-up people in a made-up world. He preferred genres like diaries and essays that focused on the voice of the writer’s personality.
So in all three English volumes, he immerses the reader in his Norwegian time and place without worrying much about narrative structure. Knausgaard excels instead at describing sensory details, whether he’s writing about the shelves of sweets he saw in stores as a boy, or his deep shuddering hatred of his tyrannical father. It’s the depth of his far-ranging feelings and philosophical reflections that make his autobiographical work read like fiction.