Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Stavanger Free Speech and Literature Festival Day 2

The Stavanger literature festival always has the subtitle “literature and free speech”. I like that. What is literature if not free speech? Still, authors like K.O. Knausgård and V. Hjorth have been chided by literary pundits for breaking taboos by writing about real people and real life. When asked outright if there is any topic a novelist must not write about, the resounding response among critics is a politically-correct No! And yet, these very same voices rise in protest when Knausgård and Hjorth write fiction that casts a shadow on the reputations of their poor dead fathers. Welcome to “The Academic Skavlan Panel on Literary Criticism and Reality-fiction.” As we wait for it to start, the woman sitting next to me asks if I’m here to cover this for a newspaper. No, I tell her, I’m a writer, I’m trying to write, I’m here to learn.

Ingun Økland, writing for Aftenposten, is probably the country’s most powerful critic. She single-handedly started the hoopla around Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Arve og miljø Nature and Nurture. “I read it and thought, well now, doesn’t this seem to be about Vigdis’s real family?” Sure enough: a crew of Aftenposten’s investigative journalists went digging and found – lookie look! a funeral home brochure from the real-life funeral home where Vigdis Hjorth’s real-life father’s real-life funeral was held and which – aha! – appears in the so-called–novel. Although the brochure in question can be obtained by anyone dealing with that funeral home it, along with some emails, became the uncontested proof that Arve og miljø is not fictional in either setting, character or plot. It is according to Økland, reality-fiction. Eirik Vassenden, a literary criticism professor, seemed chummy with Økland, giving her a big collegial-klem when entering the stage. Yet even he raised an eyebrow and mumbled that novels are not usually fact-checked like journalism. Økland put Hjorth through the public ringer to find out if she hid the truth behind her fictitious names.

Knausgård has been attacked, by Økland among others, for using the real names of his family member in his books. Still, when Hjorth uses fictitious names, Økland ignores this and claims the story is personal and therefore “true” and therefore “not fiction”. The very skillful host of the panel, Berit Moltu, pointed out that Knausgård himself says that readers are mistaken if they think they know him, as he is not the K.O.K. written down on the pages of the My Struggle series. I like that idea. Sure it’s his real wife’s name, those are his children, that’s where they live, those are the things they’ve done… but don’t think you know them, don’t think you are privy to their private selves. Moltu pointed out that Knausgård only talked about this division well into the series, which took years to write. I wonder if it took years of fawning fan mail for him to be able to state this distinction so clearly.

Moltu questioned the soundness of measuring literary truth as a one-to-one-correlation between isolated facts in a novel with the outside world. To this Økland tossed her woven scarf over her shoulder and exclaimed, “I don’t know WHY everyone’s hung up on that funeral brochure. The debate is bigger than that!” Well, Ingun, what IS the debate? Dickens’ real-life experience with the Victorian poorhouse gave us the modern English novel, penned by his stove-blackened hands. No one has to my knowledge questioned that he wrote fiction. No one has felt a need to track down through investigative journalism the real-life corollaries for Little Dorrit and Bill Sikes. In fact, Dickens’ first-hand knowledge of London’s rougher side lends him authority as a great novelist. Why are novelists like Hjorth and Knausgård now forbidden from informing their fiction with real life experience?

Oddly, no one in the sold-out auditorium had a single question for the panel on Literary Criticism and Reality Fiction. I sat smack dab in the middle of the front row, but I wasn’t going to be the only audience member to raise a question even though I’d been going through the few Norwegian authors I know, finding that they all wrote from real-life experience: Hamsun in Sult, Hans Jæger in Fra kristiania-bohemen, Agnar Mykle in Sangen av den røde rubin and not least, Herbjørg Wassmo in her trilogy featuring childhood incest, which she recently wrote a follow-up book for called Hundre år. For one thing, I was sure I knew less about any of these authors than the other audience members so I could be wrong. Secondly, I can never remember if it’s pronounced Herbjørg or Hjerborg.

Luckily, Eirik Vassenden brought Wassmo up, did a bit of mansplaining about her, then added that he hadn’t read her books. Økland had. Her take on Wassmo was interesting. She said that in the 1980s Wassmo’s novels about incest in small town Lofoten were rich in literary quality and nobody thought to ask if they were true. On the other hand, Wassmo’s more recent reality-novels are not very good, and therefore easily identifiable as reality-based. She went on to equate Wassmo’s Hundre år  to the upchucking of events in Vigdis Hjorth’s sister’s revenge-novel, Free Will, Fri vilje, the tit-for-tat rebuttal of Arve og miljø produced in a writing course.

Økland’s reasoning is faulty. First of all, Wassmo herself says that the incest of her early beautifully written books happened to her personally. Secondly, to identify fictitious-fiction by its high literary quality and reality-fiction by its lack thereof is to bring matters of good writing vs. bad writing into the debate. The discussion was muddled by Økland’s somewhat grand admission that she had no objection to poorly written autobiographical prose. Second of all, Økland makes faulty comparisons such as “it’s fiction, not truth”. Furthermore, she says that her objection is to Knausgård and Hjorth applying their great literary talent to projects labeled fiction when they are reality-based. In other words, the books are so well written she wants to read them as fiction, but her suspension of disbelief is ruined by that damn funeral brochure and the real names of Knausgård’s ex+wives and children. Økland overlooks the enormous act of invention that is required of a novelist. When Berit Moltu asked if any of the panelists had an inkling of the enormous act of the imagination required in writing a novel, Økland scoffed, “No, why would I? I’m only a critic!”

In other words, the books are so well written she wants to read them as fiction, but her suspension of disbelief is ruined by that damn funeral brochure and the real names of Knausgård’s ex+wives and children. Økland overlooks the enormous act of invention that is required of a novelist. When Berit Moltu asked if any of the panelists had an inkling of the enormous act of the imagination required in writing a novel, Økland scoffed, “No, why would I? I’m only a critic!”

When it’s all over,  I’m more convinced than ever that all literature is invented, be it fiction, memoir, non-fiction, what have you. The truth of literature, its veracity, lies in its ability to convince. To me, voice not plot does the first job of convincing.  You can have facts in a plot, without truth. Literature is indeed free speech, not because it lists up facts, but because it renders truth. I look forward to reading Hjorth’s sister’s book Fri vilje and comparing it to Arve og miljø. I’ll label as “literature” the one that convinces me, not by its plot but by its voice, that it speaks the truth.

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