The autobiographical fiction debate, or the question of Knausgaard

The other day I went to an event organised by the Manchester Literature Festival with Tore Renberg. Originally he was supposed to be in conversation with his friend and fellow Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but Knausgaard had decided to pull out of his England tour because (as he told us in a letter that he had sent instead) he wanted to focus on his writing again. And so Renberg ended up on his own, chatting to the festival’s chair of trustees Jerome de Groot about his latest novel See You Tomorrow and also – to avoid disappointing those fans of Knausgaard who had already bought the tickets – about his friend’s work My Struggle.

If you have read My Struggle, you would know that it is a very detailed autobiographical novel. Renberg’s previous work is also, in his own words, largely autobiographical, whilst his latest novel is pure made-up fiction. We seem to make this distinction a lot, don’t we, autobiographical versus fully-fictional, as if fully-fictional actually exists. We have whole literary discussions about the degree of true events in a book or a film, much more so  than we do when we talk about visual art, or, say, about dance. I myself have obsessed about this whenever I have read certain books, but in reality, what difference does it actually make?

I have thought about it a great deal and have come to the conclusion that the main reason that we as readers are so interested in this distinction is nothing more than simple curiosity. After all, writers have always written about their own experiences, whatever the frame they put those experiences in. Imagining something from scratch is also, in a way, based on our personal experiences, so why are we suddenly so obsessed about making a clear distinction between ‘fiction’ fiction and ‘personal’, autobiographical fiction? Is it because we are just curious to know more? Once we have finished a book, what better way is there to find out what happens next than to dig up some information about the author? If the novel was even remotely autobiographical, then we automatically get to see a real-life part two!

Of course, there is also that part of us that wants to know whether something so strange, or terrible, or great, or uncanny (insert your own) can happen in real life. That is probably because we all learn from art, even popular art such as television. And if we know that something really happened, we can justifiably look at what the protagonist did next, and learn from it. But this part of interacting with art has always existed, and yet the debate has sprung up in more recent years. Maybe the fascination with the reality of things – just look at how many reality TV programmes are out there! – is simply expanding into literature? The intellectuals amongst us look down on the likes of Big Brother or Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but getting a chance to see how, say, Knausgaard lives and thinks is another matter, a more literary, a more noble way of satisfying essentially the same need for human curiosity. Of course, as a writer, you could always claim to be watching reality TV for research. I do, anyway.

We have, in the recent years, become more distant from each other, which is ironic given the fact that technology is supposed to bring us closer. We find ourselves making and maintaining friendships on social media rather than in the pub, working from home instead of commuting to the office, shopping online to avoid the crowds, even exercising at home rather than making the effort of going to the gym. Still, we are human beings and we need to feel a connection to people other than the chosen handful with whom we regularly interact, and so ‘reality art’ comes in, in whichever form we find the best. For the TV fanatics, it would be Made In Chelsea or Real Housewives, for dog walkers – looking into people’s windows, and for the bookworms, the much more intellectual and satisfying My Struggle.