On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s has written a six-volume autobiography called My Struggle, the first part of which was published in 2009 in Norwegian, with the first three books published in English translation in the past several years. The first book received a glowing review in The New Yorker and books two and three were likewise praised in The New York Times.

All these reviews have noted the minute detail with which the author chronicles his everyday life, and in the Times’ review of book three, Rivka Galchen raises the issue of gender:

If “My Struggle” — which is arguably most engrossing when it describes the care of children in what feels like minute-to-minute detail — were written from the point of view of a woman, would it be the literary sensation it is?

She answers “I don’t think it would be,” but for her, the more important gender difference is actually part of the story itself:

That cultural norms are obtuse about men and women in such different ways is an essential part of Knausgaard’s predicament; he changes diapers, he cooks dinner, he is said to be pretty good-looking, he doesn’t talk about sex all that much — he often feels perceived as too feminine.

In contrast, Katie Roiphe’s commentary, published yesterday in Slate, takes the view that the cultural discrimination outside the book does matter. She, too, wonders

what would happen if the literary sensation were written not by the handsome Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Her answer is that readers and critics would find the author “narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent.” But, refreshingly, she doesn’t use this as an excuse to reject Knausgaard’s work, in part because it’s more complicated than a simple male-female divide:

I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. I mention this because of the enduring fantasy of a shadowy male literary establishment that discriminates against women writers, when in fact the discrimination is much trickier and more pervasive than that.

Well, I would hardly call the male literary establishment shadowy; it is, in fact, rather blatant, but Roiphe’s point that both men and women enact discrimination against women is also valid. Read her full commentary here.

The key point is that debates like these inspire me to read Knausgaard’s work––and to encourage the Carla Krausses of the world.


The Biology of Gender: New Research

I often hear people talk about the relationship between gender and behavior in fairly simple terms, as if the different behaviors of men and women were due entirely (or at least mostly) to biology or entirely to culture.

Some people and researchers believe that the pendulum lately has swung toward biology, with the idea that men’s and women’s brains are “hard wired” differently, which largely explains our different behaviors. Many scientists would not agree with such simplistic “biological determinism,” but the idea exists.

But some new research suggests that we really don’t know enough to make these pronouncements. The writer of this article in Wired magazine is refreshingly careful not to simply declare that biology is wrong and culture now has more weight. But he does offer a nice explanation of why the previous research favoring a biological explanation is less valid than previously believed.

Will we ever fully understand the complexities of how both culture and biology inform gendered behavior? No doubt it will take much more research. But it will also require our willingness to listen to and question the research, to be open to reconsidering some of our most deeply held assumptions about girls and boys, men and women, about who and how we are.

Get the full details here.