Apparently, once again, I am behind the times.
Well, yeah, duh. I spent about ten years of my life studying literature produced before 1900. It seems my tastes and my very brain guide me back to the dark ages instead of toward the bright, shiny Future of the Written Word.
When I discovered this article on Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle, I frankly had no idea who Knausgaard is. I barely have a fix on who he is now. He’s apparently written a six(!)-volume autobiographical novel that’s become massively popular in Norway and is now being praised to the skies in the U.S. For me, the appeal of a novel about a novelist thinking novelistic thoughts as he goes about his daily routine as a house-dad ranks slightly below walking to the drug store and slightly above manually removing a goo-enveloped hair plug out of my bathroom sink. But apparently, there’s still quite a market out there for Novels About Novelists Thinking Up Novelish Novelties, so what do I know?
What interested me about this particular article, written by Katie Roiphe (herself a famous yet controversial writer), was Roiphe’s focus on Knausgaard’s adventures in masculine domesticity. ” A 30-page riff,” argues Roiphe, “on going to a party with children, and trying to balance your food while watching your child, and what exactly happens to her shoes, would appear, if a woman wrote it, both banal and egoistic.” Yup, I could completely see that, and I could see, as Roiphe predicts, that every female critic would despise such a work as much as every male critic would, because to men it would be so much Mommy blogging, and to women it would seem like bitch is trying to claim her life is so great, and isn’t this what all women go through when they have kids? (Answer: yes.)
Then again, this sort of thing has been going on since time immemorial. When women write about their emotions, it’s plain old Women’s Poetry; when Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley suddenly begin a deep examination of their sentimental sides, it’s Revolutionary. (Not to mention NOT Women’s Poetry! These guys hated their female colleagues even as they were stealing their aesthetic angle.)
So I’m reading along agreeing with all this about how novels about stay-at-home dads are praised by the Paris Review and how any similar novel about a stay-at-home mom would be thoroughly ignored (or, if it gained some sort of an audience, at least laughed at in reputable literary circles), when Roiphe concludes her piece with this thought:
I’m not arguing that less attention should be paid to Karl Ove Knausgaard, or that he is not justifiably celebrated and cherished, but rather that Carla Krauss [i.e., a female, American, non-foreign, non-exotic version of Knausgaard], hard at work in a coffee shop around the corner from her children’s school, should be tolerated, given a chance, heard.
Well, gee, I thought, thanks, Ms.–excuse me, Dr.–Big Name, Widely Published, Born in New York to a Famous Journalist Journalism Professor Literary Critic! That clears up all my questions about What Writers Need and Should Be Given! Will you be stepping aside so that Carla Krauss the Barista can get a few articles published on Slate.com, or will you be holding onto the power bestowed upon you as a Famous Writer and thus keeping Carla elbow-deep in frappucinos for the rest of her days?
Seriously, all you Famous Writers out there: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t campaign for Carla Krauss (or, for that matter, Carl Krauss, or Kai Cortez, or Kamalla Cumberbatch, or any unknown, struggling writer out there) and still keep your job, money, and/or fame. That’s not the way the writing biz works, and nobody knows that better than all of us Unknowns out here. You can write your little fingers to the bone until your work has something approaching merit and still get ignored because you weren’t born to a literary family. Or you can achieve merit on the Road of Hard Knocks, but shucks, you didn’t happen to go to the right schools, or you didn’t live in the right city, or meet the right people, or have enough money to go to networking events and schmooze. And we’re still not even talking about not having the right skin tone, or the right sexual organ, or the right significant other, or the right way of speaking or using your language on the page. Sorry, but there’s only so much attention to go around. The most common condition for the Writer and the Writer’s Work to be in is Ignored. If your an Unknown Writer, a Carla, even if you follow every tip you ever came across in every how-to book on breaking into the publishing biz, you will still discover that breaking into publishing–and beyond that, getting your writing heard–is monumentally difficult, because, like all human beings, readers and critics respond to name recognition and word-of-mouth and fun personalities and other things that have jack-squat to do with the almighty Merit.
So, Dr. Roiphe, from all us Carlas out here, kindly cram your populist, feminist-ish cheerleading up your ass. I have no further time to devote to reading your idealistic bullshit. If you want to know what it’s like being a Nobody Novelist Who Doesn’t Get Noticed, write under someone else’s name. Otherwise, leave us all in peace. I’d rather dig up stories on dead authors than contemplate the Next Big Thing with you and your starry-eyed crew.