For generations, literature students have been told never to treat characters as if they were real people.1 Academic literary theory is replete with warnings against committing this cardinal sin. We must not ask how many children Lady Macbeth had. We must not think of characters as “our friends for life,” or feel that they “remain as real to us as our familiar friends.” We must not talk about the “unconscious feelings of a character,” for that would be to fall into the “trap of the realistic fallacy.”
If those are thoughts academic critics mustn’t think, then here are things we are urged to bear in mind: We must never forget that “le personnage … n’est personne,” that the person on the page is nobody. We must always remind ourselves that characters “exist only as words on a printed page,” and therefore “have no consciousness.” Should the “feeling that they are living people” arise, we must resolutely repress it, for it is an “illusion.” We must remember that if characters fascinate us, it is only because they “invit[e] cathexis with ontological difference.”
The warning against treating characters as if they were real stands as a gatekeeper to the academic discipline of literary criticism. Students who can’t abide by the rule will get bad grades. The professor will sigh and conclude that they just don’t have what it takes to become decent literary critics. Yet the same students may love reading, really get into the novels we assign, and be both confused and depressed to learn that to discuss the problems of Elizabeth Bennet as if she were their friend is to fail in some fundamental way.
Laura Baudot’s account, in an earlier issue of this magazine, of what it was like to lead literary discussion groups for a nonprofit called Books@Work vividly conveys how the taboo is used to sort outsiders from insiders, amateurs from professionals. Baudot, an English professor at Oberlin College, began by discussing some short stories by Steinbeck with employees of a local company, and quickly realized that her usual classroom techniques would not fly. The participants went straight for the characters and their motivations, comparing them to people they knew, or to themselves. Formal analysis was a no-go: “My analysis of the story’s formal elements killed the mood,” she writes, “eliciting polite nods and the dreaded deathly silence.”
Coming out of that meeting, Baudot felt like she “had just binged on Amazon reviews.” But at the same time, her grown-up interlocutors were engaged, lively, took literature seriously and gave her a sense that her life’s work—to teach fiction—actually mattered. This was in part because they completely ignored the taboo on treating characters as if they were real people, instead freely engaging in identification and alienation, sympathy and dislike, moral praise and condemnation. The power of their response affected Baudot deeply. In the workplace groups she began to violate academic protocol by crossing the boundaries between literature and life. Leading discussions at a hospital, she encouraged participants to compare characters to patients and patients to characters. After a while, she also began to encourage her Oberlin students to speak about their own lives.
Baudot’s story brings out some of the reasons why the taboo on treating characters as if they were real people is so fundamental to academic literary criticism. For running through her account is the conflict between “formal analysis” and “character discussion.” Formal analysis is the tool of professionals, character criticism the pastime of amateurs. In Baudot’s story, these two elements—the capacity to do formal analysis of a literary text and the wish to police the boundaries of the profession—are entwined. And this is not a coincidence. When I set out to investigate the origins of the taboo, I discovered that the same two-headed troll—formalism and professionalism—was there right from the start.
Baudot’s story also shows that once an academic literary critic starts questioning the taboo on character criticism, existential, pedagogic and professional crisis ensues. Suddenly it is as if the raison d’être of literary criticism is at stake: “What is the purpose of the academic study of literature?” a bewildered Baudot asks at the end of her account. “I was not sure anymore. As I stood before my undergraduate students, I had never felt more filled with love for what I do, nor more uncertain about how to do it.”
When I first set out to write about the taboo on treating characters as if they were real, I thought of it as a useful but modest task. But soon I realized that the taboo works as a kind of litmus test for academic literary criticism: follow it, and you’re in; reject or ignore it, and you’re out. I began to think that a thorough investigation of its origins might reveal something crucial about the nature of contemporary professional criticism. How did the taboo come about? What problems was it supposed to resolve? How did academic critics come to take it for granted? And if the taboo has outlived its usefulness, would violating it unleash fresh critical energies?
HOW MANY CHILDREN HAD LADY MACBETH?
The first full articulation of the taboo on treating characters as if they were real is a spirited pamphlet from 1933 called How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? At the time, its author, L. C. Knights (1906-97), was a 27-year-old doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. A member of the British critic F. R. Leavis’s circle, he had just co-founded the legendary critical journal Scrutiny. Knights went on to become a distinguished literary historian and Shakespeare scholar, and remained an editor of Scrutiny from the first to the last issue (1932-53).
How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? is a frontal attack on the belief that it is intellectually interesting to discuss Shakespeare’s characters. Pouring scorn on the idea that Shakespeare was first and foremost a “creator of characters,” someone uniquely capable of creating men and women as “real as life,” Knights singles out A. C. Bradley (1851-1935), the celebrated author of Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), as one of the worst offenders. He could hardly have chosen a more prominent target, for Bradley’s influential book inaugurated modern Shakespeare criticism. According to Knights, Bradley praised Shakespeare in the wrong terms, namely for creating an “illusion of reality,” putting “living people” on the stage, and creating characters that enable us to imagine them living on in the world outside the play. (I marvel at Knights’s prescience, for these critical moves remain taboo today.)
Fueled by a revolutionary ambition to transform literary criticism, Knights’s attack on character criticism still makes for fiery reading over eighty years after its first publication. To see the animus behind his essay, it helps to consider it as an intervention in the academic and literary life of Knights’s own time. Anyone who reads How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? (incidentally, a question not to be found in the essay itself), will notice that the author’s intellectual heroes are the literary critic I. A. Richards and the poet and critic T. S. Eliot, then the lodestars of the Cambridge literary avant-garde. Consistently positioning himself as an intellectual on the cutting edge of modernism, Knights fights character-focused criticism because he is convinced that it will “condemn Wuthering Heights, Heart of Darkness, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse and the bulk of the work of D. H. Lawrence.” Incapable of doing justice to the modernist literary canon Knights wishes to promote, character critics must be stopped in their tracks.
As one might expect from a man of his modernist convictions, Knights rails against realism, not least against Henrik Ibsen’s realism. Pitting Ibsen against Eliot, he declares that “Macbeth has greater affinity with The Waste Land than with The [sic!] Doll’s House.” Twice he condemns, without mentioning the name of the author, an obscure 1923 tome called The Old Drama and the New. This turns out to be the all-round man of letters William Archer’s last book. Archer (1856-1924) made his name in the 1880s and 1890s by championing and translating Ibsen, and participating vigorously in the so-called “Ibsen wars” in the British press. In 1933, to condemn Archer was at once to condemn the late Victorian avant-garde and to recast its members, alongside Ibsen, as a bunch of stodgy realists, thoroughly at odds with literary modernism.
Knights’s hostility to realism is typical of the modernist generation. So is his antitheatricality. Like other high modernists, he considered theater to be unbearably action- and character-oriented and doesn’t hesitate to single out the poor Bradley for his wrongheaded Aristotelian belief that tragedy is “action issuing from character” or “character issuing in action.” Knights even insists that Shakespeare’s plays are neither theater nor drama, but poetry. In fact, the only time the word “revolutionary” occurs in the text is when Knights insists that Macbeth is not a drama but a poem. Because the play is a poem, he argues, we can integrate scenes that seem unconnected to the major characters into a revolutionary analysis of the “whole response” to the play. But what is this “whole response” that we are supposed to grasp? And why will we miss it if we continue to care about the plot and characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
Knights wants critics to focus on the “patterns” of the text: the system of metaphors and imagery produced by the “words themselves.” Clearly such a procedure works far better with Eliot’s poetry than with Ibsen’s plays. For while it is entirely possible, even desirable, to produce a brilliant reading of the “patterns” of a modernist poem without mentioning plot or character, it is much harder to read Ibsen or Sophocles without mentioning these “abstractions,” as Knights calls them. But what is abstract about a character in a play? At this point, Knights’s otherwise pellucid prose becomes uncharacteristically opaque. I think he means something like this: Readers work their way through a text by reading it line by line and word by word. They experience character and plot not as finished entities but “in solution”—as they appear when dissolved in the work’s full aromatic mix of flavors and juices. To describe plot and character is to produce abstract entities, lifted out of the rich stew in which they alone make sense. In contrast, to pay detailed attention to patterns of imagery is to focus on the language as it unfolds: that’s where our “full response” to the text will be found. Thus, a critic who sets out to map the patterns of the text will ingest the stew itself, as it were, as opposed to its desiccated residue.
In short: Knights pits character analysis (bad) against attention to the “words themselves” (good). That this opposition has survived in various forms ever since is surprising, since logically it makes little sense. After all, characters and plot are made up by the same words as the “verbal patterns” we are encouraged to investigate. Nor does Knights provide a convincing argument for why a “full response” to the text must account for the words themselves, but exclude the characters made out of those words.
THE MOMENT OF MODERNISM:
KNIGHTS’S PROFESSIONAL AND AESTHETIC AGENDA
Knights, then, pushes the aesthetic agenda of his time’s most innovative and most controversial aesthetic movement, high modernism. He admires texts made up of intricate verbal patterns, dislikes traditional realism, prefers poetry to drama and considers it naïve to take an interest in plot and character. Against all this, he sets formal analysis understood as intense scrutiny of “verbal patterns.” The implication is that only formal analysis can do justice to modernist literature. Knights’s aesthetic agenda is “modernist-formalist”: a cultivation of modernism through the practice of formal analysis.
But there is more. For Knights’s cultural references also express a social and professional agenda. The professional agenda is to promote rigorous professional criticism over amateurish chitchat. This was important, for in Britain at the time literary criticism was still in its infancy. English had not been a university subject for very long, particularly not at Oxford and Cambridge. In both universities, the first professors tended to be gentlemen and amateurs, people with impeccable connections but little sense that the study of English could or should be as rigorous as the study of classics. There are, then, two intertwined agendas at work in Knights’s essay: the promotion of a formalist criticism capable of doing justice to modernist literature, which in its turn goes hand in hand with the promotion of higher, more professional critical standards. In this way, character-talk comes to appear to be simultaneously anti-modernist and the mark of amateurism.
In his classic book on the Scrutiny movement, Francis Mulhern notes that the members of the Scrutiny circle were mostly middle- or lower-middle-class, and saw themselves as the “vanguard of the ‘highbrow’ front in culture.” Embracing I. A. Richards’s critique of the “belletristic subjectivism” that dominated criticism until after World War I, the new Cambridge critics saw themselves not as amateurs and gentlemen but as professionals. They “prized analytic and judicial rigour,” Mulhern writes, feeling no affinity for the “leisurely and expansive connoisseurism” associated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, then King Edward VII Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, and many others.
Mulhern’s analysis is borne out in How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? Knights’s main targets are gentleman scholars, professional writers and cultural products tainted by middlebrow taste and popular success. He dislikes realists (Ibsen, Hugh Walpole, John Galsworthy) and their admirers (Archer). He expends much energy denouncing the famous actress Ellen Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare. He also dismisses the manager-actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and pours scorn on two immensely popular books on Shakespeare’s heroines, which had remained in print for almost a century, namely Anna Jameson’s Shakespeare’s Heroines: Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical (1832), and Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850).
Almost all of Knights’s targets had their heyday before World War I. He appears particularly keen to distance himself from the previous avant-garde: the late Victorian and Edwardian realists, for whom Ibsen represented the last word in daring aesthetic innovation. But he also detests the Romantics. Most of Knights’s bêtes noires are artists (writers, actors, theater directors), and quite a few are (dead) women. All these targets have one thing in common: compared to a university-trained literary critic, they are critical amateurs.
As a highbrow modernist, Knights heaps scorn on the popular and the middlebrow, blaming the rot of character criticism on the “growth of the popular novel, from Sir Walter Scott and Charlotte Brontë to our own Best Sellers, [which] encouraged an emotional identification of the reader with hero or heroine.” The “Best Sellers” are particularly despicable, for they appeal directly to “human sympathy and emotion,” which are utterly destructive of professional criticism, since they eradicate the critic’s “necessary aloofness from a work of art.” I read this as a reference to T. S. Eliot’s theory of poetic impersonality: if poetry is a flight from emotion and personality, criticism must be too.
Knights’s critical agenda is now clear. Against traditionalist, feminized, middlebrow sentimentality, he sets cool, modernist impersonality. Identification, emotional responses, sympathy and moralism must go, for they can only cloud the critic’s gaze. Since thinking of texts as creating an “illusion of reality” encourages these vices, it’s not just character criticism but realism itself that must go. Knights’s manifesto reads like an expression of the avant-garde aesthetic agenda of his generation. In the 1920s and 1930s, traditionalist critics attacked modernist artists and writers precisely by arguing that they were immoral, incapable of inventing emotionally satisfying plots, and failed to provide characters with which one could sympathize. (In the 1880s and 1890s similar accusations were levied against Ibsen.) No wonder Knights attacks precisely moralism, sentimentalism and empathy.
Given his specific intellectual and professional situation, Knights’s project makes sense. That his arguments aren’t always convincing is true. However, it doesn’t follow that the opposition he faced at the time had better ones. I am sure that if I had been a young academic critic in the U.K. in the early Thirties, I too would have revolted against the staid old gentleman-critics waxing sentimentally about the “humanity” of Shakespeare’s heroes.
How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? exudes the energy of a young man who knows he is fighting the good fight against a moribund, amateurish, upper-class critical establishment. Knights’s attack on character criticism is a call to arms on behalf of a new, professional, academic literary criticism open to talented young people from any class background, a passionate intervention in the struggle to establish a future for a new generation of critics for whom the aesthetics of modernism were a self-evident touchstone. As such it was immensely successful. The future that Knights hoped for in his youthful essay did in fact come to pass. Postwar critics did become professional academics committed to a modernist-formalist framework.
THE POWER AND THE COST OF THE TABOO
In 1933, Knights wasn’t trying to develop a theory of literary criticism. He was, rather, laying down ground rules for a serious, professional critical practice. But sometime after World War II, the taboo on treating characters as if they were real people hardened into a dogma. In the 1950s and 1960s, critics of various formalist persuasions began to treat the taboo as a fundamental axiom, a cornerstone for further theory-building. The result was theory that silently incorporated Knights’s professional and aesthetic agenda—his commitment to professionalizing criticism and developing a criticism that could account for modernism—in its foundations.
I am not arguing that postwar critics began their assault on character criticism by reading Knights’s essay. On the contrary: although Knights’s essay remained in print until well into the 1970s, my impression is that it wasn’t central to the theory generation. The New Critics had some knowledge of Scrutiny. The Russian and Czech formalists created their own tradition well before Scrutiny was founded, and I sincerely doubt that the members of the various postwar French theory movements read Knights. Rather, his essay stands as a radical new beginning because Knights responded to the cultural and professional situation of his day, and because that situation turned out largely to hold for later generations of critics as well. They too needed to shore up their professional credentials, and they too wanted to promote an aesthetic agenda largely compatible with Knights’s. Whether they were European or North American, the postwar generation of critics admired modernism and sought to develop a kind of criticism that could do justice to its best writers. After the war, those writers weren’t just Proust, Joyce, Eliot and Pound, but also Celan and Beckett. Over time, the formalist-modernist system developed further in response to the emergence of postmodern literature (Pynchon, DeLillo).
When the taboo on treating characters as if they were real hardened into theoretical doxa, it silently incorporated a strong aesthetic commitment to a formal vision of what modernism was. (This is not the only way to think about modernism. One alternative is to see it as a variegated response to the experience of modernity, a response not reducible to formal innovation.) The resulting “modernist-formalist” ethos encourages literary critics to privilege form over subject matter, prefer “literariness” to “literature,” and reject thematic and moral analysis as the expression of naïve realism and equally naïve humanism. The taboo favors formal experimentation, dissolution of plot and character, self-consciousness and formal play of various kinds. The taboo thus either excludes realism, “autofiction” and other kinds of “existential” writing, or encourages critics to project alien aesthetic values onto such writing.
I am not against either modernism or the analysis of form. I am against making such values the hidden and unchallenged foundation of academic criticism, for then we will fall into the trap of projecting the values of “modernist formalism” onto every kind of literature. Besides leading to anachronistic and historically insensitive criticism, this produces a canon that marginalizes any kinds of writing that can’t easily be evaluated according to modernist-formalist criteria. As a result, the taboo makes whole categories of modern writing come to seem inferior: not just realism in general, but the existentialist novel, and generally any kind of character-driven storytelling.
CRITICAL PRACTICE, OR
A TABOO RESTING ON NOTHING
There is no good philosophical or theoretical reason to accept the taboo on treating fictional characters as if they were real. Already in 1969, the philosopher Stanley Cavell, in his famous reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear, noted that critics had long talked as if there were a fundamental philosophical opposition between “verbal analysis”—criticism taking an interest in “general patterns of meaning, systems of image or metaphor or symbol”—and character criticism. While not denying that such talk captures something important in the history of literary-critical practice, Cavell pointed to the obvious fact that characters too are made up of words: “How could any serious critic ever have forgotten that to care about a specific character is to care about the utterly specific words he says when and as he says them; or that we care about the utterly specific words of a play because certain men and women are having to give voice to them?” There is no fundamental conflict between paying attention to language and paying attention to characters. Good character critics always do both.
I find Cavell’s critique compelling. Yet literary critics ignored it in 1969, and have mostly continued to do so to this day. Why have generations of literary critics found the idea of a conflict and a shift so convincing? The obvious reason is that these ideas do capture a genuine difference in critical practice. What could be more striking than the difference between an essay discussing characters’ motivations and intentions, their emotions, moral dilemmas and existential crises, and an essay focusing on language, structures and patterns? How could we deny the difference between arguing that the end of Jane Eyre expresses Jane’s love for Rochester, and arguing that it expresses the requirements of Victorian narrative structure?
But different critical practices usually arise in response to different critical questions. They are not grounded in irreconcilable theoretical commitments, but in the critic’s aesthetic, intellectual and professional preferences and interests. How we go about reading a text will depend on what we want to know. If I want to know about love in Victorian literature, I will research different archives and focus on different aspects of the text than if I am interested in Victorian narrative structures. This is where the critic’s “subjectivity,” which Knights and his fellow modernist-formalist critics had tried to banish, inevitably resurfaces. For in literary criticism, as in other humanities disciplines, we can’t escape ourselves. There is always someone who is writing, and thinking.
At the end of her essay, Laura Baudot begins to suspect that the personal is not the enemy of the professional. But this provokes a crisis of faith, a feeling that the very foundations of her discipline are about to collapse. I recognize the feeling. Yet such a crisis can be an opportunity. For the real questions raised by the strange taboo on character criticism offer genuine opportunities for fresh thought: What should literary criticism be? How can academic criticism respond to contemporary literary movements? Is there no kind of character discussion that we are willing to consider intellectually challenging? What aesthetic and professional values do we want to promote?
THE EXISTENTIAL TURN
Dropping the taboo on treating characters as if they were real won’t tell us what questions to ask or how to go about answering them. Nor will it tell us what books we should now embrace and try to canonize. Dropping the taboo just increases our freedom to be whatever kind of critic we wish to be, to work on the kind of writing we care about, in ways that make intellectual sense to us. But such freedom can feel scary, for now we have to find our own way forward. To echo a theme in Cavell’s work: we need to “stake our own subjectivity” in our writing. This doesn’t mean that we have to become painfully private. A critic’s confessions may be fascinating, but the place to reveal them is not necessarily in an essay on Jane Austen. To stake oneself in one’s writing means, rather, to try to acknowledge, as far as possible, what our own investments in a topic are. These investments may well be intensely intellectual, but they are no less personal for all that. There is a lot to be said about this. Here and now, I’ll just explain what I want to do now that I have understood what’s at stake in the taboo.
For I too, of course, have an aesthetic agenda. I have always been drawn to writers working before, alongside or on the margins of the modernist revolution, such as Ibsen and Simone de Beauvoir. This is why I am annoyed every time I notice how dominant critical theories contribute to marginalizing these writers. In the early 2000s, this led me to write a whole book on Ibsen’s contributions to modernism, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism (2006). The project turned out to involve a fundamental rethinking of the literary history of modernism.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, modernism and postmodernism have run out of vitality. I now find myself fascinated by the emergence of a new kind of writing that emphasizes character, in what traditional critics would surely consider to be utterly old-fashioned, realist ways. But in my view, such critics would be wrong. These new writers are not at all engaged in a nostalgic return to past literary forms. Rather, their projects arise from a deep disgust with the fakeness of so much of our culture, and from an intense longing for truth, reality and authenticity.
It is difficult to find the right name for this phenomenon. I have begun to think of it as the “existential turn” in contemporary fiction. But “existential” doesn’t mean “existentialist.” I don’t see in these writers the French existentialists’ insistence on metaphysical anguish and existential choice and commitment. Nor do the new writers seem interested in the play between authenticity and bad faith that fascinated Sartre and Beauvoir. By calling the literature I am interested in “existential,” I mean to indicate its preoccupation with what it is like to be alive here and now, what it is like to exist in a specific historical and social moment.
So far, the “existential turn” appears to have two major forms: 1) explicit “autofiction” and 2) character-driven fiction with strong existential investments. Both exhibit a striking capacity to make the reader experience the characters and the world they inhabit as real. This is true whether the author declares that the characters actually are real, or fictions, or exist in some in-between space. These writers want their characters to come across as real. The Irish writer Sally Rooney, author of the acclaimed Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), says that “people often accuse me of talking about my characters as if they’re real people, truly an unfortunate habit—and my only defense is that, to me, they are.”
Yet the new existential writers are not reverting to traditional realism. Rather, they share the modernist project of reconsidering subjectivity, but in a new way. They are no longer satisfied with doing what their literary predecessors did: showing through formal experiments that the subject is a construction, a more or less playful effect of language and discourses, and so on. It’s not that they want to deny any of this. It’s rather that they want to convey, in spite of all this, what it feels like to exist as a particular subject in a particular time and place. This, they convey, is an experience that can’t be theorized away: the subject may well be a construction, but there is still something it is like to be me, or you. In a world full of fake news, fake plots, fake facts, these writers are hanging on to their existential truth. In other words: they insist on letting their experience matter.
To respond to such writing, I have had to discard the old dogmas of my discipline. How relevant is the taboo on taking literary characters to be real for a critic wishing to understand Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (2009-11) or Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010), novels in which the protagonist is the author, and all the characters are not just declared to be real, but (mostly) appear under their actual names? How does it help to account for the striking longing for existence, and reality, that permeates these texts?
In short: we live in an era when a great deal of important contemporary literature simply can’t be understood unless we are willing to analyze their central characters in pretty realistic ways. In Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2008) and Olive, Again (2019), the very notion of character becomes distributed across a whole community and over a long time span, in order to convey, among other things, a woman’s experience of growing old. How can one read Olive Kitteridge without engaging with the character at every level: social, psychological, moral, emotional, existential? Yet there is no sense of traditional essentialism here. Toward the end of her life, after trying to figure out what her life has been, Olive types a single note: “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”
While Strout zooms in on her character and her small-town experiences in Maine, Elena Ferrante’s engrossing Neapolitan novels (2011-14) set out to show how two girls’ lives are shaped by history, by their families and their own choices. One might very well say that My Brilliant Friend is an investigation of subjectivity in history, but that doesn’t begin to convey the utterly spellbinding, immersive effect of the book and its successors in the quartet. Alongside the emphasis on existential experience runs Ferrante’s astonishing world-building capacity, a capacity she shares with Knausgaard, who also knows how to convey a world so vividly real that the reader longs for it as soon as she closes the book.
And then there is Rachel Cusk’s brilliant Outline trilogy (2014-18), a series of books in which a narrator, Faye, mostly conveys to the reader, Sebald-like, what other people have told her. Although Faye’s own life remains in the background, the effect is to make the reader feel constantly challenged to wonder about her capacity for listening to others. The British writer Deborah Levy put it well when she noted, “Neither kind nor cruel, Cusk’s female narrator is a massive presence disguised as an absence. That is alchemy.”
In the very act of presenting us with intensely alive, intensely real characters, the new existential novels invite us to move past the ubiquitous skepticism generated by the fakery of the contemporary world. These writers invite us to make an effort to follow the direction of their gaze, trusting that they are giving us the world as they see it. This is not an invitation to empathy, for empathy alone doesn’t necessarily provide insight and judgment. It is rather an invitation to see if it is possible to understand and acknowledge others in a world in which both truth and trust are under severe threat. Can I fully take in and respond to the specific circumstances, problems and reasons that make you do and say what you say and do? We don’t have to admire or even like the characters. But we do have to trust that the novel is conveying, as truthfully as possible, what their existence is like, what it genuinely might feel like to be that sort of person in those sorts of circumstances. By making their characters so vividly present to the reader, these writers test the reader’s trust. Without trust, would we ever keep reading?
The question of trust and of whose version of reality gets to be believed is at the very forefront of the Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s stunning Will and Testament (2016), which was long-listed for the National Book Awards prize for best translation in 2019. In Norway, the novel triggered a huge debate about the morality of so-called “reality literature,” which turned on whether Hjorth was writing about her own experiences, as many journalists claimed but Hjorth denied.
The novel explores the situation of a woman, Bergljot, who was sexually abused by her father as a young child. Until she is around thirty, she represses the fact. Alarming symptoms force her to enter psychoanalysis. Slowly she realizes what has happened to her. When she finally tells her family, they refuse to believe her. For this reason, she has had nothing to do with them for 23 years. As the novel opens, her father has just died. Full war breaks out over the inheritance. For the parents’ idea is to let Bergljot’s two sisters, who have loyally aligned themselves with their parents against Bergljot, inherit two cabins at a particularly desirable spot by the Oslo fjord. Bergljot and her brother are left out, because they have failed to be “supportive” of the parents. The fight over the inheritance becomes a fight over trust and truth. Hjorth’s novel is a riveting, utterly engrossing study in what it is like to live an unacknowledged life, a life in which her closest family denies Bergljot’s deepest truth and, when she finds the courage to voice it, insists that she is crazy.
The new existential novels create characters who learn, often with great difficulty, to let their experience matter. For if I can’t take my own experiences seriously, then how can I even get as far as to ask you to trust me? This is the problem of our age of fakery, which also infects our everyday being. (How will I ever know what my experience is like if I begin by counting “likes”?) It’s why it doesn’t really matter if Knausgaard gets some factual details wrong. We know that he actually saw his dead father’s body only once, not twice, as he writes in the novel. Knowing this hasn’t changed my reading experience. Yet I am convinced that if I began to suspect that his account of the very fabric, the emotional and intellectual tenor of Karl Ove’s experiences was false, I would find My Struggle impossible to read. The art of Knausgaard’s writing is precisely the way he manages to elicit trust, to make us feel as if we are inside his world. As a reader, I am called upon not to fact-check his experience, but to acknowledge it. This is precisely what the journalists who set out to fact-check Hjorth’s novel failed to understand.
Knights denounced “Best-Sellers” because he thought that they promoted sentimentality and moralism and would, if given the chance, destroy serious criticism. Many of the new existential novels have been best sellers. Let’s not emulate Knights’s highbrow tastes and use their popularity against them, for they speak to the times we live in. As a literary critic, I want to find ways to do them justice. Dismissing the taboo on treating characters as if they were real people will not by itself tell me how to do that. But it certainly has to be the first step.