Out to where storytelling does not reach

To write is to write one’s way through the preconceived and into the world on the other side, to see the world as children can, as fantastic or terrifying, but always rich and wide-open. Karl Ove Knausgård on creating literature.

The job of literary editor is practised under a kind of shadow cast by the author’s name. Though some editors have emerged from the sidelines, they tend to be thought of as notorious rather than famous because “editor” and “famous” are somehow inherently incompatible concepts – a contradiction in terms. Gordon Lish is a case in point: among other tasks, he was Raymond Carver’s editor and became known as “Captain Fiction”. Hemingway’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, who A. Scott Berg dubbed “Editor of Genius”, is another example. One of the best-known editorial interventions ever was made by Ezra Pound, although he was of course not really an editor but the one who scrutinized, in his capacity as a friend, an early version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and pruned it ruthlessly until he achieved the format we know now.

Gordon Lish’s style as an editor was just as independent and uncompromising. His editing actually created the language we now believe to be Carver’s and which undoubtedly contributed to making his name as a writer, even though the author himself felt ambivalent about it. The difference was there for all to see when Carver’s own manuscripts were published posthumously and his padded, fluid stories seemed almost unrecognizable. There can be no real argument about the conclusion that the editor’s Carver was an improvement on Carver’s Carver. How did that make Carver feel when he was awarded prizes and praise for being the great new name in American literature, one wonders? The example is interesting, because if the job of the editor is to influence matters for the sake of the book and not for his own benefit, nor even the author’s, then it can be argued that Lish went too far; but relative to what? Given that the book became much better, is the damage done to the author’s self-esteem really so important? Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been worse and he would have been regarded as a middling, rather than a brilliant, writer. This fact leads one to question what an author is – and where the boundaries lie between the writer, the world around him and his book.

To where storytelling does not reach: A fragment of Earth (Norway, Denmark, Sweden). Elements of this image furnished by NASA. Photo: Anton Balazh. Source:Shutterstock

There is a long list of strong American editors, but it does not follow that the tradition is specifically American: I know of Norwegian editors who more or less move their authors’ feet as they attempt the literary dance, telling them to step that way first, go there next and then do this. I also know of Norwegian writers whose way of working is the direct opposite, who deliver their print-ready scripts to the editor and can be relied upon to change publisher if the edits are too extensive.
Perhaps what Lish did for Carver is too extreme an example to use when pondering the editor’s role in general but as always, when a boundary is crossed, the act of crossing it makes the boundary more visible. The line being in this case the one drawn around editor and author who, together with the text, form a kind of triangle, a confine inside which all that is said and done vanishes without trace.

Had Lish not gone as far as he did, all that constitutes Carver’s oeuvre would have been ascribed to Carver, in the same way as all novels, short stories and poems are ascribed to their author. To grasp what is going on in those shadows within the blackout zone, it might help to conduct a mental experiment: without the editors, what would the books have been like? In my case, the answer is simple: there would be no books. I would not have been an author. This is not to say that my editor writes the books for me, but rather that his thoughts, ideas and insights are essential for my writing. Those thoughts and ideas and insights of his are his contributions to my work and, therefore, to me; when he edits other writers, he will give them other things. Ideally, the job of editor is undefined and open enough to allow fine-tuning to fit with the demands, expectations, talent and integrity of each individual writer; above all, it is based on trust, and much more dependent on personal characteristics and understanding what people are like than on formal literary competence.

I remember an incident in my late twenties, when I was working for a magazine and told to deal with a poem we had commissioned from a well-established poet. I read it and wrote down some comments, including a few suggestions for changes and a query about the line of thought he had followed – would it be possible to expand on his argument a little more? The poet’s reply can be summarized in the simple question: “Who are you?” All right, maybe the undertone was edgier: “Who the fuck are you?” I felt got at. My comments had been cautious and anyway justifiable, as far as I could see. I had grown used to saying that kind of thing to my writer-friends. Surely this experienced and established author should be capable of a more professional approach to his text?
But this was, in the end, not about the text. It was all about some faceless critic wanting to change his poem and that, I assume, was taken to be aggressive. As if your poetry somehow hadn’t measured up and this anonymous young academic fancied himself to be the right man to fix what had gone wrong. Objectively speaking, I believe my comments were on the right track, but where writing is concerned there is no such thing as “speaking objectively” and all that matters is the conjunction of writer and reader. If I had met the poet a few times, if each of us had formed an impression of who the other was, if perhaps we had exchanged views on literature, then I believe he would have read my comments in another frame of mind and that in turn might even have led to certain changes, though not necessarily those I had suggested at the time.

It is an understatement to say that the personal context of creative work can be complex – everyone who has the slightest idea of the “craft of writing”, as the nice phrase goes, knows that it is one big, felted mass of neuroses, hang-ups, resistance, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, alcoholism, narcissism, depressions, psychotic states, hyperactivity, mania, grandiose self-image, low self-esteem, obsessions, dutifulness, fixed ideas, mess and laziness. But for all that, a piece of writing cannot be evaluated in terms of quality, at least not if “quality” is supposed to be an objective, normative measure. In the context of writing literature, quality becomes a dynamic entity: not so much a grade as a process that will vary according to who the writer and the editor are.

It can be quite shocking when the critics receive your work or books in almost precisely the opposite way, so much so that you might never get used to all the evaluating and weighing and comparing to other books. It can seem as if there were two different books, the editor’s version and the critic’s, which is potentially confusing for the author: is he meant to listen to his editor, who insists that that the critics don’t know what they’re talking about, that they are insensitive, perhaps downright stupid, tending to stick to agendas of their own and so forth, or is he to take note of the judgement of the critics?

Erlend Loe, in his latest novel Vareopptelling (“Inventory”), plays about with the comic possibilities of the conflicting tasks of critics and editors. It begins with an editor phoning an elderly poet to tell her how good the reviews are, though everything said amounts to more or less transparent euphemisms, intended to protect the poet against “reality”. Later, the poet sets out on a kind of crusade to eliminate the differences between the book as seen by herself and by the critics. It is funny because it is all so recognizable – both the editor’s way of handling poor reviews and the authorial brooding on revenge. Even an author like Stig Larsson, practically canonized in his lifetime, sinks his teeth into the bad reviews and won’t let go. His collection of poems Natta de mina is a grotesque fantasy in which a named critic is mutilated. Even the world-famous writer Paul Auster, who has in his time received so much praise that one might have thought him immune to criticism, comes back to James Wood’s New Yorker reviews of his books in the recently published exchange of letters between Auster and John Coetzee, where Auster uses up a lot of emotional energy, not on presenting arguments, but on how it feels to be criticized – like being mugged in a busy street.
And that is how it feels, because to write a book and have it published is to risk exposing some part of yourself, such that you are left utterly defenceless, only to be judged by someone who has taken no risks at all. An editor who also operates as a critic, that is, as someone who interprets and evaluates the quality of work presented to him – and there are those who do this – will be a poor editor, because interpretation and judgements concerning quality put an end to something, close a door that it is his or her real job to keep open for a long as possible. This, in turn, is because the literature is still about to become, is in a state of flux, even though its form already exists. And, since the skill lies in pushing through what is and into what is becoming – that which is alive and hardly known about before it is reached – it is only those who do not know how to write, who can write; only those who cannot write a novel who can write a novel. It follows that the role of editor cannot be to know, because knowledge means sabotaging these processes.

By now, we have ended up far away from the classical notion of the editor, from the elderly-looking, tweedy gentleman of fifty-something, poring over the manuscript with a pencil at the ready. But we are very close to my own editor, Geir Gulliksen, who does not pull out his pencil before the publication date is fixed and the copy-editing arranged. Up to that point, it is hard for me to say what his job really is, apart from the fact that we talk quite a lot. We have these conversations at all stages of writing the novel. We start talking when we only have the vaguest of ideas of where it is going and which part of reality it will probe, long before a single word has been put down on paper. And we carry on talking until the novel is published and the different responses it prompts seem to demand endless, occasionally crisis-style talks with someone who knows what has been invested in it and who has invested so much himself.

Even though this has been going on for seventeen years and we have used that time to produce eight novels and chat for innumerable hours on the phone, or in meeting rooms and offices, and to sift together through many thousands of manuscript pages – even so, I still cannot explain his job in terms of “this is what he does” or “this is how he thinks”. It goes without saying that this has something to do with my inability to observe people, with my being so full of myself that I can’t take others on board, but it is also an outcome of his way of working, which is not about being distant and watching with that famous outsider’s eye but, on the contrary, is based on intimacy, on the insider’s view, which is harder to capture and define. It is easy to scrutinize from above or from below or even from the side, but it is not easy to see when one is in the middle of something.

Writing my auto-biographical novel Min kamp (My Struggle), I found three individuals particularly difficult to portray and particularly difficult to give voices to. Regardless of how much I tried to hear or see them, I could do neither. I knew what they meant to me but it was almost impossible to give a shape to my knowledge. One of them was my mother, one of them was my wife and one of them was my editor. What might these three, very different people have in common that made them stay in the shadows of my mind? In one way or another, they were givens or, in other words, there was no need to speak for them, they spoke for themselves. To a writer, such discoveries are interesting: the whole idea of writing is to give shape, to build something with language, be it a known or an unknown thing. One rule is that the more distant the subject, the easier this becomes: it is easy to describe a cow walking along a wretched street in India, but not a man watching the telly in his sitting room. Almost all literature is about conflicts that are rooted in differences: the unlike breaks with what is alike and only then can it be captured. The unlike that stays within the framework of what is alike, that is, harmoniously, is almost impossible to get right. And here is where my mother, my wife and my editor come in; what roles do they play in my life? They give and demand nothing, or very little, in return. Someone who gives unconditionally is difficult to see properly. Demands have outlines, but what of the absence of demands? That is of course nothing, without distinctive shape, lacking but at the same time essential, utterly fundamental to all that is human.

We observe and then talk about what tears itself free, we do not observe or talk about what comes into being. My father took something from me, my brother was my rival and both are easy to write about. My mother is difficult to write about because she gave me something. What did she give me? I find it hard to tell. My editor, what does he give me? Ideas as to which books I should read? Yes, but so do many others. Insight into what I am doing? Yes, but that I can manage myself and, even if my insight is partial, I know many others who are capable of reading and providing me with the missing part. Inspiration? Sure thing, but I get that every time I start leafing through any kind of book about art.

All these things are important, but none is essential. What is essential is a feeling, a vague, indefinable sense of something that might be best summed up by the word “trust”. I trust him absolutely. And he must read absolutely everything I write, even the briefest of pieces for a daily paper, before I allow it to be printed. This is something I am utterly dependent on and which, at the same time, I regard as a given. It is not a case of some function, not a matter of the editorial role but of him, as a person, and it is irreplaceable. And this is how I see the editor’s role.


There are many preconceptions about writing. One of the most common is that writing is a solitary occupation, something you do alone. I don’t recognize this. On the contrary, during every one of the fifteen years I have made a living from what I write, I have depended on the help of others to get it right. When I wrote the novel My Struggle, I read everything I had written aloud to a friend called Geir Angell Øygarden. Every single day, I got on the phone to Geir and read to him what, in the end, amounted to almost five thousand pages. Why? Because, for one thing, I needed someone to say, that’s good enough – and what it was, as well as what it could become, how I could go on from where I was. I needed his thoughts, they met mine at a different place, which was essential; since I was writing about myself, I desperately needed to be seen from outside myself, although this time it was not simply a matter of gazing at what I did, but at an entire worldview that I had made into my own in this novel. Our talking was a space and such a space surrounds all books, or so I believe, either in a very tangible way (as in this case) or, less tangibly, in the sense that it is made up of all that the author reads while writing or has read before the writing began.

Even though I knew nothing about this when I was eighteen and had just started to write, I still set up such spaces; it seems that my neediness made it materialize, as if by itself. True, the actual act of writing was solitary, but everything that surrounded it and actually mattered most had to do with other people. When I was nineteen and a student of comparative literature in Bergen, I met, among others, Espen Stueland. He wrote, I wrote, we became friends and he shared with me everything he knew and thought and read. He introduced me to books by Ole Robert Sunde, Tor Ulven, Claude Simon, Gunnar Ekelöf, Osip Mandelstam and Samuel Beckett – to name but a fraction of all those whose names swirling in the air around us at the time. Espen and I read one another’s writing. His critique, as frank as it was harsh, made me rewrite or throw the piece away. But I was on fire, even when I threw away what I had written, because in Espen’s company I had suddenly come close to a place where literature mattered, or perhaps mattered most, and where bluffing was impossible, where joking simply wasn’t on, and neither reading nor writing could be done half-heartedly: it meant everything or nothing. Espen’s first book, the poetry collection Sakte dans ut av brennende hus (“Dance slowly out of a house on fire”), came out quickly and he moved to Oslo, joined the magazine Vagant (“The drifter”), shared that with me too, and introduced me to writers and critics he had got to know. I stayed behind in Bergen and soon met another student-writer whose name was Tore Renberg. We became friends and he shared everything he knew and thought and read with me. Tore’s literary preferences were different from Espen’s, but many of the writers we liked were the same: in the early 1990s, no student of literature could get away from Tor Ulven or Ole Robert Sunde. Samuel Beckett was ubiquitous. At the time, Tore was especially enticed by Eldrid Lunden, whose work I hadn’t read, and by Tarjei Vesaas and Sigbjørn Obstfelder. We, too, read each other’s writing but, in an amazingly short time, Tore wrote a collection of prose pieces called Sovende floke (“Sleeping tangles”) that was accepted for publication and, like Espen, moved to Oslo and saw his first book published. He, too, joined the editorial staff of Vagant.
When this was going on, when I sat in cafés with Tore or Espen, and talked about literature or music or football, and we all wanted to do was write and become authors, nothing actually was. None of us knew what would happen next; we hardly knew whatever it was we were up to at the time. Were we actually up to anything much? Wasn’t it more like passing the time doing something we rather enjoyed? Everything was ill-defined and if, for instance, reading Tor Ulven indicated a future Tor Ulven-influence on the literature of our generation, as is now indisputable, we had no idea of it back then, because we were not a generation and represented nothing special. What we were doing stayed between us. We did not have an audience; the mere idea was absurd. Everything seemed small, the coffee was tepid, it rained outside, perhaps I needed a piss and held back to be polite. Still, when I write about it, I notice how it becomes something, time and place materialize in my mind and a narrative is created. To be sure, now that Espen is 42 and father of two, Tore 41 and father of two and I am 44 and father of three, all of us middle-aged men who have written many books, essays and articles, there is, when seen from here, a seemingly straight line running between us, the authors of a mid-career generation, back to all those encounters, all that talk.

It is in this sense that history always lies, that is, it makes what was casual, uncharted, perhaps even meaningless, into something defined, clearly mapped out and meaningful. The situations and the events, the people and the talk were clearly all real – to write about something is not the same as to misrepresent it or lie about it – but as that reality is turned into written words, it is given a form that, in its essence, is solid and unchangeable and fixes that past reality even though it was precisely its unfixed state, its vagueness that was its essence. To write about a situation is to redeem some of its potential while all the rest, despite its potential, disappears into the shadow of the unsaid, unthought and unwritten, into the valley of lost chances.
But, never mind: I was aged 26 and in Bergen. My two best friends (my only friends) had done the one thing I wanted to do: they had written their first works of literature and, having done so, moved to Oslo, the centre of Norway’s literary life. I felt abandoned and even if they didn’t know just how deeply I envied them, they probably guessed or at least they should have, because at the time we had shared the same stage as young people who wrote, shared the same ambition to write and shared our reading, its experiences and revelations. And then they succeeded – Tore exceptionally so, winning that year’s award to the best new writer – while I did not. I was alone in Bergen again, with nothing done because, unlike Espen and Tore, I could not write. What I mean is, when I sat down and opened the word processor, nothing came to mind and nothing got written, not a sentence, not a single word. All was emptiness. I thought that my ambition to write, or the belief that I really could do it, was delusional, was self-deception. Tore had the right stuff, Espen did too, but I did not. Instead, I started studying. In one academic year, I completed a supplementary course in art history and began my main course of study in comparative literature. I was going to write about literature instead. And then something completely unexpected happened. An editor at a publishing firm phoned to arrange a meeting with me because he had read one of my short stories and wanted to have a chat about it.

Nowadays, this is a fairly common way to get on. In the early 90s, it was uncommon. At that time, you went about getting published as follows: you wrote a book and sent it to a publisher, then waited for a reply which arrived after a month or two, usually some negative variant that you would grade according to type. A standard refusal was bad, because it suggested that the manuscript was thought too poor even to be worthy of specific critique. If the refusal was backed by the statement of an external reader, it was marginally better because even though they turned you down, they had at least felt there was something important enough about the text to merit finding an independent reviewer to read and pronounce on it. The reader’s report might well conclude that the writer showed promise but that this particular script was unsuitable for publication – or, wow, fantastic!, it would be interesting to see it again after some additional work. But since the writer was left alone to revise his work, at best with a few vague comments as guidelines, it usually led to a final refusal after all. It could happen that a manuscript was accepted as it stood, but only very, very rarely, maybe one in a hundred attempts, or so I heard at the time.

This distance between writer and publisher, more like an abyss, actually, meant that people endlessly discussed how to catch the eye of the mythical, remote publisher’s reader at first glance. A striking title in an attractive font (then, before the era of computers, I seem to remember you could buy sheets with alphabets on them, Gothic-style for instance, and glue them on), no language errors or rulings-out, a carefully scripted accompanying letter. I remember one of Øystein Lønn’s pieces of advice to us from my days at the creative writing academy: put the best bit first. Regardless of what it had to do with the whole, stick your best set of pages in front. The trick was to be read, to stop whoever sifted through manuscripts from just putting your work to the side and make him or her intrigued, want to read more. I think it was in the spring of 1989 that I sent in a manuscript of a novel and received a standard refusal of just a few lines: they had read my manuscript with interest and found it good, but it was not right for them. Not that I could measure myself against Tore who, rather proudly, claimed to have clocked up eighteen refusals. He was nineteen at the time. But when his first book was accepted for publication, things happened differently. He did not send his work to a publisher like everyone in this country had done since the days of Hamsun, not at all, the publisher phoned him. He had written a few reviews for the daily Morgenbladet and a literary magazine called Vinduet (“The window”), and the man who phoned him that morning was an editor at a publisher’s called Tiden who wanted to know if Tore would write reader’s reports. Tore was keen but not so keen that he omitted to say that he was a writer as well. The editor had suspected as much and said he would like to read something by Tore.
This was how Tore became one of Tiden’s authors. The following year, they asked him to edit an anthology of writing by “new voices”, and he asked me if I had something ready to go. I did. It was a story hidden inside an attempted novel about a slave ship, which was practically lifted straight from an existing non-fiction study. I sent the story to Tore and he published it, possibly because he had sensed my envy of him and felt sorry for me. It was not very good but, all the same, it made that editor phone me and, a few weeks later, I sat in his office in Operapassasjen, sneakily eyeing the piles of manuscripts to try to find out or reveal something meaningful while he fetched us coffee. When he returned, we chatted a little, he spoke more than I did, and then I found myself back in the street outside. It was nothing much, but enough: when I walked away, I felt that I had been seen.

Oh, such fragile moments, these. It is nearly impossible to explain why the vague feeling of being seen and believed should make me begin to write a novel and take my writing much further than I had ever done before. Did I have him to thank? Let me express it like this: had he not arranged that meeting, I would not have started to write again or, at least, to write as I did then. When I sent him the first part of the novel, I felt like a guilty dog. I had let him down now, abused his trust, everything was ruined. One episode was especially shaming: for some reason, the protagonist stepped into a telephone booth on Torgallmenningen in Bergen and called his own, ten-year-old self. How stupid can you get?!

A few weeks passed before the editor called me again. He thought it was good, interesting work and, look, that passage where the protagonist calls his own childhood self, that had something special! Then he said something else: Henrik repeats a thought of his, saying that it was of the world, or out of the world, in the world, but outside it. Almost like a title, right? Out of the world?

Just two comments that together released my mind and guided the rest of the novel. Movement, from one time to another or from one place to another, using metaphors or similes, often solidly real like the telephone booth, runs through the entire novel as its way
of reflecting that all times and all places are held within a single consciousness. And, in the same sense, the title he gave me, Ute av verden (“Out of the world”), directed the themes. The next time I met the editor at Tiden, he speculated that I might prefer to sign a contract there and then, or perhaps rather wait until nearer the publication date. I almost fainted. Up to that point, I had regarded the whole thing as a kind of exam, a test that would lead on to something else. But he wanted to publish it! It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why he had said this. Although he thought the manuscript in no way ready, he wanted to make me believe in myself, trust myself to think that completing the novel was within my reach. In other words, he manipulated me. It is not unlike the editor of a literary magazine who, when faced with Hunter S. Thompson insisting that he couldn’t write a word about a journey he was meant to report on, he was totally blocked, later phones him to ask for a few notes to give the editor some kind of idea of what it was all about and Thompson obliges, only to get another call after a few weeks to let him know that his notes are now in print. The notes had turned into the real thing. It is, I think, often the way to achieve the real thing, that is, striving for it might lock your mind, and what with all the expectations, demands and fantasies, to force it open is almost impossible. But if you do not try and think you are busy with something quite different while waiting for the real thing, then the real thing, depending as it does on a certain freedom from obstacles, can come into being.


Another notion about writing, almost as widespread as the one about the solitary writer, is that writing has something to do with practising a craft. I do not recognize myself here and, once more, feel it is the other way round. To write means that you must break down what you know and have learnt, an unthinkable approach for a craftsman such as a joiner, who cannot start afresh again and again. This is not to say that a joiner is not creative or cannot find new solutions to old problems. I assume that a joiner works at his (or her) best when not deep in thought but just preoccupied with working, just as a professional driver drives well when his long-acquired knowledge, his driver’s craft, is not constantly on his mind but just reflected in what he is doing. The same is true of musicians: their technical skill or craft is something they must know so well they are unaware of knowing it because only when they have reached that level will the music flow, become art. A footballer is a poor player if he has to think about how to ground a ball or ask himself whether it’s best to pass to the left or the right of the opposition, or maybe try to shoot. What musicians, joiners, drivers and football players have in common is that they have practised until the techniques are part of their bodies, something they are unaware of, reflexes that function on their own. One can write in a state that is devoid of all self-awareness and is desirable: I once watched an interview with the British writer Ian McEwan and heard him say that writing could make him forget about himself and that absent mood, which came to him only rarely, felt like the high point of writing. But, as distinct from these other activities, there is really nothing about writing that can be practised, no techniques to repeat endlessly until they stick – for what should they be? Try again and again to write a dramatic twist? Practise certain ways of describing a face or a personality? No, you don’t get better by training, it cannot be just a matter of repetition but only of reaching the real thing, the thing in itself, because to write is to enter into real things in themselves, something you do only once, in just that way, and cannot run through again, because then you are no longer close to things as they are but just to the repetition. Instead, what defines writing more than anything else is not practice, but failure. Failing, not making it, failing, not getting it right, failing, failing, failing – but not in order to get to the real thing through some future attempt, which would be half-hearted and being half-hearted is the opposite of writing well, no, failure must be the outcome of you risking everything, in utter seriousness, trying your best. Fumbling as you receive the ball at football practice is annoying but does not hurt. A literary failure is hurtful and if you do not feel the pain, it is not failure but only a practice run-though that will get you nowhere. In other words, to write, you must deceive yourself, you must make yourself believe that this time I am on to something regardless of how miserable and useless it might be. The process is uncertain, fluid throughout and, even if the heightened state, selfless and glowing, should take over, it need not mean that what you have written has any value, any sort of quality – after all, most of those who are unaware of the self are children.

To fail on your own is all right for a while but only up to a point, since it is not like failing at a game, but a serious failure and, if you are surrounded by friends or family members who are at college or at work, it grows more and more difficult to defend your writing, to insist that it is a meaningful thing to do despite the lack of results, that is, publication by a proper publisher. In the case of writing, to keep failing also means being a social failure. We all know somebody who tells you, often with a hint of secrecy: “I write.” Carry on saying that for ten years and hardly anyone will believe it is worth doing. And after twenty years? The would-be writer, for one, will have lost faith. Writing will be a sore spot, almost a stigmata. If the unpublished writer is to carry on, he must keep up a self-deception that grows harder as time passes until, one day, it dawns on him that it is really true, he has failed.
The writer with a published book behind him feels differently about the social scene. But not about writing. Here is where the editor comes in. His job is to support the writer, which very often means to trick him, to tell him that his work is really good, just carry on. I was talking to a Swedish editor recently and he said that this was arguably the hardest part of his job, when the writer suspects that what he writes is maybe not that good and, at the same time, longs to be told how great it is. He needs the lies and has to suppress the thought that it might be all lies, has to persuade himself to believe. That Swedish editor always tells his writers that they must take notes on what he tells them when he goes through their manuscripts. Without the notes, they will only remember the negative bits. Even if he has spent quarter of an hour praising a text and pointing out in detail how good selected passages are, only his suggested changes will have got through to the writer. Why these changes? Because his stuff isn’t good enough, doesn’t work, it is hopeless.

Everything is in the balance here. Everything is at stake. And, anyway, how to decide what is “good”? In the literary world, it matters a great deal to be original, to find your own voice, to see the previously unseen – these are ideals. Ranged against originality is the concept of quality, the basis for canonization and evaluation. The point is that when the original, the personal and the unnoticed are presented, there is nothing with which to compare them. There is no certain way of deciding what is “good”. When the book is there, complete with the publisher’s logo on the back, this in itself is a mark of quality. Lots of people with fine literary reputations, at work in a highly thought-of organization, have backed the writing as literature, as worthy. There is a risk involved in handing out such marks of quality. Of course, if that book is like another book that has been recognized as good, it is less risky, but if it is sufficient unto itself and not like anything else, then it takes courage to brand and publish it. There is much cowardliness about in the publishing trade because of the high reputations at stake. An editor responsible for producing books that are slaughtered, one after the other, and don’t sell, has to go for safety, has to use what is known as his guidelines and turn down anything risky. I do not write this because I believe that Norway harbours many undiscovered literary geniuses who cannot get their books published, but because an editor’s quality has so much to do with courage. I know of manuscripts that were later praised to the skies but initially turned down by one publisher after another for the simple reason that, in each case, it was not enough like anything else, that is, not in tune with current literary notions of what is good and, consequently, needed courage to publish. I myself have worked as a publisher’s advisor on first books and know how incredibly difficult it is to sit alone and judge writing without the hard covers that are the critical sign of value. Is this truly good enough? What does “good enough” mean? And, if it isn’t generally good, is there anything about it that might become good enough? If it is outstandingly good, if there is nothing to support you, then you are alone with your own sensibility – and, is that good enough?


The novel of mine that I invested most in and took the biggest risks with is My Struggle. I believe that its readers see that, even find it obvious. But it is less obvious what the publisher meant for that book and what a breath-taking risk the firm took to publish it. This is only to be expected, because most of the work done by publishers passes without comment and, so, is unnoticed. The books did well, we know that now and, with the right answer at hand, the risks seem to have vanished.

But how often does a writer get six volumes of his work published in a single year? I have heard of others who have suggested unorthodox publishing schedules, for instance a writer who wanted two of his books published at the same time but was told by his publisher that no, we can’t do that, it can’t be done. Why? Perhaps they would be too hard to sell, perhaps it would be too hard to persuade the Arts Council to buy the idea, perhaps it was something one simply didn’t do. But when I turned up at the publishing house Oktober, I brought along a lump of a twelve-hundred page manuscript and when I asked how we should handle it, maybe publish it as one book or as two, the head of the company, Geir Berdahl, suggested that it would be published as twelve volumes, one for every month of the year. Hand on heart, how many publishers would have come up with that idea? It was unheard of. In fact, for purely practical reasons, it did not happen like that, but we held on to the gist of his suggestion, that is, we would publish a series of volumes, with three books planned for the autumn and three more for the spring. That left me free to divide the existing twelve-hundred pages into six novels of two hundred pages each. But the leeway that this way of thinking allowed, the height of the sky that suddenly opened above the book, gave me a sense of hubris and I hatched the idea that I would divide the manuscript, write four novels that autumn and spring, and publish them consecutively. I am convinced that all other publishers in the world would have said no, the risks are too big. What if you get writer’s block? If you fall ill? If you simply can’t hack it? If you can’t write quickly enough?
My editor never expressed any such doubts. His trust in my ability seemed infinite. That was the first time it all seemed possible. A novel with between two and three hundred pages usually takes at least one year to write, occasionally two years and might take three, depending on your work rhythm, temperament, experience and the stage you are at in your life as a writer. I had spent the previous five years unable to write and now I was to produce a novel in three months, four times over. Without the editor, who seemed to take it all for granted, it wouldn’t have worked. But it did.

Of course, the other issue was the problematic content. I was writing about myself, my life and the people I had been with, all under their proper names. If this had been the manuscript for my first book I am pretty sure it would never have been published. The bottom line of the quality guarantee confirming that this is “literature” does not just consist of the publisher’s brand on the hardback book but also the name of the author. If this manuscript had been written by someone who did not have a recognized author’s name but only his own, let us call him Audun Ekre, for argument’s sake, or it might as well be Torill Ekely, the uncertainty around this project, for instance whether it was in any sense literature, would as likely as not have been too great. That I already had two novels to my name was reassuring and put pay at least to any automatic doubtfulness. That fact could not serve as quality assurance, but at least as an indication that behind the new novel there would be a literary mind, a will to write. But, even so, with a published author’s name as guarantee, it was by no means a given that my new manuscript would be passed for publication. For one thing, it might have been against the law, against the libel laws, perhaps, or seen as a transgression of the right to privacy. If a charge led to a court case and the publishers lost, they would have to pay compensation. Oktober is a small firm and that kind of result could have marked effects. They did brief lawyers to go through the text of the first book but they could only indicate what was a likely outcome, or likely on balance, in their legal opinion; and the possibility of a conviction in court could not be excluded. But, all the same, the publication went ahead.

The last element of uncertainty was the expected quality. The first of the novels could be said to be safe, what with it having a beginning, a middle and an end, and also a storyline as classical as they get: two brothers travel back to their childhood home to bury their father. I had been working on the text of the opening passage, the first ten pages, off and on for many years, long before taking refuge in the autobiographical approach. That piece of writing represented how good I could get, that is, the sentences were of my best quality. The fact that the standard of the language then declined drastically and turned into unremarkable, ordinary prose for the next hundred pages, was worrying but manageable, for as long as the existing framework, the structure that made it come across as a typical novel, remained in place.
The first thing the editor suggested, when he and I sat in a meeting room in the publishing house to edit the novel together, was to take out my opening passage because the style was so apart, high-toned and polished in comparison with what followed. A few years previously, I had read the manuscript of a novel by Kristine Næss who had the same editor as I did and had used a structure that was in some ways similar to mine: her opening paragraphs were fantastically beautiful and well written, the first pages stood out as if chiselled in stone while, afterwards, her language was swallowed up by the everyday feel and the immaturity she described, and grew rawer, nastier, more direct. When the novel was published the beautiful, stylish, perfectly formulated opening paragraphs had gone. The rough writing was still there. And the whole was so much better! Few are able to take language closer to life than Kristine Næss, she is one of the very best authors of our generation, but even though I knew how successful it had been to cut “the good bit” and cultivate “the bad bits”, and how it showed by practical example how relative the concept of literary quality is, I could not bring myself to follow the editor’s suggestion of removing my entire, carefully thought-out opening in high modernist style, so I hung on to it for dear life, since it proved that I was truly a literary author, that I actually could write and not just emote.

He suggested many other changes that I carried out slavishly and that were mostly aimed at tidying up the text and establishing a straighter storyline: all right to cut this? he’d say, yes, I’d say, and cut this as well? he’d say, yes, I’d say. Trust is a crucial part of this process, since the writer, me this time, lacks the overview, is too much in the middle of things to grasp the consequences and so needs to know that the editor is on his side, which I knew, as I knew that he wanted what I wanted or, anyway, understood me and so realized that I simply must shut my eyes and cut until something hurt too much, this was a passage that really mattered to me, and he has to argue his case to prove it to me. When he has to try to convince me, he is right nine out of ten times, a fact I have learnt and will act on almost every time. In the last volume, we had to cut one hundred and fifty pages in two days, “we” being my usual editor, another Oktober editor and I – they told me that for purely technical reasons, they could not print more than 1120 pages, though now I think that was an invention and that, technically, a bigger book would have been fine, but everyone who had read the novel wanted it to be shorter and, so, instead of going through it episode by episode, they used an invented print limit – and I didn’t mind losing much of what was binned until we reached a long passage about shitting and I protested, I wanted to keep that bit because the book was a self-portrait and included not only everything about the subject that is visible or open to insight but also everything invisible and hidden, and what is more commonplace and at the same time more secret than someone having a shit? What he said was that the scene grabs the reader’s attention and will detract from all that surrounds it and makes up the actual novel. The book as a whole will be better for striking it out, he said. But I want it in, I said. You can always publish it elsewhere, as an essay, he said. I phoned Geir Angell for a second opinion. Of course you must keep it! he said. It turned into much more than a matter of pages, it became a key scene for the whole fucking novel. It was a typical “kill your darling” situation, which ended with me submitting to the editor’s judgement, and cutting. For two days, we danced to a negative tune, they pointed and I cut, a hundred and fifty pages in all – enough for a brief novel.

But the second book was the real problem. It had been carved out from a bigger structure and should have been the second part of a novel, it lacked beginning, middle and end, lacked storyline and plot and amounted to just events and thoughts strung together into a sequence where the thoughts belonged to the moment of thinking them and were intended to express how people actually thought when alone, on their own, as distinct from what happens when a thought is presented to others. A friend of mine, who is also a colleague, read the manuscript and told me that I ought not to let it be published, that it was not in a publishable state, and he stressed in particular just this thing with the thoughts, for example the one about the Finnish writer Monika Fagerholm, about whom I say, at one point in the story, that she should be awarded the Nordic Council’s literary prize because she is a woman. This lowers the tone of what can be said in public, he told me. In a way, he was right to see that the book is structurally weak, at times so frail it is collapsing, and all you can say in its defence – that this brings it closer to a life as it is – is not a valid point because, as my teacher at the creative writing academy, Ragnar Hovland, said on one occasion: it is all very well to write about boring things but you mustn’t write boringly about what is boring. In other words, if applied to my book: it is all very well to write about the weak or the stupid, but you mustn’t write feebly about the weak or stupidly about the stupid. This is a legitimate approach to reading and I read my text accordingly and asked for it to be thoroughly and strictly edited, something that the editor was unwilling to do or thought was unnecessary simply because he, contrary to me, held on throughout to the intention driving this piece of writing, which was to break up the narrative, disrupt the form that makes literature into literature and instead follow the direction Kristine Næss had taken, towards life, regardless of how stupid it is.

To be stupid is, I reckon, the most dangerous thing one can be and the very last characteristic one would want to project. Geir Angell is fond of saying that the whole world of academia, with its tyrannical insistence on form, has been built as a barricade against that fear. The fear of being laughed at, is there anything more powerful? In literary circles, the neatly turned sentence, the smartly shaped form, the cunning metaphor are defences against the dread of being laughed at. Had that been their only function, these devices would not have been so risky to renounce, but there is more to it, for the neatly turned sentence, the smartly shaped form and the cunning metaphor all represent the highest that looms over the writer as himself, all that represents the highest form of culture and that is successful and beautiful. Why then turn to what is stupid?
All I have written has contained infantile passages and, of all I have written, that has been what my editor has most often responded to. There, something’s up, he says and points at something childish. He also often picks on places where my field of vision has contracted and asks me to take a step sideways and look again. The infantile passages are simple, almost like stages before something meaningful and coherent is created, while unravelling the knots of my constricted vision does the opposite and leads to an increased complexity, which points to a view of aesthetics contained in just these two observations, an attitude to what literature is, that has made me attempt to get away from the limitations that are inherent in language and can be conquered only by language.

An editor always works with many different writers with quite different projects, interests and voices and, not least, different needs, but I believe that to write is always fundamentally one and the same thing and what distinguishes one writer from another is the route taken to get there, with its different obstacles, which means that the editor’s task is to identify these and try to offer the help that is needed for the writer to overcome them. Now and then, this entails having a look from the outside and a correction, now and then it entails discretely planting an idea in the writer’s mind, for instance by talking about a certain poem or novel where a possible direction can be found, which might free up something that can grow and become an idea that appears to have arrived by itself. Such ideas – an example might be the way D.H. Lawrence describes feelings as something monumental and almost tangible, at the same time as infinitely nuanced and complex – can turn into powerful leads for a writer who insists that he (or she) is drained and has nothing to write about, can’t think of a theme, or has a great goal but cannot get the writing together or articulate the goal, does not know how to find it. Where there is no space, Lawrence opens up great spaces, he is the one who, through writing, creates them and makes us see them for the first time. That he creates them does not simply mean that they did not previously exist, but that he makes them exist for us. The same can be done with a plastic bag blowing in the wind – I remember a film I once saw that, in the middle of the run of things, showed a plastic bag being blown in a circle, a sequence that had nothing to do with anything but all the same, precisely by allowing a little more time and space to the bag than one expected, it was given a weightiness, a value of its own that, as the good editor knows, always works. As Eldrid Lunden once said to a student, and which was quoted in the title of an interview in Vagant: Go home, my lad, and write about the milk! When the relationship between writer and editor follows this pattern, where one gives and the other takes without always realizing that this is going on, any improvements in the writer’s insight are shown only in a practical sense, in the writing, that is. It is not so much a matter of rules being applied as a kind of understanding of what consequences will follow, which means that it is difficult to trace anything directly back to interactions with the editor, since everything is so much part of a process, a thousand threads from life run into and are intertwined in the text – except at the stage of the final edit, when on the other hand the process is very clear-cut but much less interesting: if you take this bit out, this other part will be strengthened and, come on, that sentence is none too well formulated, don’t you agree? And did you really want to say this by saying that?

Early in the 2000s, I had lunch with two editors from Swedish publishing firms and the first thing they asked, even before spreading the napkin across the lap and pouring a glass of water, concerned my Norwegian editor’s secret. What does he do? they wanted to know. How come he does so well? What kind of a guy is he?
They asked about him, because of his remarkable success with his authors. In a bewilderingly short time, he had brought a long series of debut books to publication and many of the authors were celebrated as participants in what was described as a literary boom. Seemingly, there had been a climate change in the public world of literature and the attention paid to literature and its status had changed. Because I was part of all that, people might think that I am exaggerating, mythologizing, writing myself up but, no, I truly felt that something was going on and that it was happening around the new editor. It goes without saying that this is history, something in the past. Now we know what went on and take it for granted. But at the time, there was nothing to foretell that the debutant boom involving practically a whole generation would be linked to the efforts of a single editor. Back then, it amounted to nothing much – perhaps a possible name to note and, probably, a few ideas about the respective roles of writer and editor. That this nothing-much would so rapidly grow into something so important suggests that what he did evoked a response from those around him, that the preconditions existed already and that he was the one who set free a spirit that was present, somehow lying in wait.

When, a few years later, he moved from his previous publisher to Oktober, almost all his authors followed him. This fact confirms that he could offer them something more than his job definition stated and that what he offered must have been significant.

But, what was it?
When answering the Swedish editors, I hesitated and said I didn’t quite know. Fifteen years have passed since then and it has become easy to distinguish the most important aspect of what he did, which was to redefine how the editor operated, above all by reducing the large distances built into the job: the distance between publisher and writer, making sure that publishing houses were no longer fortresses, or fortified encampments, and that the separation of insiders from outsiders was radically reduced; the distance between the writer and his text, so that the focus remained on the process of writing rather than on the final result and, finally, the distance between those who evaluated and the evaluated text: seen, not from above, not from a distance, but from the inside.

What all this means is that the editor’s role is no longer well-defined as a role and so it follows that my descriptions of the downgrading of formalities, boundaries, distances and authorities that deal with structures and not with the people inside them are simultaneously true and false. One of the problems with writing history is that people are seen as representatives of something, recipients of something whereas, at the time and inside in the flow of events, they represented nobody but themselves. To represent something requires distance and, in this case, it was precisely the distances that were diminished, although saying so is also to take a stand, to be a representative of diminution. You can trace this transition in what happens to books: each and every literary work is a gamble where there is a life at stake, a soul being stripped bare, but the moment the work is out in the marketplace, it is nonetheless seen as representing something: a tendency, a movement and, then, a few years later, soon enough, an ideology, an aesthetic idea, a moral, a time, an era. This is because we are unique, we have this unique face, these unique eyes, this unique voice, these unique thoughts, but we are also always part of a community, a time and a culture – look at a photograph from the nineteenth century and you will see, first of all, a nineteenth century-style face which has a different shape and expression from our faces; read a nineteenth century diary and, above all, you will become aware of a nineteenth century voice expressing nineteenth century thoughts.

Our two-sidedness, the way we are who we are and do what we do at the same time as we are also representatives of our time, has another parallel in the way this editor operates, because he is also a writer. This fact is crucial to his function as an editor: he knows what a writer needs, because he knows what it is like to write. However, the writing editor is not unambiguous, not just a simple and positive figure, since the writer may not like what the editor writes, may not respect it or be unable to make it fit in with his own literary ideas: can he really mean what he tells me when he writes so very differently? Once more, we are talking about a dismantled boundary and about openness: all editors have their special preferences but not all editors put them on the table for all to see. So, what follows from this? It follows that the editor, too, is vulnerable, that he, too, invests his innermost self in literature and, as far as I am concerned, this is precisely what has made me realize that literature is at the same time collective and individual. The collective is investigated in literary talk and its criss-crossing lines of thought, from William Shakespeare to Cathrine Knudsen, from Peter Dass to Yngve Pedersen, from Franz Kafka to Tanje Selasi, talk from which one can extract insights, thoughts and ideas, certain that these are abundant. The collective exists, surrounds us, marks us, it is there – we exist outside it, grab what we need from it and make it our own. But when you write yourself, it is different, the sense of self-assurance fades, for now you are alone with something and being alone is important, literature’s innermost essence, solitude is where it all comes from. When I read my books to my editor, as opposed to when I listen to him, it is this innermost, lonely consciousness, this source that I see. It is self-assurance facing vulnerability, the secure one facing the seeker, talk about literature facing literature. Or, to put it another way: the only way to approach literature is alone, but you also need help to go there alone. To try to write is to search for a route into yourself that runs to a place where the social no longer exists but from where you can observe it, to reach inwards to a place where boundaries can be crossed and, as a result, can be seen and redrawn. Estrangement, a concept launched by the Russian formalists, fits in here: habit defines the way we look at a thing or a phenomenon and almost turns into a prejudice, such that the thing or phenomenon in itself, precisely what is unique about it, disappears into repetitiousness: we see “a tree”, we see “a man with a dog”, we see “a camping-site”. To write is to write one’s way through the preconceived and into the world on the other side, to see the world as children can, as fantastic or terrifying, but always rich and wide-open, without what you write becoming childish as a result. To write is a way of looking that lets you see, as if for the first time, what is essential. Ole Robert Sunde writes himself in towards this by insisting on the specific value of each detail; Jan Kjærstad does it by constantly searching for new entrances into the world around us; Jon Fosse does it by creating emptiness around his people, a darkness against which movements and speech become almost iconic, that is, universal; Eldrid Lunden does it by showing us how language and the identities it defines can become devices of control and captivity, while her language opens doors and offers possible forms of freedom. To write is to find a way to reach such inner sources and you write alone until you lift your eyes and see a circle of faces around you and when you look beyond them, you see circle upon circle upon circle of other faces. What you see is your society, your culture and your contemporary world as they undergo changes that cannot be traced back to any one individual or any one event but impact on you, on us all, from the outside, while simultaneously radiating out from us as if each one of us were at once inside and outside, subject and object, individual and member of a collective.

In my lifetime, meaning the last forty years, much cultural change has resulted in the dismantling of boundaries: ranging from quite major changes, for instance of borders between nations and cultures, to minor shifts in the relationships between the sexes and generations and on to, of course, perhaps the most revolutionary change of all – in the control over access to information. The “nation” is a construct and a nation’s borders are conditional and can be redrawn, “gender” is also a construct with conditional borders that can be redrawn, and in social life the divides between different people that only two generations ago were maintained by polite forms of address, or by established games played by set types like the lecturer and the student, have now narrowed and weakened while, at the same time, institutions that used to be under state control like broadcasting, telecommunications, road management and health care, schools and nurseries, are no longer monopolies but traded in a marketplace where money and services are meant to move as freely as possible, be on the move as much as possible. The Wall was the most potent symbol of borders, of obstacles and institutionalized lack of freedom, and it was torn down in 1989.

Dominant constructs like The Wall are interesting precisely because they seem coded into many other structures, including even the smallest ones, including the editing of Norwegian manuscripts, say. Back in the 1980s, when the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze was developing his idea of the rhizome, a structure in which every point can be connected to any other, a network, in other words, where neither subject nor object can be singled out and whose units are subordinate to the context, the Internet did not exist, at least not in public consciousness. I read about his network idea in the early 1990s and it seemed as strange to me as to most people, while now, when the vertical is increasingly deconstructed into the horizontal and absolutist, monolithic certainties come tumbling down, the network is an image of an existing, no longer utopian mode of thought. But even then, when I read Deleuze for the first time, his ideas evoked a kind of response in me that was quite distinct from how I reacted to, for instance, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Kant was history, museum; Deleuze felt alive and relevant, he delineated something that was for us or in us. We absorbed concepts like openness, reactivity, mobility, unboundedness, interconnectivity, networks, horizontality. Nowadays, these are part of our reality, new ideals that society struggles to reach while it tries to leave behind all that is closed-in, limited, fenced off, constrained.

A longing for boundaries is contained within almost all I have written, as well as a longing for the absolute, for something that is not relative and will last. With this goes a strong distaste for the unbounded, the levelled-down, the relativistic. These two strands, if followed, lead away from culture and out into what my longing is reaching for, into nature and religion. My mind is drawn to settlements, limiting and immobile, because the boundaries drawn around them define distinctions and distinctions create meaning. To write entails precisely that, to create distinctions – and specifically, within what is alike: only through being written about can what is alike become unlike, because it is given form and becomes something that is distinct from something else.

But surely one might argue that the gradual removal of boundaries, the loss of sense of place and the trend towards seeing reality as relative are all good things? Is it not simply fantastic that all things – countries, genders, generations – are becoming more equal and so will offer opportunities of freedom, of openness?

In terms of ideals, it has to be so. But the process that deconstructs borders and drives towards equality is also linked to money, industrialization and commercialization. This essay is about the production of literature, a process which is not meant to be production in any capitalist sense but the opposite, a non-industrial, non-streamlined, non-commercial transaction – because the critical thing about money is that it fixes a value on a product and monetary values can be systematized so that one thing, cash, can be exchanged for another, goods, which is precisely the kind of exchange that literature is opposed to. What is happening around us now? The bookshops are becoming increasingly alike, stocking the same books, and the books themselves are growing more and more alike, too, because they are written to a pattern – crime novels and genre novels come in set formats that can be repeated endlessly. In Norway, the large publishers have stared themselves blind at numbers, just like the large bookshops and, fundamentally, all the rest of society. As signifiers, numbers have the same validity everywhere, while letters, which everyone prefers to forget about, do not. A number showing a price in kronor, “349.50”, say, means the same whichever book it is attached to, but the letters forming the word “heart” mean something different in different books. When I note that women are the same as men, I see a dedifferentiation of values created by differences. When I note that being born in Sweden is the same as being born in Somalia I see a dedifferentiation of values created by differences.

There is a tendency toward relativism in much of my editor’s writings, a desire for the non-monolithic, anti-absolutist and egalitarian, in other words, something that goes against the desires I express in my writing. The differences between us are fundamental and ought to have made it impossible for us to collaborate, or at least filled our work with difficulties and conflicts. But it did not work out like that. For even “the alike” is not alike and the likeness ideal will be affected by whatever area it develops in and become unlike, so it is only here, in a piece of writing of this kind, that unlike elements – bookshops, money, gender, identity and Swedish-Somalis – can be seen as equivalent and lined up side by side to allow me to argue that they all represent the same thing. In a certain sense, they do, but only in an overarching, ideological sense. In themselves, they are not equivalent and it is towards this notion of “in itself”, signifying what stands alone, is unique, that literature threads its paths. The ideal openness and the Deleuze-style horizontals operate at many levels including the commercial and the social, where those become connected to roles and institutions, and the existential, where they are built into ideas about reality.

To write and read means, at its most profound, to search for freedom, for routes into the open and it is the search for freedom that is fundamental and not whatever one tries to be free of, be it an identity, an ideology about equivalences or an idea about reality. Or, as my editor said the other day when we were talking about Peter Handke’s books: a definition of the task of literature could be to take you to where storytelling cannot reach. In other words, to where nothing is but everything is becoming.

Published 3 April 2014
Original in Norwegian
Translated by Anna Paterson
First published by Samtiden 3/2013 (Norwegian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Samtiden © Karl Ove Knausgård / Eurozine


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