Can a Character in an Autobiographical Novel Review the Book in Which She Appears? On the Ethics of Literary Criticism

Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Book_review_(12213308404).jpg

Written by Mette Leonard Høeg

The common intuition in literary criticism, in art criticism in general and in the public cultural sphere is that it is wrong to engage in criticism of a work if you have a personal relation to its author. The critic who reviews the book of a friend, a professional contact or a former lover is biased and could draw private benefits from this, have ulterior motives of revenge or social/professional advancement. It is the convention in literary criticism to strive for objectivity in the assessment and review of a work, and the critic is generally expected to refrain from referencing personal experiences and using private and autobiographical material, in order to be considered professional, expertly and ethically responsible.

In this post I argue that this intuition is to some extent wrong and misled. I suggest that some literary works call for precisely a literary criticism that is personal and based on the critic’s experiences with the author and the reality it presents. I propose to use the term autotheoretical criticism, or, simply, autocriticism, to designate a genre or kind of literary of criticism which foregrounds the critic’s personal relation to the author of the reviewed work and which is based on the view that such a personal/private connection is relevant, if not even necessary in order to adequately assess the reality-referencing and confessional project of the many works in contemporary literature that blend fiction and autobiography, i.e. to criticise such genre-blending works according to the parameters they themselves set out.

Autofiction, autopoetry, autotheory

One of the most conspicuous trends in contemporary literature is the blending of fiction and autobiography. In the current cultural climate, non-fiction has gained a reputation of being naive, based on the illusion of the possibility of objective and direct presentation of reality. Fiction, at the same time, has for many contemporary writers and readers lost its appeal precisely because of its perceived detachment from reality and inauthenticity. In this context, the conventional distinction between the nonfictional and fictional domain increasingly loses its meaning and relevance, and experimentation with mixing fact and fiction is becoming more widespread and radical. This trend typically entails an acknowledgment of perspectivism, even an emphasis of it: humans can never transcend their subjective perspective on reality, and an accurate understanding and representation of reality can never be reached, only approximated. This contemporary trend of blending is of course not entirely new or revolutionary, but rooted in a fundamental tendency in literature to combine fiction, autobiography and theory in order to achieve a more credible representation of the complexity and uncertainty of reality and existence. While offering new creative forms of literary blending, contemporary literature, then, also continues an ongoing effort in literature to develop new and more adequate forms of realism and to modify and refine the conception of what constitutes authentic or ‘true’ representation.

The blending of fiction and nonfiction in contemporary literature has produced a passionate debate in literary theory and criticism and resulted in the launch of a variety of more or less imaginative genre-labels, such as autofiction, autonarration, autopoetry and autotheory. Such terms are used to designate literary works which demonstratively disrespect the conventional boundary between fiction and nonfiction, deliberately blur the distinction between construct and referentiality, and in which generic undecidability and epistemic uncertainty appear as criteria for, or markers of, authenticity, sincerity and truth. Autofiction, -narration and -poetry are typically applied to works which combine autobiographical or biographical writing with elements, modes, styles and devices of narration that have conventionally been associated with the novel and/or poetry. Autotheory is used for works that similarly fuse autobiography/biography and fiction/lyricism but which in addition have a significant essayistic, theoretical and/or philosophical dimension. Works of autotheory are, moreover, typically characterised by a strong literary meta-awareness and a distinctive confessional dimension; they are at once deeply personal disclosures of desires and shame and theoretical and essayistic treatments of universal matters and topics such as identity, existence, ethics, culture, art, politics and the problems of literary representation itself.

 Autocriticism

The recent blending fact and fiction in literature has been particularly strong in Scandinavia – which has indeed produced the most prominent example of the trend, namely Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle. This plus 2000 pages work, published in six volumes, recounts the author’s life from early childhood and up until the actual time of writing, using fictional narrative modes and devices and thematically focusing on the author’s struggles with love, unfulfilled literary aspirations, his unpoetic daily life and routines and the tensions and challenges that result from his identification with a classical form of masculinity while living at the centre of the progressive, creative and intellectual elite of the Scandinavian welfare societies. Its extensive referentiality to Knausgård’s actual life and the persons in it caused a scandal in Scandinavia, cost the author several close relationships and resulted in his wife’s mental breakdown and psychiatric hospitalisation. Nevertheless, Knausgård’s My Struggle changed the view of what is ethically defensible in terms of references to the private life of the author in literature, and it was followed by a wave of radically referential autofictions which is still in motion.

In May this year, yet another Scandinavian work of blending was published, and one in which I feature as a central figure, with my first name given and easily identifiable to anyone in the Scandinavian public. This autopoetic work, En rejse til mørkets begyndelse (A journey to the origin of darkness), by a Danish writer and academic, is the third volume in a series in which the author deliberately mixes autobiography and poetry, as he combines texts about his life as an academic, a writer, husband and ex-husband, father, son, friend and partner with poetic passages about his fundamental existential fears and anxieties. The books freely and unrestrictedly use private material, presenting an identifiable external private/personal reality. As a witness to the reality represented in the book, I am able to further identify in the book reproductions of real-life conversations and reprinting of actual emails and text messages. The author and the publisher publicly promote the works as created in accordance with a strict poetics of ruthless honesty, radical introspection and brutal self-criticism and by a method of bold, un-censored representation of the author’s most shameful thoughts and darkest character-traits.

The most recent publication of the third instalment in this Danish autopoetic series in which I feature, led me to develop the view that such a boundary-transgressing work invites for similarly boundary-dissolving criticism; and, thus, to form the idea that autofictional/-poetic literature calls for autotheoretical literary criticism; or autocriticism. If this is true, it follows that my personal relation to the author, as his former partner and co-habitant, and my appearance in the book do not disqualify or render me unfit to review the book, as is usually assumed in literary criticism. On the contrary, on this view I would be better qualified than anyone else to give such a criticism precisely by virtue of my being a first-hand witness to the reality described in the book.

Committing to this view, I read the book and published an autocritical review of it in the Danish news media where I am a literary critic. This autocriticism took the form of a series of texts published over several weeks, coinciding with the publication and promotion of the autopoetic work, and combining various elements: literary-theoretical reflections on genre-blending; ethical considerations of autobiographical narrative’s effect of domination and suppression on the real-life persons it includes as supporting characters; criticism of the specific poetics and literary method of the autopoetic work and its literary quality; and counter-narratives to and corrections of some of the scenes in the book which read from my vantage point appear as gross and ethically problematic misrepresentations of reality with damaging impact on the real-life persons they implicate.

Literature as a battlefield for narrative power

Literature – and art in general – can be considered a form of battlefield of narratives, i.e. an arena where individuals try to gain narrative power and influence in the ongoing social negotiation of what is considered true and real by the wider human community. All narratives, both those manifested in writing and published and shared in the public cultural sphere and the fleeting ones orally transferred in local contexts outside the privileged sphere of literature, are part of a competition to determine reality, the definition and description of which is always open to renegotiation and -definition. It seems both sensible and ethically responsible that literary criticism participate in this open-ended process of negotiation and approximation of a truthful rendering and definition of reality. This is especially so when the critic has insights that contradict or disprove the representations in a literary work that purports to truthfully represent reality; in fact, it may even be considered an ethical obligation of the critic in this situation to share her counter-narratives publicly and thereby try to correct the misrepresentations, especially if these are causing harm to real-life persons included in the book.

While autocriticism may at first glance seem immoral, it responds, then, to a need in contemporary criticism for an ethical form of literary criticism with a kind of double nature and with two constitutive – and intertwined and interdependent – dimensions: on the one hand, a discussion, analysis and assessment of the literary work in question and its literary quality and aesthetic value; on the other, the explicit use of personal and private material and the introduction of counter-narratives, by which the literary criticism enters into the privileged field of public narrative negotiations of reality and which allows it to challenge and correct the stories about and renderings of reality published and shared there.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

6 Responses to Can a Character in an Autobiographical Novel Review the Book in Which She Appears? On the Ethics of Literary Criticism

  • Paul David Van Pelt says:

    Interesting and provocative question. Let’s draw a parallel: can a physician credibly critique his/her own diagnosis? I would say there is a conflict of interest. And just so with the one put herein. Ethics, as a practical matter, is ethics, although outcomes differ in gravity. I do not think this is a deeply burning philosophical question. But there are many such thought experiments being devised or re-visited now, while vastly more critical issues confront us. Just sayin’…

  • Ian says:

    Developments of this type certainly reflect the continuing social trend towards dramatic depictions of reality which feed upon the individual and social groups by demolishing many layers of privacy previously perceived as protecting individuals and their social groups by removing or revealing what could be considered to be social good taste supporting the order, or, and probably more confrontational/problematical, the existing/new social order.

    Different rationalisations of situations clearly create divisions in understanding which become as character revealing (what has been learned by the individual/social group and their own direction of development) as they are enlightening. Surely depersonalisation is not a new thing as philosophically, as in literature, a drive exists to removed the author as individual from the writing (a difficulty the article reflects upon several times). Refer to many of the philosophical classics or literary sources and their historical analyses to perceive how challenging that is to achieve. And yet if achieved (along with the removal of the social influence where applicable) it appears a more lasting value frequently becomes attributed to a work, probably because it may be interpreted in different ways by those not so interested in the pure subject itself. It cannot be argued against that gaining a most thorough uncompromising and dispassionate (in the strong emotional sense) comprehension of a subject does assist in achieving a more generic outcome as that generic representation becomes a necessary convenience for expressing complexity. But sadly in the days moment, when a particular understanding is possible, the generic will be more often interpreted to fit the social need. Artworks do seem to suffer a not dissimilar issue where the deliberately dramatic, popular representation, or even personal comment may create initial applause which later often wanes and disappears, and yet the methods learned generally survive.

    Attempting to reference that back into the article by reference to a different field; In larger social groups an often unspoken, but widely acknowledged and frequently followed rule exists that the leaders be seen to be the same as the people. That would not ordinarily be required in a democratic society if it truly represented all of its people, but often privacy is used to mask variences and differences, public relations take over and a narrative is expressed as the more important issue. Those methods are being raised as a formative issue in the article especially with timing and arguing about the focus on presenting an alternative narrative.

    So reflecting upon all of that I ask — if a generic perspective is applied how are different realities in all their complexities viewed? What does a broader inclusive reality reflect?

  • Géraud Lernais says:

    I am not sure I agree with the author. There is a point in the reasoning looking a little bit suspect. It started well, though:

    “All narratives, both those manifested in writing and published and shared in the public cultural sphere and the fleeting ones orally transferred in local contexts outside the privileged sphere of literature, are part of a competition to determine reality, the definition and description of which is always open to renegotiation and -definition.”

    Fully onboard with this. But then:

    “[Thus] It seems both sensible and ethically responsible that literary criticism participate in this open-ended process of negotiation and approximation of a truthful rendering and definition of reality. This is especially so when the critic has insights that contradict or disprove the representations in a literary work that purports to truthfully represent reality; in fact, it may even be considered an ethical obligation of the critic in this situation to share her counter-narratives publicly and thereby try to correct the misrepresentations, especially if these are causing harm to real-life persons included in the book.”

    Here the argument seems to go like this:

    premise 1) Fictional narratives sometimes convey misrepresentations, i.e. representations inducing false beliefs in the audience.
    premise 2) Literary critiques are in a privileged position to allow or disallow the propagation of (mis)representations.
    premise 3) (implicit) One has a moral obligation to disallow the propagation of misrepresentations if one is a privileged position to do it, especially when those misrepresentations might cause harm.
    :: Therefore literary critiques have a moral obligation to disallow the propagation of (at least some) misrepresentations conveyed by fictional narratives.

    The argument seems fine but notice that fiction plays no role in the argument. Premises 1 and 2 could be rephrased to:

    premise 1*) Narratives sometimes convey misrepresentations, i.e. representations inducing false beliefs in the audience.
    premise 2*) Some readers are in a privileged position to allow or disallow the propagation of (mis)representations, especially when those misrepresentations might cause harm.
    :: Therefore some readers (i.e. the privileged ones) have a moral obligation to disallow the propagation of (at least some) misrepresentations conveyed by narratives.

    Morever the argument does not seem to have lost any argumentative power after the rephrasal. In other words there seems to be nothing about fiction, autofiction or literary critiques qua *literary* critiques (= critiques of literary works) that imparts any force to the argument. The argument goes through simply because:
    – *published narratives* have become part of the public speech;
    – public speech sometimes jeopardize the ethos / public representations about actual people;
    – some readers with a privileged access to the narratives and their context of reception should, simply as decent human beings, prevent harm if they can

    In other words, whether or not the ones whose ethos / public representations is jeopardized by a specific piece of public speech *are* the objects of the representations conveyed by that very piece of public speech makes no difference to one’s duty as a privileged reader. The only thing that matters is that the representations conveyed in that piece of public speech run the risk of causing harmful actions.

  • Géraud Lernais says:

    … (cont’d) In other words, truth plays no role in the duty of privileged readers.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Some good analytical philosophy going here, seems to me. Also, willingness to give credit where it is due…a cautionary caveat of philosophers and some public intellectuals: every story has more than two sides. Or, if I may be permitted, more than one interpretation. So, let’s throw another wrench into the machinery. This runs alongside the notions of reality and truth, as they vie for attention and respect, and, if grudging, admiration. My question is this: is the character in this autobiographical novel real or fictitious? And, moreover, does a reader know before picking up the book? Fictional literature has no ethical obligation, seems to me. Indeed, it is entertainment and escapism. If an ethical or moral truism emerges in the telling, this is only collateral benefit, which MAY have been intended by the author. Or, may have surfaced, via Jung’s idea of synchronicity or some other idiosyncrisy of chance. If reality is ‘ how things probably are’ not ‘ how they might possibly be’, as once posited by Nagel and in similar terminologies by others, that is as it is. Fictional literature—if it may be characterized as literature—has no ethical or moral restraints under which it is bound. It is, uh, privileged in its own right…while the reader is along for the anticipated ride. Going a final bridge, then, our intrepid character, who does not exist and never did, is no more bound by moral or ethical rules than the fictional work, in which she appears.

    If any of this sounds like: where have I heard this before?,. think: postmodernism.

  • Ian says:

    The softer methods of hinting about missing items does illuminate that the focused responses so far on fiction and other interests limits the dialogue to a restricted area within the social arena. If the social area is to be considered, there should be some ethical consideration of any broader social influences potentially at work, any softer methods of influencing without informing as well as the material openly provided.

    There is a definite difference between a work of fiction and a self referencing work which allows for the simple identification of other characters within that work, especially where the vulnerability of those others is not considered. Yet these types of issues are clearly not new as may be illustrated over many centuries in various ways prior to becoming more lastingly visible in the written word in letters, books, photographs, other artworks and so on, so one would ordinarily expect the developed juris prudence to reflect previous social needs, where it is able to (even accepting most of that should be expected to protect the social order rather than the individual).

    If a focus on this article were purely held within the social world, among the broader issues which also need to be considered are: a potential collusion between the book writer and the blog writer; or manipulation of the blog writer by the publishing houses marketing department (or ex partner). Used as a means of gaining a broader audience to increase/maintain sales, or penetrate a new market. With such action not agreed by the blog article author being ethically justified by maintaining that the focus of any manipulative emotional stress caused by the publishing house’s actions would create some benefit (as viewed from the publishing houses worldview) for the blog article writer (something which written responses to the book(s), would probably immediately legally justify – perhaps a legal ethics expert would care, or not, to elaborate on that as this response runs on too long already). A required consideration of the broader social good could assist in counterbalancing actions like those speculative ones, but that would not provide a full solution as they become fashioned by political taste. Considering that it is 20+ years since similar issues were coming to the fore, causing very real emotional damage and difficulties to youngsters using social media, phone cameras and so on, it should perhaps be expected that similarly disrespectfully forceful techniques are now being seen more obviously and with more frequency in the wider communities. To see how damaging those actions are and how they can lock individuals into certain social spheres look to books like Danah Boyds ‘Its complicated’ Such actions are also known to become life threatening in some circumstances.

    But speculative social aspects do loose sight of the questions being asked in the classical text book example provided by this blog article writer of a breach of privacy and the turmoil caused. Many of those are individual questions about part of a specific ethic probably partially designed to deny space for public arguments between protagonists over very personal material which would leave it to the popularity figures to determine when things should fade away as people weary of the drama. The hints of intimations about using the law, and a whole range of emotions which are visibly woven into the questions asked, and justifications given for particular actions, indicate a reasonable, one could say expert, level of knowledge about the social side of this type of domain. So, rather than taking the given as received, the freely chosen and broadly informed actions of the individual will determine what type of world they wish to live in, and asking thoughtful questions, even if mixed with many emotional thoughts which muddy the water slightly, is a good route to a considered outcome about the moral dilemma caused for them, which suits them, and their own intended development track.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use the <em>, <strong> and <blockquote> tags. Links have been disabled to combat spam.

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

Authors

Affiliations