Yesterday The Awl published an "open letter" I wrote to Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard; as expected, the reaction was ... interesting. The gist of my criticism is that Knausgaard, in the first volume of his autobiographical work (three have now been published in the U.S.; I have not read the latter two), displays an ongoing fear of looking like "a homo" while at the same time discussing the influence of Marcel Proust and a host of other non-heterosexual authors (but without ever mentioning that they're gay). In my letter, I explained why I think Knausgaard's work is offensive and not worthy of the critical acclaim it has received.
What I found validating about the response -- beyond those who clearly agreed with me, and there were many -- is that not a single person who objected to my letter was able to say, "actually, Karl Ove Knaussgaard's work is not riddled with homophobic language; you are mistaken," or "in his subsequent volumes, he writes candidly about his homophobia and explains why he no longer holds such abhorrent views," or something along those lines. Instead, some said that I was being "unfair" to a writer who grew up in a small, isolated town in Norway by holding him to a standard of equality we might expect while strolling through the leafy streets of the West Village, and that Knausgaard's purpose was to display his adolescent mindset, warts and all. Others accused me of wanting to dictate another writer's language, as though I were impinging on his "First Amendment" rights by expressing why his work offended me. (This is a right-wing tactic regularly used by proponents of "religious freedom" who want to discriminate against gays or women or whoever else doesn't fit their model of humanity.) Some accused me of being "too sensitive," which would be laughable except that it echoes across the history of marginalized groups seeking political (and cultural) equality. I won't bother responding to these arguments here, as I did so in the comments to the piece.
What I do think is necessary to consider in the wake of this piece is the following question: why is it that not a single reviewer before yours truly remarked on the homophobic language and perverse appropriation of gay writers in Knausgaard's work? By contrast, do you think that Knausgaard would have received such accolades from the highest echelons if he had used similarly presumptuous racist language while appropriating African-American writers? I think the answer is obvious that he would not (which is good; racist writers should not be made into literary darlings). Why, then, is it acceptable in literary cirles to be openly -- by which I mean, uncritically -- homophobic but not openly racist? And let's be honest, we see this sort of gratuitous homophobia throughout the entertainment industry, in the unceasing use of implicitly homophobic language, #nohomo innuendo, and "gay jokes" that plague so many television shows and movies.
There is a kind of fatigue that must also be confronted when addressing this question. The gay population is obviously making great strides in the political realm. Laws are being changed; in many states, we can now get married. Many people -- including gays -- are tempted to say, "Can't you just be happy with what you have? So much progress has been made! Give it a break already!" I feel this myself when I start to complain about someone like Knausgaard and why he offends me. It really does seem like a small thing in the grand picture; why make such a fuss? The problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn't recognize the importance of gay writers to the literary tradition, along with the importance that art holds to so many of our lives (for many, it's really what makes life worth living, and defines our humanity). Right now, if we imagine the literary establishment (with the understanding that it is a diffuse concept) as a castle, it's a beautiful structure that homosexual writers (and particularly those who write about homosexuality) such as Marcel Proust helped to build -- you might even go so far as to say that he designed it -- but from which his literary descendants are forbidden to enter. There is a lavish, aristocratic party going on inside, and gays (who are not invited) are being told that we should be happy to be alive, even if it means subsisting on a few crumbs occasionally tossed out the window as we scrounge around in the bushes.
Obviously, I think it's time to set aside our fatigue and knock down the doors of an institution that our forebears built; it's critical to our current and future sense of collective self-worth, and once the political fight is over, it's where the wars of empathy will be fought. We must mobilize for this war now, knowing that, at the moment, it's one we are still losing badly.