I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been engaged in a horrible torture which I hadn’t at all expected. No, it’s not another medical procedure, it’s a legal issue, and it’s resulted in weeks of inability to move forward, more drastic editing, and the emergence of a totally new and unexpected project which I can say nothing at all about here, now or ever, well, for the forseeable future anyway.
I have to thank Karl Ove Knausgaard once again.
Karl Ove Knausgaard 2011
I’ve said before how important his work has been to my thinking about my memoirs, but lo and behold, his amazing final book, appropriately titled The End, appeared at the exact moment that I finished the first round of edits of my first memoirs book. I thought I was long-winded, but this book is 1100 pages or so. I’ve only managed to read 250 so far and I am desperate to get on with it but because it’s only in print (no e-book format) and because it weighs so much I can’t read it in bed at night which is when I do most of my reading, so I have to read it sitting up in a well-lit room, a few pages at a time. It also has no chapters, breaks or internal subdivisions so if you lose your place it’s damned hard to find it again.
It was published in Norway/Europe in 2011/2012 but English speaking readers had to wait until now – SEVEN YEARS LATER – to read it.
This makes the whole experience very bizarre because he is writing in the present of what is now a long-ago life. A little research reveals that after The End was published he broke up with his wife Linda who has been or still is suffering from a mental illness, he sees his four children in Sweden for a week at a time and lives mainly in London with a new wife, where he is lionized and presumably now very wealthy. All of this is not just aimless gossip, it goes to the heart of what he reveals in Book Six about his entire writing project and where it leads him, how it makes him reconsider who he actually is and what it means to be a writer, and even though he doesn’t know that this will be the outcome while he is writing the words you are reading.
There is so much to say about the Knausgaard effect, about truth and recollection and representation and writing and publishing in the twenty-first century but the thing I have to thank him for is making me truly aware of what can happen when you write about living people using their real names. As is famously known, his Uncle Gunnar, who he thought loved and supported him, went ballistic when an early book in the series appeared. Uncle Gunnar threatened to take him, his publishers and his mother as well to court. It is still not clear to me whether the court case actually took place or only existed in his own imagination, or whether he responded by radically changing his text to meet Uncle Gunnar’s objections. In any case, it was a traumatic irruption of another person’s truth into his creative project which he continues to call a “novel” even though he never claims the people he writes about are fictional and there are no disclaimers at the front of his books.
I have spent weeks now looking into the legal situation of writers of memoirs. The outcome is very sobering. Although laws are different in different countries, there are many commonalities. People who are written about by name in a memoir can object to the publication of the work on various grounds, including the invasion of privacy. “Truth” is not necessarily a defence. Writers are told they should send pre-publication copies to everyone who appears significantly in the book and ask them to indicate in writing that they agree to appear in it. If they ask to be left out altogether, or have their names and identities changed, the author apparently needs to go along with that or face potential consequences. I have been looking at some recent cases to see how the law has been applied. I understand now why so many apparently autobiographical writings are labeled “fiction” and have vigorous disclaimers at the front.
One of my motivating factors in writing my memoirs has always been to be as much aligned with “the Truth” as possible. Of course I know everyone’s truth is different, but it has seemed to me that writers have not just the right but the duty to avoid the constant hiding-away and dissimulation and self-indulgence which accompanies so much personal narrative. I am amazed to discover that it’s more or less a legal requirement and my mother was right to say “If you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say anything at all”. Who knew?
Then I found out that defamation suits are being brought against writers of fiction. Dan Brown is famous for his world-wide best-seller The Da Vinci Code. In his latest book, Origin, he suggests that an Irish cult-monitoring group took money to fight a sect of the Catholic Church. His publisher is being sued. It’s a fascinating case, and also highlights that the mere fact of publication can result in a court case, even if the book was written somewhere else altogether by someone of another citizenship.
So what are you supposed to do? I guess the best thing is to write about life forms on interplanetary galaxies with no resemblance to humans. But I suppose your great-aunt could still take offence and claim that pus-dripping hydra-headed monster you wrote about was “really” her. As if copyright isn’t enough of a nightmare!