Can a character from an autobiographical novel review the book in which he appears? On the ethics of literary criticism



Written by Mette Leonard Hoeg

The intuition common to literary criticism, to art criticism in general and to the public cultural sphere is that it is wrong to engage in criticism of a work if one has a personal relationship with its author. . The reviewer who criticizes the book of a friend, business contact, or former lover is biased and may derive private benefit, have ulterior motives of revenge, or social/professional advancement. It is the convention in literary criticism to seek objectivity in the evaluation and criticism of a work, and the critic is generally expected to refrain from referring to personal experiences and from using private and autobiographical, in order to be seen as professional, expert and ethically responsible. .

In this article, I argue that this intuition is to some extent wrong and misleading. I suggest that some literary works specifically call for personal literary criticism based on the critic’s experiences with the author and the reality he presents. I suggest using the term autotheoretical criticismor simply, self-criticism, to designate a genre or kind of literary criticism which emphasizes the personal relationship of the critic with the author of the work being reviewed and which is based on the idea that such a personal/private relationship is relevant, even necessary, for adequately evaluate the project of real and confessional referencing of the many works of contemporary literature that mix fiction and autobiography, that is to say criticize these works mixing genres according to the parameters that they themselves set out.

Autofiction, autopoetry, autotheory

One of the most remarkable trends in contemporary literature is the mixture of fiction and autobiography. In the current cultural climate, non-fiction has acquired a reputation for naïveté, based on the illusion of the possibility of an objective and direct presentation of reality. Fiction, meanwhile, 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 non-fiction realm and the fictional realm loses more and more meaning and relevance, and the experimentation with the mixture of reality and fiction becomes generalized and radicalized. This tendency generally involves a recognition of, or even an insistence on, perspectivism: humans can never transcend their subjective view of reality, and an accurate understanding and representation of reality can never be achieved, only approximated. . This contemporary trend of mixing 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 believable representation of the complexity and uncertainty of reality and existence. While offering new creative forms of literary interbreeding, contemporary literature therefore also pursues a continuing effort in literature to develop new and more adequate forms of realism and to modify and refine the conception of what constitutes an authentic or “true” representation.

The mixture of fiction and non-fiction in contemporary literature has produced heated debate in literary theory and criticism and resulted in the launch of a variety of more or less imaginative genre labels, such as autofiction, self-narrative, autopoetry and autotheory. Such terms are used to refer to literary works that manifestly disrespect the conventional boundary between fiction and non-fiction, deliberately blur the distinction between construct and referentiality, and in which generic undecidability and epistemic uncertainty appear as criteria or markers of authenticity, sincerity and truth. . Autofiction, -narrative and -poetry are generally applied to works that combine autobiographical or biographical writing with elements, modes, styles, and storytelling devices that have traditionally been associated with the novel and/or poetry. Autotheory is used for works that merge autobiography/biography and fiction/lyricism in the same way but which also have an important essayistic, theoretical and/or philosophical dimension. Works of autotheory are, moreover, typically characterized by a strong literary meta-consciousness and a distinctive confessional dimension; they are both deeply personal revelations of desires and shame and theoretical, essayistic treatments of universal questions and subjects such as identity, existence, ethics, culture, art, politics and the problems of literary representation itself.


The recent mix of fact and fiction in literature has been particularly strong in Scandinavia – which has indeed produced the most prominent example of the trend, namely the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård My battle. This work of more than 2000 pages, published in six volumes, recounts the life of the author from his early childhood until the very moment of writing, using fictional narrative modes and devices and focusing thematically on the the author’s love struggles, his unfulfilled literary aspirations, his unpoetic everyday life, and the routines and tensions and challenges that result from his identification with a classical form of masculinity while living at the center of the progressive elite , creative and intellectual of Scandinavian welfare societies. Its extended referentiality to the real life of Knausgård and the people featured in it caused a scandal in Scandinavia, cost the author several close relationships, and resulted in the mental breakdown and psychiatric hospitalization of his wife. Nevertheless, Knausgård My battle changed the outlook on what is ethically defensible in terms of references to the author’s private life in literature, and it was followed by a wave of radically referential autofiction that is still on the move.

In May of this year, another Scandinavian blending work was published, and one in which I feature as a central figure, given my first name and easily identifiable by anyone in the Scandinavian audience. This autopoetic work, In rejse til mørkets begyndelse (A Journey to the Origin of Darkness), by a Danish writer and scholar, is the third volume in a series in which the author deliberately mixes autobiography and poetry, combining texts about his life as an academic, d writer, husband and ex-husband, father, son, friend and partner with poetic passages about his basic existential fears and anxieties. The books make free and unrestricted use of private material, presenting an identifiable private/personal outer reality. As a witness to the reality depicted in the book, I am able to further identify in the book reproductions of actual conversations and the reprinting of actual emails and text messages. The author and publisher publicly promote the works as they have been created in accordance with a strict poetics of ruthless honesty, radical introspection and brutal self-criticism and through a bold and uncensored method of portraying the thoughts most most shameful and darkest character traits of the author. .

The most recent publication of the third part of this Danish autopoetic series in which I appear, led me to develop the idea that such a work transgressing borders invites a similar criticism which dissolves borders; and, thus, to form the idea that autofictional/poetic literature calls autotheoretical literary criticism; or self-criticism. If this is true, it follows that my personal relationship with the author, as his former partner and cohabitant, and my appearance in the book do not disqualify me or make me unqualified to review the book, as is usually assumes so in literary criticism. On the contrary, from this point of view, I would be better qualified than anyone to make such a criticism, precisely because I am a first-hand witness to the reality described in the book.

From this point of view, I read the book and published a self-critical review of it in the Danish news media where I am a literary critic. This self-criticism 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 and theoretical reflections on the mixing of genres; ethical considerations of the dominating and suppressing effect of autobiographical narrative on the real people it includes as supporting characters; criticism of the specific poetic and literary method of the autopoetic work and of its literary quality; and the counter-narratives and corrections of some of the book’s scenes that read from my perspective come across as crude and ethically problematic representations of reality with a detrimental impact on the real people they implicate.

Literature as a battlefield of narrative power

Literature – and art in general – can be seen as a form of narrative battlefield, that is, an arena where individuals attempt to gain narrative power and influence in social negotiation by course of what is considered true and real by the human community at large. All narratives, both those manifested in writing and published and shared in the public cultural sphere, and those ephemeral transferred orally to local contexts outside the privileged sphere of literature, are part of a competition to determine reality, whose definition and description are always open to renegotiation and definition. It seems both sensible and ethically responsible for literary criticism to participate in this open process of negotiating and approximating a truthful interpretation and definition of reality. This is especially the case when the critic has ideas that contradict or refute representations in a literary work that claims to accurately represent reality; in fact, it may even be seen as an ethical obligation of the critic in this situation to publicly share their counter-narratives and thus try to correct the misrepresentations, especially if these cause harm to real people included in the book.

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


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