Wednesday 27 January 2021

What writers and editors do

 The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible. An example is Gordon Lish, who became known in the literary world as “Captain Fiction” and whose authors included Raymond Carver. Another is Maxwell Perkins, editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose epithet was the “Editor of Genius.” One of the most celebrated editing jobs ever done was carried out by Ezra Pound, not in any formal capacity, but as a friend, his ruthless hand paring down an early version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the form in which we know it today. Gordon Lish’s editing was quite as unconstrained and uncompromising, the style we think of as Carver’s being in fact Lish’s work. Carver himself was rather ambivalent about it, though it unquestionably established his name as a writer. This became apparent when Carver’s own manuscript was published after his death, his stories there being quite differently ample and expansive, barely recognizable. There is little doubt that the editor’s Carver was better than Carver’s Carver, and how must that have made the author feel as he stood in the spotlight to receive his accolades, hailed as the great new name of American literature? The example is interesting, for the job of the editor is to exert influence, not for his own good, nor necessarily for the author’s, but for that of the book, and if we can suggest that Lish went too far, we must also ask in relation to what? After all, the book was certainly the better for it. Were the wounded feelings of its author more important? Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been poorer and he would have been a reasonably good writer rather than a brilliant one. This raises the question of what a writer is, and where the boundaries run between the author, the book, and the surrounding world.

America has a tradition of strong editors, though the issue is not specifically American. I know of Norwegian editors who to all intents and purposes move their author’s feet, so to speak, in the dance of their literary endeavors, who basically instruct them: left foot here, right foot there, left foot here, right foot there. And I know, too, of Norwegian writers at the exact opposite pole, who deliver print-ready manuscripts to their editors and would change publishers promptly at the suggestion of reworking anything.

Lish’s job on Carver is perhaps too extreme to serve as an example of the role of the editor, but what any kind of boundary breaking always does is to draw attention to the boundary itself—in this case between editor and writer, who together with the text form a kind of Bermuda Triangle within whose force field everything said and done disappears without trace. Had Lish not gone as far as he did, everything in Carver’s texts would have been attributed unequivocally to Carver, the way all novels, short stories, and poetry collections are attributed unequivocally to the writer. To understand what goes on in this shadowland, we could ask ourselves: What would the books have been like without their editors? In my own case, the answer is simple: there would have been no books. I would not have been a writer. This is not to say that my editor writes my books for me, but that his thoughts, input, and insights are imperative to their being written. These thoughts, this input, and these insights are particular to me and my writing process; when he is editing the work of other authors, what he gives them is something particular to their work. The job of editor is therefore ideally undefined and open, dependent on each individual writer’s needs, expectations, talent, and integrity, and it is first and foremost based on trust, hinging much more on personal qualities and human understanding than on formal literary competence.

I remember a time in my late twenties when I was working for a literary magazine, we had commissioned a contribution from an established poet, and I was given the job of taking care of it. I read the poem and responded with a few comments, some suggestions as to minor changes, and a tentative inquiry as to whether the poem might be developed a bit further in the same direction. The reply that came back can be summed up in a single question: “Who are you?” In fact, there may well have been an undertone in that reply warranting an even more forceful wording: “Who the hell are you?” I was vexed by this, my comments had been cautious and, as far as I could see, justified. It was how I was used to commenting on the works-in-progress of my writer friends. Surely a poet of such experience and standing could relate more professionally to their own writing?

But the reaction wasn’t about the poem. It was about a faceless editor wanting to change the poem, which I guessed was being construed as an attack. As if there was something wrong with the poem and this faceless young male academic thought he knew what was needed to fix it. Objectively, I think my comments were on the right track, but when it comes to writing there is no such thing as objective, it’s all about the person writing and the person reading. If I had met this poet a few times, if we had been able to gain an impression of each other, perhaps get an idea as to each other’s literary preferences, I think my comments might have been taken differently, perhaps even prompted changes to the work, though not necessarily in the way I had envisaged.


The situations in which creative writing takes place are often complicated, to put it mildly—anyone even slightly familiar with the writing profession, as we so grandly refer to it, knows that it is one great big entanglement of neuroses, hang-ups, blockages, frailties, idiosyncrasies, alcoholism, narcissism, depression, psychosis, hyperactivity, mania, inflated egos, low self-esteem, compulsion, obligation, impulsive ideas, clutter, and procrastination—and working with writing in that kind of context means that a concept such as quality is a poor standard indeed, at least if we think of quality as an objective norm. In literary editing, quality is a dynamic entity, more a process than a grade, and one that will vary according to the individual writer and editor.

That the books that come out of this are treated in almost exactly the opposite way in literary criticism, which is very much about weights and measures and comparisons to other books, can often throw an author into shock and is something one never quite gets used to. It feels almost as if there are different books, one belonging to the editor, another to the critic, and for the author this can be difficult; should he or she listen to his or her editor, who will invariably say that critics don’t know what they’re talking about, that they are insensitive and stupid, driven by their own agendas, and so on, or to the judgement of the critics?

Erlend Loe exploits the comedy that lies in the difference between the work of editors and critics in his most recent novel, Vareopptelling (Stocktaking), which opens with an editor phoning an aging poet and telling her how great the reviews of her latest collection have been, everything he says being more or less veiled with the intention of shielding her from the reality of the matter, after which she embarks on a personal crusade to erase the discrepancy between her own perception of the book and that of the critics. It’s funny because it’s recognizable, the editor’s attempts to deal with poor reviews, as well as the thoughts of vengeance they can give rise to in the mind of the author, it strikes a chord. Even a writer like Stieg Larsson, who made a name for himself with his very first book and was canonized in his own lifetime, lets the poorer reviews get to him, he can’t let go of them, including in his collection of poems Natta de mina (Goodnight My Dear Ones), a grotesque fantasy in which a named critic is mutilated. And Paul Auster, a world-renowned author one would think to have been so acclaimed in his time that poor reviews would be like water off a duck’s back, expends a great deal of emotional energy in his recently published correspondence with J. M. Coetzee reacting to James Wood’s critiques of his books in The New Yorker, not with arguments, but with descriptions of what it feels like—which is like being mugged in broad daylight.

This is so because writing and publishing a book is to lay some part of oneself bare, in such a way as to be utterly defenseless, and allow oneself to be judged by someone with nothing at risk. An editor who also works as a critic, which is to say interpreting and passing judgments on quality—and yes, they exist—serves literature poorly, since interpretation and judgment wrap up a work as if for good, whereas what they should be doing is keeping it open as long as possible. For literature is always something that is becoming, in the making, whereas the forms in which it appears are something that is, they exist already. And since the art is to force oneself beyond what is and into what is becoming—which is alive and essentially unknown to us until we get there—then only those who don’t know how to write can write, only those who can’t write a novel can write a novel. From this it follows that the role of the editor can’t be about knowing either, for in these processes knowledge is sabotage.

Now we are far from the classic editor, the fifty-six-year-old man in tweed, bent over the manuscript, pencil in hand, and are approaching my own editor, whose pencil never appears before a date has been set for publication and the services of a proofreader engaged to go through the final manuscript. What his work until then involves I can’t say with any certainty, other than that we talk quite a lot. These discussions take place during all stages of the writing, from before a single word has been put to paper and only a vague idea exists as to what area of reality the novel is to explore, until the book has been published and the various ways in which it has been received call for endless and occasionally crisis-bound conferences with a person who knows how much has been invested in it and has invested so much in it himself.

Although this has been going on for seventeen years, during which time we have published a total of eight novels and sat for countless hours talking on the phone or in conference rooms and offices, and have gone through thousands of manuscript pages, I am still unable to say “this is what he does,” “this is how he works,” “this is how he thinks.” Of course, this has to do with me never being able to really see others, the fact that I’m so involved in myself that I never quite manage to get beyond that, but that’s not the only reason. It has to do with his way of working, too, which is not about remoteness, the famous view from without, but about nearness, the view from within, which is more difficult to see and define. What we stand above is easy to see, what we stand below is easy to see, and what we stand beside is easy to see, but what we stand in the middle of is not.

When I was writing my autobiographical novel My Struggle there were three people in particular to whom I found it difficult to give shape, difficult to give voice. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, I could neither hear nor see them. I knew who they were to me, but it was almost impossible to give that awareness form. One of these people was my mother, one was my wife, one was my editor. What could these three very different people have in common that meant they were stuck in the shadows of my writer’s mind? In a way, the people they were went without saying, they didn’t need me to speak for them, they spoke for themselves. For an author, this is interesting: writing is about giving form to something, constructing something, familiar or unfamiliar, by means of language. Usually, this is easier the more unfamiliar the object: a cow wandering through a poor street in India is easy to depict, whereas a man watching TV in his apartment is not. Nearly all literature is about conflicts, which have their root in differences, the unlike breaking out of the like and only then allowing itself to be captured. Sameness residing in sameness, which is to say harmony, is almost impossible to make into anything. And this is where my mother, my wife, and my editor come in, for what roles do they play in my life? They give, demanding nothing, or very little, in return. To see such a person, who gives without making demands, is hard indeed. Demands have outline, but the absence of demands? Such absence is nothing, it is without shape, yet at the same time significant, and quite fundamental in everything that is human.

We see and talk about everything that works loose and tears itself away, never about what comes to us. This is true in the greater perspective and true in the smaller perspective. My father took something from me, I competed with my brother, this is easy for me to see and write about, but my mother gave me something, and this is difficult for me to see and write about. What did she give me? I’m not sure exactly. My editor, what does he give me? Suggestions as to books I should read? Yes, but many other people do that as well. An understanding of what I’m doing? Yes, but I have that myself, and if it isn’t complete, there are many other people I know who could fill in the gaps. Inspiration? Certainly, but I get that opening almost any book about art.

All this is important, but it isn’t what is significant. What is significant is a feeling, something vague and elusive, perhaps best captured in the word trust. I have absolute trust in him. With absolutely everything I write, even the smallest newspaper article, he has to read it before I can publish it anywhere. This is something on which I’m totally reliant and at the same time take for granted. It’s not a function, it’s not something anyone else can do, because it’s not about the role of editor, it’s about him, the person he is. And that’s what the role of editor is for me.


There are many conceptions about writing. One of the most common is that it’s a lonely business, something writers do on their own. I can’t see myself in that. On the contrary, in all the years I’ve been making my living as a writer I’ve been dependent on the help of others in order to write. When I was writing My Struggle, I read every word of it out loud to a friend, Geir Angell Øygarden, I called him on the phone every single day and read him what I had written, some five thousand pages in total. Why? Because someone had to tell me it was good enough, that was one thing, but also what it actually was that I was doing, and, importantly, what it might become, in what directions I could proceed. I needed his thoughts, they came together with mine but from a completely different place, and this was essential; because I was writing about myself I desperately needed that view from outside, which in this case was not simply a view but a whole outlook, which I made my own in the novel. Those conversations formed a space, and I think all books exist within such a space, either very obviously (as in my case) or less so, for instance when what surrounds them is the literature an author reads during the writing process, or has read before it starts. Even though I knew nothing about this when I began to write at the age of eighteen, I still set up those kinds of spaces; it was as if the need itself made it happen. The actual act of writing still took place in solitude, but everything that surrounded it, which after all was what was important, had to do with other people. When I was nineteen, for instance, studying literature at the university in Bergen, I met Espen Stueland. He was writing, I was writing, we became friends, and he shared with me everything he could think and read, everything he had thought and read. He introduced me to books by Ole Robert Sunde, Tor Ulven, Claude Simon, Gunnar Ekelöf, Osip Mandelstam, Samuel Beckett, to pick out just a few of the many names that swirled in the air at that time. We read each other’s texts, and his critiques, as sincere as they were severe, encouraged me to rewrite or toss. But even when I tossed what I had written, I was stirred, because through Espen I had suddenly come to a place where literature mattered, and was perhaps what mattered most of all, a place where it was impossible to bluff, impossible to cheat, impossible to be half-hearted in anything we read or wrote: it was all or nothing. Espen soon debuted with the poetry collection Sakte dans ut av brennende hus (Serene Dance Out of a Burning House) and uprooted to Oslo, got involved with Vagant, and shared that with me, too, introducing me to the writers and critics he met in that connection. I stayed behind in Bergen, and there I met another student who wrote, his name was Tore Renberg, we, too, became friends, and he shared with me everything he could think and read, everything he had thought and read. Tore’s literary preferences were different from Espen’s, but included many of the same authors: Tor Ulven was impossible to ignore for any student of literature in the early nineties, Ole Robert Sunde likewise, and Samuel Beckett was everywhere. But the writers Tore was most immersed in at that time were Eldrid Lunden (whose work I had never read), Tarjei Vesaas, and Sigbjørn Obstfelder. We, too, read each other’s texts, and in a very short space of time he wrote a collection of short prose pieces that got accepted for publication, the title was Sovende flokke (Sleeping Tangle), and, like Espen, he, too, uprooted to Oslo, debuted, and soon after became involved with Vagant.

When all of this was going on, when I was sitting around in cafés with Tore or Espen, talking about literature or music or football, the three of us having in common the fact that we wrote and wanted to be writers, it was nothing. None of us knew how things were going to pan out, we barely knew what we were doing. Were we doing anything at all? Weren’t we just idling away our time, doing nothing other than following our own inclinations? It was all without shape, as yet undefined, and if reading Tor Ulven, for instance, pointed forward in time to a future Tor Ulven influence in our generation’s literature, which is now incontestable, we were oblivious to it then, for we were no generation, we represented nothing, and what we were doing stayed between us and had no audience, the very thought was absurd. It was as local as you can get, the coffee was lukewarm, the rain came down outside, and if I needed a piss I could wait out of politeness. But writing this now I sense it transforming from nothing into something, an era is committed to writing, a milieu emerges, a history unfolds. And yes, seen from where we are now, Espen forty-two years old and a father of two, Tore forty-one and a father of two, I myself forty-four and a father of three, middle-aged men the three of us, authors of a sizable number of books, essays, and articles, a straight line seems to go from all our get-togethers and discussions back then to where we are now, authors of our generation.

As such, history always lies, it turns what was inconsistent, all over the place, perhaps even meaningless, into something consistent, systematic, and meaningful. The situations and events that occurred, the people who were there, and the discussions between them were of course real, it is not the case that writing about something is the same as lying or distorting, but the moment that reality is written down it is given a form that is basically abiding and unalterable, which pins it down in a certain way, whereas what was significant about it was that it was all over the place and could not be pinned down at all. To write about a situation is to take out part of its potential, at the same time as its remaining potential disappears into the shadows of the unsaid, the unthought, and the unwritten, in the valley of opportunities lost.

But anyway, there I was in Bergen, twenty-six years old. My two best (and only) friends had achieved the only thing I really wanted to do in life, they had made their literary debuts and moved to Oslo, to the very center of Norwegian literary life. It felt like they had abandoned me, and if they were unaware of exactly how jealous I was, they must surely have had an inkling, or at least should have had, the three of us had shared the same lives, young aspiring writers, shared the same ambition, to become authors, we had shared all our reading experiences, everything we learned, and they had succeeded—Tore spectacularly so, receiving that year’s Best New Writer Award—whereas I had failed and was left behind in Bergen, with what amounted to nothing, because unlike Espen and Tore I couldn’t write, in the sense that nothing came out when I sat down at the computer, not a sentence, not a word, I was completely empty. I told myself the ambition of writing, or the belief that I actually could do it, was self-delusion, a deception. Tore had it in him, Espen had it in him, I didn’t. What I did then was go back to studying. Within a year, I did a subsidiary course in art history and began majoring in literature. I was going to write about literature instead. But then something totally unexpected happened. An editor called me up asking if I could come in for a chat, he had read a short story of mine and wanted to discuss it with me.

Nowadays, this is a fairly normal way of going about things. Back then, in the early nineties, it wasn’t. For anyone harboring ambitions of becoming an author in the late eighties and early nineties the way to do it was this: you wrote a book and submitted it to a publishing house, after which you waited a month or two before receiving a reply in the post, very likely a rejection, which could fall into one of several categories; it could be a standard rejection, which was a bad sign, it meant the manuscript came across so weak it hadn’t been worth the effort to give it an individual assessment. If, on the other hand, it was accompanied by a reader’s assessment, then it was a notch up, even if that assessment happened to be negative, since it meant someone at least had seen enough merit in the work to commission an external reader to read it and make an appraisal. That appraisal might conclude with something to the effect that the author showed promise, but that the present manuscript could not be recommended for publication, or—oh, joy!—that they would like to read it again in revised form. But because that revision had to be done by the author alone, with at best a couple of vague suggestions to go by, it, too, normally ended up in a rejection. Only very, very seldom did it happen that a manuscript was accepted as it stood—I remember hearing at the time that it was one in a hundred.

Because of the distance between author and publisher, so great it amounted to an abyss, a lot depended on capturing the attention of this mysterious and unapproachable reader from the outset. A strong title, in an eye-catching font (if memory serves me right, you could buy sheets of lettering back then, before we got word processors, in Gothic style, for instance, and stick them on), without typos or scribblings-out, a meticulously worded accompanying letter. I remember a piece of advice to us from Øystein Lønn when I was at the Writing Academy: Put your best parts first, no matter how little it says about the text overall, put the best parts first. It was all about getting read, about making sure whoever was charged with sifting through new manuscripts at the publishing house didn’t just toss yours aside, but was intrigued enough to read on.

The first novel I submitted as a manuscript, it must have been in 1989, drew a standard rejection of no more than a few lines, the publishers had read the manuscript with interest, which was good, but they wouldn’t be publishing it. Still, this was nothing compared to Tore, who not without pride had told me he’d been turned down eighteen times. He was nineteen years old. But when he debuted, it happened in a different way altogether. He had not submitted a manuscript to a publishing house, the way generations of budding Norwegian authors all the way back to Hamsun had done before him, no, in his case the publishing house had called him. He had written some reviews in Morgenbladet and Vinduet, and one morning the phone rang and it was a man presenting himself as an editor at the Tiden publishing house, wondering if Tore would like to be a reader for him. Tore accepted gladly, though not without mentioning that he was a writer himself. The editor, who had suspected as much, duly offered to have a look at his work.

That was how Tore was taken on by Tiden and became an author. The year after, he was asked by them to edit an anthology of so-called new voices in Norwegian literature and asked me if I happened to have anything he could use. I did. Tucked away in an attempt at a novel about a slave ship that was basically lifted in its entirety from an existing nonfiction book I’d found was a story I sent to Tore and which, perhaps because my envy, which he must surely have sensed, made him feel sorry for me, he published. It wasn’t a very good story, but it did mean that I, too, received a phone call from the same editor, and a few weeks later was seated in his office in Oslo’s Operapassasjen, casting stolen glances at the piles of manuscripts there in case they might reveal something significant to me while he was out getting us coffee. When he came back, we talked a bit, or he did mostly, and then I was back in the street again. It was hardly anything to speak of, but it was enough, for when I left there it was with the feeling of having been seen.

Oh, how fragile these things are. It’s hard to describe that this vague feeling of having been seen, of someone showing faith, was enough for me to start work on a new novel, one in which I went much further than I had before. Was it because of him, that editor? Let me put it like this: had he not asked me to come and see him, I would never have started writing again, at least not in the same way. When I sent him the first beginnings of this new novel, I was ashamed and felt like a dog. Now surely I had let him down, abused his trust, ruined everything. One part in particular felt shaming: at one point, my main character goes into a phone booth on the Torgallmenningen in Bergen, from where he makes a phone call to his ten-year-old self. It was so stupid!

A few weeks passed and then the editor called me. He liked what he had read, especially the part where the main character phones back to his own childhood, that was really good! And he said something else, too: Henrik keeps repeating a thought, something about in the world, out of the world, in the world, out of the world. That sounds like a title, don’t you think? Out of the world?

These two comments were decisive, and they steered the rest of the writing until the novel was finished. Movement from one time to another, or from one place to another, by means of a metaphor or simile, often something concrete like that phone booth, runs through the entire novel and is its way of thinking, all times and all places held within a single consciousness. And the title he gave me, Out of the World, steered its complex of themes in much the same way.

The next time I met the editor from Tiden, he asked me if I wanted to sign the contract there and then or wait until we were closer to publication. I nearly passed out. Up until that point I had looked on this as a test, something that might lead on to something else. He wanted to publish it! Not until years later did it dawn on me that he hadn’t considered the manuscript to be even remotely good enough at that point, but that his suggestion had been all about instilling in me a sense of confidence and belief, and the feeling that a novel was something that was within my grasp. In other words, he manipulated me. It was like what a magazine editor did with Hunter S. Thompson one time. Thompson had been commissioned to make a trip and write about what he saw, but after he got home he found himself unable to muster a word, he was completely blocked. The editor called him up and asked him to jot down some notes just to give the magazine some sort of idea as to what the piece would be about. Thompson obliged, only for the editor to call him again a few weeks later, letting him know that his notes had gone to press. They were the piece. And that, I think, is often the way we get to what it’s all about. If we strive to go there, we block, for there are so many expectations, so many demands and misconceptions that it’s almost impossible to find a way. But if we don’t know, if we think we’re doing something else instead, as if in preparation for the real thing, then the real thing, which requires a form of unfetteredness, comes into being.


Another conception about writing, at least as common as that of the writer being on his own, is that writing is craft. I can’t see myself in that either, again I find it to be quite the opposite. Writing is about breaking down what you can do and what you’ve learned, something that would be inconceivable to a craftsman, a cabinetmaker for instance, who can’t possibly start from scratch every time. That doesn’t mean a cabinetmaker isn’t creative, can’t work out new solutions to old problems, and I assume, too, that a cabinetmaker is best when he or she isn’t thinking about what they do, but simply doing it, much as a driver is best when the skills he or she has acquired, the craft of driving, are not reflected on, but simply performed. This is how it is with musicians, too; the technique or craft is something so well mastered that the musician’s awareness of it is not a conscious awareness, and the music becomes art only in the flow. A soccer player who has to think about how to control the ball, who asks himself whether it’s best to swerve right or left to get past his opponent, who wonders what to do then if he does get past him, pass the ball left or right, or try a shot, will be a poor one. What the musician, the cabinetmaker, and the soccer player have in common is that they have practiced their techniques for hours and hours on end, until they belong to the body and have become like a reflex, selfless and natural. This same kind of state applies to writing, too, and it is just as coveted—I once read an interview with the British author Ian McEwan in which he spoke about the selfless state into which the act of writing could transport him, and how that selflessness, which occurred only very seldom, felt like the very apex of the writing process. But unlike the other activities just mentioned, there is actually nothing to practice in writing, no techniques to be endlessly repeated until learned—what would they be? A dramatic turning point approached again and again? A certain way of describing a face or personality? No, writing cannot be practiced in that sense, it can never be reduced to exercises, it can only ever be the real thing, what it is in itself, because writing is about getting to the core, something that can be done only once, in that one way, which can never be repeated, because if you repeat it then you are no longer at the core but at something false that merely resembles. So what writing is about, more than anything else, is not practicing, but failing. Failing, not succeeding, not being able to make it work, failing, failing, failing—but not in order to get to the core at some future time, that would be half-hearted, and the half-hearted is the antithesis of writing, no, failing must come from risking everything, in all earnestness, with the utmost of effort. Failing to get the ball properly under control on the football pitch can be annoying, but it doesn’t hurt. Failing in literature hurts, if it doesn’t then it’s an exercise and can lead nowhere. In other words, in order to write you must trick yourself, you must believe that this time I’m onto something, no matter how worthless it might turn out to be. In that process, everything is uncertain, everything is fluid, and even if that shining state of selflessness should occur, it doesn’t have to mean that what you write has any value, possesses any kind of quality—after all, those who most often vanish into the selfless state are children.

Failing on your own is fine for a while, but only up to a point, since failing in literature is no fun, failing there is failing for real, and when you are surrounded by friends and family with jobs to go to or studies to pursue it becomes increasingly hard to defend writing, to keep it up as something meaningful when the results fail to materialize, which in this case means having your work accepted by a publisher. Failing in one’s writing under those conditions is also to fail socially. Everyone knows the type, the guy who cagily says, “I write.” After ten years of that, is there anyone left who still believes in him? After twenty years? Certainly not the writer himself. By then, writing has become a shameful business, a stigma almost. If he’s to go on, he must trick himself, which will become increasingly difficult, until eventually he realizes that it’s true, he has failed.

A published writer has a different social aspect entirely. But the writing is the same. For a while it will be quite as unsuccessful. This is where the editor comes in. The job is to support the author, which in many instances means tricking the author, telling him or her that this is really good, keep going. Recently, I spoke to a Swedish editor who said this was perhaps the hardest part of the job, because the author often suspects that what he or she is doing probably isn’t that good, at the same time as he or she needs to hear how good it is. The author needs that lie and must overcome the suspicion of it being just that, a lie, must deceive himself or herself into believing it. That same Swedish editor always instructs his writers to note down what he says as they go through the manuscript. If they don’t, all they remember are the negative points. He can heap praise on a text and go into detail about how good it is in this or another passage, and even then the only thing that sticks in the mind of the author are his suggestions as to changes. And why do things have to be changed? Because they aren’t good enough, the text is a failure, a mistake.

This is where it hangs in the balance, where everything is at stake. For what is “good” exactly? In the literary world, much is about originality, finding an individual voice, uncovering what until now has been unseen—these are the ideals. Against this stands the concept of quality, the basis of all appraisal, and of any canonization. For when originality, individual voice, and the unseen come together there is nothing with which it can be compared. There is no unequivocal way of saying that something is “good.” When the book is there, with the publisher’s logo on the cover, that in itself is a stamp of quality: a large number of people with fine literary credentials, working in a well-reputed institution, have declared that this is literature, that this book is of value. To give a book that stamp of quality is a risky business. That is, if it’s similar to another book already recognized as good, then the risk is small, but if it’s not, if it’s something apart, then publishing the work and thereby declaring it to be a work of quality takes guts. There’s often a lack of intrepidness in the publishing world, there being so much esteem to be lost, an editor who puts out, let’s say, five books one after another, each of which is slaughtered by the critics, each of which moreover fails to sell, will be pushed toward the safe choice, toward what is acknowledged to be the norm, and will reject that which involves risk. I’m not saying this because I think Norway is teeming with yet undiscovered literary geniuses unable to find outlets for their work, but because whether an editor is good or bad has so much to do with being intrepid. I know of books later canonized that were rejected by one publisher after another as manuscripts, for the simple reason that they resemble very little else, works fully in keeping with the prevailing literary ideal, but which in their fullest consequence required courage to publish. I have worked on manuscripts from first-time writers myself as an adviser and know how difficult it can be to judge quality on one’s own, without the bound book in one’s hand to testify that the criteria have been met. Is it good enough? What is good enough? And if it isn’t good enough, is there anything in it that can become good enough? And if it happens to be very good, then there is nothing to which one can turn for comparison, one is left to one’s own judgment—and is that good enough?

—Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken


Karl Ove Knausgaard was born in Norway in 1968. His debut novel, Out of the World, won the Norwegian Critics Prize in 2004, and his second novel, A Time for Everything, was a finalist for the Nordic Council Prize. For My Struggle: Book One, Knausgaard received the Brage Award in 2009, the 2010 Book of the Year Prize in Morgenbladet, and the P2 Listeners’ Prize. Book One was a New Yorker Book of the Year, and Book Two was listed among the Wall Street Journal’s 2013 Books of the Year.

Martin Aitken is the acclaimed translator of numerous novels from Danish and Norwegian, including works by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ida Jessen, Peter Høeg, Jussi Adler-Olsen, and Pia Juul. In 2012, he was awarded the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Nadia Christensen Translation Prize. In 2019. Aitken received the PEN Translation Prize for his translation of Love, by Hanne Ørstavik.

From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s In the Land of the Cyclops, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken, published by Archipelago Books.

(Source: The Paris Review)

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