Somewhat regularly, I try to read an author who has popular appeal and still interests me with his or her subject matter. Lately, I have been reading a book called Autumn (2017) by the Scandinavian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. He has a large following of dedicated readers, and so as I read him, I’m always asking why. Why does he have such a great pull on them?
What I’ve noticed thus far, beyond his contemplative sincerity, is his ability to focus on the concrete. Here’s an example (warning: the punctuation is not conventional and appears to mark pauses in speech more than anything else):
For some reason or other, the fruits that grow in the Nordic countries are easily accessible, with only a thin skin that yields readily covering their flesh, this is true for pears and apples as well as for plums, all one needs to do is bite into them and gobble them down. While the fruits that grow further south, like oranges, mandarins, bananas, pomegranates, mangoes and passion fruit, are often covered with thick, inedible skins. Normally, in accordance with my other preferences in life, I prefer the latter, both because the notion that pleasure must be deserved through prior effort is so strong in me, and because I have always been drawn towards the hidden and the secret. To bit a piece of the peel from the top of an orange in order to work one’s thumb in between the peel and the flesh of the orange, and feel the bitter taste spurting into one’s mouth for a brief second, and then to loosen piece after piece, sometimes, if the peel is thin, in tiny scraps, other times, when the peel is thick and loosely connected to the flesh, in one long piece, also has a ritual aspect to it. It is almost as if one is in the temple colonnade and moving slowly towards the innermost room, but there the teeth pierce the thin, shiny membrane and the fruit juice runs into the mouth and fills it with sweetness (p. 9).
The second half of that passage, in particular, draws us into the experience. And that is precisely why the author has a pull on readers. He has a gift for drawing readers into a common tangible experience. There is a sense in which you do not merely read a passage like this one; you experience it. There is an old bit of writer’s wisdom that says, “It is better to show than tell.” Something similar applies here.
Writers have to find some way to affect their readers. Appealing directly to the senses is a powerful method, one that Ove Knausgaard seems to have mastered. In other essays, he blends this with his ability to convey pity, philosophical insights and speculations, drawing readers in by experience in order to deliver a conceptual claim. The claim is more readily received by us when we’re already sitting in a room with him, as it were, sharing his experience.
All writers need to be reminded of this now and then. You not only have the ability to think as your reader might think, but also to feel as your reader might feel. This is another way in which language—communion behavior (see the post “What Is Language? Communion Behavior”)—draws hearts and minds together for some end. As a writer, you must find a way to commune with your reader. For some authors, living with their readers in the concrete is a potent means of doing so.
Ove Knausgaard, Karl. Autumn. Translated by Ingvild Burkey. New York: Penguin, 2017.