How Fiction Works

Vanishing Point

This piece is a translation of a speech given by Swedish novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard on receiving a German literary award. Here the writer explains how reading fiction helps us to understand humanity in general by focusing our awareness on individual people.

What characterizes our age is “the sheer volume of images of the world” that allow us to see, almost instantly, an event that occurs anywhere on the planet: natural disasters, plane crashes, acts of terrorism. We see these images as we go about our day-to-day lives, and usually “we keep these different levels of reality apart:

Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner.

Our lives are so bound up with the media:

which by its very nature creates remoteness, its narrative structures rendering every event equal, every occurrence identical, thereby dissolving the particular, the singular, the unique, in that way lying to us, or, put differently, fictionalizing our reality.

But occasionally “the two levels of reality converge and become one.”

And in our humanity, “there is a vanishing point.” It’s the point at which our perspective of the world shifts from definite to indefinite and back again. We see images of the mass of humanity, not of individual people. But novels provide the opportunity for the opposite movement:

if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind. This establishing of proximity to another self is characteristic of the novel.

The way in which the world of a novel takes shape in the reader’s mind “is special to the form.” In showing us “value of the particular and the singular,” novels act differently than the media, which push us to see humanity as a whole rather than as a collection of individual people.

Lorin Stein on the Power of Ambiguity in Fiction

woman readingLorin Stein is editor at The Paris Review, one of the world’s most respected literary journals. He has compiled an anthology, The Unprofessionals, of short fiction from the magazine that focuses on the work of a “new generation of writers under 40.” Most of these writers’ names will be unfamiliar to readers, but, according to Stein, their work represents “the best new writing he’s seeing today,” work that “locates a role for literary writing in our media-saturated 21st century.”

In this interview with Joe Fassler for The Atlantic, Stein describes this new kind of writing:

The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say “I.” Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience.

As an example of this new kind of writing Stein cites Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which was published in The Paris Review in 1989. In this kind of fiction, “the payoff here is emotional, not intellectual—I can feel it even if I can’t articulate it.” The story carries a meaning “that evades logical understanding but hits us in the heart.”

The key to the effectiveness of this type of writing, Stein says, is “you have to believe in the voice itself. The narrator has to exist as a steady reliable fact.” More specifically:

we’ve become interested in the fiction of the speaker. Interested, suspicious, aware. We might ask—in a way that our grandparents wouldn’t have asked—why someone is sitting down at the keyboard at a Starbucks and doing this? It’s no longer given why someone would tell a story on paper, or onscreen. It’s become a troubling question.

This type of fictional narrator has a dual nature:

When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about. You don’t have to make sense in quite the same way.

In the works in the anthology Stein sees a new realism, “the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.”

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