Fifty Greys of Genre – Karl Ove Knausgaard’s category-defying “A Death in the Family”

I’m intrigued these days by the malleable borders between different genres of writing and even more so by the creation of literary works that seem to carve out a form distinct from the usually accepted categories of writing. My fascination with the ways in which historical reality and fabrications of the imagination intertwine is prompted in equal measure by the books of other authors that I am reading and by what I am writing myself.

The current case-in-point is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “A Death in the Family” which was a publishing phenomenon initially in Knausgaard’s native Norway and more recently in many other countries as well. Google Knausgaard or “A Death in the Family” and one finds innumerable articles, interviews, and debates about the controversy of how Knausgaard used the most intimate details of his family’s life to craft a total of six autobiographical novels, of which “A Death in the Family” is the first published in English. The use of real life characters in his family depicted with all their human frailties has led to intense criticism by members of his family that has spilled over into the public press and certainly increased the profile of and sales for the books.

All of us authors draw on our personal experiences to varying degrees. Eminent mystery crime novelist P. D. James, in offering advice to other writers, has said, “You absolutely should write about what you know…all experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”

I won’t debate here the ethics of Knausgaard’s use of very personal family material, largely without their permission, in the creation of “A Death in the Family.” What I am more interested in is how we understand the nature of the product—that is, is it an “autobiography” or is it a “novel?” On the one hand, one could say why bother asking the question? If it’s a good piece of writing—and for the most part I’d say “A Death in the Family” is a brilliant piece of writing—it doesn’t matter what genre label we attach to it. But on the other hand, that leaves me unsatisfied because I’m trying to understand better the workings of the creative artistic process. We who write fiction create characters, plots, and dialogue out of our imagination. They’re not real. That’s why we call it fiction. But the mind out of which these imagined stories emerge is the same mind that has experienced and remembers a wealth of situations that provide much of the raw material for the imagination to work with.

I’m living into that grey area between various genres in my own writing. During my professional working career, I wrote non-fictional academic books. Then after my lover died suddenly of pancreatic cancer, I wrote “August Farewell,” a memoir of the two weeks between his diagnosis and his death and integrated into it vignettes from our thirty-three years together as a gay couple. It was obviously, and intentionally, autobiographical. I followed that up with my first piece of fiction, the novel “Searching for Gilead,” which was very largely a product of my imagination but still drew upon my personal and professional history. Now I’m at work on a collection of short stories. They are considerably more distant from my own life experiences than was the novel but they still occupy an ambiguous terrain. There may not be as many discernible links to specific people and situations in my history but they emerge out of an internal energy field of what I find aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually compelling. Their genesis is in some sense coming from an even deeper place of “what I know (or think I know)” than the more identifiable facts of personal history.

All of which goes to say that I’m having a great time with what I’m reading and what I’m writing. I love finding myself immersed in and stimulated by the grey areas in between various genres.

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For information on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “A Death in the Family,” see:

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead,” see my website at

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