Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kim Kardashian Are More Similar Than You Think
How the two exhaustive personal chroniclers invite us in to their eternal "now"
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
About a week after the New York City coronavirus quarantine measures were announced, I knew the time had finally come: I had to stop melting my brain with Keeping up with the Kardashians marathons and use this strange break from reality to do something that felt “productive.” Yes, it was time to pick up the daunting, 1,152 page The End: My Struggle Book 6 that had been accumulating dust in my bookshelf ever since Archipelago Books published the English translation in September of 2018; it was time to finally finish reading the self-told story of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s life.
I’d torn through the first five volumes of My Struggle, but cowed by its prodigious size, I’d been letting The End languish since 2018. I bought the book the day it hit shelves, read the first five pages in my bed, then put it away next to the rest of the series with a vague commitment to “read it later.” This March, unemployed and surrounded by reports that we were not to leave our homes for the foreseeable future, it appeared “later” had finally arrived. As I embarked upon my “big quarantine project” of merely getting through this gargantuan novel, I began to realize that perhaps reading Book 6 and binge-watching Keeping up with the Kardashians were not so different after all.
At eighteen seasons (and counting) and 3,600 pages in their respective mediums, I can think of no two personalities who have been so devoted to faithfully capturing every moment of their lives—no matter how painful, private, or mundane—as Kim Kardashian and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Conventionally, society mandates that only those who have already reached widespread acclaim in their area of expertise deserve to write autobiographies, while only celebrities who have become famous in their own right deserve to have television crews chronicling their lives and the lives of their immediate family members. After all, why would we find it interesting to invest ourselves so deeply into the personal lives of those we don’t and will never know, unless we stand to gain something by it? Yet Kardashian and Knausgaard flip the very concept of “deserving” such fame on its head. Both Kardashian and Knausgaard became famous by acting as if they were already famous.
When Kim Kardashian began filming Keeping up with the Kardashians in 2007 and Knausgaard commenced writing the “My Struggle” series in 2008, both enjoyed a small amount of fame—but nothing remotely near the astronomic level of celebrity they would achieve after establishing their respective franchises. As we all know, Kardashian’s father was the now-deceased Robert Kardashian, an attorney infamous for successfully defending O.J. Simpson in his trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. In the early 2000s, Kardashian (fille) worked as a personal assistant for Paris Hilton, appearing alongside Hilton on a few episodes of The Simple Life and in countless paparazzi shots. Kardashian worked for a few other celebrities in ensuing years (most notably as a stylist for Lindsay Lohan in 2004) and, in 2006, opened clothing boutique Dash with her sisters—but what placed Kim most staunchly on the radar was a leaked sex tape featuring Kardashian and former boyfriend Ray J. Curiously, while Kim was at the time only a B-list celebrity at best, Vivid Entertainment—who bought the rights to the tape for $1 million and released it on February 21, 2007—chose to title the tape Kim Kardashian, Superstar.
Prior to the release of Kim’s sex tape, Kris Jenner—Kim’s mother, who has since trademarked the phrase “momager”—had discussed the potential of creating a reality show centered around the Kardashian and Jenner families with Ryan Seacrest, who had just created his own production company, Ryan Seacrest Productions. Seacrest was put in touch with Kris through a casting director as he sought to create a reality television show centered around a unique family (Seacrest was inspired by The Osbournes, the MTV series which centered around Ozzy Osbourne and his family). Seacrest delivered a test tape to E!, a network that at the time focused mainly on entertainment news. Capitalizing upon the intrigue generated by Kardashian’s sex tape, E! picked up the series. In August of 2007, E! announced that a new “non-scripted family sitcom” focusing on the Kardashian and Jenner families was in the works. By October of that year, the first episode had aired, and the world of media was changed forever.
Across the globe, Norwegian author Knausgaard had made somewhat of a name for himself in the world of fiction. After working a number of odd jobs throughout Norway (including such stints as assisting patients in a psychiatric hospital and pouring concrete on an oil platform), Knausgaard relocated to Sweden and published his first novel Out of the World in 1998, at the age of 30. The novel, which centers around the life of a 26-year-old substitute teacher disgraced for his relationship with a 13-year-old female student, went on to be the first debut novel from any author to win the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature. Six years later, Knausgaard published his second novel, A Time for Everything, the narrator of which is a man who is writing a book about the history of angels. The book was again received generally warmly by critics and earned Knausgaard a nomination for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Still, Knausgaard was not yet a global household name. In 2008, frustrated with attempts to fictionalize his tumultuous relationship with his father, Knausgaard decided to abandon fiction and traditional narrative forms altogether and write, in painstaking detail, about what he knew best—his own life.
In linguistics, deixis refers to a word or expression whose meaning is dependent on the context in which it is used (for example: here, you, me, that one there, or next Tuesday). Deixis is inextricable from individual experience—when I say that “I am sitting here writing this piece now,” the reader will never know exactly where I mean by “here” or what precise moment I mean by “now” unless I provide them with additional information. Both Keeping up with the Kardashians and My Struggle have captured the collective consciousness as embodiments of deixis; by so painstakingly presenting us with each mundane detail of their lives, Kardashian and Knausgaard provide us with the intoxicating illusion of living in someone else’s “now.” The embodied deixis of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and My Struggle connotes a sense of urgency—the “here” and “now” are always changing, and as the very title of Keeping Up with the Kardashians reminds us, it is our duty as readers and viewers to keep pace.
Yet, while the central conceit of their projects is actually quite similar, the public could not perceive Kardashian and Knausgaard more differently. Where My Struggle has earned Knausgaard acclaim as a champion of the modern autofiction movement, Kardashian is generally viewed as vapid and superficial, undeserving of her fame and success. Apart from the obvious roles that gender or race (Kim is half-Armenian) might play in this disparity, perhaps one reason for this difference in public opinion are the diametrically opposed attitudes Kardashian and Knausgaard hold towards their own work. While Kardashian, at least on the surface, appears to unapologetically revel in her fame, Knausgaard repeatedly reminds us that he feels shame about his project, and remorse towards all those he hurt in his quest to write honestly about his life. This, however, raises an important question: if you feel ashamed about your work, why publish it? Why write it in the first place?
Knausgaard is more candid about his motives for writing My Struggle in Book 6 than ever before. “There is something all of us experience, which is the same for all human beings . . . but which nonetheless is seldom conveyed apart from in the private sphere,” writes Knausgaard in “Part One” of Book 6 (185). “All of us encounter difficulties at some point in our lives, all of us know someone with a drinking problem, mental issues, or some other kind of life-threatening affliction . . . these things are not represented and thereby seem not to exist, or else to exist only as a burden each of us must bear on our own . . . [in the newspapers and the media, death and sickness are] presented as facts, described from a distance as a kind of objective phenomenon. . . what kind of society are we living in, where everything that is sick, deviant, or dead is kept from sight? . . . I could have written an article about all this,” admits Knausgaard, “but it wouldn’t have said much because arguments have got to be rational, and this is about the opposite, the irrational, all the feelings we have about what it means to confront what has withered away into death, and what that actually is.”
And, for all of the shame Knausgaard expresses throughout the first five volumes of My Struggle about exposing those closest to him, he flips the script in Book Six and asks the reader to consider why we have built a society that causes us to feel this shame in the first place. “Some people are of the opinion I had no right to do what I was doing because in doing so I was involving other people besides myself. And this is true,” writes Knausgaard plainly. “My question,” he continues, “is why we conceal the things we do. Where is the shame in human decline? The complete human catastrophe? To live the complete human catastrophe is terrible indeed, but to write about it? Why shame and concealment when what we are dealing with here is basically the most human thing of all? What’s so dangerous about it that we cannot speak of it out loud?”
While news outlets, as Knausgaard mentions, share tragic stories of death and destruction, such reports are typically delivered in a distant monotone; whether the medium is a news broadcast or a written article, it is typically the job of a reporter to state the facts unemotionally, to appear objective and unbiased in their depictions of reality. Thus, it is not through the news, but through fictional protagonists that we are most often given a glance into the subjective, that we come to understand the unique emotional toll that death and destruction can take on a person. Nevertheless, no matter how meticulously authors render their fictional protagonists, they lack the element that Knausgaard brings to the table in My Struggle: veracity. By delving into his own, very real feelings about his father’s death—and, in “Part Two,” the most gripping section of Book Six, his then-wife’s bipolar disorder—Knausgaard merges the roles of journalist, author, and protagonist into one. For Knausgaard, writing about his life is a means through which to acknowledge the base aspects of reality, the sides of existence we’d rather gloss over—and the shame he feels about exposing those closest to him in the process is ultimately outweighed by his desire to faithfully depict “the complete human catastrophe,” to grant the reader unfiltered access into his “now.”
And, if what Knausgaard advocates for is a shameless embrace of the “now,” no matter what hardships might arise, what better example do we have to turn to than Kim Kardashian? While Knausgaard provides us with his “now” as a cathartic means through which to absolve us of our own shame surrounding the darker sides of reality, Kardashian’s “now” is the ultimate escapist retreat—in her world of glamour and exorbitant wealth, the problems that do arise may feel so untethered to our own so as to appear totally minuscule and inconsequential by comparison. However, if we take a closer look, Kardashian’s problems aren’t so different from Knausgaard’s after all.
Much as we watch Knausgaard react to his father’s alcoholism in Book One, so too do we get to see Kim and her sisters react to the drug and alcohol abuse which their brother Rob Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian’s on-again-off-again partner Scott Disick, Khloe Kardashian’s ex-husband Lamar Odom, and more side characters all struggle with throughout Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and it is Disick whose descent into alcoholism gets the most screen time. Scott’s alcohol abuse rears its head throughout much of the series, but perhaps never with more intensity than on Season 4’s aptly titled episode “Blame It On the Alcohol.” The episode, which aired in February of 2010, depicts a belligerently drunk Scott at Kim’s 29th birthday dinner. As Scott grows increasingly inebriated throughout the course of the dinner, their server refuses to provide him with more to drink. In a now-infamous act of disrespect, Scott, demanding more alcohol, eventually stands up and shoves a hundred-dollar bill into the server’s mouth.
In moments like these, Keeping Up with the Kardashians veers away from deixis as escapism and towards Knausgaard’s understanding of publicized deixis as universal catharsis. Knausgaard challenges us not to conceal the toll a family member’s mental illness might take on us, and “Blame It On the Alcohol,” which was broadcast to millions of viewers worldwide, certainly rises to the occasion. Like Knausgaard, the Kardashians here expose the ugly truth of a family member’s alcoholism and the distressing effect it has on their own psyches. No matter how much time we may spend watching Kim prepare for the Met Gala or jet set across the world in private planes, Keeping Up with the Kardashians would not feel honest without moments like Scott’s alcohol-fueled outburst; after all, there is no individual “now” that exists completely devoid of pain.
Academics or literary scholars who commend Knausgaard but are quick to dismiss Kardashian fail to recognize that, while their day-to-day experiences and the mediums through which they share their lives with the public are different, both figures’ commitment to embodied deixis is the same. Indeed, in a Season 17 episode of KUWTK entitled “The Show Must Go On,” Kim and her younger sister Khloe grow frustrated that their oldest sister, Kourtney, has grown increasingly guarded about sharing her personal life on camera. As Kim expresses her exasperation in a confessional scene, she astutely states, “All of the days that Kourtney isn’t filming, Khloe and I are having to pick up the slack and share more. Cause if we’re not sharing our lives, then what is the show?”
Kardashian and Knausgaard both understand that to create a successful reality television franchise or autofiction series—to allow the viewer or reader to completely lose themself in someone else’s “now”—moments of catharsis and escapism must act symbiotically to evoke a feeling of unfiltered honesty. If too much of one element exists without the other in either of these genres, critics may deem the work overly “scripted” or “fictionalized,” or just plain boring. If Knausgaard never spoke of simple happy moments with his family and only dwelled on his father’s death and his wife’s bipolar diagnosis, or the Kardashians never shared heated family fights or break-ups alongside all of their lavish fashion appearances and decadent vacations, neither project would feel “real.” And if the illusion of honesty disappears, the magic of embodied deixis—and, consequently, readers’ or viewers’ interest in your work—dissipates along with it.
There has perhaps never been a more relevant time than 2020 to heed Kardashian and Knausgaard’s message to embrace and publicize the “now,” even when that “now” is seemingly full of darkness. In the years leading up to this one, many readers and viewers may have felt a degree of resentment towards Kardashian and Knausgaard, no matter how much they indulged in or admired their work. How did these people gain international acclaim merely for publicizing their own mundane lives? we might have thought, with envy, on the way to our dreary nine-to-five office jobs or labor-intensive, underpaid shifts in the service industry. However, as the pandemic rages on and over 30 million Americans have lost their jobs, we have been forced to define ourselves not through our careers, but through a deeper understanding of who we are in stillness, who we are when we are forced outside of a capitalist framework. In accepting such stillness, the same mundanities that Knausgaard and Kardashian document begin to inform our own identities.
No longer do Knausgaard’s long passages describing a simple family meal or even Kardashian’s hours spent trying on clothes and planning every detail of an outrageously expensive children’s birthday party feel quite as tedious. For many of us who are privileged enough to have kept our homes and remained in good health this year, similar small events have taken on a larger degree of importance as the pandemic has stripped our careers and favorite leisure activities away from us—take the bread baking trend or the collective obsession with Tiger King, for example. And, as the video of George Floyd’s horrific murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police made clear to us all, capturing “the complete human catastrophe” in real time can awaken a nation to long-standing injustices and inspire great societal change.
We don’t have to agree with Kardashian or Knausgaard’s lifestyle choices or values—I often find Knausgaard to be a cold and unfeeling protagonist in his own novels, and as a democratic socialist, I believe that the Kardashians’ obsession with material goods represents pretty much everything that is wrong about a society built upon wealth inequality. Similarly, we don’t have to document every moment of our lives for public consumption; some of us may be more private than others, and you can share as much or as little about yourself with the public as you feel comfortable with. But we do need to recognize that there is merit in accepting Kardashian and Knausgaard’s premise: that every single moment of your life—even the darkest moment, even the most “mundane”—is important in its own right, and worthy of sharing, if you so choose.