Photo by Luigi Novi, via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago, novelist Siri Hustvedt interviewed fellow Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard in public. Toward the end, she asked why, in thousands of pages filled with hundreds of mentions of writers, he’d mentioned only one woman writer, Julia Kristeva. “No competition,” he said without much thought.

This stunning comment from a man whose six-volume autobiographical opus, My Struggle, treads in territory long considered the unserious domain of women writers–deeply emotional self-examination and domestic ennui–provoked Hustvedt’s curiosity about the gendering of literature. At Lithub, she presents a deep examination of gender bias among readers and writers alike, and asks what bearing an author’s sex has on the writing itself.

When I look back at the “no competition” remark, I suppose I should be offended or righteously indignant, but that is not at all how I feel. What I feel is compassion and pity for a person who made a remark, no doubt in earnest, which is nevertheless truly silly. Thousands of pages of self-examination apparently did not bring him to enlightenment about the “woman” in himself. “It’s still in me.” It is not enough to notice that a feminine text by a man and a feminine text by a woman are received differently or to call attention to numbers that represent sexual inequality in the world of letters. It is absolutely essential that men and women become fully conscious of what is at stake, that it is blazingly clear to every single one of us who cares about the novel that there is something at once pernicious and silly at work in our reading habits, that the fate of literary works cannot be decided by a no-competition clause appended to a spurious homo-social contract written under the aegis of fear, that such a clause is nothing short of “insane.”

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