My Struggle: Judging a Book by Its Sexist Cover


THE FIRST two lines of My Struggle: Book 1, by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard stop you in your tracks.

“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.”

There is something simple and refined in what Knausgaard describes. This organ that we think of as so complex, in both its physical and emotional manifestations, has really, but one job. A singular task it completes in the same repetitive nature all day, every day, until it doesn’t, inevitably bringing the end of life. And yet for all its simplicity we can’t stop talking about it, writing about it, giving our lives over to its whims and palpitations.

In his cadence you can hear the thumping of life come to its abrupt and unpredictable end. He makes it impossible not to linger at the period, watching the two sentences lap like waves over each other.

In this way the opening two sentences describe the journey on which Knausgaard takes his reader; one through the mundane regurgitation of the dailiness of life. But this is only the beginning of the author’s 3,600-word novel-memoir, which details every last scrap of memory he can string together. Reviews have noted that the books include 100 pages on the topic of cleaning a dirty house and 40 pages dedicated to describing a children’s birthday party. His novel is the antithesis of Twitter, and has been hailed as a Proustian achievement, one for the ages— and not because it might take a couple of years to finish.

But because it’s true. The first ten pages of Book 1 are beautiful. They are self-aware and, like their opening sentence, cut straight to the heart.

What happens on page 11, I’m not sure. Because without deviation, as soon as I crack the spine of a book and sniff in a bit of substance, my daughter will wake up from her nap or the night. Pretty much any time I attempt to read for pleasure, there she is reminding me of the pleasures of motherhood. (Shall I describe them in 40 pages for you here?)

Being at the behest of a toddlers schedule, I’ve read many reviews on the work, but the one that struck me almost as much Book 1‘s opening lines, is the brilliant piece penned by author and NYU professor Katie Roiphe for, which asks a very important question: what if  “My Struggle” had been written by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn? Roiphe argues, “What seems novel and fresh, in a tall, craggy male writer would appear grandiose and humdrum in a female one.”

Roiphe is right, but thanks to my daughter I’ve spent a good deal of time staring at the cover, not only wondering where I’ll find the time to dig back in, but also gazing deep into Knausgaard’s furrow. A deep-in-thought-life’s-been-hard furrow.

Which brought up another quite obvious though overlooked concern: namely, Knausgaard’s looks. I would argue that the sexism Roiphe points to takes place before you even smell the pages.

Knausgaard’s mammoth American publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, made the conscious decision to use photos of the author for the covers of Book 1 and Book 2, where he appears “craggy” and “handsome” (Roiphe’s words) in his aged wisdom. But these are traits that are reserved only for men.  On the cover of Book 1, Knausgaard’s deep forehead and smile lines, graying bushy eyebrows, and salt-and-peppered hair are the portrait of anti-Photoshop. On the cover of Book 2: A Man in Love, Knausgaard appears in the distance with the same consternated brow, greasy hair, and staring off into the distance while sucking down a cigarette.

Reviewers have noted that every detail in the book is put down without vanity and, in a similar way, the covers engage this notion of rejected vanity. There’s a lack of egotism (or maybe, just too much) when it comes to the details, but no woman would ever be marketed as such. Instead pleasing graphics are usually used to convey her experience, however difficult it might have been.

No female slashie—novel/memoir, would sell with such a photo on the cover. Late prolific writer Maya Angelou never appeared in such a manner on the cover of her books. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is one such example. More over in the book world women are rarely featured on their covers—Elizabeth Gilbert never appeared on the cover of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Joan Didion did not appear in mourning on the cover of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Jeanette Walls did not show up on the cover of her bestselling memoir, “The Glass Castle,” and on Hillary Clinton’s latest book, “Hard Choices,” the former Secretary of State appears polished, Presidential (which is, yes, also a marketing tool for Clinton to undue the dastardly “Grandma Clinton” talk), but none of these women would have considered exposing themselves in the way Knausgaard has, if only because their publisher would have warned against it.

Even with last year’s hit, “Just Kids,” by Patti Smith, the cover photo gave distance between Patti and the the reader. There are no wrinkles to see. No furrow in sight. No sign of  her toil– the focus was on the love between her and Robert, their heads pressed together in mutual appreciation.

All too often female memoirs begin with a pretty image to hook the reader, and then they delve into the gritty; they never lead with it. Men are given permission to do the opposite.

A friend and fellow writer pointed out that of course, “Double standards persist, even in publishing, which is hilarious, given it’s the most briefly visual medium… confronted only once with a singular image that can shape your perception of the rest of the book.” We do judge books by their covers, especially if those covers feature women.

This is not to discredit Knausgaard’s work. Like I said, even in the first ten pages you know you’re getting into something special (despite the fact that the book is not the success it’s been reported to be). But this different treatment funnels down to a point many women have made since Tom Junod published a piece in GQ, waxing about forty-two-year-old women and how he “still” finds them sexy. “Let’s face it: There used to be something tragic about even the most beautiful forty-two-year-old woman,” he begins.

Men have always been given license to be attractive in their cragginess. When women are over-the-hill, men are fine wines: only better with age. This concept has worked well for Knausgaard, or at least in the way the media is presenting him. The publicity stills show him in all his rough-hewn glory.

But women, well, the beginning and end of our narrative is still very much the same as it’s always been– a parrot of the past, and beating like the heart with the same thump time and again.

For women, life was simple. Put on your lipstick. Until the mortician does it for you.

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