social media celebrity

What do Knausgård and social media bloggers have in common?

18 minutes to read
Nataliia Vdovychenko

Can we connect the style of Knausgård to Instagram bloggers? Karl O. Knausgård is one of the most prominent figures of contemporary European literary flow. The self-exposure in his works is reminiscent of today's fast-growing digitalization, where everything is broadcasted to a wide public by means of social media. Exposing your life to thousands through platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram has become a societal norm. Millions of users daily check the updates posted by their favorite micro-celebrities, keeping track of posts, live broadcasts, blogs, and vlogs. This process has its consequences in other spheres of our lives and on the production of artistic forms. What does this mean for the discussion on contemporary European literature?

In this article, the two will be compared in detail. This will be achieved methodologically through a "close reading" of Some rain must fall by Karl O. Knausgård and through digital ethnographyon online practices and communications, and on offline practices shaped by digitalisation” (Varis, 2014), applied to the social media accounts of popular travel bloggers @doyoutravel, @jayalvarrez, and @jannikobenhoff.

Comparing representations of reality by authors and internet celebrities is important because it reveals recent tendencies both in digital and literary worlds. The article will focus on a specific aspect of the digital and offline life, traveling. How is traveling experience reflected in the literary work of Knausgård in comparison to the blogging sphere? When this author is discussed, his works often get compared to the social media narrative style, due to the high levels of self-exposure and the serial character found in them (Van De Ven, 2016). In this paper, I will examine if they are really alike, or if the life representations differ in the two.

Karl O. Knausgård makes for a good choice to explore this contrast because of the “author’s claims that the work is nearly entirely autobiographical” (Macris, 2016). For the comparison, it is sound to take Some rain must fall because “this instalment of My Struggle covers the fourteen years Knausgård spent in the city of Bergen from the age of 19, thus taking him from the cusp of adulthood to early middle age” (Macris, 2016). This makes the character of the novel perfectly in line with the age category of the most popular travel bloggers out there nowadays.

For the comparison, I will take other young men from "the West" who expose their traveling experiences in personal blogs on Instagram. Even though there are many platforms where travel bloggers share their experiences, such as Facebook, YouTube, TripAdvisor, etc., Instagram was chosen for the current research. The reason for such a choice is that the platform is highly visual, chronological, and allows for developing a certain style. It is also one of the most popular social media, having millions of users. These specifics make travel blogging highly searchable and recognizable within the platform.

“These individually created blogs attract a significant audience; they are typically highly visible in search engine results, since they are usually linked to and updated frequently” (Van Nuenen, 2016, p. 56). All three are young males, @doyoutravel, @jayalvarrez, and @jannikobenhoff, are from "Western" countries. Their profiles contain countless pictures of sceneries as well as of their activities during their journeys. By looking at contemporary European literature and online blogging, the comparative perspective will be established.

What is also valid for the understanding of the current research and specific choices made in terms of the actors is the comparison of the contents of the blogs with the works of Knausgård. “Several theorists have stressed the difference between blogging and diaries or autobiographical stories” (Van Nuenen, 2016). Indeed, the two are incomparable in terms of their structure and technical affordances since “blogs also contain (relatively) fixed elements, such as the About page on which authors depict themselves, and an advertising page containing marketing metrics such as site traffic, site rankings, and reader profiles to attain advertising revenues, speaking arrangements, sponsorships and so on” (Van Nuenen, 2016).

Some similar elements might also be found if we have a closer look at the two. Both Knausgård and travel bloggers produce a similar kind of content. Specifically, similarities can be found in Knausgård’s "autofiction" and the autobiographical content produced by bloggers. “Blogs present the autobiographical subject in a fragmentary and reverse-chronological manner. Instead of focusing on the anticipation of the holiday or the narration of holiday stories on return, a typical blog presents writing during the trip” (Van Nuenen, 2016). Both present their autobiographical narratives, merged to a different extent with fiction and fragmentation. Novelists like Knausgård describe their everyday lives; however, the question is to what extent one can precisely describe that. Some fiction always slips in the moment the author starts writing. Everyday life description becomes the plot, with daily activities being highlighted.

Even though the exposure of one’s life details is an important part of the content, “[t]he next unsolvable riddle is to decide how much of what Knausgaard writes is true” (Kellaway, 2016), which is also applicable to internet bloggers. Both are very much in charge of how much of what personal details they want to share with the world. The audience in both cases cannot be absolutely sure about the chronological time spans, certain events, or the truthfulness of memories mentioned in the texts. All these similarities make the current research topical and justify the application of the chosen frame to look specifically at Knausgård and internet bloggers.

Karl Ove Knausgård and social media personalities

Knausgård is an important figure in the contemporary European literary space. “In the novel project, Knausgård describes the growing up of a man in Norway – the author / narrator himself – and he evokes the minutiae of ordinary life in the 1970s – 2000s.” (Heynders, 2018). The author describes his life, and sometimes the lives of those surrounding him in much detail. “It can be argued that the novel demonstrates typical social structures and public institutes. All six parts of the novel interweave private details, collective memories and (un)exceptional events” (Heynders, 2018).

Knausgård massively influences contemporary European literary flow and contributes to the concept of a serial self. “In the mode of self-representation that Knausgård employs throughout [his] novels, we can identify aesthetics of seriality that is more akin to social media, selfies, and cartoons than to the feuilleton novels of the nineteenth century” (Van de Ven, 2016, p. 1). If we look at the literary works of Knausgård in the modern world, as well as at how they are being published, we can trace his novels as contributing to the serial self. This is interesting for the current research because it “is inspired by the technological potentialities of digital media, and by social media practices like taking a selfie or posting a blog every single day and accumulating these self-representations” (Van de Ven, 2016, p. 2).

The serial self presented by the author makes us establish a parallel between his writing and daily posting in blogs. “As engaged readers or followers of online self-representations, we always crave the next post, the next image, the next bit of the story” (Rettberg, 2014). If we look at the works of Knausgård and at online blogs, both let the readers wait until the next part is released, expose personal details, and talk about their "self". Crucially, it only became possible to establish such a comparison in the recent years due to today's increasing digitalization and high self-exposure.

The works of Knausgård are perfectly in line with the contemporary flows and tendencies of broadcasting one’s life to the broader public. “Details of mundane life are tedious, monotone, routine. Yet in writing about it, the everyday is re-invented and becomes perceptible and meaningful” (Heynders, 2018). Knausgård, due to his literary style and the exposure of his private life to the broad public, got a lot of media attention with his books becoming bestsellers. “The literary project became a media sensation with translations in many languages, readers all over the Western world, and a lot of interviews and reviews to be found online” (Heynders, 2018). Even though the author raises a public debate on privacy concerns, Knausgård’s books attract millions of new readers year by year.

People take much interest in his persona and in the details of his life. Young travel bloggers, who share their lives daily and have millions of followers online, also have capacity to attract broad societal interest. Some parallels between the bloggers' digital and Knausgård’s literary exposing of the self can be established. “Writing more than 3000 pages about the private self was aimed at overcoming the social, at expressing the absolutely personal and intimate” (Heynders, 2018), which suggests similarities if we look at how social media work nowadays. Exposing a part of your daily life has become a norm.

Positivity only? 

Social media users try to highlight only the most positive parts of their lives, leaving behind certain events: disease, deaths of relatives, and other unfortunate events. Internet users mostly tend to reinforce the illusion of well-being and happiness by means of travelling, shopping, treating themselves with nice "photogenic" foods, activities, and hobbies.

There are a few reasons why internet bloggers expose only positive sides of their traveling experience. “A central topic in studies towards social networking sites is the motivation, why people use these platforms” (Jahn & Kunz, 2012). The travel bloggers we are going to look at need to gain many followers, which will lead them to more commercial offers. To do so, they mostly highlight only beneficial aspects of their lives, showing perfectly photoshopped pictures and writing inspiring texts, or adding motivational quotes.

The travel blogger gets truthfully "personal" and honest about actual life situations very rarely. The need to produce positive content can be motivated by the fact that “[t]ravel writing occurs in a context of algorithmic culture” (Van Nuenen, 2016). Travel bloggers need to make specific choices to boost the algorithm so that their posts can collect high numbers of interactions. They need to analyze and predict the feedback results their posts will have.

One more aspect of why the attitude towards traveling is perceived so idealistically and fails to reflect negative experiences can be connected to the fact that “the late modern tourist is always at the behest of his semiotic expectations (the ‘symbolic complex’): a mixture of mediated imaginings, deriving from the likes of books, advertisements, social media, television programs, or games” (Van Nuenen, 2016). Thus, this research is topical in terms of how we may look at such a phenomenon, comparing the current attitude to a similar branch in contemporary European literature.

Comparing the description of reality by Knausgård and by the travel bloggers

Figure 1: Travel blogger @doyoutravel sharing positive impressions about Ios, Greece on his Instagram account.

In Some rain must fall, Knausgård starts the novel with his journey back home to Norway from the vacation he went on before starting his studies. In the pages, full of his everyday life descriptions, some first differences with social media representation are noticeable. The author does not hesitate to show what he really feels like in the country as well as throughout the travelling process. Unlike on social media, where perfectionist representation is prevailing, he starts with saying: “[we] caught the train down to Brindisi, the weather was so hot it felt as though your head was on fire when you poked it through the open train window” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 1).

He is not afraid to criticize certain areas he traveled to: “It was forty-nine degrees in Rhodes. One day in Athens, the most chaotic place I have ever been and so insanely hot…” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 1), while normally on the travel blogs such places as Athens would be talked about positively. “Then the boat to Paros and Antiparos, where we lay on the beach every day, and got drunk every night” (Knausgård, 2010). Knausgård, thus, does not try to make his trips appear better than they really were. He does not aim for a perfect, idealized picture of certain places; on the contrary, he says the truth of how he really felt in that exact moment even though sometimes it was far from positive. Through his writing choices in his literary works, Knausgård proves that he can “understand rogue happiness. This perverse attention to what other writers ignore is part of his charm” (Kellaway, 2016).

Figure 2: Travel blogger @doyoutravel showing his luxurious traveling, promoting another account on Instagram.

If we look at the travel bloggers, the opposite comes into the picture. On countless profiles within the platform, the audience can spot pictures with perfect color stabilization, sunny background, and smooth skin. The followers are also not able to look beyond the images and, thus, have an illusion of a "perfectness" of influencers’ experiences. Even if we look at the same locations, in comparison to Knausgård, it seems almost as if they were talking about different places. Figures 1 and 2 show us some views of Greece through the perception of travel bloggers. In the Instagram posts, the reactions are much more positive than Knausgård's. Namely, the blogger @doyoutravel expresses his happiness towards new friends and memories and talks about the “amazing stay with our friends” in a luxurious hotel.

Figure 3: Travel blogger @jayalvarrez sharing his luxurious helicopter trip experience over Hawaii, calling the location ‘paradise’.

Most travel bloggers do not share their financial statements with the world. Unlike Knausgård, they make it look as they have enough income that allows both traveling and quite a luxurious lifestyle. Knausgård is more open about his financial situation. He talks about the lack of money that he experienced on the trip and does not hesitate to go into details saying “I went hungry” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 2), “I was in Germany, and I was very hungry, but without a krone in my pockets all I could do was smoke and hitch and hope for the best” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 4).

He describes his suffering in much detail: “he invited me into his house and gave me some muesli and milk, I ate three portions” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 4). In the latter part, he also adds that: “I was wet and hungry, my appearance was a mess after all the days on the road” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 6). Unlike the bloggers, Knausgård does not hesitate to admit the lack of money he experienced throughout the trip and the difficulties he faced connected to his financial situation.

Figure 4: Instagram blogger @jannikobenhoff talking about his helicopter trip over the Dolomites, calling it “one of his highlights this year”.

In constrast, the bloggers never share information about their finances, especially about lack of money. They make their trips look pricey by going to popular tourist destinations and trying extreme activities. Such an experience could be named luxurious. Figures 3 and 4 show the helicopter rides of such bloggers as @jayalvarrez and @jannikobenhoff. Both bloggers share their positive emotions calling the travel destination “paradise” and naming it “one of the year’s highlights”.

Figure 5: Travel blogger @jayalvarrez shares his experience from the beach saying “how can one place provide endless hours of fun”.

Knausgård does not stop with sharing his unpleasant traveling experience just there. Later, he talks about his memories from the final part of his trip: “But the last part of the journey was more difficult, I got lifts of thirty-odd kilometers at a time, by eleven in the evening I had advanced no further than Lokken, and I decided to sleep on the beach.” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 5). As he goes on about his experience sleeping on the beach, he says that “It was unpleasant, anyone could stumble across me out here, that was how I felt, but I was so tired after the last few days that in an instant I was gone, as if someone had blown out a candle” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 5).

While on blogs, time at the beach is usually described as romanticized part of the journey (Figure 5) and as a positive experience, Knausgård continues: “I woke to rain. Cold and stiff, I struggled out of the sleeping bag, pulled on my trousers, packed everything and set off for the town” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 5). Later, he talks about more downfalls of his journey: “The sky was grey, there was a light, almost imperceptible drizzle, I was freezing cold and walked fast to generate some heat. I’d had a dream and the images were still tormenting me” (Knausgård, 2010, p. 6).

Figure 6: The Instagram profile of @jayalvarrez contains a lot of colorful, beautiful-looking, ‘perfect’ pictures.

The influence of the internet on literature and vice versa 

While Knausgård proved to be quite open not only about positive but also about the negative experiences of his traveling, such as, for example, lack of money, extreme heat, poor conditions, etc., young travel bloggers were not as willing to share the unpleasant sides of their journeys. If we look at the latter, it could be said that there is a certain pattern of behaviour online among those who frequently share their traveling experience. This tendency seems like an unwritten rule, perceived as a norm by the members of the traveling community. It is a matter of "enoughness": “One has to “have” enough of the emblematic features in order to be ratified as an authentic member of an identity category” (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). Knausgård, however, proved to be more truthful with his readers.

Through the comparison it was possible to recognize the different ways in which the bloggers and Knausgård present reality. It is evident that Knausgård's literary environment proved to be more truthful in its reflection on real-life situations. After looking at the contents of Some rain must fall and some of the most popular travel bloggers on Instagram, the main difference between social media representations and Knausgård comes through. In many instances nowadays there is talk about blogging not being able to reflect a truthful picture of reality with its ups and downs, which could even lead to mental problems that internet users may encounter looking at the pretty image of the influencers. Knausgård, on the other side, shows both life’s highlights and its downsides, which, in some sense, makes his literary works more truthful than the internet’s blogging sphere. Some critics say of Knausgård that “[h]is banal epiphanies satisfy because of his acknowledgment that life includes the random, the inexplicable and the ugly” (Kellaway, 2016).

What wasn’t a part of this paper’s research question, but still differed massively between Knausgård and the bloggers is the fact that the latter have a different attitude towards home. “Yet, the relationship these bloggers have with their Western homes and backgrounds is more complex. These are perpetual travelers, and the question arises whether or not they want to go home at all” (Van Nuenen, 2016, p. 62). Knausgård, on the other hand, is highly interested in going home, he needs to go home. Looking at the travel bloggers, this part of their adventure is mostly left uncovered. The audience does not know when and where exactly the trip ends, they only witness the process. Sometimes it may seem as if the bloggers have a never-ending cycle of traveling. Knausgård does not focus on traveling, but rather on his "normal" everyday life at home. He is willing to go back to Norway. This is strongly evident if we look at both kinds of texts since the motives for a specific type of writing influence the parts the writers covered.

If we look at Knausgård’s Some rain must fall, we must ask: would he make the same choices if at the times of his journeys active social media activity existed? Would the 19-year-old character make the same decisions in the world of competition for media attention, likes, follows, and shares, which influence not just one's online popularity but also their offline income? However, since his format choice is clearly defined, this makes it hard to answer these questions.

Knausgård's truthfulness is actually "the truth of fiction": he constructs a character resembling himself at a younger age (but essentially not the same person he was as that age), and he constructs a narrative about traveling that is part of a whole novel project. It gives the reader the impression of truthfulness, honesty, and authenticity—but that is the effect of very good writing.

The bloggers, on the other hand, write about real things as they happen, they include pictures that increase the tendency to perceive things as being real. But their unproblematized narratives use the fictional language of the neoliberal media culture they grow up in. So, what seems real and true is mediated through Facebook and Instagram dominant discourses of representation.


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