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“Writing a sentence is an orgasm” – Moments from Louisiana Literature

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In which we get a little closer to Nell Zink, Hanya Yanagihara, and Erica Jong. But not Karl Ove Knausgaard, because the tent was too full to get close to him.


As I sit on the steps of Poul Gernes’ pyramid sculpture overlooking the water and letting Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Norwegian lilt roll over me, I feel a wave of loneliness. The sky is blue for once, and I have taken off my blouse though it makes me feel slightly exposed. I am waiting for Nell Zink who will be on stage in half an hour, wondering whether she will be as popular as Knausgaard. He has throngs of people outside the tent, standing on tiptoe to peer into the depths towards the stage. Having never read Knausgaard, I am freed the hassle.

It is quiet. Only a few girls above me on the pyramid are chatting. Everyone is here to listen to the words of the Norwegian author turned celebrity. Apparently he doesn’t give interviews anymore. Louisiana must be special.

Crowd at the Park Scene for Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tomas Espedal
Crowd at the Park Scene for Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tomas Espedal

And so it is. The pristine view, the nearly timeless architecture, the overly thought-through exhibitions. It is a small reservation up here, mostly frequented by the so-called “Politiken Plus” segment – the over-60-year-old’s with money and time to spend on culture and correct opinions. Louisiana stands apart from the rest, and so does its literature festival, which inserted itself into the Danish literary scene seven years ago, automatically drawing some of the biggest international names to the otherwise unknown town of Humlebæk north of Copenhagen.

Perhaps it is this dominance that makes me feel slightly at odds with everything on this Friday afternoon overlooking the Park Stage and the Sound towards Sweden. I wanted to take the trip up here to experience some of the authors I have enjoyed reading over the years, but the surroundings remind me of the bubble which the mainstream literary world tends to exist in. Beautiful, sleek, exclusive. Knausgaard’s low grumbling does nothing to dispel this feeling.

Instead, the crowd around the tent disperses and I dive down from the pyramid and into the middle of the tent to get a good seat. I needn’t have bothered. Nell Zink has only recently been translated into Danish, and the tent isn’t full when she arrives on stage. Nevertheless, she’s a character worth seeing up close. She’s quirky, perhaps even slightly awkward, but she does her best this Friday afternoon to accommodate an increasingly blundering interviewer, who does not  seem to have understood that Danish humor does not translate into English.

Nell Zink on stage

Luckily, Nell Zink has a good sense of humor of her own, which she combines with brutal honesty, just like her books. Mislaid and The Wallcreeper slapped me across the face with their vicious irony and unrelenting critique, all wrapped up nicely in concise sentences and comic relief. Nell Zink does the same. She happily admits that she wrote Mislaid, her second novel, to “make it easy to explain.” As she points out, “I had Jonathan Franzen, who is an industry unto himself, push my books. But no one wanted them.  So I decided to write a book for the literary market, which right now seems obsessed with race and gender. So I wrote a book about race and gender.”

Mislaid isn’t an ordinary book about race and gender however. It follows a white, lesbian woman who runs away from her marriage to a white, gay husband with one of their two kids. She manages to lay low by, among other things, pretending to be black. It takes an author of some skill to write a book like this and not tread on the landmine that is race relations in the US. But, as Nell Zink says, there’s a reason she’s living in Germany. When asked if she sees herself as a comic writer, she immediately replies: “No, because comic writers don’t win major literary awards.”

Nell Zink’s books fascinated me, but there was one novel whose author I was especially looking forward to seeing. A Little Life, which a good friend of mine had recommended over a year ago and which I had finally gotten around to reading, had basically robbed me of a whole week of sleep as I ploughed through its 720 pages. The story of the four friends Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude and their lives in New York City was so intense, so tragic, and so unfathomably long that I simply couldn’t imagine which kind of person was behind such a marathon of a novel.

The answer turns up in the Louisiana’s concert hall Friday afternoon. Hanya Yanagihara is a young, well-dressed American woman and former magazine editor with an essay-like answer for every question. Her interviewer, Tony Vorm, seems just as fascinated as me by this brick of novel and the woman behind it. But Yangihara is dead cool about the 18 months it took her to write the book while working part-time:

“I wrote from 9-12 pm between Monday and Thursday, all of Friday, Saturday, and six hours on Sunday.”

Tony Vorm stares a bit in disbelief.

“And did you experience any writer’s block at all?” he asks tentatively.

“No.”

Listening to this exchange, I think about my own slack beginnings of novels and poems littered in different notebooks and my inefficiency in dealing with them. Obviously, the majority of the audience is thinking the same, because an unbelieving titter goes through the crowd and we all feel somewhat diminished in the presence of this small giant who seems to have an answer for everything.

Yanagihara signing her books
Yanagihara signing her books

She’s one of those people who see the world through an intellectual lens, and it shows in her approach to her work. Yanagihara describes how she wished to write a book with a character who never got better (Jude) to explore how to sustain a narrative with no redemption. How she had the symphonic structure of the novel already mapped out before she began, and how she wanted the book to surprise the reader by starting in one genre (the collegiate novel) and then slowly evolving into something else. A sleight of hand, as she puts it. Having read A Little Life, I must say that she has succeeded.

However, there’s something almost annoying about her ability to answer each question so succinctly, intelligently and deliberately. Perhaps it is my short brush with the anarchist art world on a rocky outcrop of Iceland a few months back, but I miss an emotional approach to her work. The lack of one becomes even more apparent in her conversation with the Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, on the last day of the festival. Though the authors have little in common, the talk circles around the politics that inform their writing and their writing process. Tokarczuk talks of how she waits for the moment when “my characters start to speak in their own voices. This always comes as a surprise that is independent from me.” Yanagihara, however, tolerates no such surprises, as she admits herself: “This is perhaps the difference between the author who follows the narratives and characters, versus the author who wants to have control.”

Yanigahara is clearly an author in control. Except of the money. As she says to Tony Vorm in their Friday interview: “I’ve given myself until March to find a job.” When Vorm exclaims “Why?!” in disbelief, the curt answer is: “I need the money.” This woman is real to the bone.

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On Sunday afternoon, I am waiting in the Park Tent for an author who definitely does not need the money. Despite showing up an hour early, I have only managed to get a somewhat decent seat. It’s packed with women age 60 and up, and a few young ones, like myself. I have had to inelegantly elbow my way to make it this far, and I am lucky to be sitting next to Sarah, another worker at ark books, and her mother. Her mother is from Thy, and she voices my own perception of the audience majority: Gray-haired, well-dressed, well-to-do women, all mostly from the surrounding areas of Northern Zealand known for its grand villas and large incomes. The literary world of Louisiana is certainly a very select world.

But we are all here, and we are all here to hear the gospel of Erica Jong. Erica Jong, who has awoken the passion and feminism of all the surrounding females in the crowd, including, I must admit, myself. I only recently read the now-classic Fear of Flying as preparation for the festival, and was completely unprepared for how this 1974 publication spoke directly to my own experiences and dilemmas. I thought I was a (somewhat) free woman. The Erica Jong from 43 years ago proved me wrong.

And she enters leisurely as a true diva with sunglasses and a flowing summer dress, reading aloud from her new book Fear of Dying, in which a 60-something year old woman struggles with the fact that she still (like the Isadora Wing of Fear of Flying) hasn’t quite found herself or the meaning in her life. Jong reads with great humor, and her style is just as witty as it was in the 1970s. She seems to lift what would otherwise derogatorily be called “chick lit” up to a level that is both authentic and deep. Quite an achievement in a world in which even the likes of hugely popular Elena Ferrante are sometimes sneered at.

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However, Jong isn’t the only celebrity tonight. Most people, including Sarah’s mom, are also here to see her interviewer. Martin Krasnik will be completely unknown outside Danish borders, but inside, he’s the kingpin of journalists, known for his persistence and ruthlessness, but also his boyish face, red hair and Jewish heritage. He recently transitioned from his job as a TV journalist back to a writer for the intellectual newspaper Weekendavisen, and the cheer that goes through the crowd as this is announced can only testify to its socially homogenous composition.

Krasnik, however, is not here to critique, but to celebrate the life and work of Erica Jong, and the crowd enforces this atmosphere with frequent applause. The feeling intensifies as Krasnik impulsively invites his 15-year-old niece to come on stage to ask Jong any question she wants. She is up to the task. Microphone in hand, she looks straight at Jong and says: “Would you say the same to a 15-year-old girls in 2016, as you would have to one in 1973?” Jong is quick to reply: “Yes.”

“I’ve learned more about myself writing books than I have from fifty years of psychoanalysis.” – Erica Jong

Though Krasnik seems to go round and round in circles, mainly focusing on Jong’s private life and thoroughly annoying me in the process, Jong still manages to get some wise words in. She talks about feminism (“It’s so simple that people don’t understand it. Both genders should have the right to develop their ambitions and talents without restriction.”), about restlessness (to Krasnik: “You presume we should not be restless. Of course we’re restless. The human condition is restlessness.”), about writing (“I’ve learned more about myself writing books than I have from fifty years of psychoanalysis.”), and humor (“I’m Jewish. We have gallows humor. It’s like, we’re going into the crematorium, let’s make a joke about it.”). And of course, she was the one equating the writing of a sentence with an orgasm. Who else.

Jong is a product and maker of her time, and she’s just as wealthy, if not more, than many of the audience here. Her way of viewing the world, and her writing of it, is probably at odds with many of the new thoughts being espoused by queer theory, intersectional feminism, and identity politics. But she’s still refreshing, she’s still funny, and she’s a great way to end the festival. With social critique and light-hearted laughs. They go so well together here in on the wealthy coast.


This reportage is dedicated to Lone, who gave me her pen on the first day of the festival when I had unprofessionally forgotten one. Without Lone, no reportage, so thank you Lone!

Aspiring writer and avid reader of fiction. Has an odd penchant for white, American male authors such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen. Likes to discuss the failings of neoliberalism and other systems of oppression. Has yet to find a way to do anything about them. Had her eyes opened by postcolonial and gender theory (which has yet to do anything to her love of aforementioned white American male authors). Prefers Nescafé over real coffee, which everyone in the bookshop finds strange.

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