OSLO — One year after the publication of her novel “ Will and Testament ,” the Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth was at home with her two daughters when she received a surprising email. Hjorth’s widely read 2016 book, which tells the story of an Oslo woman who accuses her father of sexually assaulting her as a child, and which was seemingly inspired by elements of Hjorth’s own life, had spurred a debate in Norway about the ethics of adapting real events into fiction.
The email informed her that her younger sister, Helga Hjorth, was publishing a novel of her own. The sister’s book focused on a woman whose life was upended by the release of a dishonest sibling’s autobiographical novel, and seemed to be an answer to “Will and Testament.”
“The older sister in that novel is an awful human being, very cruel, narcissistic, alcoholic, psychopathic,” Vigdis Hjorth, 60, said in a recent interview. “And, you know, as bad as she was, I thought, ‘This is good for me.’”
The Hjorths’ dueling novels are one of the stranger turns in a controversy about a genre of writing called “virkelighetslitteratur,” or “reality fiction,” that has been roiling the Norwegian literature world recently. Some have accused high-profile Norwegian fiction writers, including Hjorth and the country’s most famous writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard , of violating the privacy of others by publishing intimate details under the guise of fiction. Others have pushed back against what they see as a hysterical overreaction to a longstanding literary practice.
That debate is likely to reach a bigger audience this week when Norway is the guest nation at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest publishing event which begins in Germany on Wednesday. Each year, the guest nation’s publishing industry and literary culture are the subject of a series of talks, debates and events, which focus the attention of the fair’s visitors. Hjorth’s “Will and Testament” which has recently been released in English and was longlisted for the National Book Award this year, looks set to be the talk of the fair — and “reality fiction” with it.
That term gained widespread use after the 2009 publication of the first book in Knausgaard’s hugely successful “My Struggle” series , in which the author depicted events from his own life using real names, often in excruciating detail. The first book sold over 500,000 copies in the country — the equivalent to one book for every 10 Norwegians.
Some critics in Norway argued that Knausgaard overstepped the bounds of decency by writing so forthrightly about real people’s private problems, including the mental illness of his wife at the time, Linda Boström Knausgaard. In an interview, Geir Gulliksen, a Norwegian writer and the editor of the “My Struggle” novels, said that everyone depicted in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books were sent advance manuscripts and given the choice of including their real names.
In 2010, another of Knausgaard’s ex-wives, Tonje Aursland, who was married to the writer for nine years from 1995, […]