More than anything, the young Karl Ove Knausgaard wanted to write novels. But he couldn’t. “I couldn’t write, so I gave up,” he confesses in Inadvertent, his contribution to the Yale University Press series Why I Write. Instead, he “envisioned an academic career” and went to the university. “Perhaps,” he says, “I could become a professor.” The choice is clear, the difference distinct: write literature, or profess; become an academic, or a novelist.

Which did Knausgaard choose? In a sense, neither. Like all genius, he showed inherited options to pose a false dilemma and experimented with another way: he became a writer who does not write literature, as he concludes on the final page of Inadvertent. Like a professor, he tells more than he shows, yet like a novelist, the reality he approaches is felt to be the truth more than it is known to be true by professorial expertise. But unlike a novelist, the reality he writes about is his own. He tells what he knows of the world, but does not tell from the expert point of view to which a professor aspires. Knausgaard tells profound truths the way your neighbor would, but it’s clear he has read the books professors read: Knausgaard talks with them, from his life back to the life he writes about.


The difference between writing literature and the scholarly book can be seen by imagining this sentence in each: “Joy is the same to a ten-year-old as it is to a seventy-year-old.”

I came across it on page 23 of Inadvertent. It appears in a passage where Knausgaard is discussing A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. He is telling us that this is the book that made the greatest impact on him as a young reader and that it was so decisive because of the strength of feeling it evoked in him. He also tells us that “Unlike our thoughts, our emotions do not change in the course of a life, at least not in a fundamental way: joy is the same to a ten-year-old as it is to a seventy-year-old.”

It is as if a man-with-a-sweater-tucked-into-his-trousers, a figure from the opening pages of Inadvertent, has said something profound while sitting beside me in the living room. I pause. In the second half of my fifties, I wonder if it is true. Fifteen years is not that far away: Will I still be capable of joy? I feel Knausgaard’s statement to be true deep inside me, but I, a college professor, would likely never say it that way. Knausgaard, the writer, has. When our publishing respects the distinction (academic or novelist; do literature or profess), it forecloses a public space where I, the professor, can wonder whether it will be like that for me or can imagine what it would be like if it were or weren’t. This exploration requires a form of writing that, as Knausgaard puts it in Inadvertent, creates a space in which “truths play out.”

Knausgaard’s own writing creates a space that resembles conversation among friends, where much of our talk concerns the incidents that we live through as well as the incidentals that constitute our lives. Among friends, we ask big questions. Knausgaard writes of such questions that they are those to which “science provides no answers… questions which are more important than all the rest, [ones] to which no one knows the answers… What is the world… What is the meaning of life? Where does this meaning come from? Who am I?” No studies can verify our answers — what evidence could be given? — and so these questions are left to the intimacy and imagination of friends, conversations with the man-with-a-sweater-tucked-in-his-trousers we meet in Knausgaard’s literature. We also meet them in religion. Religion has institutions and practices that bring big yet intimate questions outside. It commits to these questions publicly as ones that concern human being. Its texts and symbols give public form to them. And its experts guide the asking of such questions and minister to those who take them up. This is why Knausgaard, also in Inadvertent, says religion is like writing in that it creates “an outside place where what is inside becomes visible.”

When the distinction between scholarship and literature rules, however, the scholarly book does not create such a space in its published pages. Not even in religious studies. University presses publish the work of professors of religious studies, like me, and as it stands, the discipline presents us with stark choices: either teach about religion or teach religion; either write books about religion or write religious books. Knausgaard’s experiment is to make himself (the author) the man-in-whom-the-truth-plays-out (the protagonist). He needs neither literature’s character nor scholarship’s case study. His writing does not respect the distinction. Such writing makes for books in which religious things resonate.


The Abyss or Life Is Simple is most interesting when it follows Knausgaard in experiments that refuse to admit the choice between writing and professing, literature and scholarship. Those experiments testify to the exciting possibilities embraced by university press publishing when it tries another way.

One experiment is writing scholarly work that comes from friendship. When we are with friends, we talk differently and about different things. We might even practice our expertise differently. Among friends, the experts gathered in The Abyss admit they are writing about something outside the objects constituted by their expertise: Karl Ove Knausgaard. Their perplexity shows. They say things like: “What I am trying to figure out in this essay”; “what I want to hazard”; and “Is Nietzsche’s story right? Who knows, who cares? But it does seem plausible that….” They are wondering about things, experimenting with ideas, and struggling to learn more. The writing bears the trace of their heartfelt struggle, evidence of the being (the authors) out of which and back to which the perplexed questioning comes. That being is not the same at the beginning of the writing as at the end.

To show us how work comes from friendship, The Abyss experiments with doing literature. Each essay is prefaced by pages of grey paper, unevenly colored. It resembles the yellowed pages from a typewritten manuscript of dramatic dialogue. I was tempted to say “from the script of a drama,” but the words were unscripted, a conversation made of incidentals. The dramatic dialogues are taken from transcripts of recordings of the collective’s meetings, which the transcriptionist Hannah Garvey highlights in her Outro in The Abyss. She attended the gatherings and silently recorded every word, making no distinction between the important and the trivial. The dialogues are dated and located. The essay that follows each dialogue appears thereby to have been occasioned by a conversation, reminding us of the that is our thinking. The dialogues set the essays in the drama that are their origin and make the authors appear like literature’s man-with-a-sweater-tucked-in-his-pants or like a friend, a person who talks differently and about different matters — such as religion.


What is that origin? Why did they write this book? They fob their gathering off to “happenstance… curiosity and enthusiasm.”

Distinctive about talking among friends is that we talk about things we love or hate, the other side of love. The things we love aren’t always perfect — yet they affect us, and we care about them and for them. Liane Carlson loves Knausgaard, so much so that she offers a tender reading of his childhood. Jeremy Biles loves Knausgaard, so much so that he follows him into slugs and slime, toward horrible monsters and disgusting shit. Joshua Dubler loves Knausgaard, so much so that he admits to the warts of an often-adolescent, often-politically incorrect author (Knausgaard) while confessing his attraction to him. His is a work born of a love that loves on despite the beloved’s failings. All the authors in The Abyss are following their loves. Their gathering together in a collective makes a place where they can experiment with faithfulness to that love. But love is unjustified, and works of love without reasons that explain them. The work of love will always be a risk to publish. But does the decision to publish need a better reason than love, even if this reason does not offers the security of an explanation?

Some of us who work in the humanities take our vocation to include teaching students to find something they love, to learn to hold things dear. When the rhetorical turns of professorial critique have been mastered and the cultural objects studied become objects known and illusions seen through, what remains for all of us might be to learn to love something and appreciate it. I find support in that vocation from the collective gathered in The Abyss.


Though seemingly without reason, works of love are not without consequences. In the case of The Abyss, one such consequence is for religious studies. It proposes that Knausgaard’s writing offers data to be used as evidence when scholars discuss religion.

Crucial to this argument is the fact that that writing frequently has its origin in the feeling of something excessive welling up in him and wanting to get outside, what is known in religion as ecstasy. Knausgaard gives many examples in Inadvertent, including the overwhelming joy he felt seeing a flock of jackdaws and experiencing “the simple fact that I was here, now, their contemporary. Joy that I existed, together with everything else in existence.” It inspires “an urge to write.” Writing, Knausgaard says, is his struggle with creating a space in which the excessive inside, the limitless feeling that is this joy, can inhabit the outside world. Religion also struggles with this: it can be a place to experience the limitless within the limits of human being-in-the-world, a home for the longing to exceed oneself and stand outside oneself, ecstatically. The Abyss embraces this “also.”

Knausgaard might be one of the more religiously musical of our secular writers. Religious longings and concerns resonate in and with him. Most scholars in the field of religious studies, so claim the authors of The Abyss, are deaf to such moods and fascinations, not allowing them to resonate in their own work. An important set of human cares thereby goes unremarked, and we, the public, miss out on a potential place for accessing them. This is of consequence not just for religion and religious people. Secularity and secular people, too, lose a place where they might be able to ask what Knausgaard calls “questions which are more important than all the rest,” a place where feelings of extreme depth and elevation find expression. While such thoughts and feelings are commonly called religious, they concern all of us. They are human cares that come “outside” in religion, in literature — and among friends. Following Knausgaard, university publishers can experiment with creating such a space in and through writing. The Abyss is a step in that direction.