I recently had an event at the University of Notre Dame and met with students in the MFA in Creative Writing program (who are LOVELY). A lot of my talks for my graphic memoir The Keeper have focused on Title IX or girls’ sports, but for this one I was excited to take a different angle: The Keeper as künstlerroman.
A few years ago I wrote a blurb for a fabulous book, and I referred to it as a künstlerroman. The author was happy with the blurb and thanked me for it.
“But,” she told me later, “I had to look up künstlerroman.”
So, yeah: a künstlerroman is novel about the development of an artist. It’s a subcategory of the better-known bildungsroman, the coming-of-age or education novel. [From the German: künstler = artist; bildungs = education; roman = novel]
Classic examples of künstlerromans are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. I’d argue that Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a brilliant example. Or Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street or Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I just looked and found Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home among a growing list on Wikipedia.
Speaking of Bechdel, nothing can top Alison Bechdel calling The Keeper “a triumph!” but another blurb I really love came from KJ Dell’Antonia, who said: “The Keeper is a feminist anthem and a writer’s coming-of-age in graphic disguise.”
For all the sports and Title IX content in The Keeper, I was so gratified that her blurb honed in on one of the key questions that I explored in the book: How did a dorky too-tall girl goalkeeper (me) become a writer?
Some people seem to be on the artist’s track since birth. Maybe you are one of those. Even though I loved to read and make stories, it was never a given that I would become a writer or artist. I knew there such thing as an artist type, but I was not that—I was the athlete type.
I often loved that identity. It felt special as a girl to be an athlete. But I wanted to try other identities too.
I think a lot about a painting by one of my favorite artists, Leonora Carrington: “The Artist Traveling Incognito.” Carrington called this painting of a two-headed, 5-eyed (plus one eye on the other head), furry creature a self-portrait:
In my sketchbook, I scribbled some notes about the painting. “I think she wanted to protect her art and self with disguise,” I mused:
Then I sketched a version of me inspired by the painting, imagining how my “disguise” was my sports uniforms. But I wondered if, instead of protecting my artist self, the uniforms obscured it:
There always seemed to be a disconnect between my sports life as a kid and my writing life as an adult. So one of the early impulses in making The Keeper was the desire to see if I could find connections rather than disconnections.
And the connection was there all along in the position I’d loved and lamented for so many years: the goalkeeper.
Nabokov was a goalkeeper, Camus was a goalkeeper.
And I realized that being an athlete and being an artist had a lot of similarities—especially if you were a girl.
Yay I love this post so much!