The podcast revolution has spawned a billion-dollar business and a celebrity circle jerk that spins faster and is more cloying by the day. Fire up your favorite streaming app and chances are you’ll find yourself listening to Seth Rogen talking to Conan O’Brien talking to an Obama about the cultural product of the week.
And then there is Our Struggle, a punkishly off-piste podcast that has become the counterprogramming of choice for a tiny but exquisitely well-read tranche of listeners.
“Exacerbating and enthralling,” is how London-based literary critic Mia Levitin sums up the unorthodox and highly unpopular show, which is putatively dedicated to unpacking the six-volume autobiographical series by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. “It’s a very small club that I’m sure anyone can join,” said novelist and Bookforum contributor Lauren Oyler, who is scheduled to appear on an upcoming episode. “I don’t think you need to have read Knausgaard to go on it.”
The literary-world heavyweights who agree to come on air can count on fielding questions like, “Why don’t you have a funny little Norwegian accent?” “Have you ever caught a fish?” “How does your Albanian heritage play out in your life?” Hosts Lauren Teixeira and Drew Ohringer, ages 28 and 29, respectively, banter in their own private language, equal parts deadpan and delighted. Remember how alive you used to feel when you’d eavesdrop on your brainy friends running their mouths late at night in the basement of your college dorm? Listening to Our Struggle is a little bit like that.
As it happens, the show traces back to a drunken conversation that took place in a college dorm basement. Teixeira and Ohringer met during freshman orientation weekend at Grinnell College. They immediately hit it off and spent the night drinking vodka and talking about Morrissey. “I felt like I’d finally found some people who spoke my language,” said Ohringer.
The conversation never really ended. Last winter, after five years spent living in China and working as a freelance writer, Teixeira returned to the Washington, D.C. area, where she grew up. Feeling aimless and depressed, she texted her old friend, who was living in Iowa City, where he’d recently earned his MFA in fiction writing and was also unemployed, and suggested they start a podcast about Knausgaard’s books. They had next to zero literary connections, Knausgaard’s popularity had peaked about a decade ago, and neither of them was obsessed with him to the point of calling him their favorite writer—but why let any of that stop them?
“I don’t know, man, it just popped in my head,” said Teixeira, who now works as a “professional babysitter” (Ohringer is employed as an English teacher at a Pennsylvania boarding school). “Sometimes I just get these ideas and they don’t leave me.” The pair got to work, setting up a Twitter account and sliding into the DMs of members of the literary world who they hoped would agree to come onto the show. Sometimes they crowdsourced requests for email addresses (Ann Patchett, anyone?). On the first episode, released August 19, 2020, Teixeira explains the show’s raison d’être: “The world needs a podcast dissecting every page—and we are going to read every page—of a morose Norwegian man’s 6,000-page novel about standing in line at a coffee shop and feeling emasculated.”
In the thirteen episodes that have come out since, Knausgaard looms small while we learn of the hosts’ and guests’ own personal arcana and struggles. Knausgaard comes up once in Susan Sontag biographer Benjamin Moser’s episode, whose 109 minutes touched on the Pulitzer Prize–winning guest’s daily food shop, Teixeira’s love of Adidas tracksuits, and the importance of hotness to a writer’s success (this is where Knausgaard, who is tall and uncannily hot, enters the discourse). “You’re often asked to play the elder statesman in these formal interviews, and it’s nice to let down your guard and talk,” said Moser. “Our Struggle is actually a conversation. And it’s easy to forget, but conversation can be art.”
Literary critic and recent Our Struggle guest Christian Lorentzen likens the show to performance art. “The beauty of the podcast is, it pulls an avant-garde move of taking the Knausgaardian project to the next level of absurdity,” he said. “They are making a document of their own lives that’s notionally about reading the book together but is in fact a pure autobiographical adventure that overlaps with interesting encounters with critics.”
Visitors’ hearts are not always warmed. The hosts don’t treat their guests with reverence. In fact, some might interpret their goofy spirit as impertinence. British writer Geoff Dyer’s recent interview was marred by technical issues and a game that did not go down well. Dyer, a prolific blurber, declined to draw on his talent and compose on-the-spot blurbs for words such as “archipelago” and “Ever Given,” the ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal. A few hours after the interview, the guest pulled a St. Vincent and emailed the hosts requesting that the episode be scrapped. “There’s a kind of negative project [in ours] that I think is in line with [Dyer’s] work,” said Ohringer, trying to make lemonade out of his disappointment. “And, in fact, we did such a good job of continuing that negative project that we managed to not even produce an episode directly after having him be there…I don’t think he really had much to say about Knausgaard directly, which is another motif, in addition to the fact that Dyer’s tall.”