Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Crime Does Pay, At Least for Nordic Authors

I was recently browsing the bookshelves of my local Waterstone's. Let me add that my local bookstore is on a university campus, so I had heightened expectations. I thought that perhaps students in particular would be interested in a wide variety, in terms of both international voices and genre.

So I strolled the store, looking for Nordic authors. What I found was unsurprising, but disappointing nonetheless. I saw books by Swedish authors such as Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser, and Norwegians such as Jo Nesbø. In other words, crime novelists.

Where, I wondered, were the more literary authors? Even an old Nobel Prize-winner or two would have satisfied me. But alas. The only Nordic voices to be found were those of detectives.

Now, some people have said that the popularity of Nordic crime fiction is an excellent thing, since it might get readers interested in the Nordic cultures and languages, and thus, by extension, in other kinds of literatures. But I'm not seeing evidence of that. I don't see bookshelves at libraries or bookstores devoted to Nordic literature and I don't see Nordic authors highlighted in newspapers or book reviews. If Nordic writing is mentioned at all, it is in the context of crime fiction, and crime fiction only.

So what will it take to get people to people to want to learn more about Nordic literature and authors? I don't have an answer, but I long for the day when crime doesn't pay.

16 comments:

  1. I think that when the vogue for English translations of Nordic crime fiction began in the 1980s, Nordic literary publishers and publicity agencies like NORLA, FLIC, etc. did indeed hope that it would help to stimulate interest abroad in Scandinavian fiction in general. But that never really happened, and the result, as you point out, is that crime writing has come to dominate the field of Nordic translation.

    Supporters of the status quo usually say that the general reading public in the US and UK isn't all that interested in "pure" literary fiction anyway, so the domination of crime writing is to be expected. Also, they argue that authors like Mankell and Nesser incorporate features of "serious" writing in to their crime novels, and therefore readers are still getting the real deal, if only by the back door.

    The really sad thing about it all, I suppose, is that when faced with the choice of translating crime fiction or no fiction, translators will inevitably opt for the former. And again, when choosing between an ill-paid "literary" fiction translation and a probably much more lucrative crime fiction commission, translators will probably choose the latter. The justification sometimes heard is that the well-paid translation job will subsidize the translation of less popular books - but how often does that actually happen?

    I believe that the responsibility for the present situation lies not only with publishers and translators, but also with the literature promoting and funding agencies in the Nordic countries. In my experience, those agencies tend to adopt a rather disparaging view of transatlantic publishing, and to concentrate their resources on promoting "serious" Nordic literature outside the Anglo-American cultural area - especially in Germany, France and Eastern Europe, where they claim that the publishers and the audience are more receptive, and there is more cultural "resonance". I don't believe that's true, of course. :-)

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  2. As I have a reading knowledge of, for instance, the Scandinavian languages (bar Icelandic), Polish, German, French, Estonian, Dutch and a few more at a lower level, I can easily see from their online bookshops what is being translated by way of serious literature.

    So yes, the "Anglo-Saxons" are shown to be very culturally narcissistic, and, given the nature of crime novels, all too eager for profit. It is therefore no wonder that the promotional agencies put more of their eggs in "Continental" baskets.

    If, for instance, you want to read Latvian and Lithuanian literature, and, like me, cannot read the languages, you would do no worse than learn German. Athena Verlag in Oberhausen has a special list of contemporary Lithuanian books in translation, about a dozen books to date. I bet you there aren't even that number in total translated into English. For Latvian you can go to Weidle Verlag in Bonn, if you want to read Laima Muktupavela's recent novel about being a mushroom-picking migrant worker in what was then the Celtic Tiger. Has any British or Irish press taken on this novel?

    Another important Latvian novelist to appear in German is Gundega Repše with her "Unsichtbare Schatten", appearing in German translation in 1998, two years after the original. For more Latvian literature in German, go to the www.literatur.lv website. There's lots there.

    This demonstrates that in lieu of having a healthy translation culture into English, you should learn, for instance, German, so that you can access lots of East & Central European literature.

    The Frankfurt Book Fair boosted Lithuanian literature by having that country as Guest of Honour a few years ago, while the London Book Fair plods on with empire-building, skimming of the English-speaking cream off the top of Indian literature. The Brits go for a big country or region every time, dreaming of markets and sales.

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  3. Sorry, Eric, but I think the idea that Anglo-American publishing is somehow especially "narcissistic", inward-looking and hungry for profit simply doesn't correspond to the facts, and is based on prejudice. Publishing in the US and UK is no more or less commercial than publishing anywhere else in the world. That a greater number of translations are published in non-English-speaking countries has more to do with the fact that English-language writing is dominant in the world today - there are simply more authors writing and publishing in English than in other languages today.

    Most European publishers have little or no knowledge of the Nordic languages (or the East European languages you mention) and in making selections for their lists depend heavily on English-language sample translations (and also complete translations). That's why FILI, for example, devotes so much of its attention to the preparation and funding of English-language sample translations, which can be circulated in Europe (those publishers do know English). The paradox, however, is that FILI also devotes far more "collaborative" attention to publishers and translators in Germany and Eastern Europe than it does to their counterparts in the UK and US.

    Also, the "crime fiction bias" is universal - it's not just a phenomenon that's exclusive to the "Anglo-Saxons".

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  4. I remember my own browsing the folkhögskola library in Oskarshamn (where I stayd for some 6 months a couple of years ago in order to get better knowledge of Swedish) and finding a whole shelf of Russian crime writer Alexandra Marinina in Swedish whom I in my adolescence considered "trash" not worth even talking about... I still do not like crime literature but I think nowadays one can find what one wants much more easily that ever before (and here I mean the net). You know it by yourselves, B.J., David, and Eric, I'm sure. :-) I understand your reasoning and would of course love to see "literature" and "crime literature" from different cultures and languages at least be balanced when translated into different languages across the globe. But... most TV channels and FM stations are trash and advertising. And there are those who live without a TV set and listen to independent radio stations on the net. :-)

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  5. Lev's point about the availability of "what one wants" on the Internet is a good one, I think. After all, this blog itself probably exists mainly in order to promote and publicize the work of Nordic writers who might otherwise not receive much attention in the MSM. Thus hopefully bypassing the "crime fiction" syndrome altogether.

    The MSM is gradually being overtaken by the Internet, and it doesn't like it. Who knows what may be possible in a few years' time. :-)

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  6. Various points to reply to.

    When I attack the Anglo publishing world as a whole, I am principally thinking of the larger publishing houses that seem mesmerised by big names and crime fiction. What I would hope is that they could reserve some room on their lists for more literary works, with a good percentage of contemporary fiction included.

    Especially my Lithuanian statistic for one sole German publisher, as above, demonstrates that the Frankfurt Guest of Honour status has had a knock-on effect. But Lithuania has simply not reached Britain, as far as I can see. The London Book Fair tends to have safe, large and visible literatures as their annual guest.

    Personal effort in promoting a country can help, especially when translators are listened to. I would personally like to publish translated novels and collections of short-stories, not crime novels.

    I don't think Estonia is particularly special, but by making my own proposals to the publisher, I have managed since 2003 to publish the translations three novels from Estonian, plus one selection of short-stories. I am translating a further anthology of stories, and hope to translate a further two novels. All from Estonian, not Europe's biggest or most prestigious language. And for two British, two U.S. and one Hungarian publishing houses. Nor am I God's gift to self-promotion and do not have lots of contacts and drinking pals in publishing. I simply kept proposing until someone took an interest. But these are all relatively small university presses. When you write on spec to larger publishers, you tend to get completely ignored. That is my experience.

    Small presses can often cope with poetry, not least because some poetry devotees have actually gone into publishing. But prose is more difficult to introduce, unless it somehow has the label "crime" attached.

    If 23% of French published books are translations, and the percentage varies between about 50% and 60% for Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands, and the British and U.S. percentage is down at 3%, this means something. If you examine what is published in various European countries, judging by what their online bookshops sell, you will find that literary translations do not come only from English-speaking areas. The domination of English is a fact. But most European countries still have room for translations from non-English-speaking countries.

    I'm going to have a look at various online bookshops from European countries to try to establish what percentage of easily available translations comes from countries other than the English-speaking ones. Because I have a hunch that many countries are better than Britain, but I would need some more statistical confirmation to enable me to be fair when comparing.

    Other factors includes how large the edition is, and how many copies are sold (and read!). This sort of research is beyond my means, but I hope that some serious research is done right across Europe, like the French did a while back.

    I think there would be potential for a British readership for serious Scandinavian or Nordic fiction and even poetry, if it were adequately introduced to the average British reader. If the national promotional organisations favour promoting crime fiction in Britain and America, because it's the only thing they can generate interest with, then this will become a vicious circle. But if Scandinavian and British publishers cooperate, via the promotional agencies and via knowledgeable translators who make concrete proposals, this would help international cooperation.

    We on this blog introduce Nordic authors to anyone interested and this is one small step in the direction of awareness-raising. The internet is a liberating mechanism as David suggests, but we enthusiastic translators cannot control the actual publication of book-length translations in a climate not yet ready to take on many foreign authors. We can set out our stall, but people still have to visit the market, so to speak.

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  7. >>people still have to visit the market<<

    And the Internet is the place where, increasingly, they visit it. It's been shown that Amazon customer reviews are just as effective in selling books as notices in newspapers and magazines. I believe that this reader-based reviewing is a phenomenon that will become much more widespread in future, and is likely to influence the direction of publishing.

    Instead of doing your research in European bookshops, why not take a look at the Amazon EU gateway - it's here.

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  8. I tend to think that the crimewave is nothing but good, though what lies behind the popular reader's unexpected fascination for Nordic atmosphere deserves further study which might be quite disillusioning. Evidently the line separating genre fiction from reasonably serious fiction isn't at all clear, Peter Hoeg and Kristin Ekman have benefited greatly from their semi-crime-genre forays, and then it's not far to Bookerish books with an element of mystery - say Per Petterson... It's obviously unrealistic to suppose that readers of these books will be any more attracted to high-literary or experimental writing translated from Nordic languages than they would be to the same sort of material from anywhere else. However, I believe there is a trickledown effect, a sort of putting-a-culture-on-the-map, even to such arcane niches. If another million Americans read Mandell, then another thirty will read Eva Ström.

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  9. That was of course Kerstin Ekman, Peter Høeg,and Henning Mankell.... Can't believe I only made 3 errors in 12 lines, maybe I missed some!

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  10. I've had a look at the Apollo bookshop in Tallinn, Estonia, to see which contemporary and modern classic authors are being sold in this new-books bookshop. Second-hand ones lag behind.

    The list in the following Comment will be the first twelve pages from a list of 35 online book pages which conveniently list translated books separate to ones written in Estonian. I didn't have the patience to go thorough all 35, but with fifteen books a page you get the idea. These are all books translated into Estonian within the past decade or so and available at the Apollo bookshop in central Tallinn.

    Firstly I have listed all translations; then I have crossed out all the books translated from English. I did not take the time to break down the books into the categories crime fiction, romantic fiction, general fiction etc. But you can often work that out from the name of author. There are still a respectable number of translations from other languages apart from English.

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  11. Eric, please put this enormously long list online somewhere, and then link to it. It's an interesting list, but I don't want the comments section to be clogged up in this way. Let's keep the comments for comments, not lists.

    David

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  12. OK, I've put Eric's list online. You can read it here.

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  13. David, thanks for re-publishing my carefully prepared lists. They were collated for a very definite purpose.

    The points I'm trying to make by pedantically recording the names of a hundred or so authors and their availability in the main Estonian bookshop chain are very important.

    If a small country such as Estonia can translate so many authors, even from non-English-language countries, it is not correct to assume that most literary translations into Estonian are from English, thus severely subordinating translations from all other languages into this tiny language (one million native-speakers). Estonia appears to welcome many significant contemporary authors from Europe and further afield, not only crime authors and romantic fiction authors (and ones of an equivoocal status such as Paolo Coelho).

    I would argue that the evidence I have presented shows that Estonia does a good job when it comes to bringing authors from Europe and beyond into the Estonian language sphere. I cannot see that Britain and the USA are making proportional efforts to welcome foreign literature and make sure it is available to the average reader.

    There is no sour grapes on my part. I have done disproportionately well by publishing several books translated from Estonian. My point is that with joined up thinking and cooperation, with publishers, translators, ACE, and the reviewers as main players, Britain could publish a substantially larger number of book-length literary translations every year.

    It can be argued that there is a hunger in Estonia, even 20 years after the Soviet Union collapsed, for literature from abroad, on account of freedom from Soviet censorship. But ultimately, British readers would also develop an appetite for foreign literature if it were easily available and avidly discussed in the press, not only in specialist journals such as Books From Finland, the Swedish Book Review, etc.

    Crime fiction should not be the only type of fiction to pay. So I will try where I can to interest British and U.S. publishers in general fiction. Waterstone's should not remain the only yardstick by which the health of book availability is measured. But it is nonetheless a showcase where people notice things. You can flood Amazon and other online bookshops with general fiction, but people will not read it unless it is brought to their attention.

    When I erased the names of translations into Estonian from English specifically, and repeated the table accordingly, there was still a respectable number of novels and books of stories left. I am not examining poetry but prose, which tends to be the more popular genre.

    I now hope to repeat the exercise with a country with some 80 times the potential readership that Estonian has: Germany. Germany may not, on the whole be as much a country of booklovers as Estonia and Iceland are. But looking at what is available in German bookshops in the German (i.e. local) language will demonstrate what a large country focusses on, as opposed to a tiny one like Estonia.

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  14. I've not got round to examining the Germans, but I wanted to take up a point made by Michael about crime novels. I am not entirely convinced that when Quercus and others go on a crime spree that this will have a knock-on effect, resulting in ordinary readers being weaned onto general fiction from the Exotic North. Similarly, the copious translation of Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin would not necessarily attract European readers to general British fiction.

    My little foray into what the Estonians translate will have demonstrated that novels from any particular country are not automatically in the crime zone. While Høeg is one of those equivocal instances, and the Westö book is his only crime novel "Lang", ditto Frode Grytten's one crime novel, there are also general novels from Scandinavia such as ones by Jon Fosse and others.

    I just hope that the proportion of general novels to crime ones in translation can be raised in the UK.

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  15. I'm so glad my post raised so many issues! Thanks for all the interesting comments!

    Best wishes,
    BJ

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  16. I've still not got round to the Germans, I had a look at the Poles instead. I shall not write huge lists of authors, just impressions.

    The best online Polish bookshop I know of is called Merlin. They have a special section for translated literature and this has 996 books, spread over 20 webpages. The selection here is more conformist, less adventurous than the Estonian bookshop I looked at. About half of the translations are indeed from the English language, and it looks as if romantic fiction and crime take up a good deal of space. Nevertheless, there are 3 books by George Eliot, 4 by Doris Lessing and 16 Shakespeare plays.

    From other languages, there are more than one book in Polish translation by Gide, Guillou, Dostoevski, Hrabal, Jünger, Mahfouz, Nothomb, Voltaire and Margit Sandemo, who has nine books listed.

    But as I say, more conformist, little from the rest of Eastern & Central Europe, the Low Countries, or Scandinavia. Scandinavia is well represented by crime authors, as was to be expected.

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