At Three Percent, Chad Post recently published a useful roundup of attitudes to the genre found among fiction critics in the U.S. online media. In particular, he highlighted the interesting debate between novelist Nathaniel Rich (writing in Slate) and Larissa Kyzer (in L Magazine), which exposed the author-reader dynamic that underlies the whole question. Wondering about the reasons for the extensive adoption of the crime genre by contemporary Nordic writers, Rich saw some fairly predictable factors at work:
the best explanation is the most mundane: Crime novels sell. Most of the Scandinavian crime novelists began their careers in other genres. Mankell, for instance, wrote seven well-received but unlucrative novels, and more than a dozen plays, before turning to a life of crime; Karin Fossum was a prize-winning poet; Maj Sjöwall was an editor and translator. Before the current explosion of crime novels, the only contemporary Scandinavian novelist to enjoy major international success was Peter Høeg. Høeg may be a "literary" novelist, but his breakout Smilla's Sense of Snow is about the investigation of a suspected homicide. The lesson is clear: If you want your novel to be read abroad, particularly in the English-speaking world, you'd better include a murder. Even if you've never heard of a murder actually being committed in your country.
Wondering again why readers across the world have found the Scandinavian books written in this genre so compelling - they are not particularly innovative, after all, and are for the most part "straightforward whodunnits"- Rich suggested that
Kyzer challenged this view, seeing it as patronizing and playing to stereotypes:
What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell's corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.
One need only skim recent headlines from mainland Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) to ascertain that the famed tranquility of the Nordic welfare state has begun to face some dramatic challenges. For instance: each of these countries has seen a marked increase in immigration in the last few decades, an influx which has challenged the homogeneity of the local populations, and more often than not, created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook.
The most striking feature of the whole debate, however, is that it reveals an essential characteristic of the kind of writing that's involved: ultimately the main concern of the Nordic authors who produce these books is not with writing itself, with the creation of literary art, but is focused instead on a form of fictionalized sociology. It's really a continuation of the "radical" movement that produced the socially-committed novels and poetry of the 1970s, and it shows that this tendency has not died out in Nordic fiction, but is being reinforced and re-tuned to suit the trends and exigencies of the new century.
This is a pity, for it seemed for a time during the 1980s and 1990s that writers in Scandinavia were once again, as they did in the 1940s and early 1950s, beginning to question the society-based values and assumptions that had dominated fiction during the two earlier decades, and were finding their way towards a renewal of the universalist, formally innovative and metaphysical tradition that had characterized the writing of the immediate post-war period, with its roots in the writing of authors like Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Camus, the long legacy of Kierkegaard and the myth-oriented humanism of Karen Blixen. While authors and critics like Jan Kjærstad and Mikael Enckell continued in their different ways to uphold those values, and Inger Christensen, Tomas Tranströmer and Pia Tafdrup wrote their poems in a conscious emergence from the traditions of pre-and postwar modernism, there was a sense that in the Nordic literary world as a whole another kind of value was gaining ascendancy, in just the way that Nathaniel Rich describes above, and for the same translation-related "reasons".
I see the increasing dominance of crime fiction and its related genres in Scandinavian writing today as a problem that has the potential to become a tragedy whose consequences it will take several generations to overcome. For some of the best Nordic writing talent is being diverted into these sub- and semi-literary channels, from which it may never return.
Note: although this and other related posts are now being discussed on FriendFeed and elsewhere, I'd like to repeat my invitation to those who want to debate the issue to come here and write in the comments boxes. David McDuff.
See also: Detective Story