Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Undoing the Curse

The news that Norwegian author Per Petterson's novel Jeg forbanner tidens elv ( I Curse the River of Time, Aschehoug 2008) has taken the 2009 Nordic Council Literature Prize (see Literary Saloon for April 4) returns us to the question of the non-Nordic reading public's exposure to Scandinavian writing that can't be classified as crime writing - increasingly the only Nordic literary genre that seems to be able to make it overseas. Last year the English-language rights to Petterson's book in the translation now being prepared by Anne Born with the author were quickly grabbed by the ever watchful Harvill Secker (partnered with Graywolf Press in the US), which promotes works by heavyweight Nordic crime authors Arnaldur Indridason and Hanning Mankell.

As James Campbell pointed out in his article/interview published in the Guardian earlier this year, like the author's earlier books (including the Anne Born-translated Out Stealing Horses) this one claims no affiliation to the techniques and procedures of crime writing, but relies for its appeal on a literary style that owes something to Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Yet, as with the earlier novel, there still remains a question-mark over the degree to which such writing may compete in marketing and sales terms with the runaway success of the burgeoning Nordic crime series:
Gina Winje, who runs Norla, the government office for promoting Norwegian literature abroad, says that "the last few years have seen an increased interest in the English-speaking world". With his new imprint, [Christopher] MacLehose [director of Harvill Secker former director of Harvill Press] is enjoying the current popularity of Scandinavian crime writers. "Whether literary writers will follow Per in such numbers is open to question. But it is undoubtedly the case that Norwegian writing is at a high point."
Certainly, with the bad press Norway has been receiving with regard to one or two controversial aspects of its foreign policy lately, the presence of some decent Norwegian books in English may play an important role in improving the country's image around the world - and so one wishes this new Harvill Secker venture all the best.


Eric Dickens said...

It's a crime! Well, OK, not a crime, but a shame. Not only are the Brits being force-fed a diet of murders most foul, but I get the sneaky feeling that Nordic writers too are understanding that crime pays.

There are two good Nordic authors whose names or nationalities, in the spirit of what David has said elsewhere, I shall not reveal. But I feel that both of them have realised, quite wisely if you live from your pen, that you have to toss into the world a crime novel now and again. So that the money keeps flowing in and you stay in the Klieg light that is so avidly kindled by journos. This, in order to give you the financial space to continue to write what I would term serious literature. Both of these two write novels and short-stories that are serious.

I don't think that Christopher MacLehose is any longer attached to Harvill-Secker. The MacLehose Press, dealing mostly in crime fiction, is affiliated in some way to Quercus. From the Academia-Rossica website, I have copied this:


Christopher MacLehose

Christopher MacLehose was Literary Editor of the Scotsman and subsequently Editorial Director at Chatto & Windus. After four years as Editor-in-Chief at William Collins, he became the Publisher at the Harvill Press, in which role he spent the next 22 years until after 7 years of independence the Press was bought by Random House. In that time Harvill became the leading translation house in Britain, publishing some of the outstanding contemporary European writers (Saramago, Sebald, Perec, Halldór Laxness, Magris, Enquist, Marías, Høeg; along with a list of crime writers in translation, among them Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason, Vargas); as also a list of American authors which included Ray Carver, Richard Ford and Peter Matthiessen. After leaving Harvill (now conjoined with Secker & Warburg into Harvill/Secker) in 2006, he established the MacLehose Press, which will begin publication later this [which?] year and is distributed by the new independent house Quercus.


Scandinavian crime fiction is, in my opinion, a marketing construct. Why should the Scandinavians be any better or worse at writing crime fiction than other nationalities? I think that some marketing whizz kid decided to lump together the Nordic countries and market the gloom and ice, snow and murder, all in one conveniently clichéed image that Tesco customers can grasp.

It probably started with Miss Smilla, a novel that probably says very little about Greenland, despite being ethnically correct enough to rope in Greenland for couleur locale.

David McDuff said...

I think that many of these publishers are interlinked, though they may have their internal differences. The Nordic crime novel does seem to be a new source of sales revenue for this type of house, and it would be interesting to see the marketing figures. Back in the 1980s it was women's writing from the Nordic countries that was supposed to sell, but it never really took off properly, even though firms like Virago and Women's Press tried quite hard to promote it at one time.

It's interesting that Academia Rossica should have the most specific information on MacLehose Press.