Friday, 31 July 2009

The missing midfield

Writing in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (thanks for the link, SCF), journalist and author Per Svensson claims to see a major difference between the literary scenes in Sweden and Denmark respectively. In the preamble to an interesting but somewhat inconclusive interview with Danish poet and literary critic Lars Bukdahl, Svensson says that literature in Denmark plays a more central role than it does in Sweden. Presenting Bukdahl as "one of Denmark's most powerful and controversial literary critics", he styles this description as "an expression of differences between the Danish literary landscape and the Swedish one":

In Sweden, there is hardly a literary critic who could claim to be either influential or controversial... It's often said that soccer matches are decided in midfield. In Sweden, the literary midfield has gradually grown weaker and weaker. Audience-centred quality literature has been forced back. Instead we have a polarization - with on the one flank, an ever more dominant and confident bestseller culture, and on the other a marginalized, closed-off and self-sufficient avant-garde literature.

Both get along very well without the literary reviewers of the daily newspapers.

In Denmark, things appear to be different. There the expansive novel with artistic ambitions is still perceived as so important that it can spark magnificent quarrels.

To back up his assertion, Svensson points to a poll that was organized last autumn by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper. In this, readers were asked to name "the Danish novel of our time" and a panel of experts chose its favourite novels of the past 25 years. The book that came top of the readers' list was Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned (Vi, de druknede, a book about seafarers, variously described as an "ocean adventure", a "family saga", and "a chronicle about the birth of modern Denmark").

While one might reasonably question the "novel of our time" label, at least Jensen's book is a genuine historical novel, which doesn't rely on a crime plot or the devices of an entertainment genre for its success. In some ways it can be compared to another Nordic historical prose work which was mentioned here in an earlier post. Svensson's characterization of the Swedish literary scene as one in which bestsellerdom has taken over to the point where it's now probably more or less out of control is a though-provoking one. Together with his reflections on the absence of a "middle ground", it adds a further dimension to our ongoing discussion about the decline of mainstream quality writing in Sweden (as evidenced by the "crime wave"), and the negative effect this is having on the general availability in the English-speaking world of new, non-bestseller translated titles by Scandinavian authors in general.

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