Friday, 14 August 2009

Detective Story - 4

Continuing the discussion of this thorny subject, I've raised two contributions from the comments to this post:

Larissa Kyzer said...

I wrote the article responding to Nathaniel Rich’s piece about Scandinavian crime fiction, and have followed the discussion here and in other blogs surrounding these pieces with interest. The debate over what country or region produces the ‘best’ of any type of literature is bound to be limited (I said as much in my article), but I find myself a bit at odds with the polarization here: those who are for Scandinavian crime fiction and those who are against it. I am deeply interested in Scandinavian literature--including crime fiction--and aspire to translate Danish literature myself one day. I’d hope that one can be a ‘committed’ translator and also foster an appreciation for genre fiction at the same time. (It’s seemed to me that many Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian fiction translators have translated both ‘literary’ and genre fiction.)

While many of the points made by David McDuff regarding crime fiction have raised some important and interesting points—particularly that current Scandinavian crime fiction marks a “continuation of the "radical" movement that produced the socially-committed novels and poetry of the 1970s,”—I wonder at the assessment that the prevalence of this genre within Scandinavian literature is “a tragedy whose consequences it will take several generations to overcome.”

It’s a common enough opinion that genre fiction of any stripe is inherently sub-literary, which is a debate that is perhaps larger than needs be argued here. Suffice to say that I do think that genre fiction merits serious literary consideration for its content, structure, and yes, even prose style. There are certainly many, many poorly written and conceived crime novels, but surely enough there are terrible ‘literary’ novels as well. However, I don't believe that the existence of crime novels can, with any credibility, be faulted with ‘diverting’ Nordic writing talent. Rather, I tend to hope that translation begets translation—that every new Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum novel that is published in English opens the door a little wider for more ‘literary’ Scandinavian authors to be translated as well.

David McDuff said...

Thank you for this contribution to the discussion. While I also don't think there should be a "polarization" of the kind you mention, I do believe that it's important to set some sort of markers as to what constitutes literary culture and what is basically just "reading entertainment". I'm certainly not against the latter, and have translated at least one Scandinavian crime novel myself - but when crime novels become the flagship of a nation's literary production, I think it's a danger signal.

In a later post to this blog, I've been more specific. There I argue (together with the author of the article quoted by the anonymous blogger at Scandinavian Crime Fiction), that of all the Nordic countries it's primarily Sweden where the problem is most acute - in Sweden there is virtually no middle ground between the marginalized avant-garde literary scene and the huge space that's occupied by bestsellerdom, led primarily by trend-following crime novels of various kinds and tendencies. The situation in Denmark is different, as is evidenced by the popularity of the traditional historical novel genre there, for example. Finland presents a similar picture.

So while the problem isn't yet universal, what I have tried to make clear is that it has the potential for a disaster, a tragedy - please read what I wrote in my original post a little more carefully. My caveats are just that: a warning of what may happen, rather than a statement of accomplished fact. The developments that have taken place in Swedish publishing could affect the rest of the Nordic publishing world, too - let's hope that doesn't happen, and as translators let's make some efforts to make sure that it doesn't.

See also:
Cornering the market
Detective Story
Detective Story - 2
Detective Story - 3
The missing midfield


Larissa Kyzer said...

I thank you for your response. I find myself in agreement with much of what you've said, both here and in your other posts about this matter--which I have, though you suggest otherwise, read with care. My comment was predominantly in response to your assessment in the second 'Detective Story' post, where you suggest that "...some of the best Nordic writing talent is being diverted into these sub- and semi-literary channels, from which it may never return." Your warning does not perhaps, imply a current and universal problem, but it does suggest to me a somewhat problematic assumption of cause-and-effect. I think we both agree that not enough ‘literary’ and/or avant-garde Scandinavian fiction is being translated into English (or existing translations kept in print, which I would suggest is just as much of an issue), but I am not yet convinced that this somehow means that quality non-genre, non-commercial writing is being produced with any less frequency in these countries.

It's true that Scandinavia has inherited a reputation as a bastion of crime fiction. But surely the spectre of other great (and more literary) Scandinavian writers--Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Blixen, Hamsun, Laxness, Strindberg, and many others—has created as much of an obstacle for new and talented Scandinavian authors who are not afforded the attention that they deserve by the greater reading public. It’s an unfortunate state that authors in most countries and regions that lack extensive translation face—an inescapable association (favorable or not) with both the luminaries and more mainstream authors who have already made headway towards international recognition. Sweden is more than Mankell and ABBA; Denmark more than H.C. Andersen and Lego; Iceland more than Viking sagas and Björk. I second your hope that readers—and translators—will endeavor to explore the fine artistic traditions in these countries beyond the surface exports, and finally bring to light some of the literary talent that regularly goes unrecognized, untranslated, and unread.

Harry said...

About fifteen years ago I was translating extracts from Swedish writer Per Wästberg's latest quartet of novels and trying to interest British publishers in them. Wästberg epitomises the educated, liberal, internationally-minded type of Swede, and his considerable literary output has never been less than intelligent and well-crafted, if fairly conventional in style and subject-matter. Unfortunately, my efforts on his behalf were reminiscent of the unkind comment once made of a senior politician, by one of his opponents, that he was going round the country "stirring up apathy".

The contrasting success of the criminal fraternity among Scandinavian writers has been striking, but publishers are pragmatic businessmen and -women, and one of the advantages of the "krimi" novel is that once a successful formula has been established, the author seems able to churn out any amount of sequels and prequels - just look at the deals they pull off with their publishers - it's always for three or four or more books with the same cast of characters. Your literary author may spend several years crafting his or her latest contender for the Booker (or whatever it's now called) Prize, with no promise that they can repeat the performance if it sells.

One complaint I have about many of the currently popular crime novels, and maybe I'm being humourless and pedantic, is the skewed picture they often convey of a whole society. A whole tribe of Scottish writers have portrayed Glasgow and Edinburgh, and now Dundee and Aberdeen too, as crime-ridden drug-addled wastelands. Henning Mankell has littered the peaceful landscape of Skåne with brutally-disfigured corpses, Arnaldur Indriðason and Karin Fossum have performed a similar service for Iceland and Norway, and now I see that my old stamping-ground of Linköping has become the new murder capital of Sweden, thanks to local boy Mons Kallentoft whose original Superintendent Malin Fors thriller has grown into a series, with a movie contract to boot. You don't need much Swedish to understand the puff from that arbiter of literary taste, ICA-kuriren: "Skippa Stieg Larsson. Kallentoft är bättre!"


David McDuff said...

I think that in many ways it's the responsibility of translators and publishers here in the U.K., in Europe and in the U.S. to see to it that quality, non-genre fiction from the Nordic countries gains a wider audience.

If Scandinavian authors - understandably - acquire the notion that the best or even the only way to reach a wider audience is by writing some form of crime fiction, that is going to stunt, ghettoize and/or set back the development of Nordic literary culture quite a bit. As I've pointed out elsewhere, there are already clear indicators that for a Nordic novel to succeed, it must have some kind of crime plot, whether it sets out specifically to be a crime novel or not.

While I agree that this process of literary atrophy still has some way to run, the danger signs are definitely there, especially in Sweden. One can deny the "cause and effect" scenario if one wants to, but I still see a linkage between what's published in the field of Nordic translations and what's considered "popular".

Again, this isn't a new problem - after all, there was a Strindberg vogue in the early decades of the last century, and H.C. Andersen has always enjoyed a wide and varied readership around the world. Popularity is not necessarily a bad thing, I'm not arguing that at all. It's just that in earlier days the quality of the writing was so much higher, and there wasn't the pressure to conform to some particular demand of public taste that apparently exists in today's globalized fiction market.

It's my belief that publishers and translators need to ration the number of Scandinavian crime novels they publish or translate. Some sort of quota might not be a bad thing, if it could be implemented - though it's probably wishful thinking to suppose that it could.