the popularity perplex

It’s taking me a while to figure out how to respond to these two blog posts from Nordic Voices, a group blog “devoted to the English translation of the literatures of the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. And also Estonia.” This is following on the heels of a Swedish article that I read in a bizarrely garbled translation by Google (yes, I confess: I do not read any Nordic languages. That’s why God made so many talented translators.) It seems to say that there are no influential literary critics in Sweden because, unlike in Denmark, there is a polarization between the dominant and confident bestseller culture and marginalized avant-garde literature. The article also seems to say (though in Googleese it’s hard to tell) that Danish literature is more focused on the personal rather than the social and that serious literature is read widely enough that arguments can break out over it.

So now these posts from Nordic Voices. The first is “Detective Story” from last March, and in it David McDuff says the fad for Scandinavian crime has made it impossible for more serious literature to be translated.

It’s in contemporary Swedish fiction that the results of this trend have been most marked. In the crime novels of authors like Henning Mankell – whose Wallander series is now a BBC television show – “serious” concerns are blended with entertainment in a formula that is now almost standard for Swedish authors who want to be taken seriously at an international level. As John Crace noted recently about the novels of Mankell and others,

Their leading characters tend to be depressed melancholics with or without a drinking problem, while having a strong sense of Guardianista political correctness.This combination of crime plots and “leftish” sermonizing appears to be the new orthodoxy on the Nordic literary scene. And it’s the one that translators are liable to become involved in, willingly or not, as – to put it crudely – that is where the jobs are. It seems a pity that so much interesting and experimental writing from Sweden and the other Nordic countries is going relatively unnoticed as a result . . . one must hope that the present developments are merely a passing fad or fashion, and that in time the balance in translated Nordic fiction between entertainment and the vital concerns of new writing will be restored to something of the status it enjoyed in the early 1980s once again.

So the problem is that social issues are the stuff crude entertainment; if people will just get over it, we can get on with the more vital concerns of new writing. I’m not totally sure what those vital concerns are, but I suspect they are nothing to do with social critique and are more artistic. (Mr. McDuff confesses he translated a Vag Veum novel in the 1980s and it was well-received, so he was part of the problem.)

In his follow-up, posted today, he reacts to articles by Nathaniel Rich and Larissa Kyzer that I posted about earlier and says

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.

Damn those Marxists and their tiresome tirades! Literature should be so above that, and he wishes it returned to its more significant roots, beginning to find a hold in Scandinavia: the “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.” He ends with this apocalyptic vision:

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.

Serious crime fiction readers, of course, will take exception to the idea that the genre is “sub- and semi-literary” or that it’s a sad, degraded form of culture that erodes a nation’s cultural authority. Many of us read literary fiction as well as genre fiction and appreciate both. The sniping that goes on is often defensive (as in “you’re popular because anybody can read your simplistic twaddle without having to use their brains” and “people actually want to read my stuff because it’s entertaining, it’s not your boring high-brow navel gazing.” Money and the competition for attention plays more of a role in those squabbles than actual disputes over what the writing is trying to accomplish or how well it does what it sets out to do. Literary complexity and popularity are poised as necessarily inverse characteristics when they really are a separate issue. I don’t sense that any of the crime fiction writers I’ve read are writing in the genre simply because it’s a way to make a living, or that they’re writing to formula; that given a different set of financial rewards Johan Theorin and Jo Nesbo would be much more happy writing metaphysical or experimental literature. And I don’t think the popularity of crime fiction is coming at the expense of literary fiction that would be translated if this fad would finally end. I think blame is being laid unfairly at the door of a genre simply because it has found an avid audience.

Oddly enough, I recall when picking up the first Henning Mankell novel to be translated into English noting that it was published by the non-profit New Press and some support for the publication had been provided by a cultural arm of the Swedish government. Should that funding have gone to a more “deserving” and less popular book? Perhaps. But I doubt there would be nearly so many Americans as interested in Sweden and its culture if that funding had gone to a more artistic and less accessible novel.

I only review books on the condition that I can decide not to review a book that I find painful to read. I certainly don’t make my living at it, nor is writing mysteries my major source of income. Luckily, I have a day job doing something I love, so I don’t have to read or write anything I don’t want to because my life depends upon it. I imagine full-time translators feel a bit more at the mercy of the marketplace, and it must be dispiriting to find the work on offer trending toward a type of book you don’t like much. But is this really a tragedy? And is genre fiction to blame? I don’t buy it.

5 thoughts on “the popularity perplex

  1. I think you and google have understood the gist of it. I don´t read Lars Bukdahl´s reviews any more, however, because they are so full of Bukdahl that you don´t know much about the book.

    And the idea that the Søren Kierkegaards of this world should turn to crime fiction to follow the money is rather silly, I think.

  2. Yes, and the suggestion that talent is being siphoned away by this profitable genre seems a little insulting to the authors. Maybe there just aren’t many Søren Kierkegaards. Maybe these talented writers are writing exactly what they want to write.

  3. Interesting blog. It’s a little hard to search but some of my favorite authors seem to be missing. Emma Vall, Arne Dahl and Lena (or Leena) Lehtolainen. Have you taken a look at them?

    • No, because sadly I am a language idiot and they haven’t been translated into English. I have heard rumors that Arne Dahl’s Misterioso will be out in English this year, but I haven’t seen any sign of it. I will add them to my “wanted” list. They sound interesting. And I agree with your blog post when it comes to Camilla Lackberg. The one book of hers that I’ve read (The Ice Princess) was run-of-the-mill, and the main characters made me grind my teeth.

  4. Pingback: A Brand Apart: Scandinavian Crime Fiction « The Afterword

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