fredag den 26. juni 2009

Spreading crime around the world – the success of Nordic Crime Stories

Notes from a speech at the crime writers’ conference The Nordic Crime Wave in the Nordic house, Reykjavík, 29/5 09

By Halldór Guðmundsson

There is something beautifully ironic about the fact, that for roughly 10 years now, the most characteristic sales trend in international publishing should be the success of crime novels from the most peaceful region of the world; the Nordic countries. The peacemakers are spreading the word about crime. But considering the features of the genre, this is not so surprising at all: Crime novels are about the disturbance of the social peace, and nowhere is this disturbance more drastic than in a quiet place; nowhere does murder make a deeper impression than in a region where you hardly can imagine one.

And so the Nordic crime novels have made a lasting impression, especially in the German speaking market. Ten Icelandic crime novelists have a German publisher. That is about all there are.
Especially in the German market, the success of the Nordic crime novels is the peak of a tendency that has been growing and growing for about 15 years.

In the spring of 1993 I went to London to visit publishers with the intention of promoting Icelandic literature. The trip was hardly successful. The publishers were polite enough, but obviously not in the least interested in my proposals. They quite simply asked why on earth they should search out the one Icelandic-speaking person in the UK to ask him to translate novels from this admittedly exotic but rather insignificant island, while roughly half a billion people had English as their mother tongue.
By far the best reception I got was at Harvill press, where the gentleman Christopher MacLehose was the publisher.
While he frankly told me that, in his opinion, the time was far from ripe for him to publish an Icelandic novel, he seemed genuinely interested and asked a lot of informed questions.
This attitude was quite askew in relation to that of his colleagues, who did their best to inform me that Christopher was constantly on the look-out for new poets from Schleswig-Holstein.
Christopher, on the other hand, told me that he had just bought the translation rights for a Danish novel - a thriller, featuring a woman from Greenland as the main character. He thought he was giving me a hot tip when he suggested I should publish the book in Iceland.
Of course, I thought that it was a crazy idea...

In retrospect, the timing of my journey was a bit funny, as 1993 turned out to be the year in which the attitude of publishers towards Nordic literature would drastically change, in England and the world over.
In the autumn, Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (Smilla’s sense of snow) was published in English, by Harvill Press. The following year the book was published in America and became a best seller for translated novels. The rest is history, and Peter Høeg’s novel, the first Nordic crime novel to gain the attention of the world since Sjöwall og Wahlöö, has now been published in 34 languages and has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.

1993 was also the year in which Michael Krüger at Hanser publishing house in Munich published a Norwegian book on philosophy for teenagers. This unlikely book, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder, topped Der Spiegel’s list of best sellers and stayed on top for nearly two years. Since then, the book has been published in over 50 languages and has sold in ca. 40 million copies. Sophie’s world was the world's best selling novel in 1995.
This was the beginning of a tendency. The eventful year of 1993 facilitated the work of publishers and agents trying to sell literature from the Nordic countries. Publishers are governed by a herd instinct, and they will flock to a place, if they get wind of green pastures of good works and sizeable profits. And now, they looked North.

At first, there followed a wave of translations of Nordic fiction in the world; the interest had shifted from South American fiction, which had played a dominating role for 15 years. But in 1998, the tide turned again - but this time not to another part of the real world, but to a specific genre - towards crime fiction.
Again, it was Michael Krüger from Hanser publishers in Germany who set the trend by publishing the Swedish author Henning Mankell. Before that, two of Mankell’s books had been published in German, but both sold less than a thousand copies.
Now, Henning Mankell has sold 30 million copies worldwide. A new television series, made by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander, will most certainly strengthen the interest in the English speaking world.

One should be careful, though, not to emphasize the distinction between crime novels and other fiction too much. In my view, Arnaldur Indriðason for example, is first and foremost a good novelist, who happens to be writing about crime. The sales of the crime novels have also added to the success of other types of literature, and vice versa. If one could name two factors that strengthen the translation and success of crime stories in particular, they are, on the one hand, their entertainment value, of course, but, on the other hand, the fact that they usually envoke a strong sense of place. And if you want to read a book from a foreign country, you are very often exactly looking for this sense of place.

The result is obvious: More books of fiction written in the Nordic countries are now translated to other languages than ever before. This turnaround is clear and significant, even in light of the fact that the number of published titles in the big markets, such as the British or German ones, has also increased: More than a hundred-thousand titles are published annually in each country.
An example from the smallest Nordic country, Iceland, is also a case in point: Forlagid publishers, and their predecessors, have made over one hundred contracts for translation rights per annum for five consecutive years. Icelandic publishing houses are by now quite successful in this area. Going back twenty-five years or so, no more than ten contracts for foreign rights was signed per year. Many of the most significant novels written in the sixties in Iceland were generally not translated; some of them are just now being translated for the first time.
The downside of this, for the publishers and authors alike, was not just a financial one. Small language communities, like the Nordic ones, necessarily need a dialogue with the literature of other, larger language communities and translation is vital in this respect.
Only in this way can a Nordic book become a part of the world literature, fulfilling the vision Goethe introduced two hundred years ago.

The wave of Nordic crime novels in international publishing has now been on the rise for ten years. Henning Mankell was the pioneer, but many more authors from the Nordic countries have been doing very well, and in presenting them, the reward to be handed out today [may 29th, 2009]; the Glass key, has proved very important.

Arnaldur Indriðason is the best known Icelandic crime writer, with over 5 million books sold worldwide, but many follow in his footsteps, as for example Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who has been doing very well in the English speaking world and was recently the first Icelandic author ever to be published in Arabic. She received great reviews in e.g. The Times, where she was said to be among the best Nordic crime novelists - which also means that it is regarded as a sign of quality to be a Nordic crime writer.

Is the tide turning?

In preparing this little talk I called a few friends in foreign publishing and agents and they said no, at least not yet.
Let me quote what aforementioned Christopher MacLehose said in a letter:
“The tide of Scandinavian crime is not yet exhausted. The fact is that a rich vein of real storytellers has been found and is still filled with the promise of years to come. Whether readers in the rest of the world will find something else to amuse them over the next ten years, that is not sure. But true storytellers of genius – Arnaldur Indriðason, for example -- will always and forever find a huge readership. He could find a readership even if he decided to write mere philosophy.”

What will the future life of the Nordic crime novel depend upon? Probably the same quality as any other kind of fiction: First and foremost, that it is well written.
But, if we look a bit further:
It's ability to adapt to new media and new perceptions of life that come along with this new media. The fascinating Icelandic computer game corporation CCP has one central task: To invent stories, mostly mythological, but also of a criminal nature. And the players of their most well known game, eve online, can play a part in creating and "living" these stories.

But the prospect will also depend on the crime-novelists' ability to adapt, at least here in Iceland, to a new type of crime. The crime novel is often built on a strong sense of place, but also on a strong commitment to it’s time, to being contemporary. And Iceland has just lived through a period where the whole banking system collapsed in two days, partly because of crimes committed by people we least expected to commit them.

Half a century ago, Raymond Chandler, in a famous article, stated that the important task for the crime writer was to give murder back to the people likely to commit one, with the tools that are available, and not with tropical fish.
Maybe now it is the other way round. This most peaceful place of the world has been raided by people we thought were especially unlikely to commit crimes.
By this, I am referring to the huge economic crimes committed behind our backs while we thought that we were living in the most peaceful region of the world. In that sense, Icelandic crime writers, and maybe crime writers all over the world, are facing a very important, new challenge.
Maybe we Icelanders will be able to present the first results of that challenge at the international book fair in Frankfurt in 2011, where Iceland, the first of all the Nordic countries, will be guest of honour. This position opens up immense possibilities for Icelandic writers on the international bookmarket.

The first important agreement has already been reached. A German publisher, Fischer Verlag, will in 2011 publish a new translation of the Icelandic Sagas which one might, without insulting anyone, call the best Nordic crime fiction ever.
The Sagas are, at long last, coming back to Germany, after having been almost taboo there for half a century, because they were abused by other criminals, the Nazis.

So, what started only as a sense of snow, to refer to Smilla, has led to the rehabilitation of the Nordic tradition on one of the world’s most important book-market.

Halldór Guðmundsson

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