In my third and last post about the Swedish Book Review (2010:1) crime-fiction special (part 1 and part 2), I will write a few words about the essay "Selling Ice to the Eskimos? Swedish Crime Fiction and the World of Publishing", by Paul Engles. Some crime-fiction bloggers and reviewers, myself included, answered a questionnaire by Paul which he sent out as part of his MA in publishing at the London College of Communication. The article in the Swedish Book Review is adapted from the dissertation, which can be downloaded in full as a PDF.
Paul's article asks why Swedish crime fiction is so popular in translation. He starts with the apparently common argument that "detective stories and thrillers are the only places in literature where you can find
social criticism", citing Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck series which had the stated intention of describing and criticising changes in society from the 1960s to the 1970s. Subsequent Swedish crime authors Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson are clearly of that ilk also, with their strong social messages about immigration, corporate greed, slavery (these days called "people trafficking") and other sores on the contemporary landscape. And, not mentioned here, many other Swedish authors address these themes, such as Liza Marklund, Karin Alvtegen and Kjell Erikssen, among others.
Of course, this line of argument is true up to a point only. Crime fiction is not the only fiction or literature addressing social issues; it seems extraordinary to me that anyone could state that it is. However, the plot- and excitement-driven nature of the genre allows an author such as Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell to make really rather extensive political and social commentaries against an exciting or character-driven plot, and not lose the readership! And of course, many other crime-fiction authors write about such issues without being from Sweden (Andrea Camilleri, Simon Lewis, Peter Temple and several hundred others). Therefore, I don't see Scandinavian crime fiction as being unique in this regard, though at the moment there do seem to be some highly readable and compelling authors from the region (Indridason (Iceland), Fossum (Norway), et al.)
So what's the success factor? (If there is one.) Could it be the "translation"? Paul Engles quotes from an essay by Milan Kundera in which Kundera identified a "ringing the echo of lovely lunacies" of classical authors who, because translated, have influenced authors writing in other languages. Again, I am not convinced this argument holds up, because if you go back far enough, everyone was writing in a different language from living authors today (Latin, Ancient Greek, etc).
In the final paragraphs, Paul comments that among the literary agencies and publishers, crime novels in translation are increasingly becoming the route to commercial success, and the literary translated genre is suffering in comparison. (Recall the last Nobel laureate for literature, whose novels had to be hastily translated (or republished) after the announcement.) There seems to be no trend for readers of translated crime fiction to go on to explore translated literary fiction, writes Paul.
Swedish Book Review: Crime Fiction Special 1 (Kerstin Ekman)
Swedish Book Review: Crime Fiction Special 2 (Arne Dahl, Staffan Bruun and Viveca Sten)