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Why Norway is the best place in the world to be a writer

The Norwegian government keeps book publishers alive.

Travel to Norway and one thing strikes you right away: The country is really small. At about 5 million, its population is the size of Alabama’s. So selling a half-million copies of erudite books there, as Karl Ove Knausgaard has, is even more remarkable than it sounds. This is a tough one to fact-check, but I would estimate that on a per capita basis, his autobiographical series, My Struggle, has already sold about as well in Norway as The Great Gatsby has sold in America all time.

Norway's size contributed to the controversy surrounding My Struggle, and in turn its success. As several people told me when I went there to profile Knausgaard for The New Republic, everyone knows someone who knows someone who is a “character” in the books, usually identified by real name. Cathrine Sandnes, a magazine editor quoted in my article, told me she knows 20 or 30 people who appear in the book, as she does herself.

But there's another way in which Norway itself helps to explain the Knausgaard phenomenon: The country is one of the most enviable places in the world to be a writer or a publisher. Here’s why:

  • It’s become one of the world’s richest nations, owing to the oil boom that took hold in the '70s. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is ranked number one in the world. And as a friend who works in the oil business and writes about it pointed out to me, it’s also one of the few “petrostates” that does not suffer from the “resource curse” – it is not plagued by corruption and/or a repressive regime. On the train from Oslo to Kristiansand, I met a shipbuilder for a company that services the offshore oil platforms, and he said, “We won the lottery in this country. We went from this [universal gesture of reeling in a fish] to this [universal gesture of rubbing cash between the fingers].” (The shipbuilder, a navy veteran, was holding a copy of Game of Thrones. He had already read Knausgaard, of course.) The UN Human Development Index, a measure of standard of living, pegs Norway at number one. Unfortunately for visitors, the cost of living is also extraordinary. Norway’s cities are 40–50 per cent more expensive than New York City. In a shop I saw a single can of soda selling for $6.
  • All public universities are essentially free to attend.
  • This seems like it cannot quite be true, but according to the CIA World Factbook, the adult literacy rate in Norway is 100 per cent.
  • With the combination of oil wealth and a robust Scandinavian state, government funding of culture is substantial. I spoke to a book critic named Trond Haugen at his workplace, the National Library of Norway, in Oslo. (I asked him to estimate how many of the 80 or so people in the public library’s cafeteria would have heard of Knausgaard, and he laughed: “Oh, 100 per cent.”) All published material in Norway is required by law to be deposited in the the National Library, and the library is currently digitizing everything in its collection. Everyone in the country will be able to view the material free online; for books under copyright, the patron will be able to access the text but not download it.
  • So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries – or 1,550 copies if it’s a children’s book. (This comes on top of the libraries’ acquisition budgets.) The purchasing scheme, I was told, keeps alive many small publishers that could not otherwise exist. American independent presses would drool at the prospect. Another effect of the scheme is that it subsidises writers as they build a career. They make royalties on those 1,000 copies – in fact, at a better royalty rate than the contractual standard. Books are also exempted from Norway’s value-added tax.
  • Some of these arts programs have been under threat since a more conservative government came into power last year. “Conservative” is relative, however. Norway has some of the world’s best-paid manual laborers and worst-paid CEOs, as a Norwegian executive told The Economist.
  • By business agreement, deep discounting of new books is essentially banned, as is the case in a number of European countries. This protects booksellers from the likes of Amazon, and it also means that the profits from blockbuster titles, which would otherwise be the most heavily discounted, subsidize all other books to an even greater degree than they do here. You could say that Knausgaard has kept a lot of writers in business.
  • The leading bookstore chains in Norway are owned by the major publishing companies. Some prominent industry figures in the US, such as Andrew Wylie and Mike Shatzkin, have recently suggested that the big publishers here, particularly Penguin Random House, ought to follow suit and get into the bookselling game. (Others in the business have noted that American publishers have tried this in the past without great success.)
  • Along with the purchasing scheme, the country lends significant support to writers and other artists directly. Renowned artists receive a guaranteed income, generally until retirement, and others are eligible for one- to five-year work grants. All this helps secure a place for Norway in world literature – a considerable challenge when your language is read by so few people. The pool of potential buyers for any given book is small, so publishers have to charge a high price for each copy to cover their costs, and that can further limit sales. It is possible that a writer like Knausgaard would have quit before writing My Struggle if he had to survive solely on the Norwegian market’s demand for literary fiction.
  • One downside for Norwegian readers: the small market and the substantial cost of translation mean that many great works are not available in Norwegian. This is a source of frustration for Knausgaard. To satisfy his interest in Rimbaud, a Frenchman, he owns a copy of a biography that was published in English in the US. By necessity he also reads books in English that were written in a third language. Knausgaard’s English is excellent, but still, it’s a problem. It’s sort of like looking at a photocopy of a photocopy of a photograph.
  • It is also the case that many highly regarded Norwegian books are not available in America, where translated books have a shamefully hard time breaking through. Knausgaard’s debut novel, Out of the World, is still not available in English. Someone should rectify that. If I could read Norwegian, I would also be reading Knausgaard’s friend Geir Angell Øygarden’s Bagdad Indigo. It’s an account of wartime Iraq reported largely among “human shield” activists, in dangerous conditions. If you have read about Angell Øygarden in My Struggle or in my profile, you might appreciate that his working title was Against Better Judgment. “This could also serve as his motto in life,” Knausgaard writes of him in Book Six of My Struggle.
  • Partly to introduce more foreign works to Norway, Knausgaard has co-founded a small press, based in Norway, called Pelikanen. His brother, Yngve, designs the covers. Much of what they publish is translated. Among American writers, they have published Katie Kitamura and they plan to bring out Ben Marcus as well as Charles Jackson’s classic, The Lost Weekend.
  • Knausgaard said he has always thought of My Struggle as a novel, and it is billed as a novel on the Norwegian editions. We spoke about what makes it a novel and not a memoir, since most names are authentic and he corrected “errors” in his account. (The American hardcover publisher, Archipelago Books, chose not to label it one way or the other.) Among his several responses, he said that Norway has no real tradition of memoir as an art form, as distinct from autobiographies by public figures. He also said he was never asked the kind of question I was asking until the books were published in English.

Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn.

This article first appeared in

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood