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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 newrepublic.com

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism