The book culture that is Norway

by on April 14, 2014 at 2:28 am in Books | Permalink

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 subsidizes 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.

There is more here, partly on Knausgaard, here is more TNR on Knausgaard, via Scott Sumner.

I would note that, other than Knausgaard, the merits of recent Norwegian literature are…subject to debate.

1 prior_approval April 14, 2014 at 3:07 am

The Canadians have a somewhat related program for Canadian authors – the Public Lending Right Program –

Here are the PLR Program Eligibility Criteria – ‘You may be eligible for a PLR payment if you meet the following conditions:

You are:

an author or co-author;

an illustrator or photographer;

a translator;

an anthology contributor;

an editor with an original written contribution.

You are a Canadian citizen (living in Canada or abroad) or have Permanent Resident status, as defined by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

There are no more than six contributors to the title (excluding editors and translators, but including illustrators and photographers).

Your name appears on a given work’s title page or copyright page or, for an anthology contributor, in the table of contents.

Your contribution to the book comprises at least 10% of the length of the book…..’

And then there is this history about the book culture that is 28 countries and counting –

‘Twenty-eight countries have a PLR programme,[1] and others are considering adopting one. Canada, the United Kingdom, all the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand currently have PLR programmes. There is ongoing debate in France about implementing one. There is also a move towards having a Europe-wide PLR programme administered by the European Union.

The first PLR programme was initiated in Denmark in 1941. However, it was not properly implemented until 1946 due to World War II.[2] The idea spread slowly from country to country and many nations’ PLR programs are quite recent developments.’

2 Roy April 14, 2014 at 5:34 am

Yet the vast majority of Canadian literature is a trial to read. I recently listened to an old, early 1960s?? Rebroadcast on the CBC about the state of Canadian Literature with Mordechai Richler and I believe Bob Fulford. The host asks if more government support would improve Canadian literary output, and Richler responded it was pretty difficult to not get some literary prize in Canada. Granted I loathe Margret Atwood, but Canadian literature would probably be better without all the dreck that is subsidized. Thankfully nothing other than patriotism compels anyone to read bad Canadisn books, so all the subsidies are not nearly as harmful as Canadian content is to music and comedy.

3 dan1111 April 14, 2014 at 8:13 am

Who would have thought that subsidizing work without regard to quality could lower quality?

4 prior_approval April 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

So, apart from Canada and Norway, anyone have any opinions about the literary cultures of the other 26 countries that use such programs?

Is Dutch or German or British or Swedish literature in a tailspin?

Along with the idea that most, though not all, of those nations are attempting to ensure that their language remains a part of their culture.

5 farmer April 14, 2014 at 11:44 am

balderdash. Canada does very well at the Man Booker prize. Canada is a lit powerhouse
Eleanor Catton, Yann Martel, Margaret Atwood,

6 Sigivald April 14, 2014 at 6:32 pm

So, three people, only one of which I’ve heard of, and frankly don’t think much of.



(Also, the obvious economic question – if they’re so good, why would they need a subsidy? They won’t!)

7 Widmerpool April 14, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Eleanor Catton is a Kiwi.

8 TSB April 15, 2014 at 1:56 am

Australia combines its PLR with a limited prohibition on parallel importation of books – basically a tariff protection for Australian publishers of foreign books (cookbooks, tourists guides and economics textbooks included), trusting without obligation that the publishers will generously churn some of that rent back into subsisidising unprofitable local literature. Our Productivity Commission recommended that import controls be abolished but the past few governments have been unwilling to challenge the vested interests. And so book purchasing has largely shifted to cheaper US and UK online stores.

Government library purchase of a baseload print run would probably be less distorting.

9 Roy April 14, 2014 at 5:41 am

Knausgaard lives in Sweden these days. Thus all current Norwegian literature, other than Nesbø, according to my Swedish mother at least, is incredibly underwhelming to awful. Other than Knausgaard, and maybe Nesbø, I don’t read much crime fiction, Norway hasn’t had an even interesting author since the fifties. Certainly not anything a foreigner, even a Swedish one, would be interested in.

10 Andreas Baumann April 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

Erlend Loe is pretty good, in my opinion.

11 gunther April 14, 2014 at 7:28 am

I would recommend a look at Per Petterson’s work, particulary “Out Stealing Horses”.

12 Roy April 14, 2014 at 8:32 am

You are correct, he is very very good. I can’t believe I forgot him. I have I curse the river of time in my to read pile. I liked To Siberia too

13 Jardinero1 April 14, 2014 at 8:04 am

The Norwegian program provides no marketing and doesn’t solve the real problem which writers face. In the US we have Lulu. Not government sponsored, but anyone can upload a book. Theoretically, you could publish millions of copies in e-format. Getting people to find and read the book is the real problem.

14 Jonathan April 14, 2014 at 8:25 am

As the father of a three-year old whose mom is Norwegian, I am quite fond of the high quality of Norwegian children’s books, particularly the ones illustrated by Per Dybvig. It’s good to know that a program like this exists.

15 prior_approval April 14, 2014 at 11:08 am

Not too many of the regular commenters here seem to have children – and thus the idea of children learning to read in their own language plays no role in how they view the world.

16 Tarrou April 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Yes, we all know how without such a program, there is not a single decent children’s book in the US. We need to act now to rectify this discrepancy! How will our children learn to read if the government will not subsidize (and standardize) materiel for them? This is a problem the market cannot rectify, as we all know parents are unwilling to buy books for their children in the US, which means there is no money to be made off of stories about (for instance) child wizards, or dystopian future gameshows.

17 Sigivald April 14, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Note for the record that child wizards are … a British invention.

Though I don’t know that Rowling got any particular subsidies for Potter…

18 Rahul April 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Linguistic patriotism is overrated and annoying. Let children learn to read whatever language suits them or their parents. The world’s not much worse off if German kids grow up on English books.

19 Roy April 14, 2014 at 6:32 pm

I don’t really understand the need for so much new children’s literature, what is wrong with the old stuff? Scandinavia seems to have already accumulated a vast stockpile of good children’s books. I honestly don’t see the need to subsidize new output. I can’t really imagine new stuff completely disappearing.

I barely know any Swedish anymore, but there is already a vast Children’s literature in that language, I remember some were originally Norwegian.

Among my favorite books as a kid were the Moomin ones. My Mom read the first few picture books with me in Swedish, but then I found the others in English and I read them all by myself in translation, which turned out to be learning to read in my own language

20 Z April 14, 2014 at 8:26 am

In this age it is so much more efficient to digitize the books and put them on-line. Instead of buying 1,000 copies, the state could just buy one. All of the libraries can be razed and the land put to better use.

What a backward people.

21 prior_approval April 14, 2014 at 11:10 am

And to think that the Norwegians were already famous for that razing part a thousand years ago.

But that is back when they were barbarians.

22 Sigivald April 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm

How do you get young children to read them online?

They’re really, really hard on physical objects, and books have the advantage of being cheap and easily replaced/disposed of.

(This is no defense of the subsidy program, but is a defense of physical books for limited purposes.

Also, licensing – online doesn’t mean you “buy one copy”. It means you “buy a thousand licenses”.)

23 Cliff April 15, 2014 at 12:26 am

My 2- and 4-year-olds use Kindles expertly and have not damaged them to date. I did have to turn on parental controls to prevent random purchases, but that’s easy enough.

24 Tarrou April 14, 2014 at 9:27 am

This scheme will end when the random-writing generators currently being used to make academic papers can be extended to book length. Today I wrote forty books, six of which passed “quality control”!

25 Mark Thorson April 14, 2014 at 9:42 am

Start with children’s books. You’ll sell an additional 550 copies, and it will take longer for your scam to be recognized.

26 Tarrou April 14, 2014 at 9:54 am

Good point. In related news, in the intervening twenty minutes since my first post, I’ve become a published Norwegian author. Learn 1 wierd trick to make money from home!

27 Donald Pretari April 14, 2014 at 10:56 am

I’d like to read the books that don’t pass quality control.

28 Careless April 15, 2014 at 9:05 am

Maybe just one.

29 Marian Kechlibar April 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm

I would love to learn what criteria does Quality Control use.

Would e.e.cummings pass them?

30 CM April 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Please explain the basis of your dismissal of Norwegian literature, about which I find it hard to believe you have any expertise whatsoever. Do you read Norwegian? How many Norwegian authors in translation have you read? How did you select those that you did read? Are you merely parroting the views of someone else who is more engaged in Norwegian literature? This kind of throwaway statement is really annoying . . . (reminiscent of your food blogging).

31 Marian Kechlibar April 15, 2014 at 4:47 am

Actually, your indignation posits an interesting question: does the rest of the world find it useful to translate Norwegian authors? If so, which ones?

And if Norwegian authors really remain unread in the rest of the world, as you seem to hint, is that fault of the rest of the world?

32 CM April 15, 2014 at 1:24 pm

I know nothing about the quality of Norwegian literature and didn’t mean to imply that it is good, bad or some interesting mixture thereof. My comment is directed at TC’s infuriating tendency to issue judgments that are highly likely to be uninformed and useless. Not many Americans, including college professors, read Norwegian or have invested a non-negligible amount of time in learning about Norwegian literature. Maybe TC has but he has not given his readers any reason to think so. This is just like how he feels confident recommending how to find the best versions of ethnic food even though he offers his readers no reasons to believe he has anything but a superficial understanding of the cuisine or culture. Maybe TC does have some basis for his opinions – other than patronizing random restaurants he finds in strip malls in the DC area and a heady opinion of his own good taste – but such grounds are lacking from this blog. I understand that this is a nitpicky criticism but these types of posts make me think that TC the blogger is more a performer than a critical thinker, one who waves entertainingly at principles of logic and reasoning inasmuch as those principles accord with his taste and affiliations, rather than someone who actually follows those principles where they might take him.

33 Eric Rasmusen April 14, 2014 at 5:04 pm

The low quality of Norwegian books is precisely the reason they should be subsidized— if they were high enough quality to earn foreign royalties, there’d be enough provided by the marketplace. Of course, the point isn’t to subsidize *good* books; it;s to subsidize *Norwegian* books. Indiana should do the same.

34 Roy April 14, 2014 at 6:14 pm

I am going to sort of reverse my earlier comment. Maybe genre fiction should be subsidized in smaller language markets.

I know a Francophone Canadian who reads romance novels, the Harlequin kind, basically none of them are written in French. Not only are their no stories about attractive single women with broken hearts finding love in the hands of a tall devastatingly handsome firefighters/cowboys/doctors/academics in Montreal, there aren’t any in Paris either. At least it never happens to French girls, it only happens to Anglophones and Germans. the vast majority of the vast numbers of genre romance novels sold in the French speaking world are written in English, or German, and then translated. And not just Nora Roberts but those written by old spinster ladies from New Zealand who none of us has ever heard of. There basically is no market for formulaic original French language romance in small paperback form. Even if you write it, it isn’t published by any mass publishers, they just don’t have a department to acquire it. from anecdotal evidence this is true in Greece as well.

Now lets say France, or Quebec, started subsidizing this stuff, after a few years, or decades, Harlequin or somebody else might start paying for cheap translations of this stuff, and voila a further blow against the English menace.

Of course you might think there was a terrible disruption happening in publishing at this very moment and that traditional publishers were losing there monopoly. But that will effect proper literature before it will cheap romance. Harlequin will probably survive as a sort of book of the month club with a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, I am not so sure of marques like farrar straus and giroux.

35 Curt F. April 14, 2014 at 11:35 pm

This post should be titled “the excess oil wealth that is Norway”.

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