The Importance of Being Procured
A Norwegian House: Essay on the politics of literature
Author of the Week: Norway
Author of the Week: Norway
On the 13th of September, the Norwegian parliamentary elections were held. While writing this, the social democrats are leading, after eight years of right-wing leadership in Norway. What does that have to do with the latest IPCC report stating Code Red for humanity? Well, when it comes down to it, most Norwegians are rather locally minded. «A Norwegian house» (Det norske hus) was the slogan of the social democrats some twentyfive years ago. The house was supposed to be a symbol of sustainability, and stood on the four pillars of labour, welfare, culture and science, as well as security/military. The Norwegian author, translator and editor Rune F. Hjemås and myself have both lived within the culture house of Norway for the past twenty years or so, and will in the following two essays reflect on the effects of politics on Norwegian literature in general and on poetry specifically.
The Importance of Being Procured
The ceiling is so high!
August 2021, and first day in office at The Norwegian Arts Council. Covid home office mode is slowly turning to public home. The old industry building of Mølleparken (The Mill), where the Arts Council has been situated for the past decades, seems extraordinarily large.
My senior colleague tells a story from even further back, from a decade ago, when The Council inhabited the most grandiose Count Wedel Square downtown the historical Oslo. That late classisist square also provided an extraordinarily high ceiling, murals, and an attic where the Council kept a copy of every single book that the Norwegian state bought as a part of their library purchasing scheme.
The purchasing scheme is a system where the state, through a committee administered by The Arts Council, buys about a thousand copies of every piece of quality literature published in Norway and in Norwegian. All but one copy are distributed to the Norwegian public libraries and are available for Norwegians where ever and however they live – rich or poor, in high ceiling homes filled with murals, or not.
The last copy is then kept in that attic. My senior colleague spent some time there, with the books. He counted how many of the procured books were blockbusters and/or thrillers and/or criminal literature. In 1991, he recalls, he found only two pieces of criminal literature amongst the hundreds of both blockbusters, and books written by authors who normally provide that narrow/experimental and/or lyrical prose.
The ceiling was not high enough for all the books from the purchasing scheme back in the days. Yet, it opened the doors of the public sphere to narrow or experimental literature, and books from the more marginal voices.
The idea of the library scheme appeared in the early 1960s. Norway had had a strong language ever since its liberation from Denmark in 1905. This was mainly due to the lucky coincidence that the strong individuals – the nation builders so to speak – also happened to be authors. I.e. Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson did great protective and developing work on behalf of Norwegian literature, hence also of Norwegian language. A short digression: when the Norwegian state did not want to give the young and controversial author Knut Hamsun an author grant, Ibsen and Bjørnson objected vigorously. Being opinion leaders at the time – influencers so to speak –, Ibsen and Bjørnson had a say. Hamsun did in the end have a grant. Some decades later Hamsun was awarded the Nobel prize for his literature from the Svenska Akademien.
Norwegian publishing houses gave out diverse and interesting literature every year since the liberation, until the 1960s, when there was a greater exposure of foreign popular culture. Then imported best selling books gained ground within thebook market field. 199 new Norwegian novels were published in 1959. In 1964 the number was 86. Only a couple of collections of poetry were published. The authors and the union called for means and solutions, and the head of Oslo libraries got this idea: there were at the time 1100 public libraries in Norway. What if the state financed the acquisition of every new book published in the country, for distribution to every single library across Norway? Furthermore, this distribution would include a fee that would be paid back to the author, as compensation for the free lending of their book. Authors, publishing houses, book sellers, libraries and politicians came to an agreement on an economic model in which most instances were fairly compensated, and the state took care of most of the bill. The publishing of a book guaranteed a certain income for both the publisher and the author; they shared the royalty from the selling of a thousand copies.
The publishing houses would adopt manuscripts that had potential and prioritise them: printing more narrow formsliterature was no longer such a risky project. Because of a relatively generous standard contract between the author and the publishing house, being a publisher could have been a slightly risky business in Norway.
Norways has a population of about five million people, spread across this narrow kingdom, beginning 57 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane, and continuing all the way 71 degrees north. Because of the Gulf stream, people live everywhere – on most islands, in most small and large fjords. Of course, there is not a high-quality opera house in every village in Norway. But everywhere there are libraries. So I was early on exposed to quality literature written by Norwegians living around me – there and then. I grew up knowing that being an author was possible. And since 2005, I have been able to live from my own writing. Well, up until the pandemic, when I got nervous about the future of culture money and got this job being someone that gives culture money.
Nevertheless. For 16 years or so I have earned my money writing highly narrow, lyrical, not so easily read nature, mythologising impressionistic books. Some called prose, others called poetry, in the not so popular New Norwegian linguistic phenomenon, set in the landscapes of Iceland.
I sell few books. I write for the minorities. Yet, my publishers allow me to publish one book after the other, soon rounding up to twenty titles in various genres. Thanks to the purchasing scheme, Norwegian literature is diverse. It is democracy in practice: every reader – however marginalised – should find that one voice in which they feel resemblance.
I think Norwegian literature is strong. Hence, the Norwegian language is strong. Norwegians are proud of their language, and are almost Icelandic in the way they protect and develop their language. Anglicisms are regarded tasteless, and there is a great deal of pride taken in inventing and reinventing the language.
That successful literature politics is a part of the reason.
Some sixty years later, the diversity of literature is stable again. Yet, the ecological systems around us are not, and it is affecting economies. The pandemic and the extreme weather calls on new means. Literature cannot directly rebuild the balance of eco-systems. But the best literature can motivate the reader to take care.
Back in office at the Arts culture: it is not located at the grandiose Count Wedel Square, but in a refurbished factory building in an old industrial area of Oslo. There is no hidden attic to disappear into, and no in situ collection of Norwegian books. Us case officers are surrounded by brick walls once hosting intense foot and hand work. We help the distribution of money to artists around this long stretched country. Together, those artists – of course including authors – do this job of insisting on the quality of the arts demonstrating bravery in showing true colours, however unpopular or marginal they may be.
A couple of important books on the topic:
The University of Volda, commissioned by The Norwegian arts council Litteraturutredningen 2020 (The review and analysis of literature)
Gulliksen, Geir, 1999, Poetokratiet