Essay / 15 September 2021

A More Sustainable One

A Norwegian House: Essay on the politics of literature

Authors of the Week: Norway

Down by the shore of the Trondheim Fjord, there’s a tiny, red wooden house surrounded by a huge garden. Slender trees rise high above its roof, chipmunks darting up and down trunks and birds chirping in the branches. Viewed from the popular hiking trail that runs right by it, the house looks a bit like something out of a fairy tale. At the gate, curious passers-by are informed by a small plaque that the house was home to Kristian Kristiansen (1909-1980), a local writer of historical novels that were fairly popular in Norway in the 50s and 60s.

Kristiansen not only lived in the house – named “Adrianstua” (“Adrian’s cottage”) after one of his most well-known fictional characters – he also built it himself, being quite the crafty, multi-talented type of writer. Thus, the house has what one might call a charming personality, standing out from the more posh, modern houses that otherwise populate this highly attractive Fjordside area north of Trondheim.

When Kristiansen passed away in 1980, Adrianstua fell back into municipal ownership and was rented out to various tenants until a group of local writers eventually got a better idea. In 1997, as the city of Trondheim – now the third largest in Norway – celebrated its 1000th anniversary, a new arrangement for a writer’s residency was established. With a rent subsided just enough to make it possible to actually work with literature while living there, authors could now apply for a five-year stay in Adrianstua. This way the house was reestablished as a place where books were being written again.

As I sit here, late August 2021, in what has to be the greatest home office in the city, I sometimes imagine that I can sense the spirit of former residents still lurking in the walls. Having lived in Adrianstua since 2018, I am the fifth resident in the line of authors since the initiative started. Kristiansen himself included, this has now been home to a pretty fine handful of writers since the house was built in 1955. The history is definitely one of the qualities of the house, and perhaps a reason why it feels like such a good place to write from. It sort of puts you in direct contact with a significant chunk of modern Norwegian literary history.

As was emphatically pointed out when Norway was Guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2019, our literary system, which includes a stately book purchasing scheme, fixed book prices, VAT exemption on books and collective agreements between rights-holders, has been a great success. The rise of internationally acclaimed authors such as Per Petterson, Vigdis Hjorth, Maja Lunde and Karl Ove Knausgård is often attributed to the stability provided by these systems. By creating a certain economical predictability for both publishers and authors, they enable authorships to evolve gradually, rather than just rush for the immediate best seller.

Despite their broadly recognised positive effects, the systems for supporting the arts have not been entirely uncontroversial during their time of existence. Occasionally, neoliberal opposition against market regulation surfaces in public debates. Some populist politicians express their distaste for spending money on “incomprehensible poetry that nobody reads” – one famously making a habit of reading aloud poetry collections at Parliament meetings, mocking both the poets and the scheme for purchasing “pure nonsense”. Opinions as these, though they still exist, have never gained wide enough support to seriously threaten the systems. Well, not yet, at least.

Now, the parliamentary elections were held in Norway. In light of the newly published IPCC report on climate change and Norway’s severe and regrettable addiction to the extraction of petroleum, cultural politics is not a very hot topic in the race for votes. Of course, putting climate on top of the agenda is the least one can expect in times like these and is nothing short of appropriate. Still, this doesn’t mean that our systems for supporting the arts and literature aren’t criticised. Recently, an anonymous Facebook profile called “The Squander Ombudsman” created a stir by sharing distorted or carefully selected snippets of information about art projects that had received public support, making it look like huge amounts of money were sent right down the drains. Provocative? Yes, but also devastating to the artists who were being ridiculed subject to hate and harassment in the social media.

To what extent the taxpayer’s money should contribute to the financing of art is an ideological question, a matter of political preference, the same way extensive public support of the fossil fuel industry is. For eight years now, Norway have been led by a liberal-conservative government much in favour of the latter, while artists have been encouraged to be “less scared of private funding” (i.e., less dependent upon public support). Artists should act more like entrepreneurs, as the catchphrase goes. But the weakening of fundamental systems for supporting the arts and literature would do much to reduce books to being mere commercial products, on par with socks and cereals. Only the most popular ones would thrive, leaving more experimental or challenging specimens to wither in their shadows. When speaking of diversity, free-market fundamentalism rarely is the solution, whether the subject in question is literature or wildlife nature.

From the windows of my home office in Adrianstua I can watch the fjord alter with the weather outside, its ever-changing surface of ripples and waves – a recurring source of calm and contemplation. Living here is a great privilege, no other place in Norway offers anything similar (apart from, maybe, Henrik Wergeland’s old home “Grotten”, now an honorary residence for artists in Oslo, currently inhabited by world-famous playwright Jon Fosse – but a stay there is granted for a lifetime and without application, making it far more exclusive and less dynamic). Living in Norway in general feels like a privilege, one might say. Our nation has prospered astronomically on profits from the petroleum industry over the last decades. One of the crucial questions of our time is how to keep this prosperity going after the “oil adventure” has ended, which it will do, even though a lot of politicians and business leaders still refuse to admit it.

Maybe some inspiration can be found in our not-so-far history? In 1950, when Kristian Kristiansen published his most renowned novel, Adrian Posepilt, Norway was still a nation recovering from war. The first discovery of oil at the Ekofisk field lay almost twenty years ahead in time. Nevertheless, resources were found to create a set of highly innovative and successful ways of stimulating the growth of new literature, proving that neither visions nor creativity runs on fossil fuel. Living here, in a tiny wooden house built by an author during those years, I literally feel surrounded by a confidence in something more solid than oil and gas. To some passers-by it may look like something out of a fairy tale. But a more sustainable one, I’m sure, than what we’ve been telling ourselves for way too long now.