In Stockholm, 25 February marks the beginning of an old Swedish tradition. Some stores open their doors at exactly midnight, others in the morning, letting in long queues of people determined to get the deal of the year on their favourite literary works. It’s time for the annual book sale. Stores mail out catalogues in advance and people prepare by going through them meticulously at home, in peace and quiet, so they know exactly what to go for when the sale kicks off. Others prefer to stay at home – especially given the current freezing temperatures outside – and order through the internet. In either case, it’s a people’s party and an extremely important event for the industry: 10 to 15 per cent of the book stores’ annual turnover comes in during these few weeks of frantic selling.
Swedes are big readers. In this country of nine million people, 58 million books were borrowed from libraries in 2008. More than 40 million books were sold in the same year. Books are on offer everywhere from supermarkets to gas stations and 83 per cent of Swedes have read one in the past 12 months. As book reading is generally regarded as an admirable pastime, there should be no reason to worry over the Swedes’ cultural habits.
There is a problem, however. It’s not whether the Swedes are reading – it’s what they are reading. When the sale starts, most of them will be looking for one kind of literature only: crime novels. Over the past decade, Swedes have developed an insatiable appetite for crime stories, commonly set in a small Swedish town and featuring an overweight, lonely jazz or opera-listening police officer/journalist as the protagonist. Last year, six of the 10 best-selling books were crime novels. The remaining four were factual books, with one exception, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s teen-vampire novel, Let the Right One In.
For a while now, intellectuals and politicians have been complaining that best-selling crime literature is pushing “quality” literature to the margin. Poets can count themselves lucky if their works sell a few thousand copies – a tiny amount compared with the best-selling crime novels that regularly reach 100,000 copies. Domestic writers are the stars: Stieg Larsson, Camilla Läckberg, Liza Marklund, Henning Mankell and Jens Lapidus top the lists, while the publishing of foreign, translated literature is decreasing every year.
The latest quarter to be alarmed is the Liberal Party, which thinks the industry’s focus on bestsellers is hurting the Swedes’ intellect. “Access to qualified literature that challenges our senses, thoughts and habits is a prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy and a high level of general knowledge,” writes Christer Nylander, member of the parliament’s cultural committee, on his blog. He suggests an inquiry into the state of books and book reading in Sweden, aiming to improve the conditions of quality literature.
I moved to Sweden from Finland in 1999, just as the big crime novel wave was beginning. I thank that particular genre for teaching me Swedish; with its everyday language and fast-paced storytelling technique it was the perfect tool for learning. Those qualities are exactly the ones the genre is often mocked for: too predictable, too simple, too superficial. The Liberal Party wants Swedes to read the classics and the kind of writers who are mentioned as contenders for the Nobel literature prize: Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Amos Oz.
It’s true that most crime novels are pure entertainment, often read for no other purpose than escaping a dull and stressful everyday life. But it’s also worth remembering that the equation isn’t that simple. Some manage to renew the language, provoke thoughts and introduce us to memorable characters. What’s more, reading isn’t the only way to analyse and understand the world. Film, art, theatre, architecture, music and travelling can all be just as valuable. Books are not for everyone – even though it may seem so during the annual book sale.