By Carina Tan-Van Baren
Want to be a writer? Move to Norway.
Acclaimed crime novelist Jo Nesbø says Norway “is the best country in the world to be a writer” and from what he and fellow Norwegian, author and playwright Johan Harstad, have to say about conditions there, he may well be right. At least from the ‘making a living’ perspective.
In May, Waxings shared some depressing facts about writing in Australia, pulled together by writer/reviewer Ian Nichols. To recap, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in 2000-01:
- 56% of writers earned less than $10,000 a year from their writing;
- 60% lived at or below the poverty line; and
- 40% of those who supplemented their writing income with earnings from a ‘day job’ were still unable to pay their bills (incredulous emphasis added)
By comparison, at the recent Perth Writers Festival, Nesbø and Harstad painted a picture of Norway as a government-subsidised nirvana for writers. Nesbø told the festival’s ‘Northern Lights’ session that he developed a better appreciation of the Norwegian system while visiting Paris.
“I went to France, which has 20 times the population of Norway, and I asked them ‘How many full-time writers, fiction writers, do you have in France?’,” he said. “This country where they have so much culture – one of the booksellers said ‘Fifty’ and one of the other guys said ‘Probably more, probably 60’.
“In Norway, we have 150 writers full-time writing. It is not like they are selling a lot, all of them, but they can make a living and that is of course because they are subsidised the way they are.”
I don’t know how many full-time fiction writers we have in Australia but, for some perspective, as of July 2011, Norway’s population was about 4.7 million (CIA World Factbook), while Australia’s was an estimated 22.6 million (ABS). On a proportional basis, Norway’s 150 full-time writers would be equivalent to 721 here.
Harstad said government support had allowed him to concentrate on his writing.
“We are very lucky to have fairly easy access to governmental funds or grants to be a writer so when I first started after my second book I applied for a grant and got it, which was enough, a two or three year grant, which made me able to sustain and keep on writing,” he said.
Predictably, the generosity of the public purse was sometimes abused. “I do think that I am too much of a nice guy in a sense in that I will not apply for a grant if I see that I can make it on my own,” Harstad said. “Recently I came to understand that no one else is doing that. They are trying to grab in both hands what they can get.”
Not only do Norwegian writers get plenty of encouragement from their government, they also appear to enjoy the support of a healthy local publishing industry and enthusiastic readership.
“It is very unusual in Norway to go to an agent,” Harstad said. “You can submit your manuscript to a publisher. We have a lot of great literature publishers in Norway. We have so many bookshops.” (He was interrupted in his description of just how many bookshops by gasps of disbelief and envy from the audience.)
Nesbø agreed. “People in Norway read a lot more than any country in the world,” he said. “Cold night? Good books. To be a writer in Norway, there is no question about it, it must be the best country in the world to be a writer.”
So why is the Norwegian government so splashy with its support for writers? Well, there was a bit of discussion about the oil-generated wealth of Norway.
“It is one of the few, perhaps the only country in the world which has been able to actually distribute the money from the oil out to its people,” Nesbø said. “If you look at countries like Venezuela, even Holland, they haven’t been able to do that.” He appeared too polite to point out the obvious implication for his resource-booming hosts.
The ‘Northern Lights’ session also touched on that seemingly ubiquitous question of late – why is there such a concentration of successful crime writers in Scandinavia?
According to the Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, Sjöwall-Wahlöö, Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum made it to Times of London‘s top 50 list of the Greatest Crime Writers of All Time and Stieg Larsson took out the top three spots in USA Today’s list of best-selling books for 2010. The Millenium novels and their film adaptations continue to dominate book and movie sales charts around the world.
Nesbø, a former rock star/economist turned crime fiction author, is another to attract international acclaim. His best-selling crime novels featuring Detective Harry Hole have been translated into more than 40 languages and won multiple awards. Plenty of his compatriots are also racking up enviable readership figures around the world.
Nesbø puts Scandinavian success in crime fiction down to sheer numbers and the relative respect accorded the genre there compared to other parts of the world.
“The reason why, on average, probably the crime writing in Scandinavia is at a high level is to do with what happened in the ‘70s,” he said. “Sjöwall-Wahlöö, the writers of left wing police procedurals, moved crime novels from the kiosks to the bookstores, so it was probably more prestigious to write crime novels in Scandinavia than other countries. More writers would write crime novels instead of so-called serious literature.
“I think that there is a lot of bad crime writers in Scandinavia, (but) there are so many of them that some of them are bound to be not so bad.”
Responding to the half-serious suggestion that he must be tripping over other crime writers in his home-town Oslo, Nesbø said: “At the coffee shop where I write, just a couple of weeks ago, there was a crime writer sitting there writing so I had to go up to him and say ‘that’s my table’.”
There’s no justice in crime writing.
Jo Nesbø is a musician, songwriter, economist and phenomenally successful crime writer from Norway. His latest book is Phantom.
Johan Harstad is a Norwegian author and playwright. His first novel, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? made the Best Fiction 2011 list by Kirkus Review.
More reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >
Maybe the weather is so awful in Norway people read a lot more. I shall try to console myself with such a thought anyway. 😉
I have a hunch that part of the reason our governments in this country are so reluctant to fund grants for writers is because of that false idea that writers are rolling in money. They think of it as giving caviar to the rich, when in actual fact it would most often be paying the electricity bill for a starving writer.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Carina.