Why Swedish books don’t sell in Britain

This year's Gothenburg Book Fair has a British theme, and there's been no lack of nationalistic pride and arrogance on both sides. In an interview with Göteborgs-Pressen, Penguin international sales chief Sophie Piquemal expressed her gratitude for the Swedish readers' tastes: she claimed that the Swedes are interested in all that Penguin publishes, and Sweden is therefore easy to reconcile with the British market.

Selling books to Greeks and Spaniards, on the other hand, requires a sense of which trashy novels go best with the beach. Each year English books sell better in Sweden, and Piquemal for one is pleased.

It seems Swedes are reading more and more British writers, but are the British reciprocating? Dagens Nyheter reported this week that they’re doing a bit better than in the past, but are still lagging behind. In a floundering publishing economy, the prospect of translating books properly carries such high costs that most Swedish books never make it into English.

One would think that the British love of detective novels could mean the export of some of Sweden’s finest – Liza Marklund or Jan Guillou – but even Sweden’s proudest supporters could see that there was more to the problem than translation.

Eivor Martinus told Dagens Nyheter: “I maybe shouldn’t say this, but a publisher said that they couldn’t take Guillou because the text had such incredibly bad style. They blamed the translator, but it was the book that was… clumsy.” Martinus is a member of Selta, an organization for the translation of Swedish literature. Sorry, Jan.

In more positive news, Svenska Dagbladet reported on the youngest delegates to the Book Fair: sisters Tindra and Silke Laurén, respectively ten and twelve years old. They are at the book fair to celebrate the launch of their book, The Siamese Turtles and Other Adventures.

The sisters wrote and illustrated the book together when they were just seven and nine, but they don’t think of it as just a childish lark.

Looking back on the material Tindra mused, “We think it’s good. It’s appropriate for children of all ages because the book is funny. Many adults like it as well.” The sisters’ mother brought her daughters’ stories to Filmteckarna, where she works as an animator and director, and they’ve now been made into an animated series; ten episodes are complete and will be shown on Bolibompa this autumn.

Finally, a seminar on “norms and values in children’s literature” at the Book Fair addressed a book about a little kitten named Snurran, by Eva Bergström and Annika Samuelsson.

It seems that Snurran is a bit too self-confident for her own good. She takes what she wants and loudly states her will. The national library service’s critics didn’t think much of the book, saying that the book set a bad example for children. Snurran wasn’t punished for her crimes, after all. As a result, Sweden’s libraries ordered very few copies of the book.

A number of writers and researchers felt that the library system was simply showing their long-held prejudice against noisy girls. Dagens Nyheter reported on an experiment by teacher and writer Kajsa Svaleryd in which she showed the book to a preschool class. When the children looked at the pictures, they assumed that Snurran was a girl kitten, but after hearing the stories they decided that the kitten must in fact have been a boy – after all, it was a rowdy little kitty.

Svaleryd followed up by asking some little girls what they’d do if they were boys for a day. “A lot of mischief and things you’re not supposed to do,” they apparently answered. Boys asked what they’d do on their one day as a girl were silent for a moment before carefully asking if they really had to be girls for a day.

Dagens Nyheter’s reportage on the seminar ended with some observations on the importance of storybook characters in the formation of young minds.

It seems that what Sweden needs now are a few children’s books that challenge the stereotypical roles of little boys and girls. Readers, take up the challenge – but be prepared to grease a few palms to get your new book past the library’s critics and into the hands of malleable Swedish youth.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Göteborgs Posten