Battle of the Swedish literary manifestos

Swedish writers have stepped away from the serious business of writing books to do battle over the future of the Swedish novel. But perhaps they should get off their high horses and stick to the task, suggests The Local's Charlotte Webb.

Battle of the Swedish literary manifestos

A war of the words is raging in the pages of Dagens Nyheter, and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with swine flu vaccinations, the 2010 national budget or feminist pornography. It centres, in fact, on the state of the humble Swedish novel.

On the 22nd of August, seven Swedish writers undertook the task of defining the essential terms of Swedish fiction for the near future in a piece entitled ‘Manifesto for a New Literary Decade.’ Primarily, the piece bemoaned the way in which ‘pure’ or ‘realistic’ storytelling (a not unproblematic categorisation) had been eclipsed in recent years by other popular forms such as the ‘deckare‘ (or crime/mystery novel), and urged a return to the conventions of honest old-fashioned Swedish storytelling found in works by authors such as Selma Lagerlöf, Kerstin Ekman, Pär Lagerkvist and Vilhelm Moberg.

Amongst the multifarious targets of the original manifesto were: ‘chick-lit’, creative writing courses, linguistic games, experiments in form, unnecessary artistic flourishes, autobiography ‘masquerading’ as fiction, works based on the lives of ‘defenceless’ historical figures, comic writing, works based on social critique or ‘debate’, ‘sensationalist’ works attacking living public figures and the ‘cloistered’ world of literary academia.

Within days a second, opposing manifesto entitled ‘Manifesto for an Unlawful Literature’ was published by thirty-two other Swedish authors, rebuking the tenets of the first and insisting that ‘renodling‘ or ‘pure’ cultivation produces nothing more than undernourished soil (the impact of the original Swedish phrasing loses something in translation). Here, the authors fervently insisted that the coming century should be that of the ‘boundless, expansive millennium of fiction’ and advocated the ideas of ‘cross-pollination’, ‘borrowing’, ‘experimentation’ and ‘self-reflection’ in writing.

The duelling manifestos have prompted a series of impassioned responses from a variety of Swedish readers, writers, academics, philosophers and public figures. For a nation unmoved by the literary debates and scandals that rage almost daily in the pages of The New Yorker or The Guardian, it seems Sweden does not like to be lectured on ‘what not to write.’

While some have applauded the original manifesto for drawing public attention back to the world of Swedish literature, others have dubbed the manifesto ‘elitist’ and a poor reflection of Sweden’s democratic principles. Before throwing a foreigner’s perspective into the bubbling pot, let me say that I do not believe that what or how we read should be in any way determined by political ideals: arguments that appeal to my ‘democratic’ sensibilities in this matter are thus doomed to fall on deaf ears. There is such a thing as good and bad writing: words that make the heart soar, and those that induce a cringing sense of vicarious embarrassment for their reliance upon tired clichés, clumsy phrasing or overly simplistic conclusions. The term ‘elitism’ is, to my mind, thrown around all too casually in Swedish debates pertaining to art and literature.

In a similar vein, I must also admit to having been frustrated by the preponderance of Swedish critical attention lavished on best-selling crime novels or on recent works of sensitive young semi-autobiographical ‘fiction’. I am similarly uninterested in ever reading anything (fiction or no) by that egotistical king of modern Swedish media, Alex Schulman.

However. I do recognise that these are my own opinions and not directives for the formations of a national literature. I also concede that, despite my personal sentiments regarding postmodernism and its miscellaneous side effects, experimentation, cross-pollination, borrowing and linguistic play are all vital components of literary innovation.

In my view, the most legitimate objections to the rather narrow minded proscriptions of the original manifesto are twofold. Firstly, it does seem both naïve and irrelevant in an age of acronyms, multi-clause sentences, instant messaging, digital poetry, hyperlink fiction, slam poetry, fan fiction, media saturation and translation (I assure you, the list just goes on), to attempt with such a dramatic degree of assumed authority to define the limitations of Swedish storytelling.

In doing so, one is either closing Swedish fiction off from the developments, mutations and experiments taking place in literary fiction worldwide, or blindly assuming that the inherent value of a literary work may be determined according to how ‘Swedish’ or ‘realistic’ (anyone care to define these terms for me?) it may be.

Secondly, however much one may admire the literary legacy left behind by great writers of the past, the great writing of the future cannot be produced using identical tools. A work of literature becomes great, at least in part, through its dialogue with the present. In 2009, in a time of text messaging and reality television, we must not be surprised if this dialogue contains an occasional instance of authorial self-reflection or even the odd emoticon.

Inevitably it is up to the individual writer and the legions of engaged readers to determine which varieties of fiction provide the most meaningful encapsulation of the Swedish present. While the dual manifestos provide an interesting glimpse into the efforts of writers to redefine the terms of the contemporary novel, this reader suggests redirecting those efforts into new literary endeavours. In the words of one commentator: ‘Go ahead and write, instead of piecing together a manifesto composed mainly of high horses.’

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Eight books that tell hidden stories from Sweden’s history

From a Swedish codebreaker to a colony of conscientious objectors in Sweden, and quite a bit in between, these are not your average history books.

Eight books that tell hidden stories from Sweden's history
Learn about lesser known chapters of Swedish history with these eight fascinating books (in English). Photo: Radu Marcusu/Unsplash

Beyond lengthy tomes about great leaders, epic battles, eras and epochs, and so forth, there are countless excellent and unexpected non-fiction books that offer insight into Swedish history. Here are eight books that have either been written in or translated into English that even the most history-shy reader could enjoy.

1. The world of Cajsa Andersdotter: A close-up view of Sweden in the 18th and 19th century, by Bengt Hällgren, published 2017

Big publishing houses tend to publish “sexy” books that appeal to the masses. This doesn't leave a whole lot of room for books like The World of Cajsa Andersdotter, which details the lives and fates of several generations of a poor Swedish family from 1760 to 1910. Independently published, the book seems to fly under the radar to some extent, but customer reviews are unanimous in praise of Brent Hällgren's research and writing.

While many history books focus on the great and the good, Hällgren's book is a stark reminder of what life was like for the average Swede. In the preface, Hällgren writes that the book “illustrates how poverty, starvation, disease, and helplessness dominated the life of ordinary people”. Naturally, the book is especially popular with individuals seeking to get a better sense of what life was like for their Swedish ancestors.

Welcome to The Local Sweden's Book Club
Stockholm's City Linrary. File photo: Jann Lipka/


2. Culture Unbound: Americanization and Everyday Life in Sweden, by Tom O'Dell, published 1997

While the introduction to Culture Unbound begins with the cliché, “Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world”, the book presents an informed and nuanced evaluation of the reality behind this notion. Despite leaning to the scholarly side, the book is still a readable examination of the perceptions and realities of “Americanization” in Sweden, beginning in the mid-18th century.

Each chapter considers a different theme, including – of course – Sweden's era of mass emigration, during which the country lost 20 percent its population, and how it shaped ideas of both Sweden and United States. Another chapter focuses on how American cars in Sweden “from the Swedish upper classes in the twenties to the working classes in the fifties and sixties” illuminates “the history of class distinctions, aesthetic values, and social contestations in the Swedish context…”.

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3. With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman among the Sami, 1907–1908, by Emilie Demant Hatt, published 2013 (originally published in Sami and Danish in 1913)

Traditionally a nomadic people whose livelihood depended on reindeer, the Sami have been living in the Arctic areas of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia for thousands of years. Though they and their unique and important culture are now recognized by governments and ethnologists, this hasn't always been the case. When Danish artist and writer Emilie Demant Hatt wrote about her year living among the Sami in Swedish Lapland in the early 20th century, she articulated the oppression they had long endured.

“From ancient times down to quite recently he's been an object of taxation; no one was his friend, no one advised or helped when he was squeezed”, she writes. “The priests wiped out his old religion in a hard and unsympathetic manner. The authorities pressed him for taxes; the government made laws and regulations that restricted his freedom. The farmers fleeced him and killed him and his reindeer.”

But while grim realities are evident in the book, it is more a celebration of the history and culture of the Sami people, as well as of the beauty of Swedish Lapland, as experienced by the author more than a century ago.

OPINION: 'Why is what happened to the Sami in Sweden not common knowledge?'

4. Codebreakers: Arne Beurling and the Swedish Crypto Program During World War II, by Bengt Beckman, published 2002 (originally published in Swedish in 1996)

Britain's code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, which at its height consisted of around 10,000 personnel, has been the subject of numerous books, films and television series. By comparison, scant attention has been paid to Arne Beurling, a Swedish mathematician who in 1940 deciphered the code of the German Geheimschreiber (G-Schreiber) communications device, by himself and using only pencil and paper, in just two weeks.

“With the cracking of the German code, Swedish military intelligence suddenly had access to German plans at the highest level of security clearance”, the foreword to Codebreakers explains. “The most stunning pieces of information decoded by Sweden were plans for Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union”.

Written by Bengt Beckman, who was also a mathematician and a member of Swedish intelligence, the book is a fascinating look at Beurling, his incredible accomplishment, and the impact it had on the war.

5. War Diaries, 1939–1945, by Astrid Lindgren, published 2016 (originally published in Swedish in 2015)

Today, Astrid Lindgren is the well-known Swedish author of beloved books like the Pippi Longstocking tales. But during the Second World War, she was an unknown writer working as a secretary in Stockholm. In 1939, prompted by the outbreak of the war, she began keeping a diary “charged with sorrow and dread”, according to the Astrid Lindgren Company, “in which she writes about daily life in Stockholm, what's going on in the world and about Sweden's actions”.

By the time the war ended in 1945, she had filled 17 diaries with her thoughts, experiences and related press clippings. After the war, they were tucked away in a wicker laundry basket in her Stockholm apartment, where they went undiscovered until 2013.

Far from mundane, they chronicled her time as a postal censor, a highly secretive job that required her to read military and private mail going in and out of Sweden and redact sensitive or classified information. As her daughter noted in the foreword, however, “the restrictions did not prevent her from copying out, or quoting sections of, the more interesting letters in her diary…”. The diaries also document the origins and evolution of Pippi Longstocking, which would propel her to prominence when the first book was published in 1945.

Join The Local Sweden's Book Club to discuss this book with other readersBook Club: A World Gone Mad – The Wartime Diaries of Astrid Lindgren

6. Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden's Thirty Years' War, by Mary Elizabeth Ailes, published 2018

Between 1618 and 1648, most of the major powers in Europe were engaged in a war that eventually claimed around 20 percent of the European population. Sweden's involvement began in 1630, when King Gustav II Adolf led his army into the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the conflict, “Sweden had emerged as one of the victorious kingdoms”, historian Dr. Mary Elizabeth Ailes explains in Courage and Grief. “This achievement enhanced the kingdom's international status” and “cemented the Swedish kingdom's reputation as one of the era's great military powers.”

But Courage and Grief is not simply another book about this well-documented and analyzed aspect of Swedish history. Rather, it expertly examines an aspect of the history that has been largely ignored: the role of women in the war, and its impact on their lives. It is an important addition to the historical record, not least because, as Ailes notes, “without women's involvement both on the battlefield and on the home front, the Swedish Crown would not have achieved its military success”.

7. Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves, by Matthew Sweet, published 2018

Though it may at first glance seem to have little to do with Swedish history, Operation Chaos tells the surprising history of around 800 American Vietnam War deserters who in the late 1960s found sanctuary in Sweden, “the only non-Communist country in Europe that offered asylum to those who refused to fight”, author Matthew Sweet explains.

Sweet recounts this interesting and at times bizarre aspect of modern Swedish history featuring – among other things – principles marred by paranoia and disillusionment, a controversial political organization that “proved a thorn in the side of the Swedish political establishment”, and a group Sweet describes as “an apocalyptic cult that believed in the satanic nature of the Queen of England, the prime minister of Sweden and the Beatles…”.

8. Karin Bergöö Larsson and the Emergence of Swedish Design, by Marge Thorell, published 2018

Long before Ikea, spouses Carl Larsson and Karin Bergöö Larsson literally and figuratively wrote the book that defined modern Swedish interior design. Artist and interior designer Karin was the mastermind behind their beautiful cottage, Lilla Hyttnäs, in Sundborn, Sweden. Carl captured their day-to-day life at Lilla Hyttnäs in a series of stunning watercolor paintings during the late 1800s that formed the basis of his 1899 book Ett Hem (A Home). The book was a bestseller, inspiring Scandinavians, Germans and Americans in particular to imitate the then-radically modern and eclectic Arts and Crafts style reflected in the paintings of the home.

This influence has been long-reaching, as noted in the foreword to Karin Bergöö Larsson and the Emergence of Swedish Design: “Global retail powerhouse Ikea cites Karin Larsson as one of founder Ingvar Kamprad's guiding lights of inspiration, and as the ease of Swedish lifestyle spread globally with the company, so has interest in the origins of the Ikea style”.

Though Karin Bergöö Larsson's legacy has long lived in the shadow of her husband's, author Marge Thorell's book remedies this, and provides insight into a more bohemian and unconventional side of Swedish history than is usually seen.  

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.