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.’