Norway’s biggest and most expensive promotional event ever was finally playing out in Frankfurt this week, after months of preparation. The country has spent tens of millions of kroner to be the so-called “guest of honour” at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and was clearly relishing the literary and cultural spotlight.
“The Book Fair in Frankfurt is the world’s largest marketplace for literature,” Margit Walsø, head of the state agency NORLA that promotes Norwegian literature abroad, told news bureau NTB. She noted how the large exhibition attracts more than 10,000 journalists, 7,000 publishers and 300,000 visitors including lots of literary agents.
Every year the Frankfurt Book Fair highlights one country that’s allowed to have its own large pavilion to promote its books and authors. Norway “won that honour” this year, as Walsø put it, and has seized the opportunity to also promote itself, its history, culture and society.
“You can hardly find any other arena in the world that puts so much collective attention on one country,” Walsø told NTB. The Royal Family was enlisted to provide an extra drawing card, with Crown Princess Mette-Marit and Crown Prince Haakon arriving on their own “literature train” in Frankfurt ,where they were joined by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Culture Minister Trine Skei Grande and more than 100 of Norway’s most successful authors. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide will also arrive in Frankfurt later in the week, to take part in sessions on freedom of expression, artistic freedom and cultural rights.
“Norway is a clear defender of universal rights, liberal values and the rule of law, along with freedom of expression, cultural rights and democracy,” Søreide stated before leaving for Frankfurt. “I look forward to discuss how we can contribute towards strengthening these values.”
It’s all part of a huge effort not only to boost exports of Norwegian literature but to promote art, culture and Norway as a nation. The foreign ministry itself describes the country’s participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair as the Norwegian overnment’s biggest cultural investment abroad ever.
NORLA was in charge of planning and carrying it all out. Fully 185 Norwegian authors have also been taking part in special events in 100 cities in Germany, Switzerland and Austria all year long, with hundreds more illustrators and artists involved in the cultural program. The Norwegian Pavilion in Frankfurt is offering programs every day featuring several of the Norwegian authors who already are well-known internationally like Jostein Gaarder, Karl Ove Knausgård, Jon Fosse, Jo Nesbø and, more recently, Maja Lunde, whose book on the history of bees has become an international best-seller.
Prime Minister Solberg and her government colleague Grande were there to officially open the 2,300-square-meter Norwegian Pavilion on late Tuesday that was designed by Norwegian architects. “We have three themes in the pavilion,” said program leader Haldor Gudmundsson. “We want to share stories from Norway. We want to spread the joy of reading. And we want to strengthen freedom of expression.” It features what designers called a “book landscape” with lots of steel tables able to support the weight of books, but also large photographs from Northern Norway, Edvard Munch’s art, and an abandoned boat that artist Marianne Heske turned into a contemporary art object.
The biggest attraction for the German crowds, however, was undoubtedly Crown Princess Mette-Marit. She first started riding around Norway a few years ago on what were dubbed “literature trains” to share her own interest in books with locals along the way. When Norway nabbed “guest of honour” status in Frankfurt, she was recruited to bring her book train “concept” to Germany. Railroad Deutsche Bahn provided the rail cars that rolled from Berlin to Cologne and Frankfurt this week, with Crown Prince Haakon also on board to step in when Mette-Marit’s chronic lung illness left her out of sorts. Authors Maja Lunde, Lars Saabye Christensen and Herbjørg Wassmo (who’s currently getting lots of good reviews in the US for her locally controversial book about family inheritance and more) were also on board.
“Our readers love the royals, because they’re all about glamour and history,” one of the many German journalists covering the crown princess’ train ride told NTB. “Her visit is getting massive coverage in the German press. It’s huge.”
Mette-Marit, who has little formal education and was admittedly “a young rebel” who partied a lot when she met the crown prince, obtained some literary credentials of her own earlier this fall when she co-edited a collection of essays for a book called Hjemlandet – og andre fortellinger (The Homeland and Other Stories). It “presented some challenges,” she said, when one of the essays turned out to be a fictional account of her own father-in-law King Harald’s future death, and how her husband Crown Prince Haakon will have to deal with becoming the monarch. “I turned over most of the editorial responsibility for that text to Geir (Gulliksen, the professional editor),” she said with a laugh when the book was launched. Several of the texts’ authors are with her in Frankfurt this week.
While best-selling authors like crime writer Nesbø and Gaarder (Sofies verden) have earned millions, newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that the vast majority of Norwegian authors only earn an average of NOK 120,000 (around USD 13,000) a year and can’t live off their writings. They need “day jobs,” stipends and/or supportive partners, and that’s an issue that was getting more media attention in Norway this week. Some wondered why the state would spend so much taxpayer money on “the Frankfurt show” instead of on more stipends. Officials argued the whole idea is to help expand and increase their sales abroad. Aftenposten also reported this week that never before have so many Norwegian books been translated into other languages, but only a few become best-sellers outside Norway.
Time will tell whether the investment in Frankfurt was worth the time and effort. Finland and Iceland have been among earlier “guest of honour” countries in Frankfurt, without much noticeable boost in their authors’ sales in Norway. One Norwegian literary agent, Eirin Hagen, said she thinks the state’s promotion of Norwegian authors in Frankfurt is coming too late, since so many Norwegian authors already sell well in Germany. “The German interest for Norwegian literature began in the 1990s with Jostein Gaarder’s Sofies Verden” Hagen told newspaper Klassekampen. “If Norway had been “guest of honour” then, it would have given more muscle to Norwegian literary exports.”
Among other critics of the Frankfurt Book Fair investment was Norwegian author Dag Solstad, now age 77, who once moved to Berlin to write but hadn’t been invited to take part at the Frankfurt Book Fair as of early April, when he was still working on his latest book. He eventually was.
“The book fair has little meaning, as far as I see it,” Solstad told Dagsavisen last spring. “From a bookseller’s standpoint, there are hundreds of other authors who are more interesting than me, and I think the book fair will be full of them. I don’t think I really have anything to do there. It will be a big event for industry folks and politicians, pure and simple.”