Women authors blaze trail for Finland on fickle US market
By Jukka Petäjä
I can’t see it right away, here at Borders bookstore on the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue in New York. The same general scene can be seen at Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue and 8th street in Greenwich Village.
A large tower of books rises in the shop. They are the Millennium trilogy of Stieg Larsson. On a side table there is a conspicuously large pile of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and one entire side of the shelf next to it is filled with copies of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666.
No copies of the award-winning Purge by Sofi Oksanen are to be seen on these shelves. The book, translated into English by Lola Rogers, appeared in the late spring of this year.
The book, which has won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, the Finlandia Prize, and a prize awarded by a French chain of bookstores, has certainly not been sold out at bookstores in New York. After a brief search, it is found in its proper alphabetical location at one end of a shelf labelled “fiction”.
Simply getting onto the US book market is an achievement as such. Translated literature is largely a marginal phenomenon in the United States.
Literary agent Szilvia Molnar is pleased with the success of Purge, and with its visibility on the US market. She is responsible for the forign sales of Sofi Oksanen’s books. She also represents Monika Fagerholm on the international book market.
Molnar works at the Stockholm-based Salomonsson book agency, which sells translation rights for Nordic literature.
“Purge has been conspicuously on display in bookshops of the Barnes & Noble chain, but independent bookstores have been especially active in promoting it. The independent stores chose Purge as their book of the month”, Molnar says.
Barnes & Noble chose the novel as the summer favourite.
Szilvia Molnar reveals that Black Cat, which is part of the prestigious Crove/Atlantic publishing company, took a print run of about 30,000 copies of Purge. This is considered about average for a Nordic translation in the United States. It will take some time before Oksanen’s American success comes anywhere near that of Europe. In France, more than 170,000 copies of Purge have been sold, thanks to robust Christmas sales.
“I believe that Sofi Oksanen will be in high demand on the US market. Before her new novel is ready, one of the predecessors of Purge will come on the market - probably Stalin’s Cows.”
Molnar says that Black Cat is eagerly looking forward to Sofi Oksanen’s next novel, which she plans to complete in 2012. It is the third in a set of four novels on recent Estonian history. The first was Stalin’s Cows.
Szilvia Molnar recognises that the continued success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which has reached amazing dimensions, has, for its part, increased interest in Scandinavian literature in the United States.
“However, the interest sparked by Stieg Larsson is not the reason for Sofi Oksanen’s breakthrough. The success is purely the result of her own efforts. Purge has not risen in the wake of any other book”, Molnar observes.
She firmly believes that in addition to Nordic detective stories, the United States has room for high-quality fiction writers, such as Sofi Oksanen.
“I have a couple of new Finnish authors on my list, whose books I am offering for publication here in the United States. I can only reveal the names when there is something in black and white.”
After a bit of persuasion, Molnar reveals that there are efforts to get translation contracts for male authors. The most recent strong Finnish female author to get a US contract was Riikka Pulkkinen, who signed with the agency of Maria Campbell, who works as an international scout.
“At the moment, the best-selling Swedish literature in the United States is from the detective story writers of the Salomonsson agency, such as Liza Marklund, Leif GW Persson, and Jens Lapidus. In Finnish literature, interest seems to focus on high-quality literary fiction, rather than detective stories.”
The large book market in the United States is generally somewhat resistant to foreign authors.
The domestic market does not favour imports. The proportion of translated literature is only just over one per cent of the literature that is published in the United States each year. In addition, the marketing strategies for books are built purely on the strength of American promotion.
Szilvia Molnar feels that the situation is clearly improving, and doors are opening up for foreign authors as well.
“Nothing comes for free. Work needs to be done.”
At the William Morris agency, Bill Clegg does not see things in such a positive light.
“The visibility of translated literature on the book market is fairly non-existent, as is the case with high-quality American literature. If there is enough noise and action, some translated work might find its way onto the book market, but more often than not, eyes are closed to what other countries have to offer.”
After a moment’s reflection Clegg adds the surprising commercial success of Bolaño and Larsson might suggest that a change is possible. However, he emphasises that translated literature is of interest mainly to a small elite in the United States.
“The stark reality can be seen if you look at what books dominate the best-seller lists.”
Szilvia Molnar emphasises that the American success of Sofi Oksanen and Monika Fagerholm does not surprise her, because both writers are quite rare phenomena in Nordic literature as a whole. In contrast to Clegg, she believes that they are laying groundwork that could be open to new Nordic and Finnish authors.
“At the moment, American publishers have several manuscripts written by Finnish authors under consideration”, Molnar says.
Another factor in the success that Sofi Oksanen’s Purge has had in the United States is that the publisher that it got was Black Cat, which is known for its quality literature. The publisher was set up in the 1960s to print cheap editions of classics published by Crove Press. It did not start publishing independently until 2004. In addition to Sofi Oksanen, it’s authors include such names as Anne Enright, Niccolò Ammaniti, Alice Greenway and Nancy Huston.
Monika Faterholm’s and Riikka Pulkkinen’s American publisher is Other Press.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.12.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sofi Oksanen wins prestigious French book award (3.11.2010)
France´s largest bookstore chain acknowledges Sofi Oksanen (19.8.2010)
Finlandia Prize goes to Sofi Oksanen and portrait of Estonia under Soviet occupation (5.12.2008)
Sofi´s diary 2010 (2.11.2010)
NPR website - book review of Sofi Oksanen´s Purge
JUKKA PETÄJÄ / Helsingin Sanomat