Amanda Svensson, author of Where the Hollyhocks Come From, talks about the state of female criticism in Sweden, the concept of “Scandinavian literature,” and which Swedish authors to read now.
After your reading at the Readux Series 3 launch party in Berlin, you spoke a bit about being a female writer and critic in Sweden. You made a really interesting comment about a kind of pressure to focus your criticism on other female writers. Could you elaborate on what you were describing?
I started thinking about this a year back, when one of the papers I regularly write for did an experiment, where for a month all books, in all genres, by male authors were reviewed by female critics and vice versa. The idea was to point out the hidden gender structures in literary criticism and make it a topic of discussion. I realized that I normally reviewed a lot more books by female authors (and also discovered that my own first novel, with one exception, was reviewed by women) and made some scary discoveries as to why I think that is. For one thing, I realized that when I started out as a critic six or so years ago, I wanted to be ”humble”, and asked to review books I thought of as less important—the consequence being that I reviewed a lot of women! Not necessarily because I thought them less important, but because I thought that the consensus was that they were less important, thus more suited for someone inexperienced as myself. Which is really horrific. Another thing was the feeling of responsibility I think I still have, to sort of speak up for women writers, feeling that if I—as a young woman—do not, no one else will. But that’s really a double bind of sorts, since as long as female critics as myself take it upon ourselves to be the so called gatekeepers that let women in, male critics can continue to ignore or make uninformed criticism of female works. Which is the double bind of all feminist efforts, I guess. But also, I just want to point out, that Sweden is quite a good place to be working as a female writer—I think sexism might be worse in a lot of other countries, since we do have quite a long tradition of gender consciousness. That doesn’t mean that we’re free of prejudice, however, which I think the experiment I mentioned before proves.
In a March 2014 piece for Asymptote, Julia Grønnevet wrote that for her as a Norwegian critic, the Danish and Swedish literary scenes are completely foreign, despite the linguistic accessibility. Could you comment on that cultural gap? Do you think it is widening or shrinking?
Sadly, I think it’s widening, which I guess primarily has to do with the fact that people’s understanding of—and willingness to make an effort of understanding— the neighbouring Scandinavian languages is shrinking. Young people today generally don’t bother speaking ”Scandinavian” but instead use English when meeting people from the other countries, and so, reading in those languages of course gets complicated. Also, Swedish papers don’t tend to review or write about books in Danish or Norwegian, unless there’s really a hype surrounding it, like with Knausgård or Yayha Hassan, and so there’s no real knowledge even among those who’re “supposed” to know, like critics and intellectuals. But you know, maybe it’s only natural. The world is so big and accessible these days, we might read less from our neighbouring countries, but I’m sure we read a lot more foreign literature in translation than we used to, especially since so many people know how to read in English.
Often, outside of Scandinavia, people are quick to talk about ‘Scandinavian literature,’ particularly with the worldwide popularity in recent years of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian crime fiction. Do you think there is such a thing as Scandinavian literature?
In a way, I do. I mean, in terms of culture and what kind of society we have (political landscape, social standard etc.), the Scandinavian countries are very much alike, and of course that influences the literature being written here. For example, there is a strong realist tradition in all Scandinavian countries, which I think shows today as well.
Where the Hollyhocks Come From was originally published by the Swedish publisher Novellix, which publishes books in the same small format that Readus does. What have you seen happening in Swedish literature as a result of the Novellix style of publishing?
There has been a lot of initiatives in short story publishing, like Novellix, the last couple of years. I don’t think, however, that Novellix is responsible for it, or really, any general rising interest in the short story as literary form. Rather, I think it has something to do with the need for publishers to find a niche, a sort of branding. I also think it has something to do with a wide spread assumption that people in this digital age don’t have the time or patience to read, the short story thus being well suited for modern people ‘on the go.’ I don’t think that’s true, however, people as a rule are not frightened by lengthy pieces of fiction but by ambitious ones, which makes most short stories just as frightening as an ambitious novel.
This wasn’t your first time being translated, but this was your first time being translated into English. Could you tell us about what it felt like to see your writing take on a new form like that? To see your words in someone else’s words.
It was fascinating, and a bit odd, like seeing yourself in the mirror all dolled up. Pretty and foreign but still, unquestionably, my own writing. I actually had no negative feelings about it, which probably has something to do with the text being quite old—it’s at least three years since I wrote it, so the original text in Swedish seems quite foreign to me as well. But what was really tricky was reading it out aloud. When the words that are on the page are not actually the words you have written, you can’t trust in your natural rhythm, your natural way of reading aloud, but has to sort of reinvent it. Like acting. Which was fun, but quite scary.
Your latest novel came out this March, completing the trilogy that’s not really a trilogy. Do you have anything in the works that we should keep an eye out for?
I have quite recently begun work on a new novel, but one that I suspect is going to take quite a long time to finish—since completing the trilogy-of-sorts, I’ve been experiencing a strong sense of development in my writing, and I sort of want to take my time finding out where that will take me. But, for people who read French, my second novel Welcome to This World is probably going to be out in France this fall, published by Actes Sud.
As a critic, who in Sweden do you think deserves a world-readership that maybe doesn’t have one yet? Who has been overlooked for translation? And who should we be reading right now?
Well, one of the most important and unique younger Swedish writers I think is the poet and novelist Viktor Johansson, who I think has not been translated much, if at all. As for who to read now, I would suggest Peter Fröberg Idling’s Song for an Approaching Storm, a part documentary novel about Pol Pot, that is available in quite a few languages, including English and German.
Interview by Charles Lee