The Commercialization of Scandinavian Writers

Washington Post: “The Leopard” is a bloated, near-total disaster. ”

The Washington Post review of The Leopard written by Jo Nesbø, is the eighth book in the Harry Hole series, written by Patrick Anderson (a review I don’t agree with) highlights a problem I see coming with the commercialization of Scandinavian writers for U.S. audiences. Just to quickly pick on the review: I read the review and thought it quite harsh and incorrect. For starters, his dismissive tone or remarks about the “pointless memories of people’s childhoods” ignores a key aspect to the pathos that is Harry Hole. A man who is beset with demons and who uses alcohol to chase them away. His past is a significant part of his character development and that to me is not “pointless.”

Moving on. Admittedly, I have enjoyed other books in the Harry Hole series more but The Leopard was not a near total disaster but then that is my opinion of course. Was it the best in the series? Probably not. Patrick Anderson is welcome to his opinion and I don’t dispute many of his claims of how far afield Jo Nesbo’s plots have strayed from the rest of his other titles. Reading the criticism in the review does bring to mind a fear that I have in that Scandinavian writers will probably lose much of what made them different and respected in the first place if they are to succeed in a U.S. market. I say that with scant evidence to back it up and am only going by what I perceive and I am no industry insider. I am just a reader with an opinion.

With the word starting to spread or people thinking that Jo Nesbø has “jumped the shark”, I actually started seeing some signs of this with The Snowman (which is being adapted to film and will be directed by Martin Scorsese). The Snowman is a book I liked but didn’t love. Jumping the shark is not new in this genre as we all know from our own personal reading experiences. It’s happened with other writers I’ve enjoyed namely Janet Evanovich who some profess never wrote mysteries to begin with and to counter that, I say they are wrong. Her books did have a plot, well, at least in the first three books they did. When her books started to get mainstream, out went the plot and everything else for that matter that made them original and worth reading. I quit reading them.

The Redeemer, which was the next book published after The Devil’s Star, was passed over by a U.S. publisher in favor of The Snowman. Publishers know what sells because the book did land on the NYT bestseller list. The Snowman has everything in it to make it sell: more violence and more action and it features a serial killer and a high death count if memory serves. The Redeemer, sans serial killer, has yet to have a publishing date and to me that is the best book in the series.

Like I’ve said earlier, I fear that Scandinavian writers who gain the attention of American audiences will probably lose what made them great in order for them to succeed here. Do you agree or disagree? I couldn’t come up with a better title for this post but in my mind there is some process to package books a little differently here to make them sell or be more mainstream. To me that isn’t always best. Too many times I’ve enjoyed a series that when it gets to be mainstream it loses much of its appeal.

The crux of my problem: I dislike when good writers are discovered for their originality and then when they are introduced to a new audience they no longer provide that something special that made them a hit in the first place. I’ve never liked writers writing to a market but that’s the business of publishing. Before The Snowman was published, none of Jo Nesbø’s books had ever featured a serial killer before now. His plots were very complex and the endings were not overly dramatic or anti-climatic like they are now. There are discernible differences in his writings now that has fed my fear that maybe he is jumping the shark. Time will only tell. His writings pre-The Snowman were smart and he had the gift of writing in depth characters along with plots that were full of suspense and twists. Another author, Colin Cotterill, who writes smart and politically dense novels set in 1970’s Laos wrote a book featuring a serial killer as well and in my mind that seemed odd (maybe not to others) but most of his villains before that point were people within the ranks of government.

I still think Jo Nesbø is a talented writer and I’m picking on him because of the harsh review he received for The Leopard. I just need Jo Nesbø to not believe his own hype. *g* I have my misgivings that he is writing to a market that will leave his loyal fans disappointed. I hope that isn’t the case, however. My fear and I hope it doesn’t come true is that to write for the American market, one must throw in tons of violence, improbable action scenes and gore with villains who are one-dimensional and hardly worth remembering. Writing stuff like that will probably get you onto someone’s bestseller list but I certainly won’t be the one helping you to get there.

At any rate, I plan to read The Phantom (March 2012) the next Harry Hole book in the series, even though my expectations for it will not be as high as they were before. I think with reading this next book, I’ll get a better feel for what direction Jo Nesbø is going in his Harry Hole series. While I may love his work and rave about his earlier books to other fans, I know when to walk away when the author has decided to go in a direction that I have no interest in following when they decide to go “mainstream.” I don’t do mainstream well. Please share your thoughts. I’m curious to know what other readers think about this issue or if this is even an issue at all. Thanks.

pic credit – LOLcat’s ‘n’ Funny Pictures

30 thoughts on “The Commercialization of Scandinavian Writers

  1. Have you been reading my mind? (If so, there are quite a few things I’ve forgotten – if you come across the place I put my checkbook, could you let me know?Thx.)

    I haven’t read The Leopard yet, but felt very much the way you did with The Snowman. Actually, I enjoyed the first book of his that I found in translation – The Devil’s Star – because I loved Harry and I loved Nesbo’s voice (in Don Bartlett’s excellent translation) – but when I reread it for a discussion, I thought the story (which even on first reading was pretty silly) than the serial-killer-free Nemesis and The Redbreast. I quite disliked The Snowman because a serial killer who punishes women is both tired and irritating and Harry himself wasn’t quite enough to carry it off on his own.

    I suppose I can’t blame a writer for writing what more people apparently want to read, but a girl can mourn.

  2. This is a really thought-provoking post. My husband read The Redbreast and liked it very much, but I haven’t read any Nesbo yet, so I can’t comment on the trajectory of his books. I did read the Post review and was very surprised by it. It’s hard to imagine that someone whose work is that high-quality could go so completely off the rails in a single book, so I tend to find your take on it more convincing.

    I think there are a few ways writers can change direction. One is what you’re talking about here. It doesn’t have to be a fully conscious shift; it might be that when a particular book hits a chord with the buying public, the writer winds up gravitating to that kind of plot in a subconscious way. If that makes sense.

    Another way that writers change is that they no longer want to write the way they were writing before and decide to go in a different direction (think Mary Balogh). In mysteries, they may want to make the books more complex or more something (like violent) for reasons other than audience.

    I don’t know which it is with Nesbo, or if it’s something else entirely. But I agree with you that when a writer changes directions, I’m not necessarily going to go with him or her. I read for the books, not for the author. I can think of a few authors I’ve abandoned because I just wasn’t interested anymore, in both romance and in literary fiction. And there are definitely mystery authors whose books become too convoluted and too violent for me to keep going with them.

    I really hope in Nesbo’s case that he’s not shaping the books to his bigger market (consciously or unconsciously). I also hope he gets his early form back.

    Maybe Colin Cotterill hasn’t gone that way in part because he’s in Thailand, further away from commercial and audience pressures.

    Sorry for the long comment. You made me think! Argh!

    • I was hoping that the more attention he got would only better his craft but I’ve been having little niggles here and there about what he’s been doing but will continue to keep the faith. In Cotterill’s last two books he seems to be serial killer free.

  3. I have read all the Harry Hole books translated by the excellent Don Bartlett. My favourites by some distance were The Devil’s Star and Nemesis. The Leopard wasn’t a total disaster but it was not as good as The Snowman but I will continue to read the series because I like the character of Harry Hole, and I think we are going to get the first in the Hole series next year The Batman as well as the Phantom.

  4. I still haven’t read ‘The Leopard’, but I agree with your take on ‘The Snowman’. I like the character of Harry Hole, and I’m prepared to roll with more outlandish plots if Harry continues to develop in an interesting fashion.

    However, the original appeal for me of authors like Nesbo and Arnaldur Indridason was the focus on ordinary people who are driven to murder. It made a refreshing change from the serial killers, sociopaths and psychopaths who abound in American and British crime fiction. I hope Nesbo doesn’t completely move away from his roots.

  5. “pointless memories of people’s childhoods” – for heaven’s sake! Where would the world’s literature be without this! What a ridiculous, stupid sentiment, I suggest ignoring all of that “reviewer’s” output forthwith. I’ve read all the translated books available by Jo Nesbo and though I take issue with some of the gratuitously horrific descriptions of violence, torture and overblown death scenes (OK, I ignore them), the books have many good points to recommend them, as examples of superior popular fiction.

  6. I kept writing and deleting comments. :D I think the problem is our perspectives may be different. I think it’s easier for me to ask questions:

    a) what is ‘mainstream’? And whose? The U.S. market or the Scandinavian market? Or the world’s? :D There seems an assumption throughout your post that an non-American author’s changing editorial direction is due to the success and, subsequently, demands of the U.S. market. What evidence do you have to back that up?

    I do believe some non-American authors had altered the direction and style of their series to suit American market, so I don’t disagree with your main point.

    But I don’t agree that that is always the case for all non-American authors as, for some, the US is not the centre of their world; nor is breaking into the US market their ultimate goal.

    b) “The crux of my problem: I dislike when good writers are discovered for their originality and then when they are introduced to a new audience they no longer provide that something special that made them a hit in the first place.”

    Or could it be that readers are becoming so familiar with the style and tropes of – for instance – Scandinavian genre fiction that the novelty or ‘originality’ wears off?

    How do you determine the difference between commercialism and familiarity/expectations?

    I mean, I see this often with English readers of Japanese fiction (and comics). They would laud about Japanese novelists’ originality and fresh takes on cliches. Then after being increasingly exposed to those bodies of works, they would bitch about how “westernised” or “Americanised” those novelists’ writing become when in fact, it’s always been there.

    Japanese author Otsuichi’s body of works is a mixture of philosophical crime novels with no acts of violence, SF thrillers, children’s fantasy novels, action-driven crime novels (with extreme violent acts and occasionally gory), family drama and romantic mysteries. The first to be translated and published as a “horror novel” in the US is his SF novel. The second was a philosophical crime novel. And the third was a crime novel with gory scenes.

    It’s at that point when US critics and readers complained the author was becoming “westernised”, but that novel was published long before the first English-translated novel so how can it be “westernised”? (I also wondered, when reading those comments, since when violence was a western thing?)

    To be fair, some do eventually realise that some aspects of international fiction and publishing are truly universal, which are something no novelist could avoid. Especially for those with ongoing series. By that, I mean all authors – regardless of nationality – tend to dehumanise their major characters because they continually push boundaries to keep their ongoing series “fresh”.

    c) Is there truly an expectation from the American market for crime fiction to have violence, improbable action scenes and gore with villains? How do you explain – for instance – some Australian, Japanese and French crime fiction that have similar violence and gore like some American crime fiction if not more?

    d) In Nesbo’s case, how can he believe his own hype when all were published in the US are not in accordance with the original published years in his country? Let’s face it – Nesbo didn’t become popular until when his third English translated novel – Nemesis was published in 2008 (originally published in 2002). So, am I’m wondering how can his 2007 book The Snowman and his 2009 book The Leopard be a result of his response to the US market’s demands when he didn’t catch the U.S.’s attention until 2008-2009?

    A chance of Nesbo believing his hype in his own country may be there as it could explain those chances, but do we know what Norwegian crime readers really think of his books or how well his books are selling in his native country? I don’t know. Do you?

    Gah. Sorry that it’s long and all over the place. You still love me, right? :D

  7. Of course I love you. You’re my toughest critic and I appreciate that. But did you miss this part of my post per chance?

    Reading the criticism in the review does bring to mind a fear that I have in that Scandinavian writers will probably lose much of what made them different and respected in the first place if they are to succeed in a U.S. market. I say that with scant evidence to back it up and am only going by what I perceive and I am no industry insider. I am just a reader with an opinion.

    I am without evidence of anything. This is all my perception. I never said I had facts to back up my claims or fears. All I have is the texts of Jo Nesbo, who I am familiar with, who to me has made some as you label “editorial changes” to his books that I don’t necessarily agree with. He has had other books published here with another publisher to no fanfare, btw. But The Snowman was promoted here quite heavily, he even did a US book tour for it. You know how I feel about the book, liked it but didn’t love it. Plot was kind of convoluted and the ending was way OTT but the book did well here.

    My understanding is that the US publishing houses buy books from others countries where the book has sold well. Jo Nesbo sells well just about everywhere but he hasn’t done as well here in the U.S comparatively. I did read that somewhere but I have no link so take that with a grain of salt. That could be because people like me buy his new books from the UK because the US takes forevah to get them here. But that’s a discussion for another day.

    • I didn’t miss that. :D I phrased it badly. What I was trying ask is that you must have seen something that gave you that concern about the commercialism of Scandinavian writers. Could you name other authors whose style or direction *did* change as a result of their American success? That’s the kind of evidence – anecdotal, even – I was asking for.

      The only examples I can think of that *did* change for the US market were down to US publishers’ own editorial decisions. For example, Knopf US removed some parts from the US edition of Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque as they apparently felt those would offend its American readers as well as – I suppose – to make it more commercial to the US market. It’s not the first time it had happened and most likely won’t be.

      US publishers also choose a specific selection from non-American authors’ bodies of works. They tend to go for the most outrageous ones. One example: Ryu Murakami, author of Audition, Coin Locker Babies, In the Miso Soup and so on, whom his US/UK publisher portrays as “the Bad Boy of Japanese Literature” or “Dark Psychological Horror Author”.

      In fact, Murakami provides awesome and often bitingly funny social commentaries on the everyday life of Japan through his other fictional (and youth-oriented) works, such as ’69 Sixtynine’, ‘Run! Takeshi’, ‘The World in Five Minutes From Now’ and ‘Love and Pop’.

      I suppose what I’m saying is that our perspectives of non-English authors and their works are controlled by our publishers. So who are really doing the commercialising here? Publishers/editors or authors themselves? :D

      Having said all that, you have to admit that the outrageousness and excessive violence has always been part of Nesbo’s style. I think you’ll agree with me that he’s becoming lazy with his Hole series, though.

      • What I was trying ask is that you must have seen something that gave you that concern about the commercialism of Scandinavian writers. Could you name other authors whose style or direction *did* change as a result of their American success? That’s the kind of evidence – anecdotal, even – I was asking for.

        Jo Nesbo is the only author that I am familiar with and my observations and statements pertain only to him. There is Liza Marklund and Camila Lackberg’s books that are now published here and the latter I haven’t even read yet but I plan to rectify that soon. Plus, Liza Marklund was a co-author with the ubiquitous James Patterson who is a full on 24/7 marketing machine.

        I suppose what I’m saying is that our perspectives of non-English authors and their works are controlled by our publishers. So who are really doing the commercialising here? Publishers/editors or authors themselves?

        Of course the publishers are at fault if I didn’t make that clear. Editors will always control what they think the American market can bear and sell. Extrapolate that to everything else. In my mind, I see someone giving him bad advice but again, all of this is my opinion. Jo Nesbo is one of my favorite writers so I’m ultra sensitive to whatever changes he makes in his books and there are discernible changes.

        On the issue of “mainstream” I mean catering to/marketing to the widest possible market which to me is not always a good thing. For example, I like dark stories but you might not so there are books out there to fulfill both of our needs but if an author I love is asked to make concessions to his/her work in order to satisfy readers like you – I have a problem with that.

        Having said all that, you have to admit that the outrageousness and excessive violence has always been part of Nesbo’s style. I think you’ll agree with me that he’s becoming lazy with his Hole series, though.

        His books like all other crime fiction novels have violence in them sure but never have they been as gratuitous as it is now but I usually skip/skim those scenes anyway. I can’t see him being lazy about Harry Hole. He’s made that character so believable that like another read said, his plots may get outrageous but as long as Harry Hole remains fascinating, I’ll keep on reading.

  8. This, indeed, is a classic case of why authors need to use pen names and start from scratch whenever they deviate from the boxes in which readers decide to place them. Because once you’re known for doing on particular thing, it’s virtually impossible to break out of that mold.

  9. Pingback: Wednesday News and Deals: HarperCollins Sues OpenRoad for Infringement | Dear Author

  10. I’ve read all the English translations and agree with most everyone in that Harry’s character will keep me around unless the situation digresses exponentially and that The Leopard, while not my favorite, was at least worth a read.

    I also feel that, if the English speaking world doesn’t respond to a series, it won’t be translated. It’s a tough situation, because I agree that Nemesis and The Redeemer were amazing, but I can’t help but wonder if the whole series were in that vein, it might not be translated at all.

    But I digress.

    I really just came in here to cheer on Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole. Just discovered your blog looking to find out if and when the first two books will be translated. I’m excited to look through the archives for some reading recommendations.

    Happy Holidays!

    /end unintentionally long comment

  11. I can guarantee that the Scandinavian writers will not change their style to get into the American marked! The giant German marked is a big deal, and everywhere in Europe Scandinavian writers have contracts for translations of books, before the books are even written in the original language.
    I read a article in a Danish newspaper yes-today, about a new Swedish author – she have never written a book, her first book is going to be finished mid 2013 and she have already contracts with book stores and publishers all over the world. why would they change for the American marked? ;)

    • Hi Rune, my fear is that the stories that are published here would not be translated in such a way that will keep intact the original voice of the author. Too many books are translated to make them sound more American and/or have increased violence and feature unremarkable villains. I dislike the changes in voice and style to suit a wider audience if you will. If the integrity of the story and place and voice is maintained then I don’t have any complaints :-)

      • The fact you have not had the opportunity to read the two first books in the series because it has not been translated is absolutely crazy! in the first two books we(the non English speaking world) get a introduction to Harry Hole, and his background, and in my mind those are he two best books in the series … I remember the Harry Potter books was written in both British English and American English, have you checked for British translations of these books and other Scandinavian writers? I feel for you guys!

        • I usually buy most of my crime fiction books from the UK and cannot *wait* to get my hands on the first two Harry Hole books….uh, whenever they show up.

  12. Keishon, I believe Don Bartlett is working on the first Harry book as we speak. The one where Harry explains how to pronounce his name to the Aussie cops.

    And can you give me an example of translations that were purposely made to sound more American and have added violence? Certainly none of mine have met that fate. I translate into American for US publishers and British (the best I can) for UK publishers — sometimes a translation will be bought by the other side of the pond first, in which case the editor will modify it for his own market.

    • Reg, I can’t cite anything. My article was driven more on perception than truth.

      the editor will modify it for his own market.

      See, I have a problem with that which is why I usually just buy from the UK. There was a great article that Rhian wrote recently that I commented on. I based more of my discussion around Jo Nesbo as I think his voice/style has changed some since he’s been given a major marketing push by Random House in the US for The Snowman and The Leopard. Both books are more violent and the ends are anti-climatic. I’m just not a big fan of writers having to write to a market but like I said, that is the business of publishing.

  13. I have to agree, a friend of mine has read some of the Harry Hole series, but not in order, so therefore had a similar opinion to that of The Washington Post reviewer.
    I pointed out the “correct” order and he gets what Harry is all about now!

  14. Pingback: What We’ve Been Reading « Scandinavian Crime Fiction

  15. I am surprised by the number of serial killers running around Scandinavia.

    Looking back at the Martin Beck series, their crimes were simple murders and many of the plot lines laid themselves out months (with a lot of waiting for a break). Mankill did the same (the last Wallander book happens over years).

    But Nesbo paints a criminal conspiracy at the heart the government, complete with drugs and guns and murder and Nazis, that overlaps numerous serial killers. Of course, Harry Hole is at the center of it all, and the clock is always tick, tick, ticking. If he could somehow incorporate dinosaurs I think he’s down the American market.

    Of course, in America and Britain the offering of mysteries ranges from cozy to graphic, but even the Millennium series had a intimate feel to them. The serial cannibal in the first book had a rural, provincial habit that seemed so remote from the big city and his caper took an entire season to be uncovered. Still, the perception that Nesbo is now writing for a wider market might miss the mark; he may just be at the far end of a spectrum from cozy to Nesbo.

    I am also curious about how the globalization of literature is affecting Scandinavian crime reading at home? While the US and UK readers continue to gobble up old ladies uncovering murder at a garden party, are new writers in the north able to find markets if they write in a more cozy style? Or are all new novels Nesbo ripoffs?

    I do want to give a shout-out to Arnaldur Indridason, as he fits in with Beck and Wallander in many ways and gets more popular with every title.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Tom. Very interesting thoughts, too. I think Arnaldur Indridason work is superb and consistent. From reading reviews, Nesbo’s latest book, Phantom, has him back on track. I plan to read it soon.

Comments are closed.