Bertolt Brecht once noted that Finns are silent in two languages. Maybe so, but they write in three – Finnish, Swedish and Sámi – and the total number of titles published annually in Finland is tremendous. The country sees the publication of 13,000-14,000 books a year, over 4,500 of them new works. Only in Iceland are more books published per capita.
Finns are also diligent readers, and the country’s extensive network of free libraries is largely to be thanked for this. Free admission to the world of knowledge is the key equalizing principle in cultural policy, and the figures are convincing: an average of over 19 library loans per resident per year. The library institution is vital for authors as well, as the compensation they receive from loans is an essential source of income for many.
In Finland, reading is a hobby that begins in the home at a young age: according to a study by Statistics Finland, about 70% of parents read out loud to their children. The latest PISA studies award Finnish pupils good results in reading skills, and in addition to the Disney characters known worldwide, favourite literary figures for Finnish children include Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll, who has appeared in just about every corner of the globe, and Ricky Rapper, whose adventures have been made into incredibly popular family films. One more revealing statistic: every third Finn reads literature every month, and this figure has remained stable since 2000.
Although the battle for readers’ free time has escalated – reading, after all, is a time-intensive activity – sales of literature have not notably declined since the turn of the millennium, and according to a 2008 ‘Finland Reads’ study, 16% of Finns buy over ten books a year. The 2010 statistics reveal a distinct, over 10% drop in total sales of literature – the first ever. Nevertheless, the book has maintained its position as a prestigious gift, despite the fact that, as elsewhere, paperback markets have expanded and new works are sometimes available in paperback during their year of release.
On the other hand, reading groups, social media, and popular blogs on literature have extended the group that critically assesses and recommends books. Although reading is a private experience, there is a desire to share it. In this sense, literature is a broad adhesive surface that binds people together.
With its e-books and print-on-demand, the current publishing environment has transformed the traditional role of the general-interest publisher. In recent years, Finland has seen the establishment of professionally run small presses that focus primarily on Finnish literature and nonfiction, with some degree of translations. Along with this development and in accordance with international trends, Finland has also seen the founding of its first literary agencies, which sell Finnish authors’ translation rights abroad, an activity that has traditionally been the sphere of publishing houses.
Furthermore, there has been growth in the sale of these translation rights: currently, approximately 200 Finnish titles appear in translation each year in almost 40 languages. The greatest number of these titles are published in Germany, with Sweden and Estonia following, but there are also, for instance, significant numbers of translations into Japanese. Finland has a broader tip of good literature these days, translator training has been bolstered, and sales efforts have been intensified. A good illustration of this is that FILI, the organisation dedicated to exporting and promoting Finnish literature, is now preparing for Finland’s theme year at the Frankfurt book fair in 2014.
The new generation of writers, born in the 1970s and ‘80s and raised in an international environment, is gradually solidifying its position. Many of them write flexibly across genre boundaries: poems and prose, for children and adults. Literature by immigrant writers has also started to appear. Despite its uncertainty, the profession of author has traditionally been a respected one, and the system of grants – ranging from six months to five years in duration – is very good.
The polyphonic voice of contemporary Finnish literature is carrying further than ever.
By Nina Paavolainen for thisisFINLAND