Travel to Norway and one thing strikes you right away: The country is really small. At about 5 million, its population is the size of Alabama’s. So selling a half-million copies of erudite books there, as Karl Ove Knausgaard has, is even more remarkable than it sounds. This is a tough one to fact-check, but I would estimate that on a per capita basis, his autobiographical series, My Struggle, has already sold about as well in Norway as The Great Gatsby has sold in America all time.
Norway's size contributed to the controversy surrounding My Struggle, and in turn its success. As several people told me when I went there to profile Knausgaard for The New Republic, everyone knows someone who knows someone who is a “character” in the books, usually identified by real name. Cathrine Sandnes, a magazine editor quoted in my article, told me she knows 20 or 30 people who appear in the book, as she does herself.
But there's another way in which Norway itself helps to explain the Knausgaard phenomenon: The country is one of the most enviable places in the world to be a writer or a publisher. Here’s why:
- It’s become one of the world’s richest nations, owing to the oil boom that took hold in the '70s. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is ranked number one in the world. And as a friend who works in the oil business and writes about it pointed out to me, it’s also one of the few “petrostates” that does not suffer from the “resource curse”—it is not plagued by corruption and/or a repressive regime. On the train from Oslo to Kristiansand, I met a shipbuilder for a company that services the offshore oil platforms, and he said, “We won the lottery in this country. We went from this [universal gesture of reeling in a fish] to this [universal gesture of rubbing cash between the fingers].” (The shipbuilder, a navy veteran, was holding a copy of Game of Thrones. He had already read Knausgaard, of course.) The U.N. Human Development Index, a measure of standard of living, pegs Norway at number one. Unfortunately for visitors, the cost of living is also extraordinary. Norway’s cities are 40–50 percent more expensive than New York City. In a shop I saw a single can of soda selling for $6.
- All public universities are essentially free to attend.
- This seems like it cannot quite be true, but according to the CIA World Factbook, the adult literacy rate in Norway is 100 percent.
- With the combination of oil wealth and a robust Scandinavian state, government funding of culture is substantial. I spoke to a book critic named Trond Haugen at his workplace, the National Library of Norway, in Oslo. (I asked him to estimate how many of the 80 or so people in the public library’s cafeteria would have heard of Knausgaard, and he laughed: “Oh, 100 percent.”) All published material in Norway is required by law to be deposited in the the National Library, and the library is currently digitizing everything in its collection. Everyone in the country will be able to view the material free online; for books under copyright, the patron will be able to access the text but not download it.
- So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries—or 1,550 copies if it’s a children’s book. (This comes on top of the libraries’ acquisition budgets.) The purchasing scheme, I was told, keeps alive many small publishers that could not otherwise exist. American independent presses would drool at the prospect. Another effect of the scheme is that it subsidizes writers as they build a career. They make royalties on those 1,000 copies—in fact, at a better royalty rate than the contractual standard. Books are also exempted from Norway’s value-added tax.
- Some of these arts programs have been under threat since a more conservative government came into power last year. “Conservative” is relative, however. Norway has some of the world’s best-paid manual laborers and worst-paid CEOs, as a Norwegian executive told The Economist.
- By business agreement, deep discounting of new books is essentially banned, as is the case in a number of European countries. This protects booksellers from the likes of Amazon, and it also means that the profits from blockbuster titles, which would otherwise be the most heavily discounted, subsidize all other books to an even greater degree than they do here. You could say that Knausgaard has kept a lot of writers in business.
- The leading bookstore chains in Norway are owned by the major publishing companies. Some prominent industry figures in the U.S., such as Andrew Wylie and Mike Shatzkin, have recently suggested that the big publishers here, particularly Penguin Random House, ought to follow suit and get into the bookselling game. (Others in the business have noted that American publishers have tried this in the past without great success.)
- Along with the purchasing scheme, the country lends significant support to writers and other artists directly. Renowned artists receive a guaranteed income, generally until retirement, and others are eligible for one- to five-year work grants. All this helps secure a place for Norway in world literature—a considerable challenge when your language is read by so few people. The pool of potential buyers for any given book is small, so publishers have to charge a high price for each copy to cover their costs, and that can further limit sales. It is possible that a writer like Knausgaard would have quit before writing My Struggle if he had to survive solely on the Norwegian market’s demand for literary fiction.
- One downside for Norwegian readers: The small market and the substantial cost of translation mean that many great works are not available in Norwegian. This is a source of frustration for Knausgaard. To satisfy his interest in Rimbaud, a Frenchman, he owns a copy of a biography that was published in English in the U.S. By necessity he also reads books in English that were written in a third language. Knausgaard’s English is excellent, but still, it’s a problem. It’s sort of like looking at a photocopy of a photocopy of a photograph.
- It is also the case that many highly regarded Norwegian books are not available in America, where translated books have a shamefully hard time breaking through. Knausgaard’s debut novel, Out of the World, is still not available in English. Someone should rectify that. If I could read Norwegian, I would also be reading Knausgaard’s friend Geir Angell Øygarden’s Bagdad Indigo. It’s an account of wartime Iraq reported largely among “human shield” activists, in dangerous conditions. If you have read about Angell Øygarden in My Struggle or in my profile, you might appreciate that his working title was Against Better Judgment. “This could also serve as his motto in life,” Knausgaard writes of him in Book Six of My Struggle.
- Partly to introduce more foreign works to Norway, Knausgaard has co-founded a small press, based in Norway, called Pelikanen. His brother, Yngve, is one of the other co-founders. Much of what they publish is translated. Among American writers, they have published Katie Kitamura and they plan to bring out Ben Marcus as well as Charles Jackson’s classic, The Lost Weekend.
- Knausgaard said he has always thought of My Struggle as a novel, and it is billed as a novel on the Norwegian editions. We spoke about what makes it a novel and not a memoir, since most names are authentic and he corrected “errors” in his account. (The American hardcover publisher, Archipelago Books, chose not to label it one way or the other.) Among his several responses, he said that Norway has no real tradition of memoir as an art form, as distinct from autobiographies by public figures. He also said he was never asked the kind of question I was asking until the books were published in English.
This piece has been updated. It originally stated that Knausgaard's brother, Yngve, designs the covers for Pelikanen. Though Yngve designs covers, he does not do so for Pelikanen.