Swedish fiction is one of the ten most translated in the world. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 3,300 titles were translated into around 50 languages. Half the books translated belong in the ‘Nordic Noir’ or ‘ScandiCrime’ genre.
But Sweden has had and continues to have international breakthroughs that have little to do with crime. Selma Lagerlöf, who became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and August Strindberg, an influential playwright, left their marks at the turn of the 20th century. They have been followed by writers such as Astrid Lindgren who has sold roughly 145 million copies worldwide and is the world’s 18th most translated author. Maria Sveland, Sara Stridsberg , P.O. Enquist, Marianne Fredriksson and Kerstin Ekman and are also widely translated and read world-wide.
The association between Sweden and quality literature is furthermore kept fresh by the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded by the Swedish Academy. The prize is the most prestigious in literature. Sweden also awards the world’s largest children’s literature award, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. While Sweden is not exactly teeming with high-brow literary giants, poet and 2012 Nobel Prize winner Tranströmer most certainly makes the cut. But the world of books in Sweden also has strong roots in crime novels and books written for a younger audience.
One of the main reasons that Swedish literature for children remains strong is that it typically maintains the perspective of the child without avoiding difficult topics. Challenging taboos is less of a new trend than a continuation of a literary heritage that started in the 1940s when Astrid Lindgren first wrote about rebellious orphan Pippi Longstocking. And just as Swedish society has opened up to the idea of alternative family settings since the days of Pippi, so has the need to enable children to read about it.
Moral dilemmas, group pressure and respect for the environment are other common topics in children’s literature from Sweden. Pija Lindenbaum and Olof and Lena Landström’s creations are examples of picture books that explore these topics with a great dose of humor and sensibility. To compete with video games, television and internet, a growing number of fast-paced books have also flourished, such as Ingelin Angerborn’s books, some hilariously funny while others are thrilling and nerve tickling.
Of course most detective and crime books are intended for adults. In less than six years Stieg Larsson’s millennium books sold over 64 million copies in more than 50 countries, films were made – both Swedish and American versions – and international distributors turned to Sweden for more authors with the same zest. It was not the first time a Swedish writer had turned the world of crime literature on its head.
Swedish writing duo Sjöwall-Wahlöö is often credited with starting the Swedish crime writing trend in the 1960s and 1970s. Their books were successful internationally and all ten books about main protagonist Martin Beck were adapted as films in different parts of the world. Henning Mankell later turned the southern Swedish city of Ystad into a murderous haven, and his Wallander books have not only sold millions of copies but also been turned into films and recently also into a BBC television series starring Kenneth Branagh.
Stieg Larsson has in turn opened a series of literary doors for his fellow Swedish crime writers such as Camilla Läckberg, Lars Kepler (pseudonym for Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril) and Jens Lapidus. Swedish crime writers are known for a genuine feel of a brutal reality few of us experience in real life. There are no super-crooks or super-heroes but plenty of social criticism woven into the books.
Not everything written for grown-ups in Sweden involves murder, though. Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a humoristic best-seller, and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s plays and books often deal with identity, race and language.