When the Swedish Academy got to meet Bob Dylan

April 21st, 2017 by anna-corrine_egermo | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on When the Swedish Academy got to meet Bob Dylan
Tags: , , , , ,

Only half a year has passed since Bob Dylan was announced winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature and he has already managed to go pick it up. This past weekend he had a concert at Waterfront in Stockholm so on Saturday evening, before the concert, he had a private meeting with twelve of the Swedish Academy members. According to attending sources they drank champagne and spent some time looking at the back of the prize medal. It’s all hush-hush and no media was invited. Personally I think a sense of mystery is the best marketing strategy one can use, under the right circumstances, and I even imagine Dylan might have watched some The Young Pope.

Modern version

Another student already wrote about the prize when Dylan was announced winner; and there was a lot of opinions going around in general. There is nothing we love as we love some controversy. Hence, as a publishing student I still feel the need to think about the questions his win raises.

First of all: what is literature? Dylan does not write what we commonly associate with literature – he writes songs. The Swedish Academy acknowledges as much, and this is what they rewarded. On the one hand, one could argue that they take the sense of tradition to an extreme, considering that my education in literature taught me that the troubadour tradition belongs within literature. It is basically poems about love with music composed to it, and some people do like to argue that the same goes for contemporary lyrics.

Less modern version (Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine)

Without going into detail, this is an argument which could be made and it may be convincing. But why is it so upsetting? For one of our recent seminars we read an article by the sociologist Joel Best called “Prize Proliferation”  (Sociological Forum, 2008), on the topic of the title. Best states that award giving is the “want to recognize and reward exceptional performance, to bestow esteem on the deserving”. It “affirms and embodies the group’s values”, meaning that we as a social group are affirming Dylan as the most deserving within the category of ‘people making literature’. Subsequently, we have a problem with our collective values not being reinforced if we don’t agree on the basic premise that Dylan is, in fact, making literature. Do we even belong together? Can the Nobel Prize continue to represent our collective idea of literary taste?

Since Dylan never used to be seriously considered to be making literature, the debate was easy to predict. Some people called the Academy’s choice “brave”, but I am not convinced bravery is what it took. Rather, we got a wonderful show in the media and all over Twitter which implanted the Nobel Prize in the minds of millions of people. This will not be forgotten, it will be written about and remembered as a highlight in the history of the prize. We will see it on encyclopedia pages forever after and ride off into the sunset. It is hard to imagine that for example Herta Müller’s win in 2009 will be remembered as a landmark, but this might.

So when Vanity Fair wrote that “Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize has been something of a saga”, I agree. It has been a wonderfully entertaining marketing trick allowing us all to be more emotional this year than usual (at least in Sweden), and publishers got to sell more books. But most important of all: the Swedish Academy finally got to meet Bob Dylan.

Let’s toast to that!

Visiting Speaker – Ann Steiner

January 21st, 2013 by Nicola Marr | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on Visiting Speaker – Ann Steiner
Tags: , , ,

The visiting speaker series continued with an insightful talk from Ann Steiner, researcher and lecturer in Literature and Publishing Studies at Lund University, Sweden, who gave an academic’s perspective on recent developments in international publishing.

Ann began by explaining that the publishing industry as a whole is very culturally specific, with different countries experiencing vastly varying market structures and stability. Using Sweden as a case study, we learned about ways to promote literature within the limits of population and language. Sweden, a fairly large country with a relatively low population, has around 300 major publishing houses all operating on an international level, yet only 5 of them producing work specifically for the Swedish market.

Ann then went on to talk about different integration models of publishing in Sweden, using the example of The Bonnier Conglomerate – a large family run media corporation who dominate the market and control all aspects of the publishing chain from printing to retail stores. This monopolization leaves very little room for competition, with smaller publishers struggling for visibility in the mainstream market. This can be seen as detrimental to the Swedish publishing industry as a whole, and Ann was part of a commission who raised concerns about this exploitation to the Swedish government.

An interesting point raised by Ann was the difference in reading habits between Swedish readers and UK readers – most notably the fact that many Swedish people are not familiar with electronic reading devices. The e-book industry in the UK is an ever-expanding market, a trend many of us would expect to see continuing worldwide. However as Ann pointed out, although e-books are available in Sweden the market hasn’t reacted as favourably as in other parts of the world, which is surprising considering the high internet saturation in Sweden. Ann suggests one reason for this unusual cultural difference is a problem which is recognized at national level – that if the e-book market flourishes it may cause a decline in the number of Swedish-language books being read, as it is expected the majority of e-books accessed will be English titles. Ann predicts that the market in this area will eventually mature and if one retailer chooses to promote a particular device, Sweden may see an increase in e-book sales.

The next topic of discussion focused on the way Swedish consumers buys books – or don’t, as the case may be. Current figures show 35% of all books are currently bought in bookstores, with 22% of books being purchased online. However, Ann discussed a worrying trend in the demise of bookstores in small communities. This has been caused in part by the de-regulation of book pricing in Sweden in the 1970’s, which has since seen the price of books plummet, meaning bookstores struggle to make a profit. This low pricing structure has altered the consumer perception on the value of books in Sweden, meaning people now expect to buy books at very low prices. The closure of bookstores throughout the country is expected to have a knock-on effect on the industry as a whole, with recent figures already showing a worrying decline in the reading ability of young boys in Sweden.

Next, Ann spoke about Swedish literature within the context of the rest of the world. Historically, Sweden was an import country with over half of all fiction and non-fiction literature coming from other countries. Although mainly translated, Sweden also has a fairly thriving foreign language market. Over recent years, the success of Swedish crime fiction has seen a massive upturn in the export market, particularly after the international success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Ann also touched briefly on the ways in which Swedish literature is perceived in other countries, pointing out that particularly in the German market, Swedish books are often portrayed as stereotypically cold and harsh, with covers that would not sell in the Swedish market.  Ann finished the talk by pointing out the importance of country specific publishing,  stating that books are very much intertwined with culture and can be deeply important for a national sense of being.

During a brief Question and Answer session afterwards, students got the chance to learn more about the publishing course run by Ann at the University of Lund and the similarities in the teaching content. Ann also spoke briefly about her predictions for the Swedish market in the future – most notably that the Swedish crime fiction genre will eventually die out and hopefully make way for new trends in Swedish literature.

An interesting, enlightening and at times surprising insight into the Swedish market and how it differs from the UK market, I think the whole class will agree we learned a lot during this session. Thanks, Ann!

-Nicola Marr