A Year After the Meltdown, Iceland is Hot

In Feature Articles by Chad W. Post

By Chad W. Post

Reykjavik International Literary FestivalAlthough Iceland has had some very notable cultural exports — Halldor Laxness, Bjork, and Sigur Ros among them — last fall’s spectacular economic collapse probably brought more attention to this island nation than any other event in its modern history. One year later, the financial sector may still be recovering, but its literary scene is thriving.

“Our goal is to get people to have a crush on Iceland and Icelandic literature.” That’s how Agla Magnúsdóttir — the director of the Icelandic Literature Fund, and one of the organizers of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival — described last week’s series of readings, interviews, and other cultural events.

Dozens of writers from both Iceland and abroad participated in the festival, including Gyrðir Elíasson, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Steinar Bragi, Thor Vilhjálmsson (all from Iceland), Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), Michael Ondaatje (Canada), David Sedaris (U.S.), Jesse Ball (U.S.), Henning Ahrens (Germany), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya).

The events were very well attended, which shouldn’t be that surprising, considering there’s been increased sales of Icelandic fiction in the domestic market. Most publishers figured that in a time of great economic upheaval, self-help and nonfiction would dominate the best-seller lists, but instead, it seems that most Icelandic readers are looking for an escape. According to Úa Matthíasdóttir of Forlagið-Iceland’s largest trade publisher — there was a surge in sales for fiction last Christmas that went against conventional wisdom.

Whether the trend will continue this year is still anyone’s guess, but regardless of which genre people are most interested in, it’s likely that this will be another good Christmas season for Iceland’s publishing industry. Now that the Krona (Iceland’s national currency) is worth half as many Euros as it was last September, books have returned to prominence as one of the top gifts to give to family and friends.

This really is a return to tradition for Icelanders. In fact, nearly all works of fiction are published in October and November in advance of the holiday season,  and each year, catalogs of all available books are sent to households across the country. Iceland Publishers Association president Kristján B. Jónasson talked a bit about this in the great overview of the past, present, and future of Icelandic publishing he gave during the “21st Century Publishing Symposium” that took place on the final day of the Festival.

The domestic publishing employs some 200 people, who publish just over 1,500 books are produced annually. With one of the highest literacy rates in the world, it’s no surprise that the average Icelander buys 8-9 books a year, which in 2008 generated 22 million euros in sales (and over 40 million before the economic collapse).

With a successful Reykjavik International Literary Festival book fair behind them, Icelandic literati are now preparing for their stint as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. Plans have already begun for the event, including the launching of “Fabulous Iceland,” a special website dedicated to promoting Icelandic literature and culture, and the creation of a bi-cultural team of Icelanders and Germans dedicated to getting the globe acquainted with what Iceland has to offer.

Other Links:

BROWSE: The Web site of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival

LEARN: About the Iceland Publishers Association

MORE: Information about the Icelandic Literature Fund

BUY: The recent English translation of Icelandic bestseller Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets.

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.