NORLA Takes Norwegian Literature to New York City

In Feature Articles by Hannah Johnson

At a book trade event in New York in September, NORLA presented a selection of Norwegian writers and offered American publishers a closer look at Norway’s literary market.

In New York City, Norwegian authors presented their latest work to an audience of American publishers and agents

By Hannah Johnson | @hannahsjohnson

Frankfurt Guest of Honor 2019
Norway is getting a jump-start on promoting its 2019 Guest of Honor program at the Frankfurt Book Fair. NORLA—Norwegian Literature Abroad—is the organization responsible for the Guest of Honor project, and they are taking a number of authors on the road this fall and meeting with publishers from many parts world.

One of the stops on NORLA’s fall tour was New York City, where the Norwegian Consul General hosted a book presentation and networking lunch for publishers and agents in September.

Norwegian fiction authors Cecilie Enger, Nina Lykke, and Vigdis Hjorth read from and discussed their latest work. And literary critic Marta Norheim of Norwegian Public Radio spoke about themes and trends in the country’s contemporary literature.

Norway’s Literary Market

Margit Walsø, director of NORLA, told the group that the export of Norwegian literature got its big break with the international success of Sophie’s World (1991) by Jostein Gardner. The book has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and been translated into some 60 languages. More recently, she said, The History of Bees (2015) by Maja Lunde has also seen global success, having spent 20 weeks on Der Spiegel‘s bestseller list in Germany and sold into 30 territories.

“We have quite a dramatic literature, with flashes of humor and wisdom,” literary critic Marta Norheim said. Among the themes she sees in contemporary Norwegian literature, “Scanguilt”— Scandinavians’ guilt about being happy and privileged—comes up frequently, as well as questions about civilization vs. barbarism. She said authors are influenced by current events and using fiction to make sense of the violence in the world.

Literature is an important part of Norway’s culture, Walsø explained, and it was particularly critical in the nation-building process of the 19th century after Norway declared independence from Denmark and established its own national identity.

The Norwegian government supports the literary industry in a number of ways, Walsø said, including a tax exemption on book purchases. In addition, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of every book published (1,550 copies of children’s books) in the country—provided those titles meet certain quality standards—and distributes them for free to libraries to libraries across the country.

In addition to organizing events like the one in New York, NORLA—funded by Norway’s Ministry of Culture—administers translation funding and travel grants, organizes training seminars and literary events, and helps publishers and agents promote their authors abroad. They’ve also started offering training to authors on public speaking and event appearances.

Three Norwegian Authors to Know

At the New York event, three authors were along in person, along with their publishers and agents, to present their latest work to the American audience.

Cecilie Enger: Her novel Mother’s Gifts (Glydendal, 2013) introduced her writing to readers in Europe and the rest of the world. The book has sold 100,000 copies in Norway alone. The premise for this novel is based in Enger’s own life. When clearing out her mother’s house, she found a list of every single Christmas gift the family had given and received since the 1960s. The list read like a time capsule of family stories and inspired Enger to turn these stories into a book.

Her lastest work is Breathe for Me (Glydendal, 2017), in which a car accident irrevocably changes a family relationship. Enger said she wanted to explore why “family relationships can be so comforting and so complicated.”

Nina Lykke: Lykke discussed her 2016 novel No, A Hundred Times No (Forlaget Oktober) with literary agent Henrike Francke of Oslo Literary Agency. The novel is about a women who has “lost all her illusions both about family life” as her husband falls in love with another woman. On the outside, she continues her usual routine as a wife and mother, but on the inside, she’s a different person full of conflict. What makes this novel unique is the humor that Lykke is able to find in these everyday, sometimes depressing, situations.

Vigdis Hjorth: Wills and Testaments (2016, Cappelen Damm) is a bestseller by Vidgis’ Hjorth. It has sold 140,000 copies in Norway, and Cappelen Damm Agency has sold the rights to 11 countries so far, with more offers on the way. The novel is about a family inheritance dispute and, Hjorth said, about what happens when a family member tells a story that doesn’t fit the official family narrative.

Hjorth is a well-known author in Norway who has written books for children and adults. Her work has won a number of literary prizes and been translated into many languages.

Looking Ahead to 2019

According to Margit Walsø, the country’s publishers are very supportive of the Guest of Honor initiative. And she said that while NORLA is incredibly active in promoting Norwegian literature on an ongoing basis, the 2019 program is bringing their activities into the spotlight and bringing the country’s publishers together.

Among these unifying activities around the Guest of Honor preparations was Planning and Input Conference open to Norwegian publishers and featuring guest speakers from the Frankfurt Book Fair, NORLA, and the government. This event, said Walsø, gave many in Norway’s book industry a chance to feel more involved in the program and to build excitement for the lead-up to 2019.

The highest-profile speaker at the conference was HRH Crown Princess Mette-Marit. “I am proud and pleased to serve as an ambassador for Norwegian literature in the process towards Frankfurt 2019. As we all know, Norwegian literature has won more space on international bookshelves in recent years,” said the Crown Princess at the conference, as quoted in a press release.

In her role as an ambassador for Norwegian literature, the Crown Princess will participate in a number of events related to the 2019 Guest of Honor program. Her presence will certainly give these activities more visibility.

Also on NORLA’s list this year is the promotion of its “New Voices” initiative, which involves selecting up-and-coming Norwegian authors and taking them to international events and book fairs. The fall “New Voices” program includes six authors: Andreas Tjernshaugen, Birger Emanuelsen, Tiril Broch Aakre, Nina Lykke and Mari Kanstad Johnsen.

For anyone interested in learning more about Norwegian authors, literature, translation grants, NORLA will be at the Norwegian stand (Hall 5.0 A53) during this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.