From Iceland — A Gap In Iceland's Literary Landscape

A Gap In Iceland’s Literary Landscape

Published August 5, 2009

A Gap In Iceland’s Literary Landscape

Sources claim that Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publishing house, is looking for a chick lit author. Apparently there is a gap in the Icelandic literary landscape that they are looking to fill. Surveys conducted in Britain, United States and Canada show that around 80% of all sold fiction books have female buyers. That is a high percentage. Icelanders often pride themselves on being avid readers and having the world’s highest number of books published per year per capita. Chick lit is labelled as catering to the reading needs of the modern, urban, professional woman, and sales numbers on foreign chick lit shows that there certainly is a market for it in Iceland.
So why is Forlagið facing a shortage of chick lit writers in a nation of poets, writers and artists? Are Icelandic women perhaps not chic enough for the form? Is the usual big city back drop essential for chick lit, making Reykjavík too small town-ish for the genre?
It’s a feminist thing
Chick lit has proven to be a pretty hard term to define. As mentioned above, if chick lit were to be defined as “what women read,” a 2000 survey suggests that that would make about 86% of Mystery/Detective novels and 52% of Science Fiction novels chick lit.
Irish bestselling author Marian Keyes, in spite of being considered by many to be one the founding writers of the genre, has often commented on her qualms about the term. She points out how her books, in spite of addressing issues like addiction, loss and domestic abuse, are given pink and frilly covers and labelled as light reading, simply for having an urban, often single, female protagonist. She claims that books dealing with the realities of women today are looked down upon simply because they address mostly-female issues. So it is a feminist thing. (And notice the diminutive ‘lit’ instead of ‘literature,’ which unarguably suggests lower quality of work and labels the books as somehow sub-literary).
Although people are obviously struggling to define the genre, we certainly know what it looks like. Chick lit covers usually sport bright colours like pink, aqua or lime green and cartoon drawings of typical feminine icons such as lipstick, high heeled shoes and cocktail glasses. A quick visit to the nearest bookstore will demonstrate that there are not many of those in the Icelandic section. You will perhaps find a few in the translated to Icelandic shelves, but the shelves in the Icelandic novels section are mostly stacked with more serious looking colours like white, grey, black, blue and ochre.
Never judge a book by its cover
“Icelandic women are chic enough,” says Helga Birgisdóttir, an avid reader of chick lit who also happens to be working on her doctorate in Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland. And she points out that a few brave Icelandic women have, in fact, tried their hand at chick lit. Djöflatertan (Þóra Sigurðardóttir & Marta María Jónsdóttir), Dís (Birna Anna Björnsdóttir, Oddný Sturludóttir & Silja Aðalsteinsdóttir), and Klisjukenndir (Birna Anna Björnsdóttir) being the most recent. They all have female protagonists in their twenties and deal with the modern day realities of the mini-urban Reykjavík maiden struggling to find herself and, obviously, stumbling through some boy-related troubles along the way. But can these novels be defined as 100% chick lit? Well, apart from the cover of Djöflatertan, (purple, and features a cartoon drawing of a fashionable young woman in high leather boots), the covers are not so frilly as a visit to the library will confirm.
The smallness of the Icelandic market is probably one of the reasons why there are so few Icelandic chick lit novels around. And that can also be the reason for the different marketing strategy. With the market so small, there is no reason to label the books so clearly with colours and cartoons. Almost everybody gets a thorough run through on what’s on offer before doing their Christmas shopping anyway.
Is Iceland too small?
According to Helga, a big city backdrop is not essential to the form. “A lot of foreign chick lit novels take place in the countryside, for some reason, especially British and Irish ones. A big city stage is very convenient for the form, because it is cosmopolitan. But in a lot of novels you have women trying to escape the city for the countryside”.
Reykjavík still has a long way to being cosmopolitan. So, rather than meeting the perfect guy in a bar and losing him after one magical kiss like their foreign counterparts, our Icelandic heroines are perhaps more likely to discover that Mr. Mysterious is indeed that second cousin from Kópavogur they haven’t seen in years.
Dagný Kristjánsdóttir, a professor of Icelandic Modern Literature at the University of Iceland, points out that “just fifteen years ago everyone was asking: Why is no crime fiction written in Iceland? Is the Icelandic society too small?”
Now, one need only to look at past years bestseller lists to see that Iceland certainly isn’t too small to serve as a believable crime fiction backdrop anymore.
“Maybe the question [whether Iceland is too small] is wrong,” Dagný suggests. “Perhaps we should be asking why publishers haven’t tried to follow the success of Dís and/or ask for authors to write some good chick lit.”
Well, it seems that they are about to.
Chick lit jr.
Although Icelandic chick lit novels have been few and far between, another imported genre has been booming. Chick lit jr. is directly descendent from chick lit and has often been described as chick lit with teenage protagonists. The most successful writers of Icelandic teen chick lit are Sif Sigmarsdóttir and Bryndís Jóna Magnúsdóttir.  “So far, Icelandic chick lit has mostly been aimed at teenage girls,” says Helga. “They are written by chicks – young and chic women, most of whom are taking their first steps in the publishing world. And who knows, maybe these women will write more books in the future for older chicks.”
Well, I certainly hope so. In the meantime though, I encourage others out there to roll up their sleeves and try their hand at writing one. That includes you men as well. Fratire (The New York Times coined term for chick lit for men) is still unchartered territory.

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