/ 21 March 2019

The Week of the Festival: Littfest, Sweden

Money, that Rat

At a seminar on literary criticism I attended recently, someone in the panel argued that the conditions for critics have decreased; during the 90s a critic could get one week to read, one week to think, and one week to write a book review, he claimed. Today a review in a newspaper usually pays somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 Swedish kronor, quite far from three weeks’ salary. One in the audience remarked that it’s common to get even lower payments for criticism and reviews.

As a freelance writer who doesn’t write in newspapers, but often in literary journals, I still have never been paid as much as 4,000 Swedish kronor for a single text. In fact, what I get from writing this very piece is about my median, 200 euros. The many years it has taken me to finally be able and dare to leave a well-paid job as a document controller for a more uncertain existence as a fulltime freelancer in editing, proof-reading, translating, moderating and, to a lesser extent, writing myself, have made me really interested in the subject of money and literature. Many seem to want to talk about bad conditions and low payments, but few are willing to tell what they themselves earn from their different commissions, and what these bad conditions actually consist of. Therefore, when the Swedish literary year of 2019 started with a debate that, at least in parts, was about poetry and money, I was thrilled.

During January poet Katarina Frostenson’s negotiation with the Swedish Academy, as an aftermath of the scandal with her husband Jean-Claude Arnault, also known as the ‘cultural profile’, who in December 2018 was convicted in the Svea Court of Appeal of two sexual assaults, came to an end. Frostenson agreed to leave her chair in the Academy on the prerequisites that she would ‘be able to earn her living and continue her work as a poet’. The conciliation that was set between the Swedish Academy and Katarina Frostenson granted her a payment of 12,875 Swedish kronor per month, as well as continuous support for the apartment she rents from the Swedish Academy.

This led to a more general discussion in Swedish media: How much money does one need to be able to write poetry? How much do poets in Sweden actually earn today? When Expressenpublished an article with the title ‘This Much Does a Successful Poet Earn’, unfortunately it only led to more confusion. The poet at the top of the list, Johannes Anyuru, certainly started out as a poet, but is today a very successful novelist, hence not a very useful reference. Many of the other poets in the list have occupations besides writing poetry, often working as teachers of creative writing at universities or folk high schools. Also, the list, as it was based on official records from the Swedish Tax Agency, did not include income from grants exempted from taxes or literary prizes, two sources for maintenance common for poets.

The discussion about poetry and money did not just run in the media, but some of the first published poetry collections of the year did have money as a major theme. Johan Jönson, best known for his massive books with long poems about work, the body and death, cut up by quotations and theoretical discussions, releasedMarginalia/Xterminalia, a work consisting of two books delivered wrapped in plastic with the note ‘may not be sold separately’. In Marginalia sentences about money go through the collection as a kind of mantra, something that netiher could och should be forgotten: ‘The money is not enough’, ‘I don’t have the fucking money’, ‘We just don’t have the money’ et cetera.

A critic at Expressen,Jens Liljestrand, described this need for money in Marginalia as ‘a violence, a toothache, a nagging or hungry child […] an accounting for the salary economy as an underlying reality in all work, including the poetic’. This analysis did receive objections from critic and literature theorist Johannes Björk who writes in his review of Jönson’s book at online poetry critic website Örnen & Kråkan (‘The Eagle & the Crow’) that these passages are rather material for the poetry than statements with analytical bearing. He argues: ‘For the poetry is not a reified paid employment, no salary is paid for the poetic duty, and it does not generate any surplus value, because nobody buys the labour of the poet, only their product […] At the same time the fact that the poetry is notsubordinated the paid employment means that it better can illustrate what this implies’. In the radio documentary ‘The Money Takes Place in Poetry Again’, Johan Jönson describes the economics of poetry as a negative gift economy: The poet does not only give away their poems but pays to give them away.

Another poetry collection published in the beginning of the year showed what a poetry book of today could look like if not only the editor was an editor, but also the poet. Lina Rydén Reynols’ debut Läs mina läppar(‘Read My Lips’), was released at the new publishing house Nirstedt/Litteratur, partly own by Gunnar Nirstedt and the publishing house Modernista. Gunnar Nirstedt is a well-known figure within poetry in Sweden; for many years he has been senior editor for many of the poets at Sweden’s major publishing house Albert Bonniers, a position Lina Rydén Reynols succeeded when he quit and started his own business. The colophon of the book Läs mina läppar has increased and moved to the back cover of the book. Here we learn that the advance to the author was 15,000 Swedish kronor, how much royalty she will get dependent on how much the book sells, that the designer of the book got slightly more than the author (16,000), what the printing costed (29,130), and the purchase price for the distributors (129). Reading Rydén Reynols’ book it is obvious that she is concerned with language as a material, but with the colophon in mind this theme is enlarged to the materiality of existence and conditions in a more general sense.

The discussion continues further in Linus Gårdfeldt’s fourth poetry collection Den råttan (‘That Rat’), published at Albert Bonniers. Here the expression ‘[XX], that rat’ is recurrent, and at times replaced with ‘that poetry’. He wonders what his publisher is doing at the moment: ‘my publisher that rat / he is probably sitting and drinking coffee at some important meeting / he is probably sitting with his hands full / with one of his incredibly successful writers’. The jealousy and bitterness are somewhat refreshing in Den råttan: Gårdfeldt tells that he thinks his former poetry collection Lys med apan (‘Light with the Monkey’) was very negligent read, and that he knows that one should not care about ‘reviews (and money)’, but that he would like to have some grants and prizes.

Gårdfeldt also mentions that he used about a third of his advance (12,000) for Lys med apan to buy a very expensive desk lamp. The low advances for poetry is further commented on by critic and literature theorist Victor Malm, in the premiere of the podcast ‘Gästabudet’ (‘Symposium’), who notes that writing a review on a book by Linus Gårdfeldt gives him a third of what Linus Gårdfeldt was paid for writing it.

Victor Malm was also the one starting the debate. In a combined review of four poetry collections from the small publisher Pequod in Expressen, Malm posed questions such as: ‘Has anyone except those with literature as their profession time to read [these poetry collections] with the seriousness that is needed? Is there an interest? Does poetry like it in its margin, or is it time for it to invent strategies, ways of infiltrating the broader culture’? The responses included one by critic Rebecka Kärde claiming that the contemporary poetry is incapable to use this periphery to lead the thought and language forward, that Swedish poetry of today has become set in its form. 

Critic Viola Bao presented a different analysis when arguing that the Swedish poetry of today has moved in a more public-friendly direction, exemplifying with Linnea Axelsson’s Aednan (Sámi, ‘The Ground, the Earth’) winning the August prize as the first poetry collection since Tomas Tranströmer’s Sorgegondolen (The Sorrow Gondola, transl. Robin Fulton) won in 1996. Bao also refers to some of the poets with a more colloquial approach, such as Hanna Rajs Lara, Johanna Frid, and Gordana Spasic. Further she mentions that in 2018 slam poets Nino Mick and Yolanda Aurora Bohm Ramirez both were published in book form, by Norstedts and Brombergs respectively, and that the slam scene continues to gain ground.

The contributions by poet David Zimmerman in Sydsvenskan, ‘The Poetry Risks Being a Hobby for the Middle Class’, and poet and author Kristian Lundberg’s ‘The Big Losers of Poetry’ in Aftonbladet,also had relevant perspectives. Zimmerman meant that even the periphery needs to print their magazines and rent their spaces. He showed that when major official organisations such as Region Skåne suddenly tighten their budget the risk is huge that small non-profit organizations, for example the poetry reading scene ‘Malmötxt’, have to start taking admissions, lower fees to invited guests, using private locals, or taking other measures. Also, Kristian Lundberg is on the producers’ and smaller publishers’ side, arguing that most of them do their job for literature even more on a non-profit basis than the poets do.

Some have claimed that the debate is about poetry, others about poetry criticism, yet others about poetry’s relation to money, class, or marginalization, and many have made themselves funny about that the debate seems to be about the debate. Still they participated in it, maybe because writing debate articles take less time and, I suppose, therefore pay more compared to writing criticism. Few things in the debate have annoyed me as much as this, because if it had been easy to pinpoint what the debate was about, the problem maybe even could have been solved. But the problem in this case is that this is a very complex development that has been going on for quite many years now, and it concerns the whole poetry scene in Sweden—from publishers to poets to critics to arrangers—and it is due to an increasing commercialism, and a changing political climate. If neither the big publishing houses, nor the official structures, in the future will take the responsibilities they traditionally have taken, we will end up in a situation where everything about poetry is dependent on enthusiasm and non-profit work from all parts.

All translations of quotations from books and articles are my own.

By Helena Fagertun