Book Sluts [Icelandic Culture]
This is a guest article by Amanda DeMarco, editor of Readux: Reading in Berlin and contributor to Publishing Perspectives. Just so happens that Amanda is in Iceland right now, and totally wanted in on this Icelandic Week project. In addition to this piece, she’s working on at least one more for us, which will run later this week. In the meantime, be sure and check out her site—it’s incredible.
Couple quick notes about Icelandic names: Since last names are patronymics—refer to the person’s father, such as Gisla-dottir, or Olafs-son—it’s common practice to refer to someone just by their first name. And in terms of characters, ‘Þ’ can be replaced with ‘th,’ and ‘ð’ can be replaced by ‘d.’
“It started here actually,” says Þórdís Gísladóttir. She and Þorgerður E. Sigurðardóttir are talking with me in Kaffitár, Iceland’s largest coffee shop chain, in downtown Reykjavik. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the place is packed with sweater-clad Icelanders chatting over steaming lattes. Þórdís and Þorgerður are the founders of Druslubókablogg,1 Iceland’s most popular book blog.
In December of 2008, Þórdís and Þorgerður sat down in Kaffitár and started talking about blogs. The two had been making radio programs about literature together, and they decided to branch out and do a blog, where they could write about whatever interested them instead of being restricted to an editorial program. Druslubókablogg now has fourteen regular writers, all women ranging in age from 25 to 46, who together post one update per day.
“We don’t really think of it as criticism,” explains Þórdís. The plan was always to be open to anything, so you’ll find reviews of chick lit next to literary fiction, recommendations for attractive bookshelves next to postings for readings, and since recently, interviews. Visually it’s a simple blog, though Þórdís says they’re upgrading to a “fancier” WordPress version soon.
Druslubókablogg gets anywhere from 300–400 to 1,500–1,600 visits per day. “I think that’s everyone who’s interested in literature,” says Þórdís, not joking. Considering that there are about 300,000 native speakers of Icelandic worldwide, it comes out to between 0.1% and 0.53% of all people who potentially could read it.
(It’s worthwhile to note that playing the numbers game in Iceland is a mind-trap for outsiders trying to make comparisons with their home country. The population is so small that it does not scale, so figures should be regarded as a curiosity or a general indication of popularity. The ‘this would be read by 200,000 people a day if it were in English!’ game doesn’t work.)
Þórdís attributes the site’s popularity to the lack of Icelandic alternatives: “If you’re interested, there’s not that much out there.” (This is a common form of Icelandic modesty—‘Oh it’s so small here, there’s no competition!‘—that should be taken with a grain of salt.) The site is read widely by Icelanders abroad looking to stay in touch with book culture at home—there’s a particularly large population in Germany that accounts for a couple hundred visits a week.
Þorgerður adds that Icelanders’ unusual proclivity for Facebook helps online projects like Druslubókablogg really take off: “Iceland is one of a kind when it comes to Facebook.” I know, I know, how could anyone be more obsessed than us? According to Þorgerður, it’s a deeply networked society: “All of Iceland is on Facebook and everyone is friends with everyone.”
Druslubókablogg has gotten big enough that several major Icelandic websites have wanted to host it. But according Þórdís, the sites haven’t been exactly what they wanted to be associated with: “The last offer we got was sort of from Iceland’s yellow press.” Þorgerður adds, “We have high standards in terms of the environment we’re in. It’s not just about getting more people to read.”
This was the point at which I really realized just how far Icelandic book culture diverged from either the American or German versions I’m used to, how deeply integrated books were into their media. Can you imagine foxnews.com or bild.de absorbing a major literary website? No, no you cannot. Þorgerður and Þórdís insist the sites only want their traffic, which I don’t doubt, but the fact that a sleazy news site can covet a lit blog’s traffic is telling in itself.
As Iceland’s premiere book bloggers, Þorgerður and Þórdís have a unique overview of Icelandic publishing culture. I asked them about some trends they’d seen recently. In the wake of the financial crisis that rocked Iceland’s economy in 2008, “there’s less coming out,” notes Þórdís.
But new genres have appeared, says Þorgerður. Historical fiction based on the Sagas always existed, but “the trend anyone can see is people are writing suspense, mystery, and crime novels. We take our literature very seriously, so people didn’t write mysteries before. It’s something you just didn’t do.” It’s a shift occurring across the Nordic countries, and one significant enough to be visible to English-speakers via translation.
Though it’s a significant cultural organ, Druslubókablogg is just a side interest for both women. Þorgerður works for a radio station and Þórdís is an award-winning poet and Swedish-Icelandic translator. “For us this blog is a hobby,” says Þorgerður, “but we’re always thinking about it.”
1 Druslubókablogg means “Book Sluts,” but it actually comes from an Icelandic radio show, not the well-known American book blog of the same name.