Guest Post: “The World of Dutch Literature”, by Judith

Today, I welcome Judith (from Leeswammes) to my blog. She must be the best known book blogger from the Netherlands. She certainly knows more about Dutch literature than I do. In this post, she writes about her general opinion on Dutch literature and the reading habits of the Dutch.

***

Like Iris, I don’t read a lot of Dutch literature, but unlike her, I do have a blog dedicated to Dutch books and I aim to post a review to it every week. Since I started the blog, my intake of Dutch literature has increased from less than one book a month to roughly one a week.

About 5 years ago, I came back to the Netherlands after 15 years in the UK. On returning, I was able to see Dutch literature from a different perspective. What I saw, made me laugh. I’m a little sceptical about books in the Netherlands, I’m afraid. However, while writing this post, I also found some really good things about Dutch literature! [Pictures: you can see each picture in a larger size by clicking on it]

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Windmill at Wijk (1670)

Image via Wikipedia

Choice of books

There are many books being published in the Netherlands each year, but only a fraction of them are by Dutch writers. Many of the books you find on the shelves at bookshops and libraries are translated works.

With translated works, I do of course not mean predominantly Kafka and Bolaño but also, and in particular, the range of American and UK books that most of you read on a daily basis.

So, the Dutch reader has a wealth of choice, but may not buy or borrow Dutch books in preference to translated books. Many Dutch readers don’t care. They want to read a nice book, and as we Dutch don’t have a high level of national pride, we are as happy to pick up a translated book as a Dutch book .

The literary genre overdone

Whereas we may not take particular pride in our Dutch authors, a small but significant proportion of readers do take pride in reading a “good book”, i.e., a literary book. Now, for those readers who are worried they might not make the right choice, or those that do not want to be tempted with non-literary trash, we present the literary book shop, selling both Dutch and translated literary fiction:

The Literary Bookshop

The Literary Bookshop

Yes, that’s right! Heaven forbid that you’d pick up a non-literary book! Now, there’s more: a reader of good books may sometimes wish to read a different genre than classic or contemporary literary fiction. Science Fiction and Fantasy would be, well, not done, obviously, but Thrillers and Mysteries? It’s a possibility. Maybe. As long as the books are literary, of course.

Well, Dutch publishers know what Dutch readers want so they introduced the literary thriller. Oh yes, the literary thriller. It says so clearly on the cover, so that there can be no mistake about it. Here are two examples:

Nieuwe Buren (New Neighbors) by Saskia NoortRendez-vous by Esther Verhoef

Have a good look under the (red) title of the book on the left: yes, it says “literaire thriller” :-). Now, the book on the right is even more interesting, it has the same words at the bottom, in white letters. But is this really a literary thriller? Jackie of Farm Lane Books Blog was thinking it’s … chicklit! So much for “literary” thrillers!

The books

There’s also good news: Dutch books, whether by a Dutch or foreign writer, are often good quality softbacks. I.e., books are seldom published in hardback, but appear in larger than paperback, but smaller than hardback size, with a cover that’s more sturdy than a paperback’s. The paper inside is of good quality and will likely out-live the English or American paperback.

This is probably a concession: the book market is too small to first publish a hardback, later followed by a paperback, so we have something in between. I actually quite like this type of publication!

Beyond Sleep by W. F. HermansTurning a page

The pictures above show an example of my own 30-year old copy of Nooit meer slapen [Beyond Sleep] by W.F. Hermans. Turning one (thick) page. The book is a little yellowed, but not all that much. The copy is still very readable (and it’s my favorite book, ever!).

Books by Dutch writers can be any size, but I’ve noticed that they’re not necessarily the 300-400 page books you often find in the English-language market. They can be pretty short! For instance, of the 14 books longlisted for a national debut prize for literary fiction, 6 were shorter than 200 pages (including 135, 153, and 156 pages), 2 had 200-300 pages and 6 had over 300 pages. Do you find many short books in the English language market?

Maybe I should actually be proud that length of book is not all that important in deciding to publish a book: we Dutch love our literary literature, whatever the size!

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think that Dutch readers (and publishers) take their literature very seriously: we make sure the books are of good (physical) quality and aren’t afraid to publish very short books. But literary snobbism is rife. We should relax more about the type of books we read. There’s nothing wrong with a non-literary book every now and then.

Are literary thrillers maybe our guilty pleasures in a literary guise? Maybe. I would be the last to claim that all literary thrillers are chick-lit or badly written non-literary thrillers, but often, it’s just a label on the book for marketing purposes.

Ah well, at least we’re reading!

29 responses to “Guest Post: “The World of Dutch Literature”, by Judith

  1. What an interesting post! I do agree that the Dutch are generally readers (at least the Dutch people I know in the Netherlands). They are always a good source for new European novels or European crime fiction. I have a question – I’m wondering why the books published in Holland are usually so hefty in size and in the amount of paper. Sometimes the same book in English can come in a small paperback format but in Holland they are just huge and heavy! For a country that is quite green, don’t they realize how much paper they’re wasting? Also, it doesn’t make for very comfortable reading, does it?

    • You’re so right, Mrs. B.! The books are sometimes enormous! For instance, a Dutch copy of The Pillars of the Earth would give me a hernia. Just for the size, I read them in English.

      I’m not sure why they’re so hefty. I think it’s again about the quality of the paper. We like a good-quality book, apparently. We don’t have many flimsy paperbacks with thin paper. I don’t know, we just don’t. But as I said, the books keep, for a very long time.

  2. Very interesting! My English copy of Rendezvous has no mention of it being a literary thriller anywhere on the cover. We do have literary thrillers here in the UK too, but they do tend to actually be literary thrillers – I’d hate false marketing like that :-(

  3. is Holland green? I never noticed, really. anyway, nice post! I don’t really know the Dutch world of literature, mostly I think covers are uglier then original English books, they are more expensive and the publishes only pick books to translate which obviously were a bit hit in the UK and/or the USA. I do think that’s a shame.

    I do think the books are of wonderful quality though. They never fall apart and when there is some sort of misprint, publishers tend to send you a new book without question.

    I don’t think I really like the Dutch publishing world – books that really aren’t that good are being treated like masterpieces. Not sure what that says about Dutch readers as well.

    • Kim, I do believe that there is a group of literary snobs. And if the head snobs say that a book is good, the rest seems to believe it. I prefer to make up my own mind.

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  5. I am afraid that as a Dutchie I don’t fit the box. I don’t really care what I read and if a book is literary or not. I guess that is why it is hard to pin down my blog as a literary or ya blog for example because I happily read from many pools available. But I did find this a very interesting read :)

    • Uniflame, I didn’t mean all the Dutch are literary snobs, but they certainly exist in some amount. I’m like you, I read whatever looks interesting. And there are many Dutch that do, luckily.

  6. In Puerto Rico books are often short (150-200) and foreign books sell more than locals as well.

    As always, Judith, great post.

    • Thanks, Deborah! Sounds like in Puerto Rico they’re not too bothered about books being long, either. I guess you’ve got a lot of Spanish books that aren’t by local authors. So maybe fewer translated books than in the Netherlands?

  7. This post was great! I especially like the part about the literary bookstore and literary thrillers. Now I know why your blog is SO FULL of literary fiction ;) Thanks for sharing.

  8. I find your post very interesting. Every society has its set of book snobs. I’m intrigued about the paper though.
    By the way, you should look out for ‘History of a Pleasure Seeker’ by Richard Mason. I think you will enjoy the book.

  9. Thanks for enlightening us about the Dutch literary scene. Aside from the smaller market (maybe that is why there are more “smaller” books?), I really don’t think it is that much different from that of the U.S. ; there will always be different types of books to satisfy everyone’s tastes.

    Nice post.

    • Thanks, Suzanne. I do think the Dutch market is different from the US’. You have a genre called “translated fiction” which we don’t, because it would encompass a majority of books here. :-)

  10. I agree with Kim on the expensiveness of Dutch books. Look at Kader Abdollah’s “House of the Mosque” which is cheaper in English translation than it is in the original Dutch. And I am not sure if paper quality has anything to do with the prize. I always thought Dutch books cannot be sold cheaply, that there’s some sort of general agreement on the prizes of books. I think it is only reasonable to give a little better quality of paper if you’re going to charge 20 euro’s for books.

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  15. Insightful. As you say, at least the Dutch are reading. And in the end that’s all that matter.

  16. Lovely post and interesting replys. There are very good Dutch books, but very ‘sad’ ones too. I agree withh Leeswammes that some snobs seem to praise each others books into all kinds of price-systems, because sometimes I don’t see the ‘literatular’merit of the books.
    I try to read as many books in their original language as possible, because so much is lost in translation.

  17. Pingback: A Month of Dutch Literature: Looking Back | Iris on Books

  18. I enjoyed your post very much–funny and fun. My only Dutch literature is not at all Dutch, my friends from the Netherlands say. I loved Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates–a book that seems like a love letter to the Netherlands. Keep writing and reading. Your writing is lovely.

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