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]
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:
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:
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!
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!
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!
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!