How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country

The Finnish writers Johanna Sinisalo, Sofi Oksanen, and Laura Lindstedt.

Here’s the thing about us Finns: we haven’t traditionally been very good at branding. In fact, seeing the brand-led global success stories originating from Sweden (IKEA, H&M, Spotify, Skype, Absolut Vodka, ABBA, Stieg Larsson, etc.), we’ve been overcome with jealousy. In Finland, we’ve been known only for Nokia phones. Engaging in excessive promotion doesn’t suit the quiet, self-effacing Finnish spirit; in Finland, you’re expected to do your job well and then let the work do the talking. In some cases, that’s worked for us: you bought a Nokia phone not because it made you cool but because you could drop it in the toilet or throw it across your apartment and somehow, miraculously, it still worked. But then Nokia went down the drain.

Nokia’s undoing dovetails with the rise of the iPhone in 2007. The dwindling of Nokia, our biggest export, left an enormous dent in the Finnish economy. At the turn of the millennium, a staggering 4 percent of the Finnish GDP came from the company, and Nokia represented 21 percent of Finland’s total exports and 14 percent of corporate tax revenues. “It was and still is unprecedented,” Gordon Kelly writes in Wired. Nokia’s downfall left an even bigger dent on Finnish self-confidence. We were getting run over by Americans who were louder than we were.

Around the time of the global recession, the Finns set out as a nation to find the “next Nokia.” It was all we talked about. In a small socially democratic nation like ours, where so much is shared, we felt a common responsibility over our exports. Anything and everything could be the next Nokia, we said, so long as we figure out how to brand it. Tech start-ups were the obvious choice, but cultural products emerged as a strong contender. Could we sell even more great design? Leverage our architecture? Finnish heavy metal started to do well in Germany and the Anglo American world. Then something decisive happened in Finnish literature. 

In 2008, the Finnish Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen published her third book, Purge—a play-turned-novel about two women in Soviet-occupied Estonia who face the atrocities of their pasts—to enormous critical and commercial success. Oksanen became the first person to win both of Finland’s most prestigious literary awards, the Finlandia Prize and the Runeberg Prize. What was even more remarkable was her international reach: Oksanen won numerous foreign literary awards, and translation deals poured in at a rate seldom seen in Finland. Purge was published in thirty-eight languages. To date, it remains the third most translated adult fiction book in the history of Finnish literature and is superseded only by Mika Waltari’s 1945 classic The Egyptian and the Finnish nineteenth-century national epic Kalevala.

“Finnish literature had matured to a point where it could reach international readers,” said Tiia Strandén, director of FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, a not-for-profit organization that has promoted Finnish writing abroad for more than forty years. Strandén credited Oksanen for opening foreign publishers’ eyes to what Finnish literature could do. Purge is an amalgamation of intriguing traits—overlooked history, a strong feminist message, and an opinionated writer with an interesting persona.

Oksanen is cool. And more than that, she’s a brand. Described by the Finnish press as a feminist goth, Oksanen’s signature long braided hair is streaked with purple. A gifted writer, she is also a tireless promoter of her own work; she tries to go wherever she is asked to speak. Oksanen was one of the first Finnish authors to sign with an international literary agent (at the time, most Finnish writers worked directly with their publishers). It paid off: in France alone, Purge sold more than a hundred seventy thousand copies.

Strandén remembers one London Book Fair right after the publication of Purge, when suddenly international publishers approached the FILI booth asking, Where can we find the next Oksanen? Finland had largely fallen off the trend of Nordic noir and crime writing, but that exclusion provided a new kind of branding opportunity: ambitious literary fiction. It was around this time, in 2009, that Elina Ahlbäck, a former publisher and acquiring editor, decided to set up Finland’s first Finnish international literary agency. Ahlbäck made headlines across Finland for her use of the word branding in regards to selling literature—and to not just ask but to expect self-promotion from her writers. In Finland, where excessive self-promotion or commercializing art has long been frowned upon—partly because literature is so heavily subsidized by the government—Ahlbäck represented an anomaly. She saw the potential in the book industry and wasn’t afraid to refer to it as a fast-growth business. She set the vision, saying, “We can grow our book exports tenfold in the next ten years.”

Ahlbäck worked industriously. She referred to herself as the ambassador of Finnish literature and made frequent international press appearances. Meanwhile, she and her team knocked on the door of every single major international publishing house. Her own personal image is constructed of her signature pink: pink suits and pink business cards. “You know when you see a pink person at a book fair, that’s Elina,” an American editor joked years later.

In 2009, the deal was inked for Finland to become the guest of honor at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. The team at FILI swelled as more people were brought on board. Then director Iris Schwank began an exhaustive five-year process to prepare for the event. Plans were hatched. “Finland. Cool.” became the chosen slogan. This was a country, the branding strategy read, “on the cutting edge of both new technologies and literature.” There seemed to be momentum: major deals began flowing into Ahlbäck’s agency, Granta launched a Finnish edition of its journal, and more Finnish publishers began to push for foreign rights deals. It felt as though Frankfurt was going to become the watershed year. I remember asking a British editor in London, before the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair, if she thought the guest of honor slot was meaningful. She told me, “Honestly, I don’t know.” In the past, many countries haven’t managed to capitalize on the visibility of the distinction. The impact of the spotlight remains difficult to measure. But in the case of Finland, the success was undeniable. The branding worked.

The director of the Frankfurt Book Fair went on record to say that no one other country in the history of the fair had ever achieved as much publicity in the German press as Finland did in 2014. It was all good publicity: people were calling the Finns quirky, interesting, and, most of all, cool. A hundred thirty translations of Finnish literary works appeared in German. Other territories followed suit: deals began to be formed in Anglo American countries, which before had largely remained out of reach for the Finns. Works old and new found their way in: Unknown Soldiers, by Väinö Linna, became the first Finnish work in Penguin Classics in 2015, and favorites like Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin series, saw renewed interest. But more significantly, cutting-edge fiction took the stage. Obscurity became Finland’s calling card.

The design firm AND-RÉ’s proposal for Helsinki’s new central library.

Today Finland’s literary exports have tripled in size. Anglo American markets have surpassed Germany as the leading source of export revenue. Strandén said that whereas before only niche publishing houses were willing to take meetings with Finns, now the Big Five are interested too. Movie deals are forming swiftly. Ahlbäck’s agency is now the only Nordic literary agency with offices in both New York and Los Angeles. She said she believes Finland can easily grow its literary exports by a factor of a hundred. The demand is there.

What seems to appeal to American editors about Finnish literature is its uniqueness. “I just think of Finland as a place with very much its own take on things, and that extends to the writers,” the Grove Atlantic editor Amy Hundley wrote in an email. She published Johanna Sinisalo’s speculative novel The Core of the Sun, the premise of which is that the “Eusistocratic Republic of Finland” breeds a new human subspecies of submissive women for sex and procreation while simultaneously sterilizing intelligent, independent women for fear they will reproduce.

Pantheon’s Timothy O’Connell, who acquired rising Finnish literary star Pajtim Statovci’s novel My Cat Yugoslavia—a debut that has since been praised by the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic—wrote in an email, “When I first heard of My Cat Yugoslavia, I said to myself: pet python, talking cat, gay Helsinki, and the fall of the Yugoslavia. I’m in!” He echoed the sentiment for the Finlandia Prize–winning Laura Lindstedt’s novel: “I didn’t even edit Oneiron, but when I was first told it was about seven women who meet in a timeless, blank white space, seconds after their death, I was instantly intrigued.” O’Connell sees a common thread. “The setups to these novels seem daring, fun, challenging. They have a voice. As an editor I am drawn to that.” At one point, he even used the adjective cool.

Notably, many of the pioneers of Finland’s international literary success are either women or queer or, as in the case of Jansson and Oksanen, queer women. Strandén believes Finnish literature embodies the core values of Finnish society: equality, both of the sexes and the economic classes.

This is reflected in how Finns themselves approach literature. According to the UN, Finland is the most literate country in the world. The absence of Amazon means that e-books have yet to make a dent on bookstores as vital places for literary exploration. Foreign editors trust Finnish literary institutions as authorities that discern true quality. “The Finlandia Prize seems to be awarded to great writer after great writer. So there is a culture there,” O’Connell wrote.

Statovci himself began as a small boy roaming the aisles of the local library in the suburbs of Helsinki. “Growing up, my family was too poor to buy books, so I went to the library instead,” Statovci told me. He penned his debut novel while working as a cashier at a supermarket. Per capita, the Finns borrow nineteen books a year, compared to just seven and a half in the U.S. Recently, the Finnish government invested €98 million in a new central library. Finnish writers receive library royalties—they are almost as much per borrowed book as the royalty for each paperback sold.

There is other support too. Ever since the publication of his debut novel, Statovci has held some kind of an artist’s grant, either supplied by the government or by one of the more than a dozen independent foundations supporting Finnish writing. “Even though it’s a small market, Finland has all the conditions for writers to support themselves with their work,” he said. In Finland, authors get to do what they do best: write. Statovci’s second novel, Crossing, comes out from Pantheon next year, and at twenty-eight years old, he is already writing his third novel.

There seems to be no end to the stream of quality new fiction flowing out of Finland. This is a country and a government that believes in, and produces, great literature. We Finns just hadn’t been all that loud about it before. We’re cool like that.

Kalle Oskari Mattila is a writer from Finland living in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Monocle. He is working on a memoir about masculinity.

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