Letter from the Editors

Friendly voices

27 April 2015 | Letter from the Editors


No one could call reading – or writing, for that matter – a social activity. No matter how many reading, or writing, groups you may choose to join, the actual engagement with a book is something you do alone.

Music, theatre, cinema, dance – those really are social enterprises. You can go to them together; you can watch them together, at the same time; you can talk about the experience you’ve shared. Even computer games, which sometimes seem to their elders to be making solipsists of all our children, are social, even if the ‘friends’ they play with may be the other side of the world, and may not speak the same language.

You’re never alone with a good book, as the advertising slogan says. But you’re not exactly in company, either… except…. More…

Instant erudition, or, who are you kidding?

2 September 2014 | Articles, Letter from the Editors, Non-fiction

Time to read? Detail from Madonna with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck (1439, The Groeninge Museum, Brugge). Wikipedia

Time to read? Detail from Madonna with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck (1439. The Groeninge Museum, Brugge). Wikipedia

In a recent ‘Saturday essay’ in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper (9 August) journalist Oskari Onninen ponders the moral dilemma of pretending to be erudite. For example, who has the time to read books these days? ‘The Woolfs remain unread, Bergmans unwatched’, Onninen writes.

Our consumerist lifestyle forces us to follow the trends of ever-expanding, multiplying forms of entertainment. However, it is apparent that the need to know about culture in order to pass as a cultured, well-informed citizen still exists, to some extent at least.

According to Onninen, there is less and less time for unproductivity.  ‘If one looks for measurable cost-benefit results from the reading of heavyweight fiction, the act of reading will certainly not always be worthwhile.’ Consuming art (reading books, going to art exhibitions, watching plays) requires time and effort, and how productive is that? More…

Beautiful books

15 May 2014 | Letter from the Editors, Non-fiction

Brains at work. (Alvin Davison, ‘The Human Body and Health’, 1908) Wikimedia

Brains at work. (Alvin Davison, ‘The Human Body and Health’, 1908) Wikimedia

A precise translation of the word non-fiction doesn’t exist in the Finnish language. Fiction is kaunokirjallisuus (a word invented by two diligent scholars, D.E.D. Europaeus and A. Varelius in mid-19th century for their Swedish-Finnish dictionary) – and a pretty word it is: kauno- is derived from the word kaunis, beautiful, beauteous. Non-fiction translates as tietokirjallisuus: literally, ‘literature of knowledge’.

Recently the status of Finnish non-fiction has been discussed in various media. Authors of non-fiction, as well as a number of readers, have been worried about diminishing sales, a decline in interest among both the general public and publishers, a lack of professional publishers’ editors. In a small-language area producing and profitable publishing ‘literature of knowledge’ is financially hard. More…

Happy birthday to us!

13 February 2014 | Letter from the Editors

Picture: Wikipedia

Picture: Wikipedia

It’s been five years since Books from Finland went online, and we’re celebrating with a little bit of good news.

In the past year, the number of visits to the Books from Finland website has grown by 11 per cent. The number of US and UK readers grew by 29 per cent, while the number of readers in Germany – stimulated perhaps by the publicity Finnish literature is attracting as a result of its Guest Country status at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair – increased by an astonishing 59 per cent.

We’re chuffed, to put it mildly – and very thankful to you, dear readers, old and new. More…

Truth or hype: good books or bad reviews?

8 November 2013 | Letter from the Editors

The Bibliophile's Desk: L. Block (1848–1901). Wikipedia

‘The Bibliophile’s Desk’: L. Block (1848–1901). Wikipedia

More and more new Finnish fiction is seeing the light of day. Does quantity equal quality?

Fewer and fewer critical evaluations of those fiction books are published in the traditional print media. Is criticism needed any more?

At the Helsinki Book Fair in late October the latest issue of the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti was removed from the stand of its publisher, Otavamedia, by the chief executive officer of Otava Publishing Company Ltd. Both belong to the same Otava Group.

The cover featured a drawing of a book in the form of a toilet roll, referring to an article entitled ‘The ailing novel’, by Riitta Kylänpää, in which new Finnish fiction and literary life were discussed, with a critical tone at places. CEO Pasi Vainio said he made the decision out of respect for the work of Finnish authors.

His action was consequently assessed by the author Elina Hirvonen who, in her column in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, criticised the decision. ‘The attempt to conceal the article was incomprehensible. Authors are not children. The Finnish novel is not doing so badly that it collapses if somebody criticises it. Even a rambling reflection is better for literature than the same old articles about the same old writers’ personal lives.’ More…

Elitist versus pop?

8 August 2013 | Letter from the Editors

An elitist of his time? A caricature of Richard Wagner by Leslie Ward, published in Vanity Fair in 1877 (caption read ‘The Music of the Future’). Picture: Wikimedia

The old phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ has begun to sound like an appeal instead of an bohemian creed, without any negative ambiguity. Please let art be created for art’s sake!

In our times of neo-liberal ideologies, the criteria for assessing art include its capacity to generate profits to creative industries, to have export value, to be of assistance to business in general. But art, in essence, serves no ideology.

Technology now allows us to be more entertained than ever before, if we so choose. Art and entertainment alike come to us by the use of various devices. What has often been called ‘elitist’ art – opera, modern music, ballet – can be enjoyed lying on the sofa in the home. Money is not an obstacle.

Art, too needs money, of course: orchestras, theatres, training of artists and artists themselves need subsidies from society. Entertainment is by nature profitable business, as it attracts and involves large paying audiences. Smaller audiences want to listen to classical music, read books and see films that are not made solely in order to bring in as much money as possible. But why should these forms of art be called ‘elitist’? More…

Fatherlands, mother tongues?

12 April 2013 | Letter from the Editors

Patron saint of translators: St Jerome (d. 420), translating the Bible into Latin. Pieter Coecke van Aelst, ca 1530. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Photo: Wikipedia

Patron saint of translators: St Jerome (d. 420), translating the Bible into Latin. Pieter Coecke van Aelst, ca 1530. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Photo: Wikipedia

Finnish is spoken mostly in Finland, whereas English is spoken everywhere. A Finnish writer, however, doesn’t necessarily write in any of Finland’s three national languages (Finnish, Swedish and Sámi).

What is a Finnish book, then – and (something of particular interest to us here at the Books from Finland offices) is it the same thing as a book from Finland? Let’s take a look at a few examples of how languages – and fatherlands – fluctuate.

Hannu Rajaniemi has Finnish as his mother tongue, but has written two sci-fi novels in English, which were published in England. A Doctor in Physics specialising in string theory, Rajaniemi works at Edinburgh University and lives in Scotland. His books have been translated into Finnish; the second one, The Fractal Prince / Fraktaaliruhtinas (2012) was in March 2013 on fifth place on the list of the best-selling books in Finland. (Here, a sample from his first book, The Quantum Thief, 2011, Gollancz.)

Emmi Itäranta, a Finn who lives in Canterbury, England, published her first novel, Teemestarin tarina (‘The tea master’s book’, Teos, 2012), in Finland. She rewrote it in English and it will be published as Memory of Water in England, the United States and Australia (HarperCollins Voyager) in 2014. Translations into six other languages will follow. More…

In praise of idleness (and fun)

21 December 2012 | Letter from the Editors

As the days grow shorter, here in the far north, and we celebrate the midwinter solstice, Christmas and the New Year, everything begins to wind down. Even here in Helsinki, the sun barely seems to struggle over the horizon; and the raw cold of the viima wind from the Baltic makes our thoughts turn inward, to cosy evenings at home, engaging in the traditional activities of baking, making handicrafts, reading, lying on the sofa and eating to excess.

It is a time to turn to the inner self, to feed the imagination, to turn one’s back on the world of effort and achievement. To light a candle and perhaps do absolutely nothing – which can in itself be a form of meditation.

That’s what we at Books from Finland will be trying to do, anyway. Support in our endeavour comes from an unlikely quarter. In 1932 the British philosopher Bertrand Russell published an essay entitled ‘In Praise of Idleness’, in which he argued cogently for a four-hour working day. ‘I think that there is far too much work done in the world,’ he wrote; ‘that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous’.

Russell was no slouch, as his list of publications alone shows. But his argument was a serious one, and we mean to put it into practice, at least over the twelve days of Christmas. ‘The road to happiness and prosperity,’ he wrote, ‘lies in an organised diminution of work.’ More…

Sex, violence and horror, anyone?

20 September 2012 | Letter from the Editors

Gladiatorial entertainment: Mosaic from the Roman villa at Nennig (Germany), 2nd-3rd century AD. Picture: Wikipedia

In our last Letter, ‘Art for art’s sake’, we pondered how the efforts of making art (or design) profitable and exportable result, in public discourse, in the expectation that art (or design) should aid the development of business.

Not a lot is talked about how business can help art.

Art of course, is in essence ‘no use’, art doesn’t exist in order to increase the GDP (although nothing prevents it from doing so, of course).

The Finnish poet-author-translator Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) argued that art needs no apologies whatsoever: ‘What’s wrong with “Art for art’s sake”? – any more than bread for bread’s sake?

‘Art is art and bread is bread, and people need both if they are to have a balanced diet.’

Defining what is entertainment is and what is art is not always significant or necessary. The boundaries can be artificial, or superficial. But occasionally one wonders where the makers of ‘entertainment’ think it’s going. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake?

The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) recently announced a new radio play series. It is, it said, a series that differs stylistically from traditional radio plays; it seeks a new and younger audience. The news item was headlined: ‘The new radio play drips with sex, violence and horror.’ In a television interview the director said that the radio dramaturge who had commissioned the series had described what the (new, younger) listeners should experience: ‘They should feel thrilled and horny all the time.’ More…

Art for art’s sake

8 June 2012 | Letter from the Editors

Art, entertainment for the elite? ‘The two pantaloons’ by Jacques Callot (1616). Etching, British Museum. Picture: Wikimedia

It is the necessity, or the obsession, of the present age to measure everything in monetary terms: to know as exactly as possible how much money something is capable of making for the owner of its ‘rights’.

This also applies to various fields of art: for example, a play is expected to make profit for its producers – today also in the case of ‘uncommercial’ institutions such as National Theatres. Seats must be sold; bringing in busloads of people is a must.

But the purpose of creating art is not to increase the GDP. Art is not useful, as theatre director and playwright Esa Leskinen argues in a recent essay (in Finnish only): ‘Art doesn’t aspire to anything. Art isn’t something that is consumed in order to gather the energy to go on working. The purpose of art is not to burnish the image of Finland or make people feel good. Art is radically other than the field of sense and utility in which our everyday world is located.

‘There is no sense in art. Art is no use.’

We agree. We also think that’s how it should be. More…

Life is

16 February 2012 | Letter from the Editors

Helsinki silhouette. Photo: Valtteri Hirvonen, Eriksson&Company / World Design Capital Helsinki, 2011

Where is Books from Finland located?

In the old days, the answer was simple, although not unambiguous. Books came from its office in central Helsinki; it was written in various locations in Finland and abroad, and translated mainly in England and the United States; and it was published in the small town of Vammala, about 200 kilometres north of Helsinki.

It spread, in multiple paper copies, to readers throughout the world, to find its place on desks, on bedside tables, in briefcases and handbags, propping up table-legs or holding doors open – in London, England, Connecticut, New England, with a few in Paris, France, and Paris, Texas, maybe. More…

A thankless task?

24 November 2011 | Letter from the Editors

Translator at work: St Jerome, translator of the Latin Bible in the late 4th century, is the patron saint of translators and librarians. Leonello Spada's 1610s painting, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome. Picture: Wikimedia

Why translate, asked the late Herbert Lomas thirty years ago in an issue of Books from Finland (1/82) – the pay’s absurd, one’s own writing suffers from lack of time, it’s very hard to please people. And public demand for translation from minor languages into English was almost non-existent.

But he also admitted that translating is generally a pleasurable experience: ‘You have the pleasure of writing without the agony of primary invention. It’s like reading, only more so. It’s like writing, only less so.’ More…

Slow down!

26 August 2011 | Letter from the Editors

Books for a desert island? Photo: Patrick Verdier (Wikimedia)

Might Tolstoy’s War and Peace  be the epitome of a novel that qualifies for reading on a desert island? (Maybe along with Tristram Shandy or Finnegan’s Wake, and possibly The Gateless Gate (the Zen Buddhist kōans). After all, who’s got time or energy for some 1,500 pages of a wartime story from the Napoleonic era with too many characters (580, and so many of them called Pierre)?

We do tend to consume everything quickly: busy busy! We eat fast, we talk fast, we exercise fast, we fast-forward through movies. We devour books like fast food. Hurry hurry! On to the next one, whatever it is, don’t hang about! More…

Face, book

23 June 2011 | Letter from the Editors

What are books made of? Picture: Wikipedia

‘The worst of all is if the writer forgets writing and starts turning out books.’

This thought is from the poet Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen’s introductory talk at the Lahti International Writers’ Reunion (LIWRE), which took place at Messilä Manor between 19 and 22 June. ‘There’s too much talk of the stunting of the book’s lifespan and the economic life of the publishers,’ she continues. A writer ‘must not forget that he or she is responsible to the work of art, nobody else, not even the readers.’

Today, book publishers are responsible to capital and productivity, and a work of literature resembles a product with an invisible best-before marker. Is its life a couple of months, like ice cream? Books delivered to the shop in September are already old-hat in February, and are best put on sale. More…

Homo ludens, vita brevis

18 March 2011 | Letter from the Editors

Goddess of victory: charioteer and runner Nike (constructed from the damaged statue of Nike of Paionios, from ca. 420 BCE). Photo: Wikimedia

No one should ever start a piece with already the ancient Greeks…’ , but here goes:

Already the ancient Greeks practised the noble arts of sport. The Romans extended the cultivation (their word!) of culture to leisure, amusing themselves by throwing Christians to the lions. Formula F1 came a couple of thousand years later, as did post-modern art, sitcoms and reality TV, whose presenters take the place of lions and whose celebrities are today’s Christians.

The Olympics, founded by the Greeks, were in full swing as early as the seventh century BCE, until the Christian Roman Caesar Theodocius I banned them as irretrievably pagan in the year 393. However, they were revived 1,500 years later. More…