If you walk into a Dutch bookshop – there are more than 1.500 in the Netherlands, struggling to survive – as a tourist, you will probably experience the joys of recognition. The inevitable international bestsellers – E.L. James, Suzanne Collins, Nicci French, Jonas Jonasson, Stephen King and Karin Slaughter – are all there, and selling very well. These titles, mostly translated from English, share their space on the bestseller tables with the occasional original Dutch title, like Paulien Cornelisse’s quirky observations of Dutch vernacular, and successful thrillers, all written by blond, high-heeled women authors (and if they happen to be male, they wisely use a female alias). The rest are sports books, mostly about football, which is very popular in the Netherlands.
A look at the top 60 bestselling titles shows that exactly 5 of them are literary titles. One is a quality, up-market non-fiction book about how we ‘are’ our brain (instead of just having one) from neurobiologist Dick Swaab. The other three are from authors who may very well be the new literary establishment, as the old masters (Mulisch, Wolkers, Claus, Haasse, and Reve) have passed away in the last couple of years.
Numbers two, three, and four are Leon de Winter, Peter Buwalda and A.F. Th. van der Heijden. They are storytellers to the bone. No matter what subject they choose, they write page turners that remind me of Jonathan Franzen or John Irving. Readers and critics alike are convinced that the fifth author, Arnon Grunberg, who lives in New York, is a great writer. His point of view is quintessentially international, and he has become an important voice in the Dutch public debate with his scorching columns in one of our biggest newspapers.
Dutch literature is doing well internationally. That might well be, as Tim Parks suggests, because the authors conform to a general international taste that has become more and more mainstream. On the other hand, Gerbrand Bakker’s novel The Twin, which won the IMPAC Dublin Award in 2010, is filled with flatlands and wooden shoes, and has been translated into 18 different languages – Finnish, Turkish and Arab translations were published this Spring. I would say it’s all about the quality of writing, the originality of the voice – and Dutch literature seems to be doing very well.
Dutch non-fiction often functions as a crowbar to open up a foreign market. The Netherlands have some excellent narrative non-fiction writers who generally choose international subjects, about which they write in a gripping, personal style, mixed with intelligent analysis. Frank Westerman, who chooses his subjects mostly in European history, always circles around the question of the malleability of human beings – which makes him popular from China to the UK. Geert Mak, ‘our national history teacher’, has followed the footsteps of John Steinbeck in the United States, a journey he describes in his new book – another example of a truly international perspective.
An important turning point in the international success of Dutch literature was the fact that The Netherlands was the guest country at the Frankfurt Book fair in 1993. Since that year, the international sales of Dutch literature has grown to more than 400 titles a year world wide. A great part of this is thanks to ongoing interested German, Spanish, English and Italian audiences – authors like Cees Nooteboom and Margriet de Moor receive better reviews and more literary prizes outside the Netherlands than in their home country. Lately, interest in Dutch Literature has continued to grow in new economies like China, Brazil and Turkey. It seems to be a profitable exchange for both of us: these audiences seem to be interested in our polder literature, whereas we hope to tap into their infectious optimism and open mindedness.
- Mireille Berman’s virtual tour was previously published on Harvill Secker’s website