How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country

From The Paris Review:

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.

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG has a good friend who was born and raised in Finland before coming to the United States on a college athletic scholarship (throwing a javelin a long distance is a huge deal in Finland).

Accordingly, PG has learned a great deal about Finland. Its population is about 5.5 million people. That’s about the population of Colorado. Or the Atlanta or Barcelona metropolitan areas.

If you look at a map of Finland, you will note that it shares a border with Russia and about 25% of Finland’s land area is above the Arctic Circle. The Russian border means that Finland has a long and contentious history with Russia and that the border has been located in many different places over the years.

In November, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in what would be known as the Winter War. The Soviets had a 3-1 manpower advantage and a 5-1 advantage in artillery. The Soviets were supported by about 2,500 military aircraft. At the beginning of the war, Finland had 114 military aircraft.

Hostilities ceased in March of 1940. Finland ultimately lost 11% of its territory but had stopped the Soviet advance cold (the Winter War was largely fought in snow-covered forests with temperatures as low as -45 fahrenheit) and effectively forced the Soviets to negotiate a peace treaty.

The Soviet Union was ultimately the biggest loser, however, because Adolph Hitler noticed that the Soviet army could not defeat the much smaller Finnish army. This military performance played a large role in Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union 15 months later. The Soviet Union’s war-related deaths, military and civilian, are estimated to total over 25 million.

7 thoughts on “How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country”

  1. To PG’s comments, Hitler failed to learn was that armies fight much harder to protect their homes than they do to try to take that of others – unless there is no longer a home for them to return to.

    Too lazy to go look it up, but that old ‘art of war’ guy said to make your army fight harder burn the bridges behind you.

    • For the lazy (like me): Simo Häyhä, White Death.


      FWIW a college friend of mine came from Finland. His father led ski troops in the Winter War. He was wounded and did not soldier in the Continuation War, aka World War II.

  2. > -45 fahrenheit

    Fun fact: At temperatures close to -42 degrees, you don’t have to clarify whether you are talking about Celcius or Fahrenheit, because they are about the same!

    It’s debatable whether you need to clarify that you’re not talking about Kelvin, since -42K … isn’t actually a thing.

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