This article appeared in the 2014:2 issue.
In the last few years, the phenomenon of crossover fiction has been the subject of a great deal of attention and some rather fierce debate, not least in Sweden. Questions are being asked about the reasons for its sudden popularity, the impact it has on the market and on readers, and whether it is a passing fad or a new genre that is here to stay. Without necessarily promising grand answers to such questions, we think it is high time to at least stop and take stock of what is rapidly becoming a ubiquitous literary concept. How has crossover fiction developed in Sweden, and in what ways does this development correspond to the rise of crossover fiction internationally? What do crossover books have in common and what does the future hold for Swedish examples of the genre?
The term crossover fiction (or allålderslitteratur as it is sometimes referred to in Swedish) refers to books that appeal to both children and adults.To be more accurate, most titles commonly said to belong to the genre are in fact primarily written for, and marketed to, children or young adults, and only subsequently picked up by a wider adult audience.There are, of course, books originally written for adults that are widely read by young people, but these tend in the main to retain their adult fiction status. In other words, crossover fiction is fiction that crosses over from the children’s and young adult market to the adult market.
This kind of definition should not obscure the fact that the blurred and porous line between adult and young adult fiction is, and always has been, impossible to draw with any confidence. Whereas it is relatively easy to categorise a book for six-year-olds as a book for six-year-olds, because it is tailored to what the average six-year-old is capable of reading, when it comes to young adult fiction the parameters that limit reading are more about interest,awareness of the world and emotional intelligence than about concrete literacy skills.Teenagers have always read adult fiction – for many, reading the big works of literature is a mark of maturity and sophistication, as well as being a symptom of readiness to understand and engage with the challenges of adult life. Who didn’t feel a sense of pride as a teenager upon finishing George Orwell’s 1984 or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre? Likewise, adults have often returned to books they read as children, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example, out of nostalgia or simply because they are wonderful reads. Literature written for adults has also often taken young people and their experiences as its subject. J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is one famous example of this.
Crossover fiction as a dedicated approach to writing and marketing is, however, something new: books that declare themselves to exist in-between or above literary age categories, enjoying both commercial success and critical attention as a result.This critical and commercial success has led to crossover fiction being defined as a genre in its own right. As such, it has quickly become influential and important, to the extent that many authors and publishing houses are now targeting concerted efforts at a non-age- specific audience.
The rise of Swedish crossover fiction has occurred in the context of an international, or perhaps more specifically, English-language boom in the genre, and it is necessary to consider this context before turning to Swedish examples. It may not be important, or indeed possible, to identify the exact point when crossover literature moved into the mainstream – since it has grown gradually out of existing genres – but two prominent early examples were J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first instalment of Rowling’s seven-book wizarding series, was published in 1997. Over the next decade, it went on to sell over 100 million copies worldwide. Many of the buyers, and readers, were adults. Curiously, though, for many grown- ups the notion of being seen reading a children’s book in public was off- putting. The publisher,Bloomsbury,felt this reluctance justified a new edition of the Harry Potter series with a different cover aesthetic aimed at a less juvenile readership.The design of the resulting adult editions was as subdued and monochrome as the originals’ were colourful and cartoony, mimicking ‘serious’ adult literary fiction.
Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which was also published in dual editions, appeared between 1995 and 2000, selling 150 million copies in its first decade.The trilogy is particularly significant because of the way in which it weaves elements typical of high fantasy traditionally targeted at adults into a story for and about children. This strategy has been widely adopted by writers of crossover fiction ever since.
This movement toward darker, more mature themes, and a stronger identification with genre literature, particularly fantasy, has continued, both in terms of the plots and cover design. As the target audience of the books has become more ambiguous, and their readership has broadened, the stigma attached to enjoying crossover fiction as an adult has diminished.The need for separate editions is no longer as acute. Prime examples of series that have used a design style appealing to both teenagers and adults are Stephenie Meyer's bestselling, vampire-infested romance series Twilight and Suzanne Collins’ brutal post-apocalyptic hit The Hunger Games.Titles aspiring to appeal to the growing and very lucrative crossover market adapted to their suddenly more diverse target audience by giving them a more grown- up packaging from the start.
The fascination with magic and the fantastical, so prominent in the books discussed above, has come to define the crossover genre. Indeed, although there is an ample supply of more realist children’s and young adult literature, these do not seem to have the same crossover potential. Rather, the young adult fiction that is now widely read by adults is the clear offspring of classic in-between literature, read as childhood ends but before adult life starts, typically fantasy by authors such as Ursula K Le Guin, Susan Cooper and David Eddings or sci-fi titles like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. This poses the question: if the fantastical lies at the heart of the appeal of crossover literature for adult readers, what can that tell us about the reading habits of people today? Why are adults suddenly so interested in the antics of teenagers? Why has a love of fantasy suddenly gone from niche to mainstream? And for the purposes of this article: do developments in Sweden reflect those on the English-language market?
Since the interest in international, or perhaps more accurately English- language,crossover fiction developed,the Swedish-language book market has witnessed an explosion in fiction for young adults. Many of these titles have been critically acclaimed, winning or receiving nominations for prestigious awards and prizes for children’s literature. They have also been extremely popular with readers, and not just the teenage ones. A number of crossover titles have been discussed extensively in the media and on popular Swedish literary blogs such as bokhora.se, and sales figures are impressive, often passing the six-figure mark, which, for a country with a population of around 9.6 million, is significant indeed.
One of the biggest success stories of the crossover phenomenon in Sweden is Sara Bergmark Elfgren and Mats Strandberg’s Engelsfors trilogy (Rabén & Sjögren), a series of novels set in a fictional provincial town about a group of teenage witches and their battle to stop the approaching apocalypse. These are heavy tomes – the final novel in the series, Nyckeln (The Key), weighs in at over 800 pages, and their popularity has been attributed to the recognisability of the main characters – seven high school students who have little in common save their magical powers – and the detail and sensitivity with which they, and the conformist small town they live in, are depicted.The novels show a clear relationship with the crossover fiction emerging in the English-language market,both in terms of their focus on the supernatural and their cover design; the books’ covers are steeped in the imagery of horror and fantasy, with blood red details against a monochrome background. It is also worth mentioning the fact that the Engelsfors stories have taken on a new life in other media – for instance, in the form of a popular graphic novel- format, Berättelser från Engelsfors (Tales from Engelsfors) and a film which is currently in production. Readers have engaged with the works on their own terms too, with a slew of fan-fiction sites developing the stories of minor characters and finding new symbolism in the trilogy’s narrative.
In general, though, crossover titles in Swedish have been a lot more diverse. Jessica Schiefauer’s August Prize-winning Pojkarna (Bonnier Carlsen, The Boys) is a fantasy novel of sorts, but it breaks the mould in the way it plays with gender and sexuality. Elements of the narrative are familiar teen literature tropes: the main characters are unpopular girls on the cusp of womanhood, routinely subjected to sexual bullying by boys in their school. But things start to get weird when they discover a strange plant with magical properties that provides them with a way to escape the abuse.In the process, Schiefauer deftly unpicks and exposes the clichés of gender identity. The book is infused with references to the Swedish landscape and Swedish life, and its spare, subversive tone makes it a provocative and surprisingly literary read. Film rights for Pojkarna have also been sold in Sweden.
Another bold approach to crossover fiction is Cilla Naumann’s 62 dagar (Alfabeta, 62 Days) and Springa med åror (Albert Bonniers förlag, Running with Oars).This pair of novels challenges the emerging clichés of crossover fiction by playing with the conventions of age-related marketing and audience targeting.Both books narrate the events of the same sixty-two summer days, but the former is a young adult book, and has a young protagonist, while the latter is categorised as adult fiction and is told from the perspective of the older generation. 62 dagar and Springa med åror also resist the widespread fantastical trend in crossover fiction, engaging instead with questions of class and identity in a realist manner.
Sweden’s long tradition of emphasising the importance of high-quality literature for children and young people makes the country well placed for a crossover boom.Not only do Swedish children’s and young adult authors hold a strong position within the world of Swedish literature, Swedish children’s and young adult fiction also has a strong national profile to draw on. Authors from Astrid Lindgren to Peter Pohl and Stina Wirsén have made Sweden known for children’s and young adult literature that deals with controversial and difficult issues in an open and progressive way, whether in fantastical or realist settings. And while the vogue for fantasy and magic that so dominates the English-language crossover genre is noticeable in Sweden too, Swedish crossover titles frequently give these themes an unmistakably Nordic twist.
The references in the Engelsfors trilogy to the witch trials that gripped Sweden in the seventeenth century are a case in point, as is Finland-Swedish MariaTurtschaninoff’s prominent use of Nordic landscapes, folk material and creatures of Scandinavian lore such as trolls and the Brook Horse, or Nene Ormes’ use of Old Norse myths and archaic Swedish words in her Udda series. Less common are the more generic fantasy and horror references typical of US and UK crossover – the vampires and werewolves that populate popular titles like Twilight, or the wizarding environments of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials.
As crossover fiction has become ever more popular with readers, it has also gained increased critical legitimacy, as has a lot of other children’s and young adult fiction that has less inter-generational appeal. Media attention is now much more plentiful and several prestigious awards have been established in recent years, such as the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, funded by the Swedish government since 2002, and the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize, which since last year complements the other Nordic Council prizes.The Swedish state has also reaffirmed its commitment to children’s and young adult literature in aWhite Paper to the Swedish parliament entitled Läsa för livet (Reading for Life), and through its distributive agency the Swedish Arts Council, which is currently focusing on supporting books aimed at younger age groups.
The sudden interest in young adult literature among adult Swedish readers has also effected changes in the country’s publishing industry.X Publishing,an independent publisher active between 2007 and 2013, was founded with the mission of showcasing the breadth and depth of young adult fiction. Before closing their doors for personal reasons late last year,the company published thirty-five titles,every one of them crossover fiction.In 2011 X Publishing was joined by Mix Förlag, a digital imprint of the Bonnier group aimed explicitly at a new age category encompassing both teenagers and adults in their twenties. In the two years since its inception, Mix has published well over a hundred titles across every imaginable genre. Specialists X Publishing and Mix have also been joined in their mission to highlight crossover literature by Sweden’s biggest paperback publisher, Månpocket, which has launched a crossover list showcasing its contributions to the genre.
The success of Swedish-language crossover fiction has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it’s the continued interest in all things Nordic, or perhaps it’s a result of the extraordinary writing that Swedish authors of crossover fiction have been producing, but one thing is clear - Swedish crossover fiction is starting to gain popularity with foreign publishers and readers alike. The Engelsfors trilogy, for example, has been published in English and a range of other languages.According to the authors’ website, it is now available in 30 countries, and there are a number of foreign-language blogs devoted to it. Translation rights for Pojkarna have also been sold in four countries.This burgeoning success has been supported by, among others, the Swedish Arts Council, who provided translation support for the Engelsfors books in a number of territories. It remains to be seen whether the world will see a wave of Swedish crossover fiction to rival the Swedish crime trend of the last decade, but readers of all ages are certainly hungry for books of this ilk,and writers in Swedish are producing some outstanding contributions that deserve to reach a wider readership.