SF/F WRITING AROUND THE WORLD - PART 1
Ahrvid Engholm: The Swedish skiffy writing scene
(Cosmos Pen 2/2002)
Science fiction and fantastic literature has a long history in Sweden, ultimately - I belive - founded on the saga traditions of Norse mythology. But science fiction in a modern sense had its breakthrough in the 1940's, with the weekly pulp magazine Jules Verne Magasinet/Veckans Äventyr (1940-47, revived in a different form in 1969). The first science fiction club appeared in 1949 (the first fantasy clubs, in the form of Tolkien societies came in the late 60's, early 70's), and the first sf convention came in 1956.
For many years short stories were as popular in Sweden as in many other countries. We had several own "pulp-like" fiction magazines. We had cheap magazines with science fiction, mysteries, adventures, romances, westerns - dozens of them. Stories were translated (from English) but local authors (like Sture Lönnerstrand, one of the Founding Fathers if Swedish sf, or Vladimir Semitjov, Russian immigrant and father of the later famous space journalist Eugen Semitjov) also wrote them. Even daily papers often had short stories; many had a short story in their Sunday editions, and the stories could sometimes be written by very respected, "serious" authors.
But most of this died as the media landscape changed. In the late 1940's, the first comics magazines came. The paperback book became popular in Sweden in the 1950's, and the new, cheap books naturally competed with the short-story magazines for the readers. In the mid 1950's, Swedish national TV started - which meant more competion for the free time of possible readers. The 1960's saw the breakthrough of pop music, with new radio stations dedicated to pop, top lists, Beatlemania, and so on.
The people who once read short-story magazines found so much else to do: TV, paperbacks, pop, comics... The market for short-story magazines vanished. Classic adventure and story magazines like Lektyr and FIB-Aktuellt managed to survive only by shifting contents to semi-nude girls, later totally nude girls, and even later the full smörgåsbord of sex.
In the science fiction-movement we've always had a soft spot for short-story magazines, though. We've tried to keep them alive, even if they are few and have a low circulation (at least in modern times - the 1940's JVM is said to have reached up to 80 000 buyers). Between 1954 and 1966 we had Häpna! and for a short period 1958-60 a Swedish edition of the US magazine Galaxy. In 1969 Jules Verne Magasinet was restarted, and is still published even if issues are getting fewer and thinner every year (it now comes as a quarterly, with 34 pages/issue; circulation well below 1000).
1982-87 we had Nova Science Fiction, which was rather ambitious and newsstand distributed (top circulation perhaps 4000, towards the end something like 1500; Nova SF may make a comeback in 2002, but with narrower distribution). There have been other sf magazine projects, with 1-2 issues (Nya Världar, Aniara, and Visioner which didn't even make it to one issue).
All this makes it clear that the market for writing sf/fantasy short stories is very small in Sweden. JVM publishes perhaps 2-3 (new) Swedish short stories per year. There are fanzine-like (you could call them semi-prozines, perhaps) publications like Minotauren or SF-Forum or Mitrania, which publish Swedish genre short stories. None of these "markets" pay anything (or if they pay it's symbolical).
There is always a possibility to find (low or no paying) "side markets". There are short story competions. There are a huge number of mainstream (non-genre) cultural magazines, which may take sf/f/h short stories. There are small cellar publishers that may do anthologies with "print-on-demand" (print runs in the 100's). I have myself been able to place stories in computer magazines. (Many of them have a "funny page" last, and I have written some reasonably funny sf/computer stories short enough to fit a page.)
Despite very small markets, there are a lot of people writing short stories! There are several (non-genre) short story competions yearly. A recent crime/mystery competion received 600 entries! The magazine Vår bostad has a yearly competion with 60 000 crowns as first prize - it is said they get 600 entries every year! Another big competion is the "debut" competion organised by the publisher Ordfront. And there are other competions, like the ones organised by the SKRIVA list.
Internet is important in this development. One of the centres for Swedish sf fans (including fantasy and horror interest), who like to write stories, is the SKRIVA mailing list, which I took the initiative to start five years ago. The SKRIVA list has around 100 members, frequent "internal" short-story competions and a bigger "external" competion each year. There are also a number of general (non-genre) mailing lists, and web pages and so on. A survey I made last year uncovered more than a dozen Swedish mailing lists for short-story writers. There are a even more web sites dedicated to "amateur writers".
The net has also lead to a new interest in the short story. The cultural sections of the newspapers now and then have articles about the "reborn interest in short stories". (In December 2001, for instance, the biggest morning paper Dagens Nyheter had a full page article about so called fan fiction, where a couple of known sf fans were interviewed.) There are many "study circles" organised for writers, and even a two year university course at the Gothenburg university!
There is no doubt a big - and rising - interest in writing short stories! There's a lot of creativity, but nowhere to publish the stories. You can of course always post your stories somewhere on the net, but it's not the same...
The SKRIVA mailing list is the closest equvalent in Sweden to the Finnish Science Fiction Writers´ Association. It fullfills the same functions, but is much more informal. It all started in the 1980's when I organised a smally "study circle" for short story writing. We were never more than perhaps half a dozen people, but later we started something we called the Swedish SF Writers' Society, which had a so called APA (a distribution form for small fanzines) where we published small short stories, articles about writing, comments to stories etc. We called it SKAPA, but both it and the Society lost steam after a few years.
And then came Internet. I've been on the net for many years (since 1990) but most sf-fans weren't. Around 1997 I realised that enough sf-fans had mail connection to make it worthwhile to start an sf/fantasy/horror writing mailing list. The name SKRIVA ("to write") was constructed as a parallell to SKAPA ("to create"), since what SKRIVA does is the same as SKAPA had done earlier (though on paper and through snail mail). I used a very simple mailing list function in my own (modem-only-connection) computer for the list during the first months, and then my buddy Nils Segerdahl in Uppsala offered to run a true, more streamlined list from a computer at his work (and SKRIVA is still on Nils's Dang computer).
SKRIVA has since slowly but surely gained both a higher level of activity and a certain "creative atmosphere" which I think most people on the list appreciate. There're no requirements to join, except the ability to use a keyboard well enough to type in a subscription message to email@example.com (with "subscribe" in the subject line). Typically, there will be perhaps 20-25 messages per day. There's a short story posted every or every other day, which will generate anywhere from zero to half a dozen comments. Some even post chapters of novels they're working on. There are articles on writing (I post such articles myself), news about the sf/fantasy field, book reviews, but also a lot of general "chatting" (around 75 percent of postings are chatting and debates on different subjects).
My vision of the list is a mixture of the serious stuff (stories, comments, news, reviews etc) and the perhaps-not-so-on-topic chatting. The chatting has an important role to create an atmosphere of sitting in a pub talking to friends. It creates some sort of bonding between the membes of the list, and makes it possible for us all to get to know each other. The list must be both a serious thing and a social thing!
During the last few sf conventions in Sweden SKRIVA members have met (some of them for the first time) and its nice to note that the virtual bonding on the list often has transfered itself to IRL bonding! There have been SKRIVA corners on the cons where list members have been sitting and talking for hours. The list has a core of perhaps 20-25 more active members and half a dozen of the members have published stories or even novels professionally and several others are professional writers in other respects (as translators, journalists etc).
And still, there are sometimes complaints, of course: you talk too much garbage! I want serious stories, analyses of plot structures, checks on grammar... My universal answer to this is that you must skip things you don't like, eg with a filter, and nobody forces you to read everything. If you can't handle the responsibility to skip what doesn't interest you - it's your own fault!
What about the future, then?
We'll have rocket ships going to the moon, Mars and the Jupiter moons. Mars will be terraformed. We'll have intelligent robots, and thanks to genetic technology average life span is 150 years. And...
Sorry. Wrong vision!
Today, there's a heavy trend towards fantasy. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings haven't passed without notice. Of four most recent additions to the Swedish sf/fantasy scene, all write fantasy. We have Christina Brönnestams whose latest novel is called Svart eld ("Black fire"), Per Jorner with Efter lägereldarna and Röd måne ("After the Camp Fires" and "Red Moon"), Karolina Bjällerstedt Mickos with Mantor and Larona (that's two names; no translation) Niklas Krog - perhaps the most successful of the bunch, with at least three books: En krigares hjärta, En magikers styrka, En härskares själ
("Heart of a Warror", "Strength of a Magician", "Soul of a Ruler")¨.
All that is fantasy but Krog is now, however, working on an sf novel, which will deal with the colonization of Mars, and another author doing sf is Lars Jakobson, whose I den röda damens slott ("In the Palace of the Red Queen"), two years ago was nominated to the Swedish national book award (the so called August Award, named after August Strindberg).
The "old guard" of local sf/fantasy writers haven't published much lately. Sam J Lundwall is semi-retired, Dénis Lindbohm writes non-fiction about magic and reinkarnation, and neither Börje Crona, Sven Christer Swahn or Bertil Mårtensson have published new novels the last 10-15 years.
One can only expect that the trend towards fantasy will continue for a while. That's at least what the younger generation Swedish writers prefer to write. But as always most of the genre publishing is translated from English, and Swedish writers will only do a novel now and then.
The future of short-story writing (especially in sf/f/h) in Sweden is hard to predict. I think the interest in short stories will continue to grow, slowly but steadily. The short story is perfect for the modern, time-pressed citizen who doesn't like to invest a whole day in reading a novel. And the short story is easier for a "beginner" to write. But all this creativity will be lost if we don't get more markets for short stories!
It's no fun to only write stories for yourself and your friends on a mailing list. You don't get a particular feeling of pride from having your story published on just another web site. How many sites are there, after all? 42 million? Nobody knows. You get much more satisfaction from seeing your story in print, even if it's just a small cultural magazine.
I have an idea of collecting some of the best stories from SKRIVA competions and send it to a real publisher. Hopes are not high, though. I know some publishers, and they all, say that short-story collections are extremely difficult to market. They say this with many regrets. People mostly only read novels - the thicker it is, the better.
But perhaps this Internet-driven, grassroot movement of many hundreds of short-story authors in Sweden could inspire to some change, from below, so to say? If we continue to write, continue to harass publishers and magazines, if we learn to write better (through inspiration and tips and training from mailing lists, perhaps), we may see some change.
Sometime in the future.
PS. SKRIVA is open for anyone in any language, but in practice Scandinavian languages or English is recommended. Subscription info above. If you have some knowledge of Swedish you can follow the list (98 percent is in Swedish), and you can yourself post in English. Comments to your postings will probably be in English. There is a web site. It isn't too up-to-date or very ambitious but the SKRIVA FAQ there (in Swedish) may be worth reading: http://www.dang.se/skriva.
Ahrvid Engholm is a Swedish free-lance writer and a long-time member of Swedish fandom. He publishes The Science Fiction Journalen newsletter and has written 40 short stories.