At Oslo’s House of Literature, a Free Space for Ideas (and Writers)

How Can We Make This Kind of Thing Happen in America?

October 20, 2017  By Kerri Arsenault
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At the convergence of five roads in the center of Oslo, Norway, directly behind the Slottsparken I walk up wide, curved stone steps and into Litteraturhuset (“House of Literature”) to seek respite from a mean rain and to preview where John Freeman, Rabih Alameddine and I will be talking about the latest issue of Freeman’s that evening. Inside, to the left, Kafé Oslo—an eatery or drinkery, depending on the time of day—laced with the white light of midsummer, throws its clean bright lines through the un-curtained, soaring windows. Crisp wood veneer pendants and practical birch blond chairs flood the room, and slim bookshelves line empty wall spaces. Unfussy banquettes shelter patrons drinking wine and espresso or having a matbit (“snack”) in the late afternoon. Tealights hover on tabletops. To the right, a spur of the bookstore, Tanum, though small in siz,e is fat with current literary selections highlighting forthcoming Litteraturhuset events, including ours.

We glance into the main event room where, later, 2017 Holberg Prize winner and British philosopher Onora O’Neill will be in conversation with Camilla Serck-Hanssen, Vice President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. A lecture called “The Boundaries of the Public Arena,” occupies the room a door down. Freeman provides running commentary as he points to a plaque listing other “literature houses”: Munich, Quebec, Warsaw, Vienna, and more. We advance to the next floor, which will host (also that night) “Women to the top? Barriers and driving forces for gender balance at the Faculty for Science and Technology at the University of Stavanger” and the centennial celebration for the Norwegian Society of Para-psychology. What is this place? I think.

There on the second floor I meet Linn Rottem, Litteraturhuset’s Acting Head of Programming, a human with a vast capacity for kindness, collaboration, and hard work; for 2016, Litteraturhuset offered 1,670 events and hosted around 250,000 visitors, including 26,000 children and young people from all around Oslo. Since its opening in 2007, Litteraturhuset has seen more than 2.5 million visitors. Most of the events are free. Just ten people, including Rottem, wrangle them all.

Her office is pinched into a corner just down the narrow hall and past the photocopier on the way to a spacious, rent-free apartment where international authors and intellectuals are invited to reside. It’s filled with four Hans Wegner Wishbone Chairs, food, a glamorous view up Bogstadveien, and a guestbook signed by some of the visitors who’ve stayed there: The windows open like a book, as it were, offering fresh breezes and a semblance of home for weary writers.

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The third floor focuses on children and youth, as evidenced by the tiny pair of pink rubber boots under the coatrack, abandoned for the weekend. Litteraturhuset also reaches out to immigrant youth and young adults through workshops and “dialogue meetings” Rottem calls them, in order to elevate minority voices over the din of others’.

On the top floor, Skriveloftet, a yawning attic space of 50 desks, is available 24/7 to 545 authors, playwrights, critics, translators, and illustrators—again, free of charge—to write, with five offices and six “monk cells” (cubicles with sliding glass doors) for those who need more privacy. Mikkel Bugge, author and playwright and Skriveloftet user, says, “…what made Skriveloftet a place to return to were the relationships I forged with the other writers there. And though no one says a word in the writing space itself, during lunchtime we flock together, relieved to take a break from the keyboard and engage in interesting discussions with one another.” Back at their desks after lunch, he finds writing easier because of the “constant click-clack of the other people writing. A gentle push; if they can do it, so can I.” Meanwhile below Skriveloftet, lively discussions, programs, books, and homemade lasagna with smoked mushrooms and béchamel serves as further incentive.

*

John Freeman first visited Litteraturhuset as editor for Granta Norway and was “frankly bewildered by its completeness, all that was there.” Then he came as a guest at the invitation of Aslak Sira Myhre, its former executive director, who’s now the country’s Director of the National Library. Freeman says, “I found Litteraturhuset’s engagement entirely in keeping with the values one associates with the word ‘house.’ It was like being a guest in someone’s home, only it was many people’s home.” He’s staying in the apartment where he’s finishing up work on a collection of poems “amidst the spirit of former guests like Tomas Tranströmer.” What does he think of that? “How do you thank someone for such a gift?”

Litteraturhuset is not just a building, but a group and a space with a collective purpose, as most homes are. And Litteraturhuset’s purpose is to provide writers, translators, critics, playwrights, illustrators, readers, scholars, activists, and the inquisitive a place to meet to debate, read, lecture, engage with, and discuss writing, ideas, and politics… over food, drinks, and bad weather, all with the mission of promoting the greater good of art and literature.

Inside Kafe Oslo. All photos by the author.

In America, there’s no such thing. “We have something like it in New York: it’s the 92nd Street Y (92Y), which has hosted an astonishing array of thinkers, writers, poets, and public officials. It’s a beacon,” Freeman says. “What it doesn’t have, though, are the creature comforts that Litteraturhuset provides, so the mind and body are fed at the same time.” Freeman partially blames the absence of a bookstore at 92Y on the “price wars begun by Amazon and others and the culture of the Internet, by which information and its most interesting container—good writing—is supposed to be free.”

Speaking of free, Brugge says before the idea of Skriveloftet, when Litteraturhuset’s founders were discussing how to honor writers, someone suggested free beer for all writers. “Often when I sit at Skriveloftet writing, I wonder how all of us sitting up there, at our typewriters, could have spent the last ten years drinking free beer instead of having this place. Jesus. The horror. The horror.” Again, in America, such a thing is improbable.

*

Bernard Schwartz, Director of the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92Y, says the missing bits (bookstore, restaurant, free beer, creature comforts, a writer’s residence) has more to do with space than desire. It’s hard to fathom such a huge building (it takes up an entire NYC block) filled with gold-plated donor plaques, doesn’t have enough space. But it only takes a few minutes of leafing through their thick booklet of spring and summer programs and offerings to see that every inch of the vast building is used up, including the narrow, crowded slot that acts as Schwartz’s office.

Schwartz focuses on literary programs, just a thin slice of what the organization offers. “A good way to think about 92Y is to think about the architecture of the building: over here [he points] are the people putting together the music series; the office next to me is a programmer looking more at politicians, current events, celebrities; on the other side is a programmer working on adult education and who also oversees the dance center.” Besides literary discussions, 92Y also hosts talks on such topics as African-American culinary history, the politics of opera, spine health and offers string quartets, Japanese tap dancing, senior programs, and conversational Hebrew lessons. If that’s not enough, it’s equipped with an art center, a gymnasium, a preschool, and residences for young people. The classes offered—such as advanced memoir writing with Kathryn Harrison, beginning Hula, ceramics, calligraphy, sewing, ballet, postnatal yoga, public speaking, reading Ulysses, stand-up comedy—represent a wealth of potential self-improvement (or diversion) for the community. In this way, 92Y parallels, or perhaps goes beyond, the best of what a literature house could be in the US: a place to foster learning, to interact with community, to always challenge itself and challenge those who use their facilities. “We are all working together to carry on this tradition of open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, good citizenship, education and entertainment, forging connections, and physical fitness,” Schwartz says.

92Y began in 1874 as the Young Man’s Hebrew Association with roots in the immigrant community in the Lower East Side. According to Schwartz, “It was never a synagogue or a house of worship or exclusively sectarian” but more a community center. Subsequently it welcomes anyone who walks through its doors. And those doors, as wide open as they are, are one of the barriers to the embrace I felt at Litteraturhuset; security guards are posted amid the wide, grand, unfurnished foyer and intaglio-ed ceilings at 92Y’s entrance. That said, they are some of the friendliest security guards I’ve encountered. While it’s a place to indulge any intellectual interest (300,000 people stream through those doors every year), it’s doesn’t have the coziness that comes with flickering tealights and the smell of new books.

*

Brooklyn author Rebecca Dinerstein spent five days in residence at Litteraturhuset and like Freeman, acknowledges the connection there between nourishment of the mind and the body, something lacking in US literary venues: “The M.O. for places in America is more a coffee shop, temporary vibe. At Litteraturhuset they have a substantial restaurant where you can have dinner with a glass of wine. I think that makes it feel like a place that stretches from day to night equally. It welcomes all formality levels, which gives it a kind of seriousness that it thrives off.”

Dinerstein lived in northern Norway for three years so has experience in days that stretch into nights. She wrote an English-Norwegian book of poetry, Lofoten, and a novel, The Sunlit Night, based on the Arctic village of Leknes in Norway where she lived. Although her novel traces the path of a woman who seeks solitude and respite at the top of the world, Dinerstein once said the archipelago landscape offered an “active sense of company” and her work reveals that connections are far better lubricants to creativity than isolation.

I spoke with Bjørn Gabrielsen, a prolific Norwegian book critic and columnist, and the author of eight nonfiction books written in the last 18 years at various cabins outside of Oslo—ten of them in the company of a sled dog team, and five of them with no running water, electricity, or road access. He says the concept of a literature house is a European phenomenon that began in Germany. “The House of Literature in Oslo had a fabulous opening [in 2007]. There was clearly an enormous demand that hadn’t been recognized previously. It’s arrival in Norway happened as the population became much more educated and much more used to spending time outside of the home. Traditionally Norwegian towns would have a prayer hall and a trade union hall (‘The people’s house’), both tee-totalling. There would be a missionary with slides from Madagascar in one place, and maybe a traveling magician or a choir performance or a lecture on space travel in the other one. The prayer halls still exist and the trade union halls have been turned into bingo parlors, grocery stores, or mosques. There is also some tradition in turning up at institutions to ‘better oneself’ in one’s free time. I imagine houses of literature might be an updated version of these places.”

Indeed, in the American literary community, we attend literary festivals, award events, writer retreats, and conferences, and haunt bookstores, libraries, cafés and places like the 92 Street Y or 826 Valencia, but there is less emphasis on the betterment of one’s self through public literature and discourse, on places where intellectual conversation can be sustained and sustainable and where it’s affordable for all. “Literature houses,” Gabrielsen says, “are what cinemas are for film and galleries are for art. They’re a kind of acknowledgement that reading is a social affair.” But is America ready for such a concept?

Aleksandar Hemon, who stayed at Litteraturhuset as a visiting writer, says within American borders, literature is more rooted in the idea that writing and reading is an isolated art. And for many of us it is. We grind away at our work and look up only long enough to post something on social media, attend an event, or participate in a retreat in some far-flung landscape. “For [Litteraturhuset], literature is a public operation, a way to generate opinions and intellectual transactions in a public space, for the public,” Hemon says. “In the US, the concept of literature is dominated by reading as a private, lonely practice—How to Be Alone is the name of Franzen’s book of essays on literature, for example—whereby isolated individuals engage with the minds of authors (and their characters) who operate and write in the non-public, emotional space of their deepest interiority… In any case, a literature house outs literature as a public, political practice, where contact and conflict among readers, writers, all people literary can unfold continuously.”

Litteraturhuset alumni and French author, Edouard Louis, concurs: “It’s depressing,” he says. Louis, whose book The End of Eddy, about growing up in a poor, masculine-fueled family in Picardy, thinks France, like the U.S., is “late regarding culture” meaning that culture itself and how we engage with it is problematic. “Most of the time, cultural institutions are very naive about culture; they think culture is always subversive, that culture is, by nature, a way of resisting. The people in Litteraturhuset are not like that. They try to reinvent culture, not only in challenging the governments or administrations, but they challenge culture itself. We need more of that. We need to say that sometimes, and even often, culture is as oppressive as our governments. At Litteraturhuset, I feel challenged.”

A house of literature can also function as a place of civilized debate, something also lacking in many American literary functions where readings are delivered more often than discussed. This top-down approach, both physically and socially, offers no place for prolonged and/or carbuncular debates that are crucial to critiques of both literature and society. “For some reason,” Gabrielsen says, “a house of literature seems like neutral ground and that plays a democratic role.” While writer retreats and conferences do allow for dialogue, (again, usually with a top-down approach) many of the people who attend these gatherings are hand-selected based on some kind of “test” (i.e. a manuscript) or are the only ones who can afford the fees or are themselves more rarified writers. In other words, ordinary people with intellectual curiosity are left out of the conversation.

“It’s a place where writers can talk, and above all, where they have time to talk,” Louis says about Litteraturhuset. “I couldn’t believe my ears the first time in the US, when radio or TV journalists asked me to do a three- or four-minute interview. What can you say in three minutes? You are condemned to say banal things, and banal things prevent us from understanding the world and thus, changing it. Litteraturhuset is the contrary of that.”

If I seem exuberant about this whole concept, it’s because I am. Litteraturhuset brooks no intolerance, something intolerable in the US these days. It has hosted festivals on Balkan, Chinese, Latin American, African, and Somalian literature, with authors such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Nadine Gordimer, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Adichie, Ali Smith, Mircea Cartarescu, Anne Carson, Jamaica Kincaid, Peter Nadas, Ian McEwan, Julia Kristeva, Slavoj Žižek, César Aira, Camille Paglia, and Ernesto Cardenal, to name a few. And like 92Y, they also nurture emerging talent. Every year, Litteraturhuset also produces the International Saladin Days, where authors, artists, activists, academics, and intellectuals come to Oslo to discuss the possibility of coexistence and tolerance, instead of conflict and prejudice, between people from Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures. They are, as Hemon says, “open to every important question without excluding any questions about gender, sexuality, race, or class.”

The novelist Rabih Alameddine says, “The beauty of having something like a literature house in the US is not just that we have a space and an organization that promotes literature (boy, do we need that), but that it can expose readers, and just as important, writers, to idiosyncratic and/or weird strange texts like post-magic-realist Columbians, magic-realist Cameroonians, what have you.”

While enthusiastic people like Alameddine, Rottem, and Louis seek to advance high ideals like tolerance, inclusion, and the reinvention of culture, someone has to pay for it. Much of the original financing for Litteraturhuset came, initially, from Free Word Foundation, a Norwegian organization dedicated to freedom of speech. Andreas Wiese, Litteraturhuset’s Executive Director, says that now, roughly 40 percent of the budget is financed by their own revenues (which comes from renting to the café, the bookstore, and event spaces, plus ticket sales); 30 percent of the support comes from private foundations and sponsors; and a little over 30 percent of the budget costs are shared by Oslo Municipality and the National Department of Culture.

“There’s a bigger issue of public access at work here,” says Freeman. “The Norwegian government pays for and invests in culture. Yes, they have vast oil wealth, but it’s humbling to watch a nation decide what its priorities are—the health and safety and happiness and freedom and intellectual health of its citizens—and make decisions based on those values. Of the money that the Norwegian government takes in from its energy wealth, 96 percent of it is banked and invested to insure the future of its generous welfare state. That’s not just a powerful decision but it’s a powerful statement about the importance of public good. The US is in a downward spiral in that regard. Ever since the New Deal and Great Society Programs were passed under Roosevelt and Johnson there has been a coordinated, well-funded, and devastatingly determined right wing attempt to undermine the public faith in government and broader society and we’re watching its apotheosis right now, with plans to defund Medicaid, Planned Parenthood, privatize parks, the Department of Education, and chip away at the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. This sends shock waves through all the human networks that create, use, and buy into public space.”

*

Norway is about the size of New Mexico, and size/scale is often the argument made when I enumerate how civilized Scandinavian countries are with regard to just about everything. But if a country as large as the US or its wealthiest citizens spent half as much money on promoting literature as say, football or presidential elections or the Department of Defense, we’d have a literature house in every town.

When they first rolled off the assembly line, the US Air Force’s F-35 fighter jet cost around $260 million, but because we sold some to countries like Saudi Arabia, they now hover around $95 million. Each. Litteraturhuset operates on a budget of about $2.84 million (balanced every year). If the US wanted to fund a literature house in every state, we’d need $142 million to do it. Using Litteraturhuset’s budget formula of 30/30/40, this would cost our federal government $21 million (30 percent) and the states (all states) only $21 million (30 percent). The remaining $100 million (40 percent) would, hopefully, come from literature house-generated income: space rental, ticket sales, donors, grants, fundraisers, etc, leaving each literature house to raise two million dollars. And if the US Navy cedes just two F-35s, we could almost fund two literature houses in every state. This doesn’t include, as Litteraturhuset Director Weise observes, “rockets and cruise missiles.” Weise also sketches out another scenario: “The five-year contract that quarterback Derek Carr received this year would finance 50 houses of literature for five years on those terms—should [President] Trump decide to keep his fighter jets—with considerable less risk of brain concussions.”

My husband, who used to test lifeboat prototypes for oil rigs in the area of Stavanger, Norway, observed many small towns there contained underground parking lots that saved the villages from the blight of ugly, cement structures. Norway’s investment in infrastructure such as this, is an investment in the future and mirrors their investment in the arts; they do so because the country deserves it. “Literature,” my husband says, “is just another kind of infrastructure.” If the US funded literature the way it should be or could be funded, perhaps the emerging discourse it kindled would make more F-35s unnecessary.

Freeman is un-blinkered in his assessment of US national and business priorities: “You’d think one of the greedy (hopefully guilt-ridden) slobs who profited off the deregulation of our financial markets would have enough love of books to help the Y mimic the services literature houses provide. It astounds me that the San Francisco elites who have made themselves stupidly rich on Internet and tech speculation can’t lift a finger to help that city’s homeless, let alone build a literature house there… they have City Lights and a great Arts and Lecture series; still, is this enough for a place like San Francisco?” I’m happy places like the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Seattle Arts & Lectures, the Center for Fiction in New York, or 92nd Street Y exist, but we need to do more as a country to elevate stories, for storytelling can change perceptions and subsequently, change the world. And our world needs change. Desperately.

While capitalists may be writhing about such an expenditure, they can seek solace in that having a literature house may create healthy competition for similar businesses. “Theater halls and all kinds of cultural centers (bars even) all over the country have upped their game,” Gabrielsen says of Norway. Yes, we’ve got things backwards in the US, it seems, giving away our literature but not our beer. Knocking down historical buildings while erecting car lots the size of the box stores they service. Paying football players millions while our libraries suffer. Funding wars instead of education.

“Americans have bad manners,” Freeman says of it all. His solution? “A literature house feels like an exercise in the spirit of generosity, and in these times, that is more than a balm.”

*

Over the course of my stay in Oslo, I am lucky to spend time with a host of writers, critics, publishers, and other advocates of literature, all of whom have passed through the Litteraturhuset in one way or another, all of whom share a belief in the power of the written word.

After the Freeman’s event, we also share a few bottles of wine at the café before freewheeling over to an open-air event at Kunstnernes Hus (The House of Art), where we join a sprawling group of artists and journalists gathered under a tent to drink and converse, despite the near-horizontal rain. Our group huddles together. The rain? Nobody seems to care. “It’s just weather,” says Ane Farsethås, culture editor of Morgenbladet, one of the most important publications in the country. I think then, a house of literature could exist in the US. All it takes is like-minded humans who convene to provide a safe place for the expression of ideas in books. And humans who tolerate a little bad weather for the sake of it all. But I’m not naïve; a house of literature also requires a government that will prioritize writers, literature, and the arts over weapons. That takes money. And commitment. And a roof over our heads.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.




Kerri Arsenault
Kerri Arsenault
Kerri Arsenault is a writer, editor, and serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Book Review, NBCC’s Critical Mass, and Bookslut.







  • Center for Fiction

    New York City will have a space almost exactly like Oslo’s Litteraturhuset when the new Center for Fiction opens across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2018 with a bookstore, cafe serving food and drinks, terraces, rooms for discussion groups and writing workshops, reading rooms, writers’ studio, and a 150-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art A/V and broadcast capabilities. We’re really excited that there will be this space for public discussion and engagement in NYC. Now all we need is the apartment for writer residencies, but we working on that, too.

    • José

      Wonderful news! What month?

  • raincoaster

    So, all through this piece I was scanning for the funding, and I’m still wondering: is it 100% government funded? Because if the question is How Do We Do This Here, that seems like the obvious place to start.

    • Center for Fiction

      To do this here in NYC, as the Center for Fiction does, you have to fundraise like crazy every year.



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