For a small island, Iceland produces extraordinary authors, and not just a few of them. In a language spoken by only 350,000 people, over 1.500 titles are published each year, many of them from October to December, following a long-standing tradition of gifting beloved books for Christmas (Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood). If you are an Iceland aficionado, you probably came across that number saying that 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book during his life. At the beginning of the 20th century, a few young novelists emerged from the ocean of poetry published around that time, of which Halldór Laxness was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, for his novel Sjálfstætt fólk ("Independent People", 1934). Iceland can count on the following contemporary novelists to maintain this reputation and carry forward the traditions.
Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (born 1962), best known under his pen name, Sjón ("sight"), is one of Iceland’s most established authors, famous for his novels, poetry, plays, and frequent collaborations with Björk, as a lyricist. He began his writing career early, publishing his first book of poetry Sýnir ("Visions", 1978), at the age of… 16. What were you doing when you were 16? The author’s poetic skills and musical ear are very present in his novels, making his style easily recognizable and giving his narrative a playful character.
According to Sjón, what makes Icelandic authors so prolific is to be found in the nature of the Icelandic language, which remained almost unchanged since medieval times yet constantly enriched with new words, combined to the fact that writing is the only constant cultural activity that Iceland has ever had.
Arnaldur Indriðason (born 1961) previously worked as a journalist and film critic for the main Icelandic newspaper, Morgunblaðið, before starting a career as a freelance writer.
Indriðason has made a name on the international literary scene as a crime-fiction novelist, although the literary genre first aroused a certain amount of scepticism as regards the discrepancy of making one of the safest countries in the world, Iceland, the scene of rather haunting events, to say the least. He went from having little credibility and lack of realism to becoming one of the most exported Icelandic author, translated into more than 24 languages. One of his most popular series consists of 14 books featuring the protagonist Detective Erlendur, working tirelessly to solve crimes while dealing with his personal problems. In other books, Indriðason presents contemporary Reykjavik as well as Reykjavik in the 1940s during the British occupation.
While the Icelandic king of crime-fiction is not a question of debate, a few women authors could pretend to the queen title, from the rising star Lilja Sigurdardóttir and her worldwide best-seller Snare, to Iceland’s best known crime author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (born 1963) has a career as a civil engineer, but is well known for her children’s fictions and cycle of crime-fiction novels, of which there are currently 6 written from the perspective of the protagonist Þóra Gudmundsdóttir, a sharp-witted attorney. The success of the series was such that it was translated into 30 languages, the first book being Þriðja táknið ("Last Rituals", 2005). In her books, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir makes the most sensitive topics a central theme, and encapsulates well the essence of Iceland, seemingly peaceful yet sometimes worrying. She has become an expert in generating fear, and all of her darkly suspenseful novels will captivate you. Oskar Thor Axelsson released in 2017 a mystery-horror film based on Yrsa’s best-seller Ég Man Þig ("I Remember You", 2010). Will you dare watching?
Hallgrímur Helgason (born 1959) started out as a painter but soon became a novelist, poet, critic and translator. Helgason got his international breakthrough with the publication of 101 Reykjavik in 1996, which presents an interesting take on contemporary Reykjavik following the recent legalisation of beer in 1989. 101 Reykjavik was later turned into film by Baltasar Kormákur. His other best-known books include The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning (2008) and Konan við 1000° ("The Thousand Degree Woman", 2011). But Helgason is just as successful as an artist, having held over 30 solo exhibitions in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and France, and his works being on display in several art museums.
According to Hallgrimur, Iceland keeps people creative by being a special place where the regular volcanic eruptions create new lava fields, new mountains, forcing people to find names for them and live closely with the Icelandic language.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Auður Ava (born 1958) is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Iceland and successful author and poet. She has published five novels, a collection of poetry and four plays, along with writing lyrics for the Icelandic pop and electronic band Milkywhale. Her work includes Rigning í nóvember ("Butterflies in November", 2004), Afleggjarinn ("The Greenhouse", 2007) and Undantekningin ("The Exception", 2012). Under an apparent lightness, her novels sometimes question the very essence of existence through a delicate pen and subtle use of humour. At the end of 2018, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir got the Nordic Council Literature Prize for her novel Ör (2016), the highest honor for literature written in one of the languages of the Nordic countries, adding to a long list of awards she has won in recent years.
Andri Snær Magnason
Andri Snær Magnason (born 1973) is known as a writer and environmentalist whose work has already been published in over 35 countries. His most recent book, Tíkimakistan ("The Time Casket", 2013), received both the Icelandic literary Award and Children's book Award from Nordic Council. His other hit books include the dystopia Lovestar (2002), Sagan af bláa hnettinum ("The Story of the Blue Planet", 2003), a beautiful environmental tale taking place on a planet where there are only children and no adults, and Draumalandið ("Dreamland : A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation", 2006), a moving yet optimistic book illustrating the author’s active fight against the destruction of the Icelandic Highlands. Andri Snær Magnason took part of the realisation of a documentary based on the book, released in 2009.
Fun Fact ? Andri Snær Magnason was a candidate in the 2016 Icelandic presidential election.
Guðrun Eva Mínervudóttir
Gúðrun Eva Minervudóttir (born 1976) graduated in philosophy and could be becoming Iceland's new most celebrated young novelist. She is the author of a collection of philosophical stories for children and five novels, including Fyrirlestur um hamingjuna ("Lecture on Happiness", 2000), Yosoy (2005), and Allt með kossi vekur ("Everything Is Woken with a Kiss", 2011), for which she all received nominations or prizes to much acclaim. Gúðrun Eva Minervúdóttir’s novels fall a bit in the offbeat dramas category, where the author examines profound questions under quirky plots and emotional shifts.
Gúðrun says landscape must define its literature and its people, to some extent, and that she for instance clearly feels the effect of weather on her writing: « I cannot imagine writing anything without mentioning the wind. The wind is, and must be, one of the characters in any story that springs from here. »
Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Jón Kalman Stefánsson (born 1963) started his writing career as a poet but then decided to provide a different reading experience by exploring the great story of feelings through fictions. He became worldwidely famous with the fiction trilogy consisting of Himnaríki og helvíti ("Heaven and Hell", 2007), Harmur englanna ("The Sorrow of Angels", 2009) and Hjarta mannsins ("The Heart of Man", 2011), a blend of natural elements, emotions and literary references. His characters and the landscape in which they evolve are closely intertwined, from the omnipresent sea and lava fields, to endless nights, «a nature much more wild than the European continent, where the wild has been tamed »… And sometimes tainted ?
What? Have we already mentioned 8 authors? We would love to keep going and tell you more about Arni Þorarinsson, Lilja Sigurdardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson who will leave you shivering, or about Gerður Kristný’s wide range of talents whose books of poetry and children’s books are always acclaimed. Or perhaps you have come across remarkable Icelandic authors to complete this list?