5 Icelandic Authors that Aren‘t Laxness

A man reading in a book shop corner.

It’s often said that the Icelandic nation is a nation of books. We read, write and publish a tremendous amount and have a rich history of literature going all the way back to the Icelandic Sagas of the 13th and 14th centuries. For those wanting to dig into the Icelandic literary tradition, the author you’ll be most likely to encounter in your search for books is probably Halldór Laxness. Having won the Nobel Prize, he is undoubtedly the most famous Icelandic author. He’s also well worth reading, but in case you already have, or if you just fancy something else, there are numerous other outstanding Icelandic authors you can choose from. Here are our top five recommendations.

Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir (b. 1974)

Sigríður is a well-known news anchor who had her first book published in 2016. Her debut novel, Blackout Island, was a smash hit among the Icelandic people. With a continuum of unusual plots, excellent writing and compelling character relationships, she‘s kept dazzling the nation. Her first and third novels have been translated into English. Both are outstanding representatives of modern Icelandic literature, but the third, The Fires, is perhaps the most remarkable Icelandic novel of the 21. century. It revolves around a series of volcanic eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula and was published in the fall of 2020, only a few months before the first in a series of still ongoing eruptions on the peninsula

Gunnar Gunnarsson (b. 1889, d. 1975)

A trailblazer in the context of Icelandic literature, Gunnar was the first Icelander to become a professional writer. Although he lived in Denmark for the first 30 years of his writing career and wrote his books in Danish, all of them are set in Iceland. His books were immensely popular, not only in Iceland and Denmark but across Europe, and in 1955, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. Over the course of his career, Gunnar published nearly 50 novels, short stories, poetry books and plays. Many of them, for example Advent, The Black Cliffs and Guest the One-Eyed, are considered among Icelandic classics and are still widely read. 

Jón Kalman Stefánsson (b. 1963)

It can be said without a doubt that Jón Kalman is one of the big names in modern Icelandic literature. Writing in a non-traditional form, his poetic and enchanting novels gained international attention following the Trilogy About the Boy and have been translated into numerous languages. He has been nominated for well-known prizes, such as the Man Booker and the Nordic Council, and has twice been considered a likely recipient of the Nobel. In 2005, he won the Icelandic Prize for literature for his novel Summer Light and Then Comes the Night, which was adapted into a movie in 2021. 

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (b. 1958)

An art historian turned writer in 1998, Auður has published eight novels, five plays and a poetry book, several of which have gotten her Icelandic and international nominations and prizes. The Greenhouse, Miss Iceland, and Hotel Silence were particularly well received. Auður‘s books, which have been translated into more than 25 languages, are often centred around communication, miscommunication and intriguing questions about humanity. Her writing is unostentatious and beautiful, a true testament to simplicity and quietude.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (b. 1950)

Steinunn grabbed the attention of the Icelandic nation at age 19 when her first poetry book, Sífellur, was published. She has since written more than 20 novels, novellas and poetry books and has become one of Iceland‘s most beloved writers. She‘s not afraid to give space to flawed and unlikeable characters, whom she commonly uses to explore the various aspects of love, be it unrequited, difficult, dramatic, obsessive, complicated, or something in between. Amongst her most critically acclaimed books are The Thief of Time, Place of the Heart and Yoyo

Four Icelandic Nominees for Nordic Council Literary Prizes

Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson listamaður

Four Icelandic authors have been nominated for Nordic Council Prizes in literature this year. Arndís Þórarinsdóttir, Guðni Elísson, Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson, and Rán Flygenring are Iceland’s nominees in the categories of Literature and Young People’s Literature. The winners of the Nordic Council prizes will be announced at a ceremony tonight, October 31, broadcast from the Oslo Opera House in Norway. RÚV reported first.

Children and Young People’s Literature nominees

Arndís Þórarinsdóttir is nominated for the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for her book Kollhnís (Somersault, not published in English), which the jury calls “a powerful and original novel about a difficult subject […] This is a story full of humanity and with a deep concern for its main theme – autism – and the complicated challenges accompanying it that both relatives and the individual face.” Arndís has previously been nominated for the same Nordic Council prize.

Rán Flygenring is also nominated for the Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for her picture book Eldgos (Volcanic Eruption, not published in English). “At first glance, Eldgos may seem like a lively and straightforward story about a mother, her son and oblivious nature, but it goes a lot deeper than that,” the jury states. “The story makes one think about prejudice, foolishness, danger and fear, and about the importance of taking responsibility for oneself in encounters with nature.” Rán has also been nominated for the same prize previously.

Literature nominees

Guðni Elísson’s novel Ljósgildran (“The Light Trap”, not published in English) is one of the nominees for the distinguished prize. “Ljósgildran is an extraordinarily well-crafted literary work that is brimming with the joy of writing,” the jury statement reads. “The author exhibits an extremely skilful mastery of the text in this original contemporary story where literally everything is at stake.”

Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson is nominated for his poetry collection Laus Blöð (Loose Sheets, not published in English). Each copy of the book comes with a unique bookmark containing instructions on the order in which the poems in that copy should be read. “Looking up the next poem with the help of a page number makes for an entertaining reading experience, much like playing a game or hunting for treasure,” the jury writes, also praising the book’s design, which is “quite simply a work of art.”

The Nordic Council Literature Prize has been awarded since 1962 and is given to a work of fiction written in one of the Nordic languages. The prize is intended to generate interest in the literature and language of neighbouring countries and the wider Nordic cultural community. In total, eight Icelandic projects and works of art are nominated for Nordic Council Prizes this year.


Record Sales at Icelandic Publishers’ Book Fair

Iceland Publishers' Association 2023 book fair

A total of 97,829 books were sold at the Icelandic Publishers’ Association book fair in Reykjavík, which ended yesterday, RÚV reports. That is over one book sold for every four residents of Iceland – or every 2.5 residents of the capital area. A recent study found that Icelanders read or listen to an average of 2.4 books per month.

The Icelandic Publishers’ Association has held a book fair since 1952, and this year’s edition ran from February 23 to March 12 at Laugardalsvöllur in Reykjavík. Bryndís Loftsdóttir, the fair’s CEO, says Icelanders are clearly excited about reading. “The last four years have been difficult, both because of the pandemic, but also because of crazy precipitation that also made it hard for us. But even though the weather has been cold now there’s nothing better than coming here and getting a good book and then snuggling up on the couch at home.”

Around 50% of the books sold at the market this year were children’s books. Fiction accounted for another 20%, while nonfiction books and puzzle books accounted for the remaining 30%.

A survey conducted last year by the Icelandic Literature Centre found that over a third of Icelanders read or listen to books on a daily basis. The average number of books read per month had risen between 2021 and 2022. In early 2022, audiobooks accounted for a third of books read in Iceland.

Prime Minister’s Crime Thriller Number 1 Book in Iceland

reykjavík glæpasaga

According to bookseller Penninn Eymnundsson, Reykjavík: A Crime Thriller, was the best-selling book in Iceland in 2022. The book was co-authored by PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Ragnar Jónasson.

The book concerns the disappearance of a young girl, and the eventual unearthing of her disappearance some 30 years later by a young journalist. Set against the historical backdrop of the Reagan-Gorbachev meetings and Reykjavík’s 200th birthday, the book has been well received by both readers and critics.

The book was published this October, in anticipation of Iceland’s annual “Flood of Christmas Books,” and sold well right from the start.

Other successful books this year include Játning (Confession), by Ólaf Jóhann Ólafsson and Eden, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. Perennial best-sellers include the collected Icelandic sagas, in English translation, and Independent People, by Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness, also in English translation.

Popular children’s books this year included works by Bjarni Fritzson, David Walliams, and Gunnar Helgason.

Read more about reading habits and literature in Iceland here.

Getting the Word Out

The Icelandic Literature Centre awards grants to some 80-100 translations from Icelandic to other languages each year. The number of applications for translation grants has been steadily increasing. Icelandic books have been translated into around 50 languages. Three recently published Icelandic to English translations:Three recently published Icelandic to English translations:Quake (Stóri skjálfti) by Auður Jónsdóttir (trans. Meg Matich).Salka Valka […]

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A Third of Icelanders Read Books Every Day, Study Finds

book literature Icelandic

Icelanders read or listen to an average of 2.4 books a month, according to a new survey conducted by the Icelandic Literature Centre. The survey notes an increase in the number of individuals who read five or more books a month and those who report not reading at all.

One in three reads every day

According to a new survey conducted by the Icelandic Literature Centre – which has been conducted annually since 2017 – the percentage of individuals who “never read” has increased (from 32.1% last year to 40.4% this year). However, so has the percentage of individuals who read five or more books a month. The survey, which was conducted between October 14 and November 8 of this year, comprised 1,409 respondents (out of 2,800).

The survey also found that over a third of Icelanders read or listen to books on a daily basis. The average number of books read per month has risen over the past two years; last year, Icelanders read an average of 2.3 books a month, compared to 2.4 books this year. 65% of respondents stated that they only or mainly read books published in the Icelandic language, which is up from 58% compared to last year.

Gender-based differences

The survey also found significant differences between the genders. According to the results, women read an average of 3 books a month compared to 1.7 among men. The gap between the genders has slightly narrowed between the last two years, however.

Here are a few other takeaways from the survey:

  • Older people read more than younger people; individuals between the ages of 18 and 24, which was the youngest age group to be surveyed, read fewer books on average when compared to older age groups.
  • University graduates read a greater number of books on average when compared to less formally educated individuals.
  • There is no significant difference between the reading habits of capital-area residents and rural residents.
  • Approximately 18% of Icelanders report reading an equal number of books published in Icelandic as in other languages; approximately 14% read more frequently in languages other than Icelandic; and about 3% of respondents stated that they only read books in languages other than Icelandic.
  • People under the age of 34 are more likely to read in languages other than Icelandic when compared to older age groups.
  • 27% of university students said that they read more frequently in languages other than Icelandic.

When it comes to the Icelanders’ taste in reading, most prefer novels, or 59%. Crime fiction was the second most popular genre among respondents.

Just over a third borrow books from libraries

Over a half of respondents, 55%, stated that they received book recommendations from friends and relatives; 35% stated they were influenced by coverage from traditional media; and 31% from social media.

Over the past 12 months, just over a third of Icelanders have borrowed books from libraries. The survey found that women borrow books from the library more frequently than men and parents with two or more children at home borrow books from the library most frequently.

The results also indicate that fewer people are giving books as gifts when compared to last year.

The survey was conducted by the Icelandic Literature Centre in collaboration with the Reykjavík Library, the Association of Icelandic Book Publishers, Hagþenki, the University Library, Reykjavík UNESCO Literary City, and the Writers’ Association of Iceland.

A Third of Icelanders Read Daily

icelandic books

A new report from the Icelandic Literature Center has shed new and interesting light on the reading habits of Icelanders. The annual study has been carried out since 2017.

On average, Icelanders listen to 2.4 books per month, with 32% of the nation reading at least once a day.

Read more: Rising Prices of Christmas Books

However, Icelandic readership is undergoing a notable shift, with both the groups of those who never read and those who “binge read” growing.

The study also reported a marked difference between the genders, with women reading significantly more than men. The gender gap also correlates with a gap in education, with the college-educated generally reading more than those with a secondary level of education.

Older people were found to read on average more than younger people, with the youngest group polled, those between 18 and 24, reading the least out of all groups.

In a comparison between the capital region and Iceland’s countryside, no significant difference was recorded.

Some 65% of Icelanders read either exclusively or mostly in Icelandic. This represents a slight change from last year, when the figure sat at 58%. 18% of those polled read equally in Icelandic and another language, with another 14% of residents reading more often in another language than Icelandic. Finally, 3% of those polled read exclusively in another language. The language difference also breaks down along age, with those 34 and younger generally reading in other languages more often than the older groups polled.

Read more: Audiobooks Account for a Third of Books Read in Iceland

Usage of public library resources was also recorded, with women again using the library more often than men. Among the top users of public libraries were households with two or more children.

The report, which can be read in full here, was authored in cooperation with the Reykjavík City Library, Association of Icelandic Publishers, Hagþenkir, the National and University Library of Iceland, Reykjavík UNSECO City of Literature, and the Writers’ Union of Iceland.

Rising Prices Likely to Affect Christmas Book Market

iceland christmas book

Inflation and the energy crisis in Europe are driving up prices for many consumer goods, and Christmas books are likely to be no exception this year.

Books are a traditional and popular Christmas gift in Iceland, so much so that the months preceding Christmas see a “jólabókaflóð,” or flood of Christmas books. The tradition is said to have originated during the Second World War, when products from Europe became scarcer. Books were largely printed locally and were seen as cheap and easily available Christmas gifts.

Read more: Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

In a statement to RÚV, chairman of the Association of Icelandic Book Publishers Heiðar Ingi Svansson stated that the industry hopes to avoid price increases as much as possible, but that some increases will be inevitable.

Heiðar outlined the factors contributing to rising costs: “the main ones are that the energy crisis in Europe is causing an increase in energy prices for the production of paper. In recent years, the supply of paper for book printing has also decreased due to the greater focus of paper manufacturers on producing paper for packaging production, due to the increase in online sales.”

Despite the energy crisis and rising costs, Heiðar says that the Icelandic publishing industry must still largely rely on Northern Europe for its needs. “The increase in transportation costs around the world and the fact that the state’s reimbursement of part of the production costs is limited to printing in Europe means that it is not possible for publishers to print books elsewhere in the world,” Heiðar stated. “Also, environmental considerations, including the carbon footprint, play a major role.”

Another factor keeping Icelandic publishing in Europe, and especially Germany, is the increasing time frame for printing books. Years ago, when paper was cheaper, publishers kept large stocks of paper. Now with increasing shift in logistics to “just in time” manufacturing, publishers tend to keep increasingly small stocks of paper, meaning that supplies have to be specially ordered for each print run. This means increased time between when the book is sent off to print and when it hits shelves. As a result of this, Icelandic book publishers are keen to keep the printing process as close to Iceland as possible to ensure on-time delivery.

Despite the bleak holiday forecast, Heiðar stated that “we are going to do everything in our power to hold back price increases on books before Christmas. The Christmas book is by far the most popular Christmas gift for Icelanders, and we plan to do everything we can to ensure that it remains so.”


Andrey Kurkov Wins the Halldór Laxness International Literature Prize

Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov is the recipient of the 2022 Halldór Laxness International Literature Prize, RÚV reports. The prize, which includes a purse of €15,000 [ISK 2.1 million; $ 14,946] is awarded to internationally recognized authors who have contributed to “a renewal of the narrative tradition,” which were the grounds for Halldór Laxness receiving the Nobel Prize himself in 1955.

One of Ukraine’s best-known novelists and the president of PEN Ukraine, Kurkov will receive the award in person at the University of Iceland on September 7. The award will be presented by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, after which, the author will deliver a lecture in English. The award ceremony will be followed by a reading with other authors at Iðnó in the evening.

Kurkov is the author of 19 novels, including the wildly successful and satirical Death and the Penguin, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, and 2020’s Grey Bees, which is set in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and details “his country’s past struggles with Russia.” This year, he’ll publish a book of his own personal diary entries, which he started writing on the eve of the Russian invasion.

He’s also written nine books for children, numerous documentary and TV scripts, and recorded an eight-part audio series for the BBC called “Letter from Ukraine,” detailing life in the country during the current war.

The Halldór Laxness International Literature Prize has been awarded since 2019. English novelist Ian McEwan was the first recipient, followed by Turkish novelist and activist Elif Shafak. Shafak was part of the selection committee for this year’s award, along with journalist Egill Helgason, of the books and literary criticism TV programme Kiljan, and director of the Reykjavík International Literature Festival Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir.

Audiobooks Account for a Third of Books ‘Read’ in Iceland

The popularity of audiobooks in Iceland has exploded in recent years, RÚV reports. A third of books ‘read’ in Iceland are now consumed in audio form.

The audiobook boom happened later than anticipated in Iceland, says author and literary scholar Halldór Guðmundsson. When digital music formats became the norm, it was expected that the Icelandic literary world would also naturally shift to digital and audio formats. This didn’t happen, however, in part simply because audiobooks were not being published in any significant way. The Icelandic Audio Library (previously known as the Library for the Blind) made audiobooks available to Icelanders who were unable to read printed material. But their collection was not accessible by the general public. Leaving the Audio Library’s collection out of the tally, therefore, a grand total of nine audiobooks were published in 2017. But just a year later, when Swedish audiobook retailer Storytel arrived in Iceland, audiobook publications skyrocketed, with 168 audiobooks published in 2018. This trend has continued apace: 770 audiobooks were published in Iceland in 2020.

A side benefit of this audiobook explosion, says Halldór, is that Icelandic books that have gone out of print are now readily available once again, as production costs are much lower than they would be if the books were republished in print format. He also noted that there are now authors who are have begun writing specifically for audio format, creating, in essence, a new literary genre as they go. “What’s interesting about it is that this could become, and in some cases has already become, its own literary genre: the audiobook. If you’re writing specifically for audio, you have to do things like introduce characters to the story a bit differently. It’s an aesthetics called ‘audio-first.’”

Audio books are also bringing many authors new audiences, something that Halldór—who wrote a celebrated, 824-page biography about Iceland’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner Halldór Laxness in 2004—knows from personal experience. “…The big plus is that you get new readers. All of a sudden, people who would have never attempted my doorstop [of a biography] about Halldór Laxness are getting in touch with me, and it takes a whole week to listen to that.” Indeed, the audio version of the biography, read in Icelandic by the author himself, is nine hours and nineteen minutes long. (An English version of the book, translated by Philip Roughton in 2008, was published under the title The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness.)

There is still, of course, room for improvement in terms of how authors are remunerated for audiobook publication. It’s a well-known fact, concedes Halldór, that musicians have not been treated equitably in this new digital streaming world and authors are not faring much better. Storytel, for example, only pays authors a little more in royalties than Spotify, “by far the worst” of the streaming platforms, pays its musicians. The company is up front about its payment rates, however, so while Halldór agrees that “author remuneration could be higher, no question,” he notes that there is still payment and the terms are clear from the outset.

Platforms like Storytel are pushing Icelandic publishers to release more audiobooks themselves. Looking at the example of Forlagið, the biggest publisher in Iceland, Halldór notes that the company only released a single audiobook in 2017. Whereas last year, Forlagið published 192 audiobooks. This only makes sense, Halldór concludes: you can’t look at the figures — a third of all books in Iceland being read by audio format — and let that sort of opportunity pass by.