- Changing Social Conditions—Changing Auto/BiographyThe Year in Denmark
The kind invitation to write an essay on recent life writing in Denmark gave rise to two lines of reflection: first, the question of biographies as a genre, and second, what would be significant in a specifically Danish context. Working academically with auto/biographical texts as well as teaching students the use of narrative material, I have witnessed a change in the genre over the years. Previously, both comprehensive biographies and more partial accounts of peoples' lives customarily aimed at understanding issues of a more general kind: for example, the development of a profession (Bertaux and Bertaux-Wiame), or the consequences of increasing state intervention in society's institutions (Goodson and Hargreaves). Today, auto/biographical material seems to aim for a perspective on the individual life, leaving the reader to make possible connections outside that life, rather than endeavoring to capture significant general trends in society.
Denmark is a small country of 5.5 million inhabitants. Despite numerous political parties ranging from very right-wing to very left-wing, the vast majority of political contenders voice a social democratic desire for a welfare society with high tax rates, free education, a comprehensive health care system, and wide-reaching social services. As in many other European countries the population is ageing. Until the 1950s Danish society was mainly agrarian, but as in most European countries, the labor market has changed under the influence of globalization. The younger generation aims for university degrees or seeks to work within media and cultural spheres, even though politicians try to persuade students that natural science and technology are much better choices. Consequently, workers from former Eastern bloc countries fill the gaps in industry, and jobs within traditional domestic fields are taken up by migrants. These changes are visible in Danish biographies published in 2018. As we shall see, migrants, people writing after retirement, and media personalities are among the active authors of biographies. [End Page 48]
Framing Danish Auto/Biography
My perspective on life writing takes a sociological starting point, which, following Darnton, focuses on book production that encompasses several actors: authors, publishers, printers, book shops, libraries, and readers. I want to see if and how society's general development is mirrored in the production of auto/biography. To start, I searched the public library system using the keyword "biography" to find 841 book entries for 2018. This is a significant number considering the view commonly held in publishing and bookselling circles that "so few people are reading." Statistics show that books about "personal history" (autobiography and memoir are not counted separately) have increased by 81 percent from 2007 to 2018 (Danmarks Statistik). How can we interpret this growth in production within a shrinking market as the number of readers drops? Do the changes in Danish society described above play a role in understanding the publication of auto/biography in 2018?
As a foundation for addressing these questions, I repeatedly read the material enabling me to identify, apply, scrutinize, and modify how I could categorize the biographies. This was a bottom-up process that enabled successive refinement until a satisfying result for further analysis was reached; I found the categories of publisher, producers/authors, and content suitable as themes for further analysis and as a structure for my discussion of the specificities of Danish biographies appearing in 2018.
Publishing in Denmark has since the 1990s been characterized by concentration and contraction (Hertel). Concentration describes the way that the production of books is managed by fewer but bigger actors, and contraction describes the shrinking number of readers, libraries, and book shops. Over-concentration led to an upsurge in small and independent publishers: by 2016, 89 percent of the publishing bodies produced 10 or fewer titles per year. But we also need to consider where the biographies are being published. In the same year, 62 percent of the biographies were published either by large publishing houses (comprising four publishers and their imprints, with a yearly turnover above 30 million DKK, and including 40 percent of the market for sold books) or by small publishers (comprising a multiplicity of publishers/individuals, none...