A book with seven recent texts on the theory and empiricism of sakprosa, a word most often translated as “non-fiction”, can now be read with open access at the publisher Palgrave Macmillan. Here, Kjell Lars Berge and Per Ledin contribute with a chapter that must be said to be at the cutting edge of research. The two veterans of sakprosa research launch nothing less than a whole theory about texts as “cultural artefacts”. It is not a bold prediction that the chapter will be found on many syllabus lists in the years to come. The book will perhaps disappoint those who expect investigations of non-fiction books in paper format. This time the main emphasis is placed on what I have proposed to name “functional sakprosa”, i.e. non-fiction outside the literary institution.
Our Finnish colleagues Merja Koskela, Mona Enell-Nilsson and Cecilia Hjerppe examine small but important changes in the genre of “Corporate Responsibility Reports” (CRS), while Swedish Gunilla Almström Persson provides a detailed examination of the Swedish authorities’ crisis communication during a terrorist attack in Stockholm. In both chapters we learn something new about the intimate connection between technology, cf. the “artifact” in Berge and Ledin’s chapter, and the prose. Dane Jack Andersen makes this the main theme in his investigation of the Danish website that covers all citizens, borger.dk, and of the website of an international publishing house. He asserts and demonstrates that digital media is simply “are the modern communicative infrastructure in which all other cultural artifacts are either embedded or inscribed into.”
However, the literary non-fiction is not completely ignored. Two Norwegian researchers, Iben Brinch and Siri Nergaard, have been central teachers in the non-fiction master’s program at the University of Southeast Norway. They describe different types of students – and stages in students’ writing. The students can alternately be “sheep, watchdogs and wolves”. We learn how the study has contributed to both constituting and partly radically challenging the understanding of sakprosa that has been cultivated particularly in the research environment at the University of Oslo.
The book’s editorial staff is Swedish-Norwegian: The sakprosa researchers Catharina Nyström Höög, Henrik Rahm and Gøril Thomassen Hammerstad have edited the book in an excellent manner. In their opening chapter, they introduce the term and phenomenon of sakprosa to an international audience and present this Nordic research tradition in the light of theoretical directions that have been central. This applies, among other things, to dialogism, genre theory, discourse studies and, especially in recent years, investigations of texts rooted in everyday social practice where multimodal texts form parts of chains of actions and utterances. The editors also tell us about the background for this book publication: It stems from a Nordic workshop series that sakprosa professor in Helsinki Pirjo Hiidenmaa commendably initiated in 2017.
Sakprosa as a mountain guide
In the concluding chapter, I myself take the readers on a hike in the heights where I let the sakprosa term itself be a “mountain guide” who points out five places or topoi where I believe the term provides explanatory power: the city, the anthill, the choir, the courthouse and the borderland. In the city, there is both the large, common public and the many sub-publics. Working life’s anthill is increasingly made up of texts. Non-fiction texts are almost without exception a chorus of voices, but often a “homophonous“ chorus”, where different voices accompany the main voice. At the court, which here also includes the parliament (cf. Norwegian Storting), the actors negotiate and make decisions via authoritative prose genres. And both in literature and everyday prose there is a flurry of expressions on the border between fact and fiction. This can be a threat to democracy, as when a Trump broadcasts his lies and half-truths, and it can be an aid to new understanding and realization, both when a Knausgaard weaves together the documentary and the fictional and when the good pedagogue resorts to good stories and fairy tales.
But how should the word “sakprosa” be translated when this Nordic term is internationalized? In the book, a push is made, with strong support in my final chapter, to introduce sakprosa, the prose of “things”, “matters” or “issues”, as a new idiom in English, along the lines of the Scandinavian idioms “slalom” and “ombudsman”. The proposal to simply write sakprosa is implemented throughout the book. However, neither mountain guides nor sakprosa professors alone manage to make a new idiom take over, nor to gain traction for the complicated “subject-oriented prose” or to abolish the negative term “non-fiction”.
Nordic research on non-fiction has been quite vital since this field was coined some thirty years ago. A great deal has been published in Scandinavian languages, not least through the journal Sakprosa. After the Norwegian government recently introduced measures to strengthen Norwegian professional language in academia, some have opposed and strongly criticized the value of publishing in languages other than English, cf. this interview with political scientist Tore Wiig in Norwegian Forskerforum. In the sakprosa environment, we have been supporters of a parallel language practice and will probably continue to do so. But perhaps we have not been sufficiently focused on the world outside the Nordic countries. Hence it is high time for a combined international publication that unabashedly uses the term sakprosa as a framework for understanding. It will not be the last, and in the next book the literary sakprosa will probably have a wider place.
Catharina Nyström Höög · Henrik Rahm · Gøril Thomassen Hammerstad (ed.) Perspectives on the Discourse of Things. Nonfiction Texts Helping Us Navigate and Understand an Ever-changing Reality. Palgrave Macmillan 2023, 166 p.