On Literature

    Serving Author, Reader, and Publisher
    A Conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of a Leading German Publishing House

    The digital revolution is making big changes to almost all areas of our lives and habits – including reading books. How is one of Germany’s biggest publishing houses meeting these challenges? Our author Alem Grabovac spoke to Raimund Fellinger, editor-in-chief of the Suhrkamp publishing house, about e-books, manuscripts he has rejected, and the extent to which editors influence their authors.

    Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. The major German publisher Suhrkamp moved house in 2010: this is its new home. It now rents two floors of this classical-style building that once housed a linen factory and later a tax office. I take the lift up to the fourth floor. Portrait photos of the founders, Peter Suhrkamp and Siegfried Unseld, hang in the entrance area. The dark, windowless corridors are lined with metal shelves that reach right up to the ceiling and are filled with countless colourful Suhrkamp books. An employee leads me into the office of the editor-in-chief. Raimund Fellinger, with his characteristic moustache and side parting, is just finishing typing an e-mail. His desk is piled high with manuscripts. On the bookshelf behind him is a photo of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. They’re playing chess.

    Alem Grabovac: Mr Fellinger, is there a story to that photo?

    Raimund Fellinger: Siegfried Unseld gave it to me as a memento of the evenings we spent playing chess together. We played chess more or less once a week for years.

    Who was the better chess player?

    Unseld, without a doubt.

    Tell me about your first conversation with Siegfried Unseld. What impression did he make on you?

    Lowly editor, great publisher.

    What made him a great publisher?

    I could write a book about that. But I suppose the very short answer would be that he was never predictable. He always had another idea and then another and would single-mindedly put them into action. And he was usually right about his projects. One of his greatest coups was certainly the launch of the ‘edition Suhrkamp’ paperback series. Initially, everyone was against the idea.

    Did he ever reject a manuscript that later went on to be a huge success for another publisher?

    We’ve all done that. It’s unavoidable. He rejected Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, for example. But we all know better in hindsight. We were Eco’s publishers and had published some of his academic works. Then along comes the literature professor and says he’s written a novel. For heaven’s sake: what are you supposed to do? Unseld said, ‘Go to him. Make him an offer. But we’re not giving him more than 10,000 marks.’ Shortly afterwards there was the trade fair: okay, let’s give him 15,000. Then Michael Krüger from Hanser Verlag came and offered him maybe 18,000. And that was it. Umberto Eco and his global bestseller were gone.

    Has anyone slipped through your fingers?

    There’ve been two recently. One was Stéphane Hessel’s essay Time for Outrage!, which became a huge success. It wasn’t analytical enough for my liking and we didn’t have a suitable format for such a slender volume. Then there was André Gorz’s Letter to D: A Love Story. I was uncomfortable with it; I didn’t have enough courage. His wife was seriously ill, and they agreed that they would both commit suicide. Before they did, he wrote a book about it. It annoys me that we didn’t take it.

    You’ve been an editor at Suhrkamp since 1979. How did you get the job?

    You can’t do a degree in editing. I studied German, Linguistics, and Political Science. To this day we don’t advertise editorial jobs here at Suhrkamp. I was recommended by someone. There were a few interviews and then I was asked to write a report about a book by Pierre Bourdieu. Obviously I didn’t make too bad a job of it.

    What does an editor do?

    Look at manuscripts, most of which we won’t publish. An editor has to edit and correct texts. Incidentally that’s one of the things I love about working at Suhrkamp: there’s a simultaneity of literary and academic, theoretical work. An editor has to discover authors, talk to them, be able to deal with them tactfully on a psychological level. An editor has to know about contracts and understand how a book is made and structured. In addition, an editor writes the marketing texts and promotes the publishing house to the public.

    What kind of disputes do editors have with their authors?

    All kinds! Dissatisfaction with the title selected for the novel; the rejection of manuscripts from other writers that the author has suggested for publication; rejection of their own ideas; excessively long waiting times – the manuscript should have been submitted earlier; the book should have been marketed better; the payment is too low... Anything and everything that moves authors and publishers. It’s all in a day’s work for an editor.

    Who was your biggest discovery?

    All of them. I don’t know whether any of my authors will read this interview. I can hardly say this one or that one was my best discovery; I’d run the risk of upsetting the others.

    How many unsolicited manuscripts does Suhrkamp get every year, and who reads them all?

    About 3,000. And who reads them? Well, you know after the second sentence whether the author can write or not. And after the second paragraph you’ve already formed an opinion and know whether the manuscript is suitable or not.

    What characteristics should a good editor have?

    Lots. First of all, good old-fashioned work discipline. Let’s look at text work for a moment. There’s the basic theory that, in principle, everything you read might be wrong. Let’s say, for example, we have a sentence that reads: The book is lovely. Fine, but is that really correct in this context? Shouldn’t it read ‘The book is colourful’, or ‘The book is intellectual’, or perhaps even both? Editors have to read texts from the perspective that every sentence could be incorrect. For that, of course, you need a certain background knowledge. A colleague of mine once said, ‘Just don’t go to Fellinger, he’ll rewrite the train ticket you submit for travel expenses.’

    I’ve heard it said that some writers, such as Raymond Carver, have been heavily influenced by their editors. How much of Fellinger’s style is there in the works of your authors?

    That is a complete and utter myth. Who do these editors think they are? That is pure, unadulterated hubris. I can’t abide editors like that. They disgust me. Anyone who says that is vain through and through. Why didn’t this editor write something himself? Why didn’t he go off and write a novel? Let him write something! Quite obviously he can’t. Living off other people’s good reputations! There is no Fellinger in any of the books I’ve worked on. There are books I’ve edited to a greater or lesser degree, but only edited in such a way that they serve the style of the author. Even if I were to say to Handke or to Bernhard, ‘Change this or that,’ that doesn’t make it a Fellinger. This is Bernhard: ‘Mr Bernhard, you can’t write on page 20 that the room is small and the ceiling only two metres high and then put a four-metre-high cupboard in it a hundred pages later.’ You spot things like that if you’re reading a text carefully.

    You were editor to Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke at the same time. It’s well known that these two writers absolutely loathed each other. Did you ever face a conflict of interests?

    Bernhard once said, ‘Now I have to go to Handke’s stupid editor.’ That’s an Austrian quirk; they like to be a bit wicked once in while. This example highlights something very clearly: an editor cannot be devoted to one literary style. You cannot say that an author has to write like Handke or Bernhard. You have to be able to edit both without deviating from their respective styles. If you take this concept further, you could say that the editor is a brown-noser. With Bernhard he’s a Bernhard, and with Handke he’s a Handke.

    Were you friends with both of them?

    Bernhard wasn’t friends with anyone. He never let anyone get close to him. He was a solitary man, but one who always sought society and could really shine in company. He was incredibly humorous and was sometimes capable of telling terribly corny jokes. But of course he could also write nasty letters and make nasty phone calls. For some reason I once asked him to sign his book Extinction for me. I never usually ask writers I work with to do that. And he just wrote this one terse sentence: ‘To my beloved error detector’.

    What was your relationship with Handke like?

    Very cordial. By the way, if anyone is solitary, it wasn’t Bernhard, as I just suggested, but Handke. Of course he has friends and people who say they’re his friends and who flatter him and lick his boots because they want something from him. He also has enemies. But he’s still very solitary. Writing and being human are inextricably linked in him, far more so than in any other author I know. But I’m not suggesting that’s a character deficit. Quite the opposite.

    Do you read e-books?

    Of course. I have to.

    Are Suhrkamp e-books identical copies of the printed book?

    So far, they are. But that doesn’t mean they always will be.

    Is it enough just to sell an e-book for two or three euros less than the printed version? Shouldn’t e-books be multimedia experiences? For example, shouldn’t they include videos about the author, music, links to themes mentioned in the book, opportunities to interact with the texts? Shouldn’t Suhrkamp be forging ahead, breaking new ground, like it did with the printing and design of paperbacks, and imprints like Insel books?

    You’re talking about so-called enhanced e-books. This is an experimental area. In reality, people want e-books to cost a little less than a paperback.

    Are you afraid of Amazon?

    Put it like this: I’m not happy about the situation.

    Let’s suppose that some young entrepreneurs from the digital media world were to come along and say that Suhrkamp is a crusty old publisher of classics that has missed the boat, been left behind. What would you say to that?

    Why do you think we’re incapable of learning? These things have to happen step by step. We have a Suhrkamp blog, which we call ‘Logbook’, a website with films about the authors, and lots of other things. We’re on the ball. In a period of transition, we have to look and see which traditional things can be kept, what doesn’t work, and what it makes sense to do. We’re on the right track. We’re in a good position.

    In this digital age, is a second ‘Suhrkamp culture’ of the kind that once famously shaped intellectual life in this country possible? Could it happen again?

    There’s a lot that says it could. It isn’t as if e-books have set new standards. There are no new standards. At the moment everything is in the making.

    Alem Grabovac works as a freelance author and journalist in Berlin. His bookshelves contain several hundred Suhrkamp paperbacks.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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