View into the german literary scene

The Development of German Literary Criticism

Dr. phil. Helmut Böttiger
Dr. phil. Helmut Böttiger,
literary critic
Literary criticism cannot be separated from the development of journalism. And a fundamental paradigm change has taken place in journalism in recent years. Until a few years ago, the stock phrase used at press conferences held just before any major event was, “We welcome high-ranking guests from the fields of politics, industry and culture.” Now the wording is, “We welcome high-ranking guests from the fields of politics, industry and the media.”

This change says a great deal. The significance of culture has been taken over by the media, or rather the media have themselves become culture. In the nineties, newspapers set up special media sections, which had a conspicuous penchant for what in politics is called “palace gossip”. TV editors, producers and magazine-makers have attained unforeseen public prominence. The media are a self-referring system featuring a constantly increasing velocity of circulation and the interchangeability of individuals. It is no coincidence that at the same time, Niklas Luhmann created a furore in the academic milieu with his “systems theory”; it was a reaction consistent with the new developments. In Germany, Luhmann succeeded in gaining the high ground in the discourse over Jürgen Habermas. Systems theory took over from critical theory as the dominant mode of thought.

Journalism was increasingly scientised as a result. The new type of “media expert” also moved into newspaper journalism. That had an incisive impact on the old-fashioned genre of literary criticism. Traditionally, the literary critic says “I”. The German Romantics, particularly Friedrich Schlegel, developed literary criticism as a literary genre in its own right, counting it as primary literature. Ideally, the critic includes a reflection on his own subjectivity. From Friedrich Schlegel to Walter Benjamin, this set standards that still apply today. From an early date, however, this could be perceived as the opposite of more academically-orientated literary criticism that claimed to be speaking on behalf of scientific objectivity.

With the unleashing of the media that has been taking place since the eighties, this “objectivity” has been re-accentuated. In Niklas Luhmann’s approach, for example, there is no “I” anymore. Media studies defines journalism as a form of mediation rather than as a creative process – the focus is on the recipient’s needs, “information” with statistics, opinion polls and an assessment of what will appeal to majority taste. The culture sections of daily and weekly newspapers also responded accordingly. They soon came to resemble magazine journalism of the kind developed by political magazines such as Der Spiegel and a variety of other magazines and glossy gazettes. Magazines usually tell the individual writers what to write about and the editorial meeting develops concepts and formats that have to be filled by the writers, who are quite definitely interchangeable. The producer becomes more important than the interpreter. The leading medium of pop music has paraded this in virtuoso fashion. Magazines by no means see themselves as targeting special-interest minorities, but are audience-orientated. They make their living first and foremost from lifestyle themes and stories about well-known personalities, about celebrities.

It has been possible to observe over the years how the major daily newspapers gradually replaced their weekend features sections by a weekend magazine. Literary criticism, which used to be an exemplary discipline, has long since made way for interviews or reports featuring actresses, models and television presenters. In many places, the laws of the magazine have long since caught up with reviewing, even in leading weekly newspapers. Magazines are about the latest news, keeping up with events, an instinct for the moment. The purpose of writing is to meet existing expectations. And above all, it no longer has anything to do with criticism.

It is possible to see three key stages in the development of the relationship between literature and the media: Group 47, the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition held in Klagenfurt and the TV book discussion programme Literary Quartet. The defining feature of these stages is that literature was their starting point. Until 1967, Group 47 saw itself as a group of writers who convened for workshop discussions and exchanged harsh criticism in a spirit of solidarity. As time went by, it became possible to distinguish ever more clearly between a group of writers and a group of critics who were developing an ever sharper profile as professional critics. Initially this was a slow process, but it was greatly accelerated by Germany’s developing media market.

That was continued by the establishment by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, one of the critics who emerged from Group 47, of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt. It was here that that group’s principle was taken to its logical conclusion. The idea now was to have a major PR effect, to be relevant to the media. More than anything else, the writers were a pretext for the critics, the stars of the event. Literary Quartet, a new format for a television talk show, was a logical continuation of this. It did justice to the realistic relationship between authors and the media: there were no longer any authors, but only critics.

Literary Quartet pushed through nationwide what had been standardised as the final consequence of academic questions: majority taste. What has long been regarded as a criterion of broadcasting quality has also come to be taken for granted for newspapers’ features sections – high sales figures are evidence of importance. That is certainly worth a major article, beyond any criticism. The phenomenon as such is the subject. In his autobiography, Reich-Ranicki does not even mention the name of his predecessor as head of the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s literature desk, the brilliant intellectual Karl-Heinz Bohrer – the maximum penalty. Bohrer is only named as being the predecessor who “edited” the literary section “with his back to the audience.”

What do we mean by the “audience”? Is it a uniform mass, does it manifest itself in the bestseller lists? Are they all individuals who can be reduced to a single common denominator? Is there one audience or are there several? The half-life of the most important literary works published over a period of time usually differs from works whose publication is targeted precisely at the taste of the moment. At any rate, that can generally be determined after a certain period of time has passed, when it is possible to judge from a distance. At the moment, the relationship between critics and readers is shifting. Increasingly, the quality of a review seems to be shown in how precisely one can judge what will appeal to majority taste.

With all of this, of course, the question is, “Why is it the case that the traditional form of literary criticism in German newspapers still exists although it should have been shown to be inferior to magazine journalism long ago? Is it fighting a losing battle or does it simply have more stamina?” There is much to suggest that the phase of the initial media euphoria is slowly ebbing away. In industry, for example, the deficits in the wake of the New Economy of the nineties are becoming ever more apparent. The limits of the principle of shareholder value have meanwhile emerged, as have the disadvantages of all-too short-term profit expectations. Words like “sustainability” have suddenly become fashionable. And in comparison with the usual magazine journalism, literary criticism can definitely claim to stand for a certain sustainability.

There still are critics, including a number of younger ones, who are committed to the essayist ideal of encountering literature with its own means and of doing justice to it in its own terms. There are still some amazing retarding moments in the German features sections, when critics refuse to pay tribute to the latest hyped up trash that has a consensus in its favour. Criticism may involve opposing what appears to be a general consensus – just as literature is not there to copy what we already know. Literature needs more than mere media competence.

Dr. phil. Helmut Böttiger
– was born in Creglingen in 1956.
Senior Literary Editor for publications including the “Frankfurter Rundschau”.
Since 2002, he has been a freelance writer and critic in Berlin.

His publications include:
Ostzeit - Westzeit. Aufbrüche einer neuen Kultur (Munich 1996),
Nach den Utopien. Ein Panorama der deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur (Vienna 2004) and
Celan am Meer (Hamburg 2006).
He curated the exhibition “Doppelleben”. Literarische Szenen aus Nachkriegsdeutschland in 2009.
He was awarded the Ernst Robert Curtius Prize for Essay Writing in 1996.
Guest professorships for literary criticism in Berlin and Göttingen.

March 2011