View into the german literary scene

Central European literature in German–language publishing houses

Katharina Raabe © J. Bauer
Katharina Raabe ©
Katharina Raabe, Editor of Eastern European Literatures at Suhrkamp Verlag
Contrary to a common prejudice, books from Central Europe have a firmly established place in German–language publishing houses. It continues to be regarded as difficult to discover and publish a Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak or Slovenian author. But there are readers at literary publishing houses who use their powers of persuasion to ensure that a chance is given not only to Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Froer, Monica Ali and Aravind Ariga, but also to new voices from our immediate neighbourhood, such as Petra Hůlová and Martin Šmaus, Dorota Masłowska and György Dragomán.

Even the names betray the imbalance, however. On the one hand, there are writers who have been translated from English, the world language, who are much in demand on the international market, and on the other, there are their colleagues from so-called small literatures and language areas who come up against a hierarchically conditioned lack of interest. It is all the more remarkable that for some time now, it is not only the small publishers in Germany that have been taking an interest in the “small literatures”. Measured against their invisibility in the turnover statistics of the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, writers and books from Central Europe are creating an amazing buzz.

Different publishers have largely identical motives for moving into the tough terrain between marginalisation and subsidy, niche and refuge, exclusivity and being under threat. These is curiosity about what is unfamiliar and surprising, the feeling that they have a long way to go to break down mental barriers, the conviction that there are great narrators in Central Europe waiting to be discovered, writers who have somthing to say to us, books that are helping to write a common European memory, the discovery of a forgotten neighbour. “Especially in Vienna,” says Bettina Wörgötter (Zsolnay/Deuticke), “we want to communicate something about the Central European cosmos.” For Martin Mittelmeier (Luchterhand), Central Europe is “the laboratory that shows how society is changing.”

Depending on the publishers’ market position, there are quite considerable differences in the selection criteria for the books, however. Significant small publishers such as Matthes & Seitz, Friedenauer Presse, Neue Kritik and Droschl–Verlag develop their clearly–profiled programmes in a literary environment that has developed over decades and has always been open to writers from Central Europe. Authors are published, says Rainer Götz (Droschl), who correspond to other authors of the publishing house, books that are in conversation with one another aesthetically and thematically. These publishers create a milieu, an intellectual brand. They are distinctive. A decision-making criterion is that they have a binding character rather than being fortuitous. “Someone who is interested in Michel Butor is also interested in Milada Součková,“” says Andreas Rötzer, a publisher at Matthes & Seitz Berlin. He knows that the readership for both is small. Rather than publishing coming–of–age novels that are all the same like the commercial publishers do, he and others decide to publish works that are “unsubstitutable”.

Literary quality before commercial clout is also the maxim of medium–sized publishers. “Aesthetically dense texts at the cutting edge” are what Martin Mittelmeier is looking for, regardless of whether they come from the Czech Republic or Germany, Israel or Argentina. Suhrkamp and Hanser, too, have a long tradition of publishing modern Central European literature. Companies that have been publishing Gombrowicz and Hrabal, Kis and Konrád since the nineteen-sixties, are now arranging a new translation of Bruno Schulz’s Zimtläden or discovering a “Polish Proust” in forgotten writer–in–exile Zygmunt Haupt.

When it is a matter of sales potential, however, accessibility is the overriding criterion. “Things become difficult as soon as narrative conventions unfamiliar to Western readers come into play,“ says Hella Reese, who is responsible for dtv’s Premium Series. She was only able to persuade her employer to publish the Czech writer Martin Šmaus by arguing that he addressed “Roma issues”, while in the bookshops it helped to say that this was a novel “from the heart of Europe”. These are authors who can tell a story and are accessible but who also have something to say and who do not overtax the reading habits of an audience used to Anglo–Saxon, plot–driven literature. Tanja Graf, who discovered Sándor Márais’ Glut for the German market while working as an editor for Piper and who now manages her own publishing house, is sure that the urbane flair of the inter–war period in Central Europe and the nostalgic charm, elegance and cosmopolitanism of writers such as Márai and Szerb was what helped the world to discover them. Traditional poetry and doing without historical background knowledge are these books’ trade secret. The more complex the material, the less accessible it becomes.

“Why don’t  you give Latvian literature a chance? Why do you still not have a Slovak author in your programme?“ The answer to questions of this kind from committed and specialised literary agents, whether they work in national book foundations or on behalf of authors as scouts and translators, is that we do not publish national literature, but authors. For books to be able to establish themselves, they have to be contextualisable and translatable. They also have to be about us, to move us existentially, to enrich our literary experience. That is the only way that we can sell them, and even then it is still hard enough.

Aleksandar Tišmas’ Gebrauch des Menschen, Péter Nádas’ Buch der Erinnerung, Imre Kertész’ Roman eines Schicksallosen and Hanna Krall’s Existenzbeweise were epoch–making books in the lives of many German–speaking readers because they gave an insider’s account of survival during the Shoah and of the Stalinism that followed. They presented Central Europe as a mortuary; a zone of crime under Hitler and Stalin, where expulsion, uprooting and the misery of millions affected every family. This horrendous material will provide literature with much to grapple with for a long time to come. Poetic surveyors such as Andrzej Stasiuk, Yuri Andruchovych and Olga Tokarczuk have explored this scorched earth as a post–battle landscape, creating poetry at the frontier and myths on the periphery. The confusion of the period of transformation and Central Europe as a territory in upheaval that is more exposed and vulnerable to the effects of globalisation than the West call for an “imperative” literature that tells us in visionary and powerful fashion of what lies ahead of us, too.

The best translators are needed to convey all this in German. For 15 years, politicians had enough sense to grant generous support. The accession of the Central European countries to the EU, falsely equated with an eastern enlargement of peoples’ consciousness, meant the end of this intensive funding policy and thus the end of many projects. Yet in order to prevail in the marketplace, more is needed that just translation funding. The greatest care and professionality are required to translate a book from a small, Central European language, to edit it and to launch it on the market. You have to know how to sell what to whom. It has to be possible to transform the selection criteria referred to above into sales arguments, such as “a European novel full of pleasure in allusions, wit and cosmopolitanism” written by a “Slovenian Camus”, or a “turbulent story from an epoch–making age,” or “both tragic and ludicrously funny”. When we way that a literary work is brilliant story–telling, colourful, richly anecdotal and humorous, says Sabine Baumann (Schöffling), we are attesting that this is literature we secretly know to be as  unpopular as a problem film.

Even the many succès d’estimes do nothing to change the fact that the “small” literatures from Central Europe are banished to marginalism on account of the hierarchical market structures. What would help to change this? Image campaigns? International publishing alliances? Political demands? Whether we are talking about the centre or the periphery, a niche or the mainstream, in view of the incalculable upheavals in the book market, one may ask oneself whether it is not the niches that will ultimately have a better chance of survival. For the time being, however, the aim has to be to keep networks alive in order to find the best books, to read untiringly, to calculate sensibly and only to realise projects in which we really believe.

Katharina Raabe
Editor of Eastern European Literatures at Suhrkamp Verlag

October 2011

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