View into the german literary scene

The Dieter Bohlenisation¹ of the book market

Michal Hvorecký © Michal Hvorecký
Michal Hvorecký © Michal Hvorecký
Michal Hvorecký
Freelance writer, Bratislava
I have been reading contemporary German literature since I discovered the library at the Goethe-Institut in Bratislava in 1991.
The huge collection of works old and new took my breath away.
Even at first glance, everything was different – the design, the covers, the blurb, and even the typography and typesetting.

I always borrowed a pile of books from the library and started to read right away on the tram.

I was fifteen then. Now I am twenty years older and am still an ardent reader. The better I know the German book culture, the more it fascinates me, although today, typically, one tends to talk of a book market. It took some time before I had read my way through the basic canon of German literature: The Elective Affinities, Effi Briest, Buddenbrooks, Beneath the Wheel, Professor Unrat, The Confusions of Young Törless, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, The Trial, The Sleepwalkers, The Reader, The Wall, Last Days of Mankind, The Tin Drum, Homo Faber, Malina. But also The Discovery of Slowness, Brother of Sleep, The Last World, Austerlitz, Perfume, Faserland, Measuring the World, Agnes, The Tower and Summerhouse, Later – and much more remains to be discovered. Sometimes a grandiose parable of guilt and atonement, sometimes the demise of the Western world, the crisis of European civilisation, marvellous studies or postmodern irony, but always a credible, suggestive, gripping narrative and a complex reading experience. Every novel, every book of stories and every poem reinforced my conviction that literature is the most important thing in the world. While the texts are set in different countries and epochs, all of them could be read as fragments of one single German story – and it was one that definitely could not leave me cold because it was also the story of my country, my city and my multicultural identity. The books not only significantly improved my knowledge of German, they also enhanced my imagination, showed me new worlds, introduced me to unforgettable people and fundamentally changed my whole life – these were stories that I read in order to be able to carry on living. The only path for a writer, as I understand the vocation, has not changed since the Enlightenment, and it involves being completely ruthless towards oneself and putting oneself at the mercy of the story one wants to tell.

In the last two decades, German literature, publishers and the entire book market have undergone radical change. For me, the literary scene is becoming more and more overwhelming. On the one hand, I am glad that printed literature continues to hold its own even in an age of the Internet and social networks. On the other hand, I am irritated by the incredible quantity of new publications, mass-produced in amazingly large print runs, where authentic contents are completely irrelevant. These mass productions - self-help manuals and feel-good or pulp fiction – involve marketing, good PR, plenty of advertising and increasingly over-the-top presentations of sensational material. This is Dieter Bohlenisation of the book market.

Modern Schemaliteratur (literature written in accordance with a predictable, conventional theme) strongly reminds me of the “socialist realism” of which I read plenty in propaganda lessons as a child – it is now once again becoming increasingly common to promote clear-cut moral views and to feign an ostensibly clear world view, merely in order to be sure to fulfil readers’ expectations. I am not particularly bothered by the fact that so much rubbish is being produced. What does bother me is that high-quality German literature in all its diversity is finding it more and more difficult to stand its own and less frequently reaches a broad readership.

For example, Clemens Setz’s debut novel Söhne und Planeten (Sons and Planets), published in 2007, is already considered to be very old and is hard to find in bookshops. It is only because it won several major literary awards that the book and its author and his radical and linguistically bold prose are still given the occasional mention, but there is an overwhelming media demand for new works.

A major political book of non-fiction from my region in recent years is much less well placed: Aufmarsch – die rechte Gefahr aus Osteuropa (Call to Arms. The right-wing threat from Eastern Europe) by Gregor Mayer and Bernhard Odehnal. As usual, the publisher gave the book a chance for three months and that was it. Even the Bruno Kreisky Award for Best Political Book did little to help. The book, which was published in 2010, is already out of print now in 2012 as if it had been published in 1981.

Or Peggy Mädler’s debut work Legende vom Glück des Menschen (Legend of Man’s Happiness), brilliant prose inspired by an illustrated book published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution. Although highly praised by literary critics, it did not sell particularly well. It will probably not come out in paperback and soon will be practically unobtainable. I have rarely read a text that portrays so much of the life of my childhood in Czechoslovakia.

I recently read the following statement in an Internet forum: “My greatest problem with contemporary literature is that there are hardly any torrents for German-language books.” Could collective file-sharing help writers like Setz, Mayer, Odehnal or Mädler? The main problem of many writers nowadays, both in Germany and Slovakia, is to stand out from the crowd of new publications. People talk of an attention economy and of building reputation capital.

A few months ago, I discovered that two of my audiobooks in MP3 file format along with three of my novels in e-book format were already available illegally on the Internet for downloading. Instead of angrily defending my “rights”, I put some of my works on the Internet free of charge. I would like these files to be shared. Most readers saw my electronic books as an extra titbit attracting them to, rather than replacing, printed books. I do not believe that e-books could seriously endanger my work in a literature business obsessed by copyright or could completely displace printed books from the book market, but were that to happen, I hopefully would be in a better starting position.

I am writing in a country where there is not a single literary institute and where there is no remuneration for readings – a working situation a published freelance German writer, accustomed to subsidies for the literature business, can hardly imagine. But writing is not easy anywhere in the world, and there are a good many places where it is much more difficult than in Bratislava.

Unfortunately, I am still the only writer from my country whose books are available on the German book market. I write reports, send links to Slovak writers and publishers, and translate reviews – to no avail. The response is that such a small literature is very difficult to market in Germany, the costs are too high and in times of crisis, success is uncertain.

That is also what I was told about the memoires of Žo Langerová, or Jo Langer. In her book Damals in Bratislava. Mein Leben mit Oskar L. (Convictions. My Life with a Good Communist), Langer tells the biography of a Jewish woman from a bourgeois entrepreneurial family who was born in Budapest in 1912 and who married a poor Jew from Bratislava. Oskar Langer, one of the founders of the Communist Party of Slovakia, organised the resistance to fascism and had to flee from the Nazis with his wife. After the war, he desperately wanted to return from the USA to realise a left-wing Utopia in Czechoslovakia. In 1951, he was arrested by Stalinists and sentenced in a show trial against “traitors”. Ten years in camps and prisons followed, with harassment, torture and, shortly after his release, death. This is an unforgettable story of the decline of the bourgeois Central European world, a book about the alienation of the intellectual in his epoch. Langer was a poet, writing of great futility, failure and farewell.

No German publisher wanted the book. Recently, it was published in English by Granta entitled Convictions. My Life with a Good Communist to rave reviews. Tom Stoppard called it a “classic”. To get this book published on the German book market after all, I will probably have to give Dieter Bohlen a call.

Michal Hvorecký
Michal Hvorecký, who was born in 1976, is a freelance writer living in Bratislava.
To date, he has published three novels and three books of stories. Three of his books
have been published in German, most recently, in 2012, his novel “Tod auf der Donau“
(The American Danube), translated by Michael Stavarič, which was published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta.

April 2012

¹Dieter Bohlen: A musician, producer and singer in the duo “Modern Talking“ and juror for television shows including the RTL casting show “Deutschland sucht den Superstar“, the German adaptation of “Pop Idol“