Frankfurt Book Fair 2012 Listening, Reading, Learning

The pavillon of Newsealand at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012; photo: Gesa Husemann
The pavillon of Newsealand at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012 | Photo (detail): Gesa Husemann

The Frankfurt Book Fair 2012 took place from October 10 to 14 with New Zealand as one of the focal points. What were the others? What happened at the fair and around it?

“The sweet potato does not say how sweet it is” – with these words Bill Manhire described at the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair the understatement characteristic of New Zealand and its people. New Zealand was this year’s featured country at the fair and Manhire is a leading figure in his nation’s literature, not only as a poet but also as Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters, which is dedicated to promoting contemporary New Zealand literature. The country’s pavilion at the fair reflected the understatement that he proclaimed. It was clean-lined, unadorned, consistently minimalist, optimally embodying in its completely black, light-impervious lining the motto “while you were sleeping”.

The clear focus of the guest country’s appearance at the fair, which primarily found expression in live performances, was, as announced, Maori culture: here it had its stage and was the subject of the show, which took place on a large scale on the central, ceiling-high screens. New Zealand presented itself multi-medially; books hung in small numbers only unobtrusively on the back of the screens, almost hidden – a statement that the book has been replaced as medium of literary communication? Thus the printed body of New Zealand literature, which from its beginnings has almost exclusively been shaped by the “Pakeha”, the white immigrants, barely came to expression because of the focus on the Maori. Pakeha literature long dominated the New Zealand canon; now the stage belongs to other protagonists. Still, great names such as Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield found mention at the events by the newer generation of writers, which was well represented at the fair by seventy authors.

Latest contemporary German literature at a rapid pace

Naturally the fair was about much more than only the featured country. The faces of the latest contemporary German literature showed themselves in swift succession. Writers such as Sybille Berg, Jenny Erpenbeck, Stephan Thome, Ulf Erdmann Ziegler and Wolf Haas presented their new releases of this year at the prominent exhibition venues: at the blue Sofa, at 3sat reads, at the ARD Forum and the fair stage of the FAZ. Not everyone found the full half hour to follow the conversations between moderator and authors in the steady roaring bustle of the fair; there was a constant coming and going.

The Weltempfang – content instead of star factor

Fortunately, it was not like that everywhere. The Weltempfang – Zentrum für Politik, Literatur und Übersetzung (i.e., World Reception – Center for Politics, Literature and Translation), which the fair director Juergen Boos in his opening address called the “heart of the fair”, turned out to be the place where the bustle of the fair was truly decelerated. For four days, the stage in Hall 5 made an approach to Africa in particular with various events. The Weltempfang, stressed Boos at the opening, is about exchange, about many voices – the “star factor” is not the deciding element here. The international discussion sessions were given for a full hour and so made room for deeper discussions of themes that revolved round, for example, publishing and e-publishing in sub-Saharan Africa, culture after the division in the crisis region of the Sudan, art and culture in post-revolutionary Egypt and the state of Turkish literature in Germany. The audience of these discussions was unusual for the fair: it was steady, come to attend and not to go again soon. It was rewarded with guests who described situations such as the upheavals in Egypt at first hand and shared quite personal experiences and opinions, as for example the Egyptian writer Khaled Al-Khamissi, who spoke about his position as an eternal member of the opposition.

What will the publishing of the future look like?

In addition to content, the Frankfurt Book Fair of 20212 also devoted itself to the issue of communication: how should content be made accessible to the reader? If in past years the catchword “eBook” was in every mouth, this year the magic word was “self-publishing”. The discussions regarded self-publishing with ambivalence – on the one hand, an opportunity that allows writers to publish with self-determination and a greater degree of profit sharing; on the other hand, a business that exploits hope, in which the writer not infrequently loses his self-invested money and remains unsuccessful. The prognosis of the discussion coincided with those on the eBook controversies: just as the eBook will not completely replace the printed book, so self-publishing will not replace established publishing houses. Self-publishing should be seen only as a complementary measure; and the switch to a reputable publisher is in fact often the goal of self-publishing writers.

In 2013 the special theme of the fair will be Brazil. “I’m not here to explain something to you, but to confuse you” will be the motto in line with which next year’s Brazilian pavilion will be designed. It should be interesting and we may hope that, next year again, the fair will exceed the 280,000 visitors mark.