Comic literature Hostile to humour? German critics versus comic literature

Jakob Hein
Jakob Hein | Photo (detail): © Katharina Behling

According to the authors Jakob Hein and Jürgen Witte, representatives of the comic genre are being consistently ignored. Are the people in the culture sections and on the literary juries really that narrow-minded?

What have Uwe Tellkamp, Ursula Krechel and Terézia Mora got in common? Or Friedrich Christian Delius and Martin Mosebach? They are of course notable figures on the contemporary German literary scene – and they have received one or other of the most prestigious awards made by that scene, such as the Georg Büchner Prize or the German Book Prize. It’s not that their writer-colleagues Jakob Hein and Jürgen Witte would deny their merits, and yet the above-mentioned list of prize-winners indirectly confirms their thesis: a chronic state of affairs exists in the reception of German literature.

In their book Deutsche und Humor. Geschichte einer Feindschaft (Germans and Humour. The History of an Enmity), published in 2013, the two authors certainly don’t mince their words. “So far, comic literature has not been acknowledged in the form of serious awards,” we read. Humorous art was consistently ignored. To avoid misunderstandings, however, it must be said that Hein and Witte do not fall back on the cliché of the Germans lacking a sense of humour or Germany lacking top-class humorous art. What they criticize is the failure on the part of critics to acknowledge such authors and the dearth of top awards presented to them. In the 60-year history of the Georg Büchner Prize, there may well have been numerous winners “who have exhibited involuntary humour, but at most three who can be deliberately called humorous.” And among the works nominated for the German Book Prize since 2005, there have been “just three humorous books” to date.

A sometimes uptight treatment

Is this grievance appropriate? One of those to whom they address their complaint actually agrees with them. Uwe Wittstock, established literary critic and literary editor of the news magazine Focus, has been on many a jury and confirms that the atmosphere in the consultation rooms can be rather uneasy. “It’s amazing how strong the resistance to comic art really is,” says Wittstock. At one of the jury debates about the German Book Prize, he even heard someone claim that a work that appeals to a large audience must be bad literature.

For his part, Wittstock has a weakness for writers with a biting humour; he likes Thomas Gsella, Oliver Maria Schmitt and others from the circle around the satirical magazine Titanic. Wittstock was active in ensuring that the humorist and cartoonist Robert Gernhardt, who died in 2006, received the Bertolt Brecht Prize of the city of Augsburg. “Getting that through was anything but easy,” Wittstock remembers. In this context it is worth recalling the presentation of the 2008 Kleist Prize to the writer and satirist Max Goldt. The latter accepted the prize with the casual remark, “that certainly figures”, thereby prompting the critic Thomas Steinfeld to publish a contradiction in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In his view, it did not figure at all. For Wittstock, this was just further proof of the continued uptight treatment of a decidedly humorous art. “Donors want the prize they fund to have a high status, so the names of great writers are selected, as these help to maintain the status of the prize.”

Even reviewers have to “laugh heartily” sometimes

But are people really always so blinkered? Yes, say Hein and Witte, and broaden their range: “Helge Schneider, Sven Regener, Karen Duve, Wladimir Kaminer and Heinz Strunk are celebrated by countless fans, but they are not honoured as artists,” they write. But it’s difficult to keep up that claim. Since Duve’s Rain and Regener’s Herr Lehmann appeared, the two authors have indeed been favourites of the culture sections. But Hein and Witte go even further and lament that no reviewer would ever dare to admit “how heartily he laughed” or “chortled”. Yet to find one such statement one only has to look at the review of Jochen Schmidt’s 2013 novel Schneckenmühle by Volker Weidermann, head of the culture section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Rainer Moritz, also a literary critic and director of the Hamburg House of Literature, sees no real reason to speak of comic literature being ostracised. “Certainly that was the case for a long time, but those former restrictions have been much loosened since. Things are much easier today for comic literature.” Of course Moritz has noticed that comic literature plays hardly any role in the German Book Prize. At the same time, however, he recalls the award of the 2008 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize to Tilman Rammstedt, one of the more cheerful representatives of his guild, and points to Wolf Haas, who received the 2013 Bremen Literature Prize.

So what’s the story in the world of literature when it comes to evaluating and acknowledging the comic? There can be no doubt that things are in the process of changing. Nevertheless, it will surely be some time before the demand made by Hein and Witte is fulfilled: a distinction should be made only between good and bad, and not between serious and comic art.

Hein, Jakob und Jürgen Witte: Die Deutschen und der Humor. Geschichte einer Feindschaft; Galiani, 2013.