German Literature Institute in Leipzig Writers with Diplomas?

German Literature Institute in Leipzig; © Matthias Jügler
German Literature Institute in Leipzig | Photo (detail): © Matthias Jügler

Professional contemporary literature, or factory-style institute prose – the publishing scene is debating the success of university writers foundries such as the German Literature Institute in Leipzig.

A joke is making the rounds of the publishing scene. It goes like this: twice a year, publisher Klaus Schöffling travels from Frankfurt to Leipzig, takes a hotel there, waits for the end of the final exams at the Leipzig German Literature Institute and then picks out two graduates for his new publishing programme. The scenario is probably not so very far from reality; Schöffling publishes many authors who have been through the courses of the Leipzig writing school. But even if the anecdote is meant facetiously, it still reflects a question that has much occupied the contemporary literary scene for years. Leipzig is one of the hubs for recruiting new writers. Yet at the same time the Institute there is looked upon somewhat askance and stands under the suspicion of the assembly line-like production of literature.

Polemics of the review page

In an article in Die Zeit published in early 2014, the literary critic Florian Kessler accused students of the Institute and their literary productions of being all too conformist. In this he is not alone. Time and again German-language review sections have railed against interchangeable “Institute prose”. But just what exactly is meant by this? The writer Kristof Magnusson, graduate of and guest lecturer at the Institute in Leipzig, knows these polemics. “Short sentences, few adjectives and main characters who sit about bored, little plot.” That, he says, is an exaggerated description of the characteristics which are supposed to betray the presence of Leipzig prose. “But then the most recent recipient of the Leipzig Book Prize, Saša Stanišić, doesn’t fit at all, although he studied at the Institute.” The literary critic Uwe Wittstock, literary editor of the magazine Focus, also has no use for this sort of classification. At any rate, he has never been able, he says, to infer a writing school graduate on the basis of a text. “Unless, that is, you already look upon a certain professionalism in the writer as a clue.” How much this way of looking at things debunks itself is explained by Magnusson: “People are always placing authors such as Judith Hermann and Antje Rávic Strubel in Leipzig. But they were never there”.

Not a German invention

Whence this scepticism towards writing institutes, of which Leipzig is one of four addresses in German-speaking countries? Literary writing is also taught at the University of Hildesheim, the Language Arts Institute at the Vienna University of the Arts and the University of the Arts in Bern. “If university writing schools are repeatedly attacked, especially in Germany”, says Wittstock, “this is in the tradition of the idea of the genius, which has played a prominent role since the ‘storm and stress’ period.” This tradition sees writing ability as a higher gift, refusing all outside influence. And in point of fact, writing schools are really not a German invention. Even the Leipzig Literature Institute is based on the Johannes R. Becher Institute, founded in the East Germany of the 1950s and conceived on a Russian model. The contemporary version of the writing school adheres to the North American model of the creative writing course, a system that has proven itself there for decades. Magnusson, well established in the literary scene since his play Männerhort (i.e., Men’s Creche) and his bank crash novel Das war ich nicht (i.e., It Wasn’t Me), sees many advantages in this training: “The spectrum of faculty and students makes you acquainted with different writing personalities. You get to read unfinished texts by others and learn to form an opinion”. Thus, he says, discussion helps you grasp the individual rules according to which a text was created. Clearly, this is also a matter of craft.

Writing with team spirit

Juli Zeh, long a favourite child of the German feuilleton, eloquently provided information about studying in Leipzig when she held the Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics in February 2014. She confessed how hard it was for her to take leave of practicing writing as an intuitive act: “Knowing the difference between a good and a bad sentence – or better perhaps: between a worked-on and edited sentence and a dashed-off one – could no longer be suppressed”. Magnusson and Zeh also like to point to the integrative aspect of the seminar atmosphere. Rainer Weiss, a long-time editor at Suhrkamp Publishers and now founder and head of his own Weissbooks Publishing, finds this beneficial: “It’s like a football team: you are in a team and this makes you stronger as a budding writer than in an isolated existence”. To this Weiss also traces the fact that young writers with a diploma can also sell themselves and their texts to the public today with confidence and eloquence.

Graduates also benefit in a completely different field. The Leipzig Literature Institute in particular is brilliantly networked with publishers, media and book shops. The transition from debutant life to the status of a made writer can take place with great rapidity. “To this extent, Leipzig is a cadre factory”, says Weiss. He sees this positively: “Contemporary literature has become much better. When I think back to my time at Suhrkamp – how many language-enamoured, purely self-referential texts we published, devoid of any relation to the outside world! Compared with that, the Americanization of German literature has done good, brought in story-telling, internationalized themes, taken writers out of their own selves”. Perhaps Klaus Schöffling shouldn’t let himself be bothered by the polemical remarks.