Underground literature
Unconstrained writing

Arne Schmelzer’s literature vending machine;
Arne Schmelzer’s literature vending machine; | Photo (detail): © Anna Niestroj

Authors write to be read, but not every writer wants their work to be marketed in the conventional manner.

In the world of the visual arts, it is alternative spaces and artist-run galleries which provide artists with alternative ways in which to showcase their work. Many artists greatly value their independence – and this is no less the case in the world of literature. Some authors even consider it important to free themselves entirely from commercial and social constraints. This is frequently referred to as “underground literature”. But what exactly characterizes this form of literature, and where can it be found in Germany nowadays?

“Underground literature is the conceptual counterpart to high literature”, says Roman Israel. An author, Israel has initiated a number of “Lesebühnen” (i.e. reading events) in Leipzig and Dresden – regular meetings at which for the most part young and unknown authors present their latest works. Such reading events are part of what is generally known as the “underground” scene. It also includes certain publishers, unconventional literary formats such as poetry slams, and “fanzines” – independent literary magazines. “Underground literature is literature that has not yet become established”, explains Roman Israel. “It is literature that attaches no great value to conventions. It is frequently associated with pubs, and a lot of smoke.”

Platform for opposition journalists in the GDR

Independent publishing models have always played a key role in literature. Those involved frequently engaged in clandestine activities in order to avoid possible state censorship. Especially in the former Eastern Bloc countries of the 1950s to 1980s, self-designed books and texts that were copied in some cases by hand were the only way in which non-conformist literature could be read and disseminated. The Russian term “samizdat” – meaning “self-published” – was used to describe such texts. They were seen as the epitome of uncensored literature. As the writer and former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once put it: “I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in jail for it myself”. Alongside forums for literary texts, samizdat publications and newspapers, and especially the telegraph in Berlin, served as an important platform for opposition journalists in the GDR.

In West Germany, meanwhile, authors such as Rolf Dieter Brinkmann and Jörg Fauser – inspired by North American Beat Generation literature – introduced the harshness of everyday life and the frustration and disappointment of the lower social classes to the canon of West German literature. Critics therefore referred to them frequently as the “literary underground”. Up to the early 1990s, a scene in its own right emerged in West Germany which became known by the name “Social Beat”, a movement of which at least individual elements can still be found to this day. “Unlike Social Beat, the literary subculture of the poetry slam has survived, though it has longed ceased to be part of the underground scene”, says Czech-German writer Jaromir Konecny, one of the pioneers of the German-language poetry slam.

Such poetry competitions are staged in almost every German town nowadays, and interest in the performances does not appear to be waning. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that humorous texts have forced the socially critical and political themes into the background. The spectrum of German literature is widening all the time, says Arne Hirsemann, a musician and writer, and currently the “Stadtschreiber” (i.e. town chronicler) in Heiligenstadt in the state of Thuringia. “The digital age has helped spawn an increasing diversity of literary forms and variations.” However, because the Internet makes them clearly visible, it is virtually impossible these days for any real underground scene to emerge unnoticed by the mainstream. At the present time, the term “underground” appears only to function as a label that is attached to the writers and their texts – on account of the particular milieu in which they live or about which they write.

Rejecting the ISBN as a symbol of commercialization

That said, projects which show an “underground” tendency certainly do exist. The Hochroth-Verlag is a publisher which sees itself as one such alternative model: it produces its books itself, with flexible numbers of copies, and sells them via direct marketing. By setting up offices in various locations since 2008 – including Berlin, Budapest, Paris, Riga and Vienna – a Europe-wide network for independently published literature has been created. In addition, there are small publishers like the “parasitenpresse” in Cologne which refuse to assign an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to their publications. In rejecting this globally applicable identification number, they renounce the conventional book market, though they are certainly noticed and respected on the literary scene.

Arne Schmelzer’s project could perhaps also be described as “underground”, depending on one’s definition: during the 2016 Leipzig Book Fair, the author did the rounds of the exhibition halls during the day, and of local pubs in the evening, with a converted gumball machine. Instead of bubble gum, his vending machine spewed out literature: short texts designed to make one think. Having his own way of publishing his works maintains his independence as an author, says Schmelzer – even if this means that he cannot make a living as a writer. In his ears, however, the term “underground” when applied to literature sounds rather romantic, or even kitschy. At least like a bygone era.