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Word! The Language Column
A New Chapter

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Can modern literature be accessible to all? Hauke Hückstädt and his Literaturhaus team say yes, definitely. And they’ve found writers ready and willing to venture into uncharted literary territory.

By Hauke Hückstädt

Dear Petty-Minded Misanthropes and Industry Players!

Once again: Some 15 million people in Germany have trouble reading. Many of them can't read at all. Even if 15 million non-readers make no difference to your publishing house, distribution centre, bookshop or high school, to your foundation’s board or to your political office, they also happen to be millions of buyers.

– Well, we’ve got children's books for them! How are we supposed to reach them? Astrid Lindgren is such a great writer! And Wo die wilden Kerle wohnen (German translation of Where the Wild Things Are) is an excellent way to learn German!

We don't need that stuff. Who wants to read that stuff? Sound the dumbing-down alarm! My language is my bastion. You don’t get to do that! Easy-to-read news, why not, but literature: hell no! That's going too far. –

The book trade, which prides itself on the tolerance it practises, the discourse it contributes and the meaning it creates, has really only attained mastery of its own defensive reflexes and defence mechanisms, of pushing readers away instead of winning them over.

Not oversimplified

In this column, I want to tell you why I don’t care about the vested interests and naysayers anymore. Why easy-to-read versions of literature needn’t be oversimplified prose. We praise Marcel Breuer’s streamlined design, and yet mistake run-on sentences for good style. What I mean is that the lift and the ramp didn't do away with stairs, and one good idea is enough to bring down a dozen bad ones. I’m going to explain how the Literaturhaus Frankfurt am Main is making a breakthrough with the help of a bunch of renowned writers. That thinking in terms of target groups is pernicious. I recall conversations with autistic people, schoolteachers and illiterates. I recall a patient recovering from a stroke, some German learners, seminars for teachers-to-be, a pupil in an inclusion class, an educational research group in Heidelberg. And I’m going to write about why I think so often about the Bauhaus, Oulipo and Marcel Duchamp's readymades as well as fire extinguishers and wool blankets – our polyglot and universally intelligible friends. I’m also going to report on how it all became a book: LiES! – Das Buch. Literatur in Einfacher Sprache (“ReAD – The Book: Easy-to-Read Literature”), which came out during the lockdown in March 2020.

An act of art

Four years before that, representatives of Frankfurt’s Netzwerk Inklusion and the City’s Inclusion Office came to the Literaturhaus and told us: This city is relatively progressive and advanced in terms of accessibility. The next step, they said, is to make art and culture more accessible, which has given rise to various museum and theatre projects. They asked for our input on language, literature and accessibility. After all, publishers like Spass am Lesen offer easy-to-read versions of canonical and popular literature, most of which translate or adapt – detractors would say downgrade or degrade – existing works into simple language. But that doesn’t go far enough.

Thanks to these simplified versions, many people can now read about Dracula, Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer. They can get to know the coming-of-age novel Tschick and Heinrich Böll’s short stories. So all that is available. We’d already had positive experiences with commissioned works at the time, often enlisting authors to write about works of art, for example. So we built on that. And to this day we’re still pleased that Arno Geiger's book about his dementia-stricken father, Der alte König in seinem Exil (English translation: The Old King in His Exile), is now available in an abridged, easy-to-read version. But what if authors like Geiger were to write their own easy-to-read stories from the get-go? What if writing easy prose were to be regarded as an “act of art”? It was clear to us that this undertaking would require some rules – as well as some authors who were up for the challenge.
All six of the writers we asked immediately said yes. Writers know that art is washed up and has no future if it doesn’t dare anything new anymore. If it says, “The movement reached its peak where we were yesterday. Literature for the multitude? There’s never been any such thing. Nor can there ever be. We don't need that.”

So Alissa Walser, Kristof Magnusson, Nora Bossong, Mirko Bonné, Henning Ahrens and Olga Grjasnowa signed up for the challenge. The result was a pioneering achievement, the beginning of a new chapter in German literature.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.