Places of literature
In the midst of things

Impressive backdrop: a reading at the Leipzig Book Fair.
Impressive backdrop: a reading at the Leipzig Book Fair. | Photo (detail): © Leipziger Buchmesse

German authors meet their audience more and more often in unusual places – such as in a private living room and during a bicycle tour.

Literature in a cemetery? A reading in an ambulance? A book launch in the Underground? What initially seems far-fetched has long become an integral part of the literary scene in Germany: literature has conquered public and private space.

At the Leipzig Book Fair it is now tradition that some readings are held in places that as such have little or nothing to do with literature. Thus, for example, the publishers Bastei Lübbe have already once rented the mourning hall of the Leipzig Southern Cemetery. The hall, mind you, is still in operation, as evidenced by the many candlesticks, the lectern and the pews. Marc Sieper, head of Lübbe Audio, did not simply arbitrarily announce and finally rent this place stamped by parting and loss for an event. The said evening was also about a “parting”. Lübbe Audio, the audio book department of the Cologne publishers, was celebrating The End. “This is the title of the one-hundredth episode of the paperback novel series John Sinclair. And Sieper and his team wanted to stage the intended punchline as authentically as possible. “We wanted our fan base to believe we were really ending the series. And so we looked for a place with an appropriately morbid character”, says Sieper. It worked: about 300 guests attended, the pews were full up and at the head of the funeral hall there was even a coffin. In front of the latter performed the actors and speakers known to the audience from the audio dramas, reading a John Sinclair text written especially for the occasion. That the whole thing was only a feint was of course explained in the course of the reading.

Fresh programme in unusual places

Such an elaborate live production is surely the high level of a phenomenon which, strictly speaking, has been observable for more than two decades. The aim is to free literary presentation from the corset of the “water glass-reading” in which it has been cramped for an entire epoch. From readings in dignified settings with sparse furnishing, preferably before white walls, where the same company always assembled. For several years now a much fresher programme has been on offer. Today it is almost de rigueur to have readings emigrate to places that have emphatically little to do with literature. The city of Wiesbaden, for example, organized a reading day on which a novel was recited in a pizzeria – from the pick-up window. There has also been a reading in an ambulance in Wiesbaden. And everywhere in Germany the moving Underground is often used as a site for readings.

Literature and event rolled into one

The idea of literature in places strange to literature works fine in Germany. “But it’s important that the contents match” notes writer and literary critic Christoph Schröder. “If it’s only about creating the craziest place and the contents of the novel or story has nothing to do with it, then it’s not convincing.” Yet don’t these actions do more for the event culture than for literature? Schröder sees here no problem. “These events take nothing away from anyone. And besides, a really different audience comes to the events, simply because they’re not plastered right away with label ‘literature’.”

Bike tour with the author

This is what the crime writer Daniel Holbe experienced. At the initiative of the Frankfurt radio station HR-Info, he organized a bicycle-taxi tour to the “original locations” of his latest thriller Die Hyäne (i.e. The Hyena). In a tour through the Frankfurt district of Fechenheim, he guided his audience to high-rise developments, over fields and meadows – in short, to those places that had inspired his crime story. At each location he paused and read from his work.

And private space is also used more and more frequently. In Stuttgart, Freiburg and Frankfurt, for instance, there are regular living room readings. The partner here is often the city house of literature or a private literary office. They are glad to provide less well-known writers with a launching pad. “In general there is a host who is interested in literature and invites a writer to his house”, says the writer Ivonne Keller, explaining the format. The host defrays the cost and invites friends and acquaintances. How the evening proceeds is open to negotiation.

Literature in unusual places – this is not a fad. On this point the book market is unanimous. Literature claims to treat real life and should be experienced in the midst of things.