Off to Frankfurt Book Fair
Writing in the first person

Frankfurt Fairground with Messeturm
Frankfurt Fairground with Messeturm | Photo (detail): © Mauritius/FreedomMan/imageBroker

An exciting literary year is drawing to a close. Autofiction is on a high, while masculinity and father-son relationships have been explored, as has the ever-popular topic of East Germany. To crown it all, we can now look forward to some new literary discoveries, as Slovenia is guest of honour at Frankfurt Book Fair.

By Isabella Caldart

Let’s be honest: the German book industry would be nothing without its crises. Given all the prophecies of doom in recent years, it is easy at times to gain the impression that the literary world secretly gets a kick out of predicting its own downfall. But if all these crises – from a general decline in reading to the exploding costs of paper – reveal just one thing, it is that the book industry is resilient, no matter how many obstacles it faces. Sales may be down, costs may be spiralling, but new publishing houses are being established and topical debates initiated nonetheless.

Fathers and masculinity

Masculinity has been one of the subjects of this year’s debates – a discourse that has now evolved and is no longer solely the domain of female authors. The topic is dealt with in a whole series of novels, memoirs, essays and anthologies, fiction and non-fiction alike. Authors such as Christian Dittloff, Paul Brodowsky and Frédéric Schwilden have written about parental influence and socialization, as well as about whether and how active steps can be taken to combat toxic masculinity. What is tragic however is that this summer of critically engaging with masculinity ended in a scandal: one of the two editors of the masculinity anthology Oh Boy had described a real-life sexual assault in his text, against the victim’s will.

This raises a question that has forever preoccupied literature and cannot be answered unequivocally: How much reality is acceptable, especially if others could be harmed as a result? One genre in particular has to get to grips with this complex issue: autofiction. Autofictional literature has been popular for many years in the French- and English-speaking worlds (Annie Ernaux, one of its main exponents, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2022); now it has also arrived in Germany. A glance at the short list of the German Book Prize, which is awarded two days before Frankfurt Book Fair begins, reveals that no fewer than two of the six novels on it, namely Die Möglichkeit von Glück (The Possibility of Happiness) by Anne Rabe and Maman by Sylvie Schenk, contain conspicuously autobiographical references.

Besides the works by Schenk and Rabe, there is also a third shortlisted book that explicitly engages with parents: Vatermal (Birthmark) by Necati Öziri. With his debut novel, the author also joins a more recent trend among so-called post-migrant authors to tackle father-son relationships in their novels. Alongside Öziri, they include for example Deniz Utlu, whose Vaters Meer (Father’s Sea) likewise alludes to the topic in its title, and Fikri Anıl Altıntaş, whose novel is the autofictional attempt by a young second-generation immigrant living in Germany to explore his relationship with his father.

East Germany from the perspective of those born after

The German Book Prize reveals a third subject around which German-language literature is currently revolving. It is nothing new – it involves studying, exploring, engaging with the former East Germany, the GDR, and in many cases these days is done by those who no longer consciously experienced it. Besides the aforementioned book by Anne Rabe, in which the first-person narrator examines the guilt of her parents and grandparents and the effects on her generation, three other “GDR novels” were either long- or shortlisted for the German Book Prize.

One of these resulted in another, albeit smaller, scandal for the literary world. In Gittersee, Charlotte Gneuss writes about everyday life in Dresden in the year 1976. Though Gneuss’s parents grew up in the GDR, she herself was born in Ludwigsburg in 1992. When in the late summer a “list of errors” compiled by the East German author Ingo Schulze entered the public domain, despite it having originally been intended for use only within the publishing house, another question was raised and widely discussed in the feature pages: Who is allowed to write about what?

A small land with great literature

If we are going to talk about the themes that are currently relevant in German-language literature, we must certainly take a look at Austria. 2023 was a highly successful year for literature from Germany’s neighbouring country. Not only did six of the 20 works nominated for the German Book Prize come courtesy of Austrian writers; Austria was also the guest of honour at Leipzig Book Fair in April 2023.

As if by prior arrangement, a country with very close historical and cultural ties to Austria will now be the guest of honour at the book fair in Frankfurt: Slovenia.  This small southeast European country has ambitious plans, its slogan for the fair being a “Honeycomb of Words”. To adequately promote Slovenian literature, a number of trips were arranged in advance for journalists, editors and bloggers to introduce them to Slovenia’s cultural diversity. Not only did they report with great enthusiasm, as can be seen in this FAZ article; they also brought translations of Slovenian books with them – giving us all an opportunity to discover the great literature of this small land!