Frankfurt Book Fair 2020
The Literature scene in pandemic times

A sign on the road leading past the exhibition centre into the city advises to "keep your distance! Stay at home! Stay healthy!".
Due to Corona, the Frankfurt exhibition grounds will remain empty in 2020 | Photo (detail): © Picture alliance/ dpa/ Frank Rumpenhorst

Because of the corona epidemic, the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020 will run exclusively on a digital platform. It’s a pity about all the face-to-face encounters that won’t happen because of this, thinks Berit Glanz – and she’s also relishing the increasing number of inspiring literary debates on social media.

One of the most widespread myths in modern cultural history is that the creation of books is a solitary affair. However quite the opposite of this perception is true: making books is a particularly social process. Although people usually do the writing of a book on their own, a number of people are involved in the creation process, from agency through proof-reading to marketing. And even after publication, a wide range of key people are engaged in the process of bringing the book to its readership.

Social hub

Once a year the Book Fair in Frankfurt am Main becomes a place where you can come together with all these people in person. The Book Fair is not just sustained by business appointments that stack up one after another, it’s all about the social trappings, the coffees drunk together, the receptions at different publisher stands, the readings, the dinners and parties carrying on late into the night. During the fair you run into old acquaintances again, hug your friends, and finally match faces to the voices you’ve heard so many times on the phone.
Social fabrics like the literature scene are complex and fragile, some relationships are transient, lasting only for a single evening of companionship, where others endure for many years and are maintained with regularity on an annual basis when they meet up in Frankfurt. The social overload ensures that many people experience a profound fatigue as the fair draws to a close. The typical cold-type illnesses after the autumnal get-together with others in the trade are a keepsake that people are resisting even while at the fair with immunity-boosting remedies – usually without success, because the combination of crowds, lack of sleep and the hall air helps to break down your defences.
In pandemic times descriptions like this of the fair’s virus-spreading capacity should make you prick up your ears, and that’s why – although all those involved were incredibly disappointed – the Frankfurt Book Fair has been completely cancelled in the end. This news is saddening, even though we have already grown used to all the plan-changing during the course of this chaotic year. 

Digital feature pages

As meetings and discussions have shifted into the virtual space over the past few months, many key players have now entered an environment that for a long time they have only dared circle cautiously. However for quite a while many writers have had the solitary typing at their screens interrupted regularly by online chat, tweets, status updates – social interactions in the digital space that are sometimes distracting but also often motivating or inspiring. The number of people from the culture and literature scene who are active online has been rising rapidly for years, many contacts are established through social media nowadays. But if you’re only thinking of professional networks, then you’re wrong, because plenty of reflection, debating and arguing about literature takes place on social media, and there is active following of individual reading experiences.
Personally I found out how well discussions about literature could work on social media, for instance the virtual reader groups on Twitter initiated by the digital magazine 54Books back in 2019 with the hashtag #54Reads. Literature is alive and kicking on many social networks. For instance book retailer Magda Birkmann offers a host of literature tips on Twitter as @Magdarine, and she set up the #MagdarineChallenge, in which she successfully encourages people to buy books by forgotten or little-known authors, and showcase these books by writing short reviews on Twitter. Author and event organiser Fabian Navarro has ramped up his online activities, delivering writing workshops entitled “Stream & Drang” with readings on the Twitch streaming platform, and helping other creative artists to set up their own streaming formats by providing instructional videos on Youtube. Overall a definite tendency has become apparent over recent months: the enthusiastic literature people – who don’t just want to send a message to potential customers, but also to be open to dialogue and discussion – are highly successful at provoking discussion about literature online as well.

Literature in focus

It might be difficult or even impossible to transport that trade fair feel of face-to-face contact and big crowds of people into the virtual domain – but we can still allow our enthusiasm for literature to become productive online. Maybe this way the pandemic can be a trigger for actively and purposefully seeking out discussions and conversations in the public domain of the internet – in places where participation is possible even for people who never would have come (or been able to come) to Frankfurt in person. The class reunion of the literature scene is not likely to take place again before 2021. Until then perhaps we should take the focus away from all the attendant social circumstances of the scene and look directly at literature instead. Let’s make the best of it!


Berit Glanz Foto: © privat
Berit Glanz, born in 1982, is an author, literary scholar and member of the editorial board of the Internet feuilleton 54Books. She works as a research assistant at the Institute for Finnish and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Greifswald. Her debut novel Pixeltänzer was published in 2019 by Schöffling Verlag, and in summer 2020 her book of poetry Partikel was published by Reinecke & Voss.