Literature in the year 2015 Prizes, trends, discussions

In 2015 the German Book Prize jury caused some surprises;
In 2015 the German Book Prize jury caused some surprises; | © Petra Gass/Börsenverein

The year 2015 held some surprises for both critics and readers. It also saw a generation change in the large literary publishing houses that is sure to make an impact in the future.

More and more – and certainly much more than ever before – the literary year is being marked and indeed imbued with a certain rhythm by the big literary prizes. In 2015 the various juries’ decisions were all statements aimed at commenting on the state, level and focal points of current writing by means of the individual case. For example, the jurors of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair chose a volume of poetry for the first time in the fiction section. The Regentonnenvariationen (Rain barrel variations) by Jan Wagner stand for themselves, for the playful nature poem, but also for the enormous upsurge in quality and the abundance of ambitious poetry in recent years.

Faith in originality

The even more renowned book-prize counterpart in autumn, the German Book Prize presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, went to Frank Witzel for his 800-page novel Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 (The invention of the Red Army Faction by a manic-depressive teenager in summer 1969). That also came as a huge surprise, simply because most of the observers had reckoned with a decision in favour of Jenny Erpenbeck’s refugee novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (To go, went, gone) or the book Das bessere Leben (The better life) by Ulrich Peltzer, which is a dive into the streams of consciousness of the exponents of financial capitalism. What spoke for both books was the topical theme, in Erpenbeck’s case also the extremely positive attitude to refugees and their helpers. In Peltzer’s case it was, above all, his brave insistence on a modern, indeed modernistic style of writing. By choosing Witzel, the jury confessed its faith in originality – their own and that of the book, which, from the perspective of a 13-year old boy, combines the stale air of the Hessian countryside, the attractions of pop culture and the radicalization of the political left in a wild mix of narration, association and essay.

So Peltzer, one of the most consistent and ascetic writers of the middle generation (born 1956) failed once again to win an important prize; many critics thought it even more scandalous that Die Stunde (The hour) by Clemens J. Setz was not even on the shortlist. That 1,000-page book by the young and brilliant Austrian writer was seen by many as the book of the year, and with it Setz proved yet again to be one of the authors who represent not only the present, but also the future of German-language literature. His scenes in a psychiatric home, depicted from the viewpoint of a none too “normal” carer, develop a peculiarly horrific charm that eschews all the customary genre categories. Imagination and repulsion, intrigue and wit enter into a unique alliance.

Expanding the term literature

In addition to the two book-fair prizes, the attention of the literary world is of course also focused on the Georg Büchner Prize, which acknowledges, and thus ‘canonizes’, an author’s life’s work. After numerous weak decisions over the past years, this year for the first time it went to a pop-culture author, Rainald Goetz, who has also expanded the concept of literature with his net diaries Abfall für alle (Rubbish for Everyone) and Klage (Lament). An absolute contemporary, Goetz writes mainly about his time. An unbridled newspaper reader, he engages in a literary way with phenomena such as punk and techno, but also with current politics. His novel Johann Holtrop is about a type of entrepreneur who loses all touch with reality. The author also considers the question of what the domination of such “winner types” says about society today.

Farewells and new beginnings

Günter Grass, one of the last of the “Titans” of post-war German literature, died in 2015. Through his books and political statements, the 1999 Nobel Prize Winner and author of the most important novel of the young Federal Republic, Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), shaped intellectual life in Germany like no other writer. The book Vonne Endlichkait (Aging and Mortality), published shortly after his death, reflects on life’s essential issues – with a lightness that is surprising for Grass. Of Grass’ great contemporaries, only Martin Walser is still alive and writing, energetically and prolifically; his most recent novel, Ein sterbender Mann (A Dying Man), was launched in early January 2016.

In purely biological terms, the rejuvenation of German literature is unavoidable and in full swing; a generation change has also taken place among the leading publishers. The long legal battle between the owners of Suhrkamp finally came to an end with Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz retiring from the management and handing over the business to Jonathan Landgrebe. Jonathan Beck (C.H. Beck) and Jo Lendle (Hanser, since 2014) are two younger people to have assumed responsible posts at important literary publishing houses. In March 2016, the literary critic Felicitas von Lovenberg will join the publisher Piper as what is referred to as a ‘lateral entrant’. These people will not have an easy time of it. Digitization and structural changes in the book trade are causing difficulties for the whole industry. And yet people are not reading less, as the statistics show. Nor is less being written, especially as literary critics are now also trying their hand more at writing novels. This also became evident in 2015, when books by, among others, Volker Hage (Der Spiegel), Hajo Steinert (Deutschlandfunk) Verena Lueken (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Ursula März (Die Zeit) and Adam Soboczynski (Die Zeit) were published – so far, however,  without receiving a literary prize.