Monday, 22 September 2008


The FAZ Lesesaal has been busy. It seems there is a mutiny underway - the authors are jumping ship. Michael Lentz got the ball rolling by calling for the German Book Prize to be abolished. Monika Maron reacted by announcing she'd like to boycott the whole shebang. Bodo Kirchhoff chimed in, saying he regretted getting the damn thing set up in the first place. Next up was Daniel Kehlmann, who admitted an abolition was unlikely but wished it wasn't, suggesting a number of changes to the procedure at the very least. And Julia Franck supported that idea, adding that the prize has no aesthetic authority.

Why? In a nutshell, they seem to feel offended at being pitted against one another in a demeaning cock-fight over public attention. They don't like it when they win, and they don't like it when they don't. They resent being categorised in terms of prize-winners and prize-losers. And they see the German Book Prize as just another marketing tool that does them little good, if not direct harm.

It's tempting to say, awww, poor little rich kids. These are not just any old writers, but some of German-language literature's great success stories of recent years, particularly Kehlmann and Franck. But actually, it's got me thinking. As a translator, I suppose I do hang on the creative coat-tails of the authors who write what I translate. As does a whole industry of agents, editors, marketing people, graphic designers, accountants, printers, all the way to the booksellers and their cleaning ladies (if they can afford one). But that too is part and parcel of literature, at least in a society that works the way ours does. If it weren't for this rat's tail, readers wouldn't be able to get hold of the material. I'd say that every link in the chain, from author to reader, is equally important - but I would, wouldn't I? I don't think that authors are the be all and end all of literature - it wouldn't exist without them, but it would fall apart if we removed any other link too - as anyone who has ever read an unedited manuscript will readily confirm.

And I don't agree that the German Book Prize is bad for literature. I genuinely believe that it promotes debate, including on authors and titles that make neither the shortlist nor the longlist. I for one do not restrict my reading to listed books, but I admit I do buy an extra book or two because of a listing. It's an absolute platitude to explain that just because the judges decide a book is the winner, it isn't necessarily the best book of the year. But what's the harm in singling out one book and focusing attention on it? In the case of the German Book Prize, that one book has seldom been the one anyone ever expected, and never has it been just the latest offering by a very established writer that people go out and buy anyway, whatever the quality.

When it comes to authors' sensibilities, though, I'm torn. I can honestly feel with Daniel Kehlmann when he describes the ordeal of sitting though the awards ceremony on tranquilisers. But the point is, even if you go to the ceremony and don't win the actual prize, as was the case with Kehlmann, you're still going home several thousand euros richer. I get the feeling these authors are longing to go back to kindergarten, where every kid gets a prize for taking part. So perhaps the German Book Prize is bad for authors. But that's tough luck because it's really not them who are running the show.


Anonymous said...

Can you imagine British authors asking to abolish the Booker?

kjd said...

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I'm just imagining it. Ha ha ha.

Lizzy Siddal said...

Daniel, Daniel, Daniel. Tsk, tsk! I wonder how many copies of your wonderful "Measuring the World" would have been sold in the English language had it not been for the German Book Prize. I wonder whether "Me and Kaminski" (due out in the UK on 2.10.2008) would have been translated at all.

No pain, no gain, I say. What's a few weeks of heightened emotion compared to the increased reputation and ongoing sales that will follow from being listed? It's definitely not all about winning. By the way, the winning book tells me more about the jury than it tells me about the contents.

As a German literature lover in the UK, I'm really pleased that the German book prize exists. How else would I keep in touch with the contemporary scene?

kjd said...

Here, here. As Julia Franck pointed out, Kehlmann didn't win but went on to hugely outsell the 2005 winner, Arno Geiger's "Es geht uns gut".

Which, interestingly, hasn't been translated into English.

I'm wondering whether these high-profile authors are suffering from guilty consciences, actually, for those who don't make any lists at all.