Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Berlin Manuscripts

Compared to Britain or the States, Germany’s writers live in the lap of luxury when it comes to state funding. While Britain’s Society of Authors states on its website that it awards 70,000 pounds in grants to writers every year, the closest German equivalent in terms of a national funding body, the Deutscher Literaturfonds, supports writers to the tune of €500,000 a year. That’s about six times as much – but it doesn’t stop there, as it’s the federal states that are actually responsible for providing grants to authors.

Berlin has an annual budget for individual writers of € 213,000. A good chunk of this year’s sum went to the lucky recipients of the Berliner Literaturstipendium – who presented their work in the opulent foyer of the Berliner Ensemble theatre on Sunday, at an event by the name of "Berliner Manuskripte".

Readers, the event was fabulous value for money. In the world of state literature funding, even the audience gets a free lunch: €3 to get in bought us twelve writers, two moderators, two musicians, plus sandwiches, fruit juice and sparkling wine! I’m definitely going again next year.

The writers were: Bruno Preisendörfer, Jan Groh, Ralph Hammerthaler, Katja Oskamp, Jan Böttcher, Jan Wagner, Luo Lingyuan, Michael Maar, Alexej Schipenko, Petra Kasch, Gisela von Wysocki and Thomas Weiss.

I went along with a mission: to see whether there is such a thing as “grant-maintained writing”. Does the fact that these writers had a chance to write and research without financial pressure produce a certain kind of end product? As you may have guessed, this thesis was utterly facile and proved wrong almost immediately. The range of genres was broad, from literary essay to poetry to children’s literature to historical fiction to strongly autobiographically tinted pop. The styles were equally diverse, with some writers sending me straight to dreamland with their long sentences on a Sunday morning and some waking me up with a bang.

I had anticipated they would all have locked themselves away from daylight to write, write, write until they could type the word FIN and then die, as Michael Maar read from his book on Proust. Yet even that didn’t seem to be the case, as Jan Böttcher was in London (represented by Alexander Gumz, who Facebook is always telling me to befriend, but I didn’t like to walk up to him and say so, poor guy) and Alexej Schipenko was off somewhere else.

I could only make out two overlaps, in fact. The first was a minor preoccupation with insanity in a number of texts, which is probably coincidence. The second was that all of the authors make their living writing: writing essays, journalism, plays, songs, all manner of things – but writing nonetheless. No teachers, doctors, waitresses, insurance salesmen: these were pretty much full-time word people who used the grant to clear their desks for long enough to work on their book projects. I wonder whether a group of twelve writers in any other country would be so professionally homogenous?

What did I like? I was totally blown away by Jan Groh’s Nachrichten aus einer einfachen Welt. It’s a work of herstory, a tale of a morphine-addicted doctor and an old anarchist whose life sums up twentieth-century history, from the Spanish civil war to the gulag and back to Germany. Shocking stuff, painstakingly told. I laughed with delight along with the rest of the audience at Jan Wagner’s poem about Evel Knievel. I thought Jan Böttcher’s chapter about a Blairite privatised school in the near future had promise but needed untangling – but it was announced as a work-in-progress. I laughed again at Luo Lingyuan’s tale of cultural confusions in a German-Chinese marriage. And I loved the idea of Thomas Weiss’ novel revolving around Sophie Scholl’s executioner – a man who was just doing his job, for the Weimar Republic, for the Nazis and the Americans.

As Ingrid Wagner from the Berlin authorities told us, the grant is about promoting the creative process. Some of the projects have already been published, but Berlin doesn’t seem to mind too much if the writers don’t quite get there. “Failure is included,” she told us – pointing out that no matter whether we liked the products or not, the writers have spent all their grants now and there’s no money-back guarantee.

Ah, and you can see some gorgeous photos, copyright Kathrin Sommer, on Flickr.


Jan Groh said...

Hi Katy,

I just discovered your very interesting article on the Berlin manuscript reading, and I simply had to stop by and say thanks for your kind words about "Nachrichten aus einer einfachen Welt".
I only had a brief look at your blog yet, but it looks like great stuff. Thanks for your commitment. :-)


kjd said...

Thanks, Jan. I'm really looking forward to the book. Keep up the good work!