Sometimes it's not who you know, it's who you're sitting behind. The German independent publishers' book prize, pithily titled "Hotlist" - which of course doesn't really work when you apply it to a single winning book, but hey, why find a sensible name when an Anglicism will do perfectly well? - was awarded in Frankfurt on Friday. And what a ceremony it was!
There's something so fantastically German about staging utterly cool events in run-down locations, and indie publishers are really the best at doing this. It's like saying, Hey, we may have no money for gilt chairs and free booze all night long, but we're still gonna throw the best book fair party - and have our own award while we're at it. So the ceremony was held up a broken escalator with the guests sitting on benches, having paid a modest €4 to get in, and the moderators perched on the edge of an impromptu stage while I really, really hoped there was no asbestos behind the crumbling plastic wall panelling of the former diamond-trading centre.
The evening started with Der Freitag publisher Jakob Augstein, indie publisher Axel von Ernst and writer and literary organiser extraordinaire Traudl Bünger staging a turbo-rundown of the fifteen titles on the Hotlist. Four minutes for each explanation. The prize is an odd compound of democratic processes and despotism by jury - about half of the contenders were chosen by internet vote and the other half were proposed by a panel of experts, who then chose the actual winner. Which meant there were some pretty strange books on the list.
And here's where that non-existent seating plan came in. Because during this part of the event, I was sitting behind a woman in her early sixties and a conspicuously overdressed younger couple (because of course there's a special unspoken dresscode for these übercool events, which requires that you look like you've made no effort). And when Jakob Augstein ripped the piss out of one of the contenders, an epistolary novel written by a woman in her early sixties who enjoys gardening, based on her mother's non-romance with an Indian and dedicated to her children, the woman in her early sixties in front of me flinched visibly and the conspicuously overdressed couple stage-whispered offended comments about how Jakob Augstein had no idea and had never written a book of his own. Which is not strictly true, but whatever. It was awkward.
Anyway, after the break the actual awards ceremony part began, wonderfully hosted by Traudl Bünger again and Monika Schärer. This time I was sitting behind the writer Ulrike Almut Sandig and her beautifully bearded publisher Klaus Schöffling, purely by chance. But someone had dropped a big hint to me just seconds beforehand, so I was watching them carefully. And didn't those hostesses draw out the agony! All sorts of people were officially thanked and invited up on stage, asked what the Argentinean Hotlist is called ("Hotlist"), asked what independent publishers ought to be doing better – while the poor writers in the audience quaked in their own private purgatories.
And then, at last, the non-golden envelope was opened and the winner announced: Ulrike Almut Sandig for her beautiful prose debut, the short stories Flamingos. Cheers, applause, happiness. What was the stunned winner going to spend the prize money on? A treat for herself in Finnland. Grins all round, followed by much standing around clutching beer bottles in crowded spaces. Hooray.
It still feels ever so slightly home-made, but the Hotlist is now, I think, well and truly established and a genuine honour for its well-deserved winner.