Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Great Expectations

My friend, the delightful and dedicated Charlotte Ryland, is editor of New Books in German magazine and is interviewed (in German) in Die Zeit. Almost all of what she has to say is eminently sensible, but there's one tiny thing I'd like to question.

It's something that Germans love to ask of English speakers: What expectations do they have of German literature? And they expect a certain answer: oh yes, English speakers expect German literature to be heavy and philosophical. In a way they're fishing for compliments - a nation of poets and thinkers can only possibly be perceived as such. And it's also the cause of much brow-beating, the idea that German literature doesn't sell to the English-speaking world because it's seen as too highbrow and challenging. To be honest, some of it is. But that's not the reason why it doesn't get translated by the barrowload, and frankly I'm bored with the Germans claiming – in slightly patronising tones – that it is.

As Charlotte points out in the interview, the problem's actually at the other end – Anglophone literary culture is simply very isolated and uninterested in anything much but navel-gazing. That's something we have to work on, not the Germans. But she also refers to that alleged cliché about German literature being hard to read.

And here's my point: It's possible that about 1% of the British population, let's say, shares that idea. The serious literary types who've heard of Heinrich Böll, for example. And of course that 1% includes most people working in literary publishing. So the gatekeepers, if you will, may subconsciously fear German literature as "literary roughage". Part of Charlotte's role at NBG is breaking down that mental barrier, and she does an excellent job of it by including and promoting a very wide range of styles and genres in the magazine.

But - and this is a big BUT - the other 99% don't have a clue about German literature. They wouldn't know Günter Grass if he bashed them over the head with a rolled-up poem. The whole "Herta Who?" reaction to Müller's Nobel Prize was a case in point - even critics had never heard of her and the press even contacted ME, for goodness sake, for soundbites. And if that 99% walk into a bookshop and see a Judith Hermann book on a display table they may well take the author for an American. I'm convinced that the proverbial woman off the street walking into a bookshop is only interested in good stories or in fact good writing, rather than where the writer is from. But I've said that before, it's getting boring.

What I'm pleased about is that we're gradually making in-roads into the British literary consciousness with contemporary German writing of various different types, as Charlotte points out. And each new example does its bit to combat the Germans' favourite cliché about English clichés.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey kjd,
I'm, though originally from Berlin too, currently doing an MA degree in Film Producing in London and was wondering whether I could maybe seize upon your knowledge of the German literary landscape. Apologies for using this way of contacting...couldn't find any other.
Best regards, Franziska
p.s. e-mail: