Monday, 13 July 2015

German Criticism, Poetry and Prose (Not) on the Internet

Things have slowed down for summer (apart from Greece), which gives people time to debate the future of literary criticism. Perlentaucher has run and linked a number of articles bemoaning the decrease in book reviews on German newspaper pages and suggesting we move professional criticism online, in one form or another. I really like Jan Drees' piece on the subject; it seems to me the perfect combination of personal anecdote and more abstract ideas, and argues that criticism is already happening online and we don't need an online-only criticism "newspaper" behind a paywall to solve the problem of critics being too closely entangled with the publishing world. He writes that it's great that professional critics are working in the press and on radio and TV, but:
At the same time, we need islands far from power and untouched by capitalism, nooks, oases, ivory towers and private marketplaces that remind us that literature (and literary criticism) is more than work, making a living, competing for the next prize, the upcoming press trip, the legitimation to stand next to this or that VIP at the LCB summer party. We need more of these places.
And yes, I'd forgotten that passion is something that makes a lot of criticism, whether amateur or professional, worth reading. I'm glad to be reminded.

Thinking about where literary criticism is read in Germany brings me on to where literature itself is read. When I was putting together the Emerging German Writers issue of Words Without Borders, I spent a lot of time looking for short stories, essays and poetry. Poetry and essays were easy enough to find online, although that didn't make it easy to choose just a couple of examples. Prose, though: not so much. Few German literary magazines make any of their content available online; I'm not aware of any that are online-only. There were some in earlier, more utopian times and I'm told some magazines are re-thinking their policy at the moment. But as far as I'm aware, almost all German literary magazines are run essentially as print editions.

What we do have is blogs or literary sites run by specific publishers, which presumably come under the marketing and PR budget and often read like it. Their content comes largely from their own writers and editors; to me, they come across as the younger cousins of the revered but ponderous print journals run by the publishing houses as prestige projects by senior editors, with names like Art & Meaning or Journal of Letters.* I rarely go out of my way to buy German literary magazines in print; they're difficult to find in bookshops and I assume their readership is rather limited.

What I feel is missing, compared to the Anglophone model, is online literary magazines featuring a wide range of prose and other stuff, be it as electronic sidekicks to print journals like Granta, Gorse or the White Review, or as online-only or mainly online projects like 3:AM, The Offing, Five Dials or indeed Asymptote, Words Without Borders or no man's land.  (In fact, I'm not aware of any German-language literary magazines at all concentrating on translation, but maybe that's a healthy situation.) I'm not talking hi-falutin' critical essays; what I feel is missing is places to read short stories on the internet.

It's patronising and chauvinistic to want everything to be like in the UK/US, so let me compare to the world of German poetry. When I asked on Facebook if anyone knew journals publishing work online, the poet and publisher Daniela Seel kindly sent me a whole barrage of links: Signaturen, Fixpoetry, Poetenladen, Babelsprech, Kleine Axt (great title!), These, people, are the poets' equivalent of Jan Drees' islands and oases far from the pressures of earning money and notching up shelf space. It seems that poets are resigned to or aware of not making a living out of their work, and thus less bothered about making it available for free. Hooray!

I can't decide whether the lack of German prose available online, i.e. the fact that you can only read it if you pay money for it, is a good thing or not. On the one hand, yes, absolutely, writing is hard work and that work ought to be paid for. On the other hand – and this is a big but – I know a number of literary journals and even some other magazines don't actually pay their contributors because their print and distribution costs are so high that they sop up the entire budget. So if writers aren't getting paid anyway, why should we spend money to read them?

Can we develop a prose equivalent to that sharing** culture in the poetry world, in which (some) writers merely want to reach an audience and get their work read? I'd love to see some of the innovative literary journals leading the way here and moving at least some of their content online. And I'd be thrilled if somebody wanted to sit down and make a decent online-only literary magazine for German writing, using all the beautiful design possibilities we now have, giving many more readers access to short stories in German than currently get to read them, and also opening up a way for as yet unpublished writers who don't have links to the creative writing programmes or publishing houses to get a foot in the door. It might even be a way to bring a little more diversity into the literary world, who knows. 

*Not actual names.
** I mean actual sharing, in which you let people have things for free.

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