Sunday, 15 November 2009

17th Open Mike

Last weekend I looked at state funding for more established writers. This weekend was Open Mike weekend, in which unpublished authors up to the age of 35 get a shot at stardom and cash. In Germany, 35 is a magical cut-off date after which you are old. Practically overnight, you're no longer entitled to enter young people's literary competitions and in return, you can get a free check-up from your doctor. But I digress.

Open Mike is a literary institution run by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, propelling talented writers to genuine fame for the past 17 years. The list of previous winners includes Julia Franck, Karen Duve, Jochen Schmidt, Tim Krohn, Terézia Mora, Tilman Rammstedt, Zsuzsa Bánk... plenty of big names in what they call "young German literature". Now, the finalists don't just read their texts before a rather large and no doubt rather intimidating audience. They're also treated to a colloquium beforehand (on "what is contemporary about contemporary literature?" - I couldn't get a straight answer when I asked what the outcome was). Plus they meet previous winners, and afterwards they get to work on their texts with experienced editors, whether they win or not. The three winners get a fairly modest sum of money and an indecent amount of attention from publishers.

The finalists are chosen by a team of six editors, each of whom gets their own personal slush-pile of around 120 submissions. The idea is to simulate the actual publishing world, apparently - and the editors did a pretty good job of simulating all that familiar moaning and groaning about the quality of unsolicited manuscripts. But in the end, 20 finalists were selected, six poets and the rest prose writers.

And then the whole world gathers together in my least favourite Berlin venue, the Wabe, for two days. I went along on Saturday and then cheated by just turning up for the announcement ceremony on the second day. Because I felt I ought to spend some time with my family over the weekend – and because it was frankly exhausting. The audience seemed to be made up entirely out of editors, agents, journalists, people who had applied but weren't taken, and the contestants' friends - which meant there was a huge amount of bitching going on.

I'm not going to list who read what. If you're interested, see goldblog for an entertaining blow-by-blow description, or buy the book. One enduring impression though is that almost all young German-language writers feel compelled to include at least one poorly pronounced English phrase in their texts, mainly for no discernible reason. Another is that the young generation is not much better than their elders when it comes to ignoring anyone who isn't white*, beyond certain clichés (domestic staff, sexually available, criminal). And of course there were a hell of a lot of first-person narrators, who were often difficult to distinguish from the writers. The texts that stood out, for me, were those that ventured further afield - Jan Sprenger to China, Lutz Woellert to Ellis Island, Ondrej Cikán to a fantasy cowboy-inhabited New Mexico, to name a few.

The winners?

Matthias Senkel for a dizzying, funny piece about a family history that I too rather admired, Inger-Maria Mahlke for a confusing and well-written fragment culminating in an old man touching an unexpected pair of breasts, and Konstantin Ames for acrobatic poetry. As it turns out, all three of them have some connection to the DLL creative writing school in Leipzig...

It's probably safe to say you may well hear these names again in future. Matthias Senkel also won the audience prize, voted on by a handful of mere mortals rather than the three judges (Kathrin Röggla, Ursula Krechel, Jens Sparschuh). I'll post a link to his text when it appears in the taz as a result.

*By "white" I actually mean German or Western European or American. There are plenty of clichéd Eastern Europeans out there - research has shown that Germans have always loved people from countries to their west and hated everyone from eastwards. To put it rather simply.

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