Monday, 24 June 2013

Bachmann on the Brink?

Regular readers - and anyone interested in literature who lives in a German-speaking country - will be familiar with the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. In a nutshell, it's Austria, Switzerland & Germany's Got Literary Talent. Four days of readings by mostly emerging writers and discussion by critics, broadcast live on Austrian TV. Only now Austrian TV seems to have got cold feet, after twenty-five years.

Various reports explain that the national Director General of ORF made a brash statement that they would no longer broadcast the competition next year, before actually informing the regional director in Carinthia, where the Bachmann Prize event takes place. ORF spends €350,000 on it, while the city of Klagenfurt donates €60,000. The mayor has said Klagenfurt can't afford to step in either. Apparently, the public broadcaster is having to implement major cuts because of a change to the funding process, and look what goes first - the arts.

There have been various enraged reactions. As previous winners point out in Focus magazine, the competition has made many a literary career. One of the critics judging in Klagenfurt for the past few years, Hubert Winkels, has written a hyperbolic defence of the competition in Volltext magazine. It's essential to broadcast it live, he says, because of the tension that creates and the attention it commands, spreading the prize's fame to all corners of the German-speaking world (you can watch ORF in Germany and Switzerland as well as Austria). What he doesn't mention is that it used to have an even further reach, with the entries and the website translated into seven European languages. When the sponsor jumped ship last year, the translation programme was abandoned. The longstanding organiser also moved on to a different position at ORF last year, although she was tight-lipped about the reasons. Winkels is a great one for exaggerating literature's importance; last year he claimed at an event that arts criticism is just as important to Western civilisation as representative democracy. Here again, he overstates his case: the competition should be put under United Nations protection, he says. I'm not at all sure he's joking.

I've never attended the competition in person, although many people do - giving the city a large influx of visitors and also showing a different side to a place rather tainted, let's say, by its association with right-wing populism. I'd also say this kind of culture tourism is a major boon for Klagenfurt and ought to be worth more than €60,000 (I wonder, for example, how much funding Berlin's international literary festival gets from the city). But of course the TV broadcast is nothing less than essential for the prize's prestige. Fourteen people reading in front of an audience of a couple of hundred is kind of lame in comparison. Over the past few years people have had a lot of fun with social media around the Bachmann Prize, commenting on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. But even if the competition were to continue with a livestream, not being on TV would lose it a huge audience.

Let's hope they get the situation sorted out somehow. As Winkels says, it is a unique event and it would be sad to see it fade into obscurity.

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