Monday 10 November 2014

Open Mike Prize to Doris Anselm

The name Open Mike is a superb misnomer. This literary competition for unpublished under-35s writing in German involves no spontaneous performance whatsoever. Instead, eligible applicants submit prose and poetry anonymously to a panel of professional editors, who choose their 22 favourites. Then they all come together for a two-day reading extravaganza in Berlin, where three writers choose the winners. There's an audience prize but it's awarded by a secret committee of five average Joes (I was once one of them but I got all excited and told people in advance).

Life often gets in the way of me spending two full days in a row listening to readings, and this year I only saw a handful of the candidates in action. That might well be an advantage because it means I don't get jaded like the misery-puss at Die Zeit* seems to have done. Twenty-two texts is a lot and if you have a short turnover time to write about the experience, you probably need a hook of the "Where are all the authentic writers?" kind to overcome the inevitable brain-deadness afterwards. Complaining about professionalism in literary competitions, though, feels rather patronising to me.

So what happened? There were a good few writers in the pot from Germany's two creative writing schools. I saw one of them, with a text that spiralled around self-referentiality and was effective enough to make me feel bad about thoroughly enjoying the one that followed, which was about a young man who worked in a hospice. Not bad enough to think that latter one didn't genuinely deserve the audience prize it got, though, and to keep a close eye in future on its writer Gerasimos Bekas. Also, I was charmed by his son, who came and sat on his lap a couple of rows in front of me. You do get up close to the writers at the Open Mike, that's for sure. And I enjoyed Astrid Sozio's story too, scary stuff that took a sideways glance at poverty.

Then there was a break while the judges deliberated and then a couple of speeches, including Björn Kuhligk's American-style graduation address to the authors. Be Rilke or get a job, he told them, and keep writing, but make sure you write what you want to write and not what you think the market wants. Björn Kuhligk writes poetry and has a job as a bookseller. The judges gave €2000 each to Mareike Schneider and Robert Stripling for prose and poetry respectively, and then said the story they all loved the most was by Doris Anselm. And I read it later and I can see why: written in a mix of street-speak and museum language, it's a piece about kids who hang out in a shopping centre and where something is wrong that gave me a big long goose-pimple of "Woah, what's happening here?" And it gets the right balance, I think, doesn't read like a posh kid looking down her nose at the lumpen proletariat. Plus Anselm was so visibly elated to have won that I couldn't help liking her.

Those complaints about professionalism, I don't know. I find it awkward listening to unfinished texts read by people crippled with fear. The Open Mike's submission process is anonymous and the editors specifically stated that they enjoyed the opportunity to single out texts that weren't necessarily "marketable", unlike in their everyday work. Certainly, a whole novel in the style of Anselm's story would be hard to stomach - and I mean that in the most admiring way. The Open Mike is a discovery engine for the German-language publishing business, yes, but I don't think the people who enter and the people who win go on to produce palatable mush. They just present their work well, and what's wrong with that?

*I debated with myself and decided that misery-puss is gently pejorative but not sexist. Could be a grumpy tomcat.

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