I’m German and I live in Germany and read German newspapers and German book reviews. I wish I didn’t. Reading reviews can be so much fun, like a silent conversation with vaguely like-minded people about books we like or even love. German reviews, however, are something else. Oh, German critics in action, what a sad spectacle. I’m not sure who allowed them to write and publish reviews and who pays these fools money hand over fist, but someone did and they should be punished. Generally speaking, German reviewers have no taste. None. And you can point to all sorts of evidence for this. You can point to truly atrocious writers like Pascal Mercier, whose day job is to be a mediocre Swiss philosopher who goes by the name of Peter Bieri. Mercier writes terribly sentimental books about Important issues and Big emotions and he does that with the language of a tired teenager. But his books never fail to garner praise in the German press. Or take Ingo Schulze, that curly haired hack. Ah, but we’ll return to Schulze.
Let me point out first that this sort of tastelessness is not just an unpleasant fact of German culture. There are a few unpleasant facts, why get all hot and bothered about this one? Well, it can be harmful. One instance are translations. Writers like Philip Roth who, like him or not, wield a deft and elegant pen, are translated into a German that Mercier would be embarrassed to use. Clunky, full of Americanisms and cheap idioms, the German Roth nary resembles the original. Complaints from the reviewers? Au contraire. They tend to praise all kinds of questionable decisions. Like Inés Koebel, who is probably the most celebrated German translator at the moment; she is currently translating the complete works, it seems, of Fernando Pessoa. I don’t speak Portuguese, but apparently, she takes great liberties in rendering his poetry. German reviewers recognized it and heaped praise on her for that, especially for clearing up passages that were obscure in the original. Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen! The German reviewer tells his readers that a translator has to produce a good text, clearly, he need not care much about the source text. German reviewers could do much to amend the sorry state of German translations but they won’t. Instead they praise a German translation of and English translation of a Bengal novel, because, apparently, it is a much better and lighter read than the original. There are countless examples like that. Nobody who has read a decent amount of books in translation can deny that in Germany, you can tell from the goddamn language what the original language was. Give me a page, purged of names, and I can tell you with 80% accuracy from which language it was translated. German translations resemble sloppy interlinear translations more than anything else. Unless critics are deaf and blind, they have noticed this. And this will never change. Unless reviewers, who have a certain clout, step up and complain about crap, nothing will change. Because the reading public sure as hell doesn’t care. The crap they buy, the crap that’s flying off the shelves, it’s beyond comprehension.
So, yes, on the negative side, reviewers could use their influence to clean up the mess that German translations (with a few notable exceptions!) are, but they don’t. On the other hand, they could use positive pushes to promote good literature. In Germany there are many literary prizes and some, like the Döblinpreis and the Büchnerpreis keep being awarded to worthy writers and exceptional books, maybe because the reviewers’ influence is not as strong as in other important prizes. One of those is the newly established Deutscher Buchpreis, an award which has consistently shown itself to be a joke. Julia Franck wins in the year that Köhlmeier, Menasse and Düffel are nominated? Really? Marcel Beyer may be one of the five most brilliant German novelists, but Schulze is a scourge. His language and characters are consistently flat and clichéd; he attempts by turn to be hip and pensive, he fails on both accounts. Schulze is awful in so many ways – but he’s a darling of German book sections. Why? Because German critics don’t care how a book is written: if they can empathize with it, it’s good. If it sounds Important, it’s good.
This was never as clear as when the other major prize was decided this year: the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. This one is awarded for short prose, either short stories or excerpts from novels; the nominees read their submissions publicly, not just before an audience but the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is televised, as well, and all the texts can be read online here; is remarkable in that not just the texts are public, but that the jury debates the text in question in public, too. We hear them discuss the merits and demerits of the text, and can see on what their final decision will be based, even though the final deliberations are not public. And it is revealing every time. When I heard this year’s winner, Jens Petersen, read his text, an excerpt from an upcoming novel, a Swiss, 33 year old writer who has already published a novel, Die Haushälterin, in 2005 (longlisted for the deutscher Buchpreis), I groaned. His text (read it here) is written solely for effect, he attempts to squeeze the utmost sentimental feeling from his material, bashing the reader over the head with faux-archaic vocabulary, overused, overly symbolic images, but without the verbal staying power that is needed to make these set pieces work as part of a larger whole, as part of a text that works as a text and not as a statement of intention. The text is about someone dying, and embeds its characters and events in a dire wasteland that makes McCarthy seem subtle. The protagonist’s voice was fittingly, predictably disaffected and jaded.
The jurors immediately praised the text, declared that it had lots of symbols and a landscape that expressed the inner landscape of the protagonist. They pointed out that the author was a doctor and surmised that he must have come into contact with lots of people in dire straits. One single critic resisted, Paul Jandl. He said that all this was well and good, but the actual writing was terrible, the actual writing was “kitschig”, i.e. cheesy, chintzy, corny, but his voice was drowned out by all the other critics who were so very moved by what evidently was a harsh life and a difficult situation. All of those fools could have been talking about a movie or a picture, even. These are the people our newspapers pay to review books. And when I heard, the next day, that Petersen won, I didn’t even get mad. It was just as expected, really. Business as usual. German critics in action.