#TDDL: a summary. Part 2: The Good

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, yesterday the awards were voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

I split my summary into three parts: the writers I did not like, or didn’t like enough, my favorites, and then a third about the actual results. Here is part 1: The Bad, which you should read first.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert

Laura Freudenthaler

Egon Christian Leitner

Lydia Haider

Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

In the first summary I grouped the writers by similarities rather than by chronological order or preference. I would like to continue doing it here, and there are two obvious groups. The odd woman out is Laura Freudenthaler. I’ll begin with an admission: I listened to the story and was bored, looked at the text and was a bit nonplussed by some elements of the style and was ready to dismiss it, until one of the readers I value most suggested I have another look (because of that reader I had another look at Lisa Krusche too, but that did not help. More on Lisa Krusche at the very end of Part 1). And I was wrong. Freudenthaler’s story is an extraordinary achievement. Structurally it moves like a melody, with a devastating, literally explosive ending – and it’s a testament to her skill that a big, devastating, fiery end, after only 8 pages of story, feels earned, and not like a gimmick. Freudenthaler, like Ally Klein at TDDL 2018, does a remarkable job of making anxiety feel real. Moreover, she excels at using real scientific facts about the developments of peat fires or other phenomena of spontaneous underground combustion organically, as a way to illuminate the knowledge we have about her story. As a writer, Freudenthaler has a knack for the curious detail – like the sound of a burning fire, sucking in oxygen, and its similarity to the sound of an asthmatic person having an attack. Freudenthaler connects insides and outsides, a personal violent episode leads us into the story and a massive conflagration leads us out. It touches on political concerns, but indirectly, trusting the protagonist’s anxiety to carry us over.

Much more overtly political are Egon Christian Leitner and Lydia Haider. Both of them extraordinarily Austrian in their talk and both of them explicitly, directly and forthrightly political. Neither of them really helped their texts by reading them aloud. Egon Christian Leitner has a large body of work of largely fragmentary or rather: episodic prose about life on the margins. Unlike exploitative texts, like Bachmann participants Neft and Schutti, Leitner is always empathetic and clear about his own speaking position. The language evades simple emotive tendencies, it doesn’t try to manipulate the reader, it grounds marginalized people in the details of their own realities. Despite the clarity of the language, it’s not plain or journalistic, instead Leitner’s tone is deliberate and clean. His reading, regrettably, was offered in a monotone that emphasized some of the structural repetitions, but undersold his skills at deploying sarcasm and other forms of pointed humor. Leitner stood out, and is one of my favorites because his work felt genuinely unique – not filled with the phraseology of Bachmanntexts past, or leaning on the imagery of 1990s fiction or nonfiction, it felt almost sui generis, though particularly 1970s Austrian literature can offer further examples of work written in Leitner’s style. A similar mixture of sui generis with echoes of brilliant texts in the Austrian tradition is found in Lydia Haider’s text. Where Leitner’s text was dominated by the reasoned speaker’s voice, Haider’s story teems with voices. A text about contemporary politics, violence and right wing rhetoric, it borrows from a completely different Austrian tradition, most famously Jelinek, whose later novels and plays interrogate the violence inherent in common and popular phrases. I will admit, I am not as well read in other examples of that tradition. At the end of her presentation, Haider reads from a copy of plays by Werner Schwab, furnishing us further venues of reference and interpretation. The text is dense, and Haider’s intensely dramatic reading regrettably covered up its details – revisiting it quietly, its well-turned language reveals a skilled writer, with an urgency that’s equal part literary and political. Much of it is flashy, clearly, but the unusual language, the thoughtful engagement with a tradition, and the examination of contemporary issues lift it beyond all the texts discussed in the previous section. Both Leitner and Haider’s texts are unthinkable without assuming that these writers see themselves, as Otoo noted, as citizens as well as writers, and they present us also with an answer to some of the lazy reactions to Otoo’s speech, such as irritated (and irritating) complaint, Otoo were expecting us to learn a bibliography before or instead of engaging with the issues. What Otoo did instead, with several examples early in her speech, is ask for a literature that’s thought- and careful, that considers questions of solidarity, and that brings empathy to not just its characters, but its readers, as well. The jury could have noted any of that or other links to Otoo’s speech, which would have been especially apropos in Leitner’s case, but they decided to ignore it instead.

And finally, my favorite writer of the competition – she was my favorite before everything started and consistently my pick to win it all: Helga Schubert. Helga Schubert and Hanna Herbst presented texts about parents, and they did so one after the other. Of all the writers in this post, Hanna Herbst is the weakest, and on the level of writing, she does not reach some of Lisa Krusche’s heights. At the same time, her texts also do not evince some of the downsides to Krusche’s text. Herbst is not, as far as I can tell, primarily a literary writer – and this text, though it may become part of something larger, feels specific to a moment. Herbst’s text is gimmicky – a remembrance of a father that’s filled with small bits and bobs, frequently unpleasantly precious. If you’ll think of the music of Belle & Sebastian, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Silvain Chomet, you can guess at the tone. Through it all, the text, however, retains a genuine, a moving core, and unlike other texts in the previous section, never reproduces racism. In fact, it’s the rare text that feels carefully crafted even though it’s sometimes overrun with unexamined common phraseology. There’s a sense of a kind of writing that came out of creative writing departments in the early 2000s, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers. One episode had the father ask his daughter to bring her three favorite books to him, only to burn them without explanation, a story that Hanna Herbst manages to invest with a sense of connection and mystery – everything seems polyvalent, resonating with different energies, a good text. Its biggest disadvantage was to be presented immediately after Helga Schubert gave us a story about remembering a mother. Schubert’s text swings wildly, it can be tender, cruel, warm, violent, personal, political – it’s a rich text by a writer who has been ignored by the literary establishment for a long, long time. A psychoanalyst by training, the prose she published in the 1980s is at times staggering in its use of economy. The story “Schöne Reise,” collected in the collection of the same name, reads like Carver after Lish was through with him. And Schubert preserved this quality. Politically, Schubert had always been complicated, I recommend reading a conversation she had with Rita Süssmuth, published as Gehen die Frauen in die Knie? in 1990, where Schubert evades expectations of feminist assumptions, harshly critical of GDR society and politics. The politics of the story she presented at TDDL were similarly complicated, but ultimately overshadowed by the portrait of a difficult mother – a mother who tells her daughter on her dying bed that she wasn’t wanted, and that she wants acknowledgment for giving birth to her despite that. It’s part of the power of Schubert’s story, that she ends up outside of the hospital, giving her mother that gratitude, without rancor, or damaging resentment. And though it’s tempting to retell bits and pieces of the story which can move the attentive reader to tears, what truly sets it apart is Schubert’s stylistic sharpness. Take sentence length for example – the normal sentence here is short, but not remarkably so; yet when she expands her sentences, they immediately fill up with detail and direction. Strangely, the story never feels like Schubert had to fight to get it into this shape – she’s just this skilled. I feel obligated to state that the story is not as good as some of the 1980s work, but it’s more generous and expansive than that work.

My next post discusses the actual awards (spoiler: I’m not unhappy).

#TDDL: a summary. Part 1: The Bad

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage – and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, today the awards are voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

And boy did we have some readings. There were no truly excellent texts on the first day, balanced out by some odd walks on the Caucasian side, and then there were two to three spectacular readings on the second day, and a solid third day. I’m not going to go through them chronologically, so as not to needlessly repeat myself. Writing about everything at once allows me to be slightly less vitriolic than I usually am – seeing the arc of a year’s crop of invitations is intriguing.

One of the most significant developments was the dialogue that the texts had with Sharon Dodua Otoo’s speech that introduced the events. Otoo’s speech very calmly discussed the role of race in German literature – she spoke clearly and eloquently about solidarity, lived experience, about the room to write yourself in a white society when you’re Black, when you’re Othered, by readers, publishers, other authors. What does representation mean to Black artists? The most urgent question, regarding this year’s competition, surfaces early in the speech: do some white writers write the way they do because they imagine their readership exclusively white? What are the expectations regarding literary “speech” – Otoo cites Chinua Achebe, who declared that “writers are not only writers, they are also citizens.”

And so to these three days of readings, with one (1) writer with Egyptian roots and one (1) writer with Kosovan roots, and everybody else with less complex backgrounds. How did these writers rise to the challenge of being “not only writers, [but] also citizens?” Poorly, for the most part.

I’m splitting the post into the writers I did not like, on the one hand, and a second post about my favorites, and then a third about the actual results.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert
Laura Freudenthaler
Egon Christian Leitner
Lydia Haider
Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

This post, however, is about the others.

Let’s begin with the interesting, inoffensive, but banal – Meral Kureyshi and Jasmin Ramadan offered light texts that were written with skill and invested with some intriguing energy, but fell flat, ultimately. Both concerned with questions of gender, they differed in tone – Kureyshi read us a soft, pensive monologue about a woman’s love life. There isn’t one bad sentence in the whole story, on the contrary, it contains several striking observations and comments, but it lacks, ultimately, something to draw the reader through it. The opposite is true for Jasmin Ramadan. Author of several novels, her story is punchy – a sharp look at modern gender dynamics, written in a light, quick style, which, for this kind of award and environment, was a bit too light. Acknowledging the difficulties of calling something “literary” without qualifying the precariousness of that judgment, this text still fell short of what is considered literary, at least in this context. And there are certainly questions here, questions I would have liked the judges to ask, about representation of female writing, and of writers of color, and what the limits of our idea of literary writing mean for this kind of writer, particularly because Ramadan consistently works with the most fascinating notions of representation in her literary work. Hers was the first text, and a fantastic opportunity to tie a discussion of the text into the Rede zur Literatur, which supposedly frames the whole week. Spoiler alert: the judges did not refer back to Otoo’s speech a single time. Not that first day, nor any day thereafter. Not surprised, but still disappointed. It feels off, slotting Kureyshi and Ramadan somewhere into the middle of the field, but it is what it is.

Similarly in the middle, but for entirely different reasons, is another pair of writers, Jörg Piringer and Levin Westermann. Every year, there’s at least one poet – and it is remarkably often that poet who wins an award. Nora Gomringer won the main award, for example. Poets writing prose can be exciting. Unexpectedly, this year, we were offered poets writing poetry. And not just text that is written in short lines. In their readings, both Piringer and Westermann emphasized the structural qualities of poetry. Jörg Piringer offered a history of our current reality, connected to a metaphor from martial arts. He worked in free rhythms, but scrupulously emphasized the ends of lines, forming the poem as much orally as he did on the page. The reading was more rhythmic than the writing – a veteran of the digital poetry scene, indeed, often considered a pioneer, Piringer’s reading was impressively sharp, powerful enough to make readers read past many of the less than sharp observations of history and the present. The martial arts metaphor sits uncomfortably in the middle of a text which does not in any way reflect on the patriarchal nature of historiography, written for an implied audience that does not particularly need that kind of reflection: white, tech-savvy men. The masculine obsession with martial arts fits this pattern too well, not to mention the pronounced performance of the whole text. Still, until I reread Lydia Haider’s remarkable text quietly tonight, I considered Piringer’s poem one of the four best texts of the competition. I was never in danger of considering Levin Westermann’s text one of those. Westermann is an accomplished, widely published poet – and in his text, he shows himself to also be widely read. An early quote from a Matthew Zapruder poem cannot but make us think of Zapruder’s recent, mildly controversial book Why Poetry, a defense of poetry, which may as well serve as an explanation of why Westermann offered up this text. Other writers cited in the text include Rilke, Dillard and Jorie Graham. The text itself consists of rhythmic but irregularly metered and highly irregularly rhymed lines, making strong use of repetition and other kinds of form to produce a formally dense text, which has next to nothing to say that cannot be found in Zapruder’s text. The occasional political notes struck are bland, and drown in the incessant formal games that Westermann, unlike some late Graham, never convincingly connects to something that matters. The effect is strangely masturbatory, a display (sound, fury etc.).

Speaking of masturbatory – male writers tend to come to Klagenfurt with texts celebrating, well, themselves, in one way or another, and it’s never the stylistically brilliant ones either. Last year, an award was handed out to a navel-gazing story of a writer writing about his day walking through his city, picking up groceries (details may vary), having a series of extremely minor epiphanies, presented in the flattest prose imaginable. And the streak continues, unabated, with the next pair. Leonard Hieronymi and Matthias Senkel offered badly written stories that were largely pointless literary exercises with the sole purpose of centering the writers in question, though, superficially, their stories appear to be different. Matthias Senkel presented a story about a mystery, about an archaeological dig, written like a mosaic, composed of sections set in different periods. It tries to use scientific vocabulary to make the story discursively complex, with notes of Richard Powers and similar writers, but he entirely lacks a broader view or any sense of style. His is not the worst written story of the competition, but it’s also not too far off. His goal is one of faking layers of complexity to catfish readers into overlooking the blandness of the actual writing on the page. Some of the dialogue is downright risible, the information in the story closer to wiki-sourced infodumps than to well-digested and productively used knowledge, and the various attempts to play or toy with the reader a transparent ploy to engage in dialogue with a very specific (white, male) readership, which is curiously popular in German literature, as attested to by the popularity of the Barons of Blandness Thomas Glavinic and Georg Klein, both of whom have made a career of papering over poor writing with various kinds of metafictional games, in the case of Glavinic with some additional limp masculinity. Speaking of which: Leonard Hieronymi entered a story into the competition that read like a carbon copy of the travel stories written by Christian Kracht and friends in the earlyy and mid-1990s. It’s almost not worth discussing. Hieronymi, member of a group called “The Rich Kids of Literature” (it’s an English-language title, because of course it is), writes about getting horribly drunk, then taking a trip to the Romanian city of Constanta by the Black Sea, meeting famed Romanian poet Mircea Dinescu. There, he evokes Ovid and his exile, which he wrote about in the beautiful Tristia. In between all this he offers observations of Romania that switch between the banal and the offensive, and in the end he returns, having learned nothing. The expectations inscribed in books like this, the sense of who writes, who reads and who gets written about is stark, but at least, let me say that, Hieronymi comes close to making his politics explicit.

That’s not true for the next group of writers, Katja Schönherr, Lisa Krusche and Carolina Schutti. Let me start with Schutti, because I have very little to say about her story that I hadn’t said about her novels before. To quote my pre-Bachmann review:

Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page.


these books are… specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking.

I also note the sense of exploitation of marginality. All of this is exactly true for the story she presented. Tone, style, exploitation, all there. Again, someone on the margins, again, someone struggling with language. And like other Bachmann-writers in previous years, for example Stephan Lohse, she doesn’t shy away from indirectly using Blackness as a way to feed and expand her already dubious narratives of marginality. Her protagonist, in a moment of crisis, sees a documentary about Africa on TV, exclaiming “Ich bin in Afrika.” Schutti’s text is a paint-by-numbers Klagenfurt text, in the worst way. Her books sound like they should be read at TDDL, so did her story, which she read exactly this way, and she uses the same tropes of marginality to elevate her text into a borrowed relevancy. At least, one is tempted to say, Katja Schönherr’s protagonist isn’t marginalized. Just a regular white female character. But Schönherr also, almost aggressively, makes it clear that she has a very specific implicit audience. I’ll admit, it’s bad luck that her story came out when we are all so much more aware of the necessity of elevating marginalized voices, when people march to protest the disregard for Black and trans lives. Let me tell you what Schönherr’s story is about in the least judgy vocabulary: a (white) woman goes to the Zoo with husband and daughter, struggling with her life, worried she might die (she’s not ill). She sees an orangutan who picks up a sign (we are never told which) and holds it up. A conversation between various onlookers ensues, as they debate whether the apparent demonstration by the ape is right-, or leftwing, or neutral. Complaints arise that the demonstration isn’t narrowly tailored to ape-relevant concerns, and the protagonist slowly comes around to feeling solidarity with the orangutan, who, she feels, should be allowed to have its say. After the sign is abandoned, she acquires orangutan costumes and goes to the zoo with her daughter, costume-clad, with the sign, to continue the protest, until she gets kicked out. To cite Otoo, as the judges have conspicuously not done: who is this for? Who is this about? Who is included, who is not? If every writer is a citizen, and if we are to look at who the writer’s empathy is for, how do we read texts like Schönherr’s? Using the figure of public protest merely as a mirror for a white woman’s ennui and an a fear of death is deeply strange and unpleasant – and shows a profound disengagement with the reasons for such public protests, not to mention other…issues with the story. Similar problems of disengagement are displayed in the text by Lisa Krusche. Of the three in this final group, it is by far the most well written. I admit, I had to read it multiple times to engage with the tone and the writing, but there you are. That said, her story about disaffected youth, a sense of connection with an environment that in Krusche’s pen turns even the inorganic organic, and virtual spaces suffers from the exact same problem as Schönherr’s story. The same questions apply – though she masks it better than Schönherr’s plain offering. The central theoretical text for Krusche’s story is Donna Haraway’s late-career book Staying with the Trouble, in which Haraway completes a disengagement with real, tangible change, with a connection to intersectional feminist issues, in favor of a loose examination of kinship and inter-species solidarity that was a long time coming in her work. This excellent essay by Sophie Lewis explains in detail where the problems with Haraway’s book are. Krusche’s story would have been tonally off in any year of the competition, but it sounds a particularly discordant tone this year, particularly. It’s not just that the police as an institution is noted and dismissed as “maybe inherently humorous,” which, I have no words. The use of virtual spaces in narratives is especially fraught. There are copious essays noting why texts like Ready Player Go are structurally racist, and what the imagination of whiteness in virtual spaces really means. Afrofuturism has offered much pushback to these imagined spaces, and clarified why there are no real neutral visions of the future. Krusche does not engage any of these questions and offers, at the end, a general pessimism, a view of revolution that is colorblind in the worst way. It’s an unpleasant text, masked by a sometimes stunningly beautiful sense of reality, borrowed straight from JG Ballard’s unpleasant dystopias of white distress. Sophie Lewis makes it abundantly clear that Haraway’s avoidance of empathetic solutions to patriarchal and racist violence (in fact, she specifically reproduces racism in the book) isn’t a byproduct, but an essential structural component of elevating oddkins and “kinnovations” over families and the masses of humans. The same is true, though less focused, of Lisa Krusche’s text. To connect the text to Sharon Otoo’s speech: who is its audience? Who do we have empathy for? Krusche’s text is about whiteness in multiple problematic ways. Nam Le, in his sticky book-length essay on David Malouf, notes the role of the bush, the untamed wilderness, in the imagination of colonial settler writing. He writes that for immigrants, “whiteness is our bush” – for Lisa Krusche, the old oppositions are active. The bush is still the bush, dystopian, wild, decaying. The contrast even to writers like Vandermeer, with all his flaws, is instructive. A text inspired by a past that we should be learning to read critically instead.

More on the writers I wanted to win in the next post.


#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2020 edition.

If you follow me on twitter,you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.

I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. Here are some anticipatory remarks from earlier in the week.

So what is happening?

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

This year there’s a Coronavirus-related shift online. Only the moderator is in Klagenfurt, Austria. Everybody else joins via video. The readings are pre-recorded, while the judging happens on live video. Since everything is on a three-ish second delay, this might get messy.

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you are fortunate – you can now purchase it in a bilingual edition here and I *urge* you to get a copy. Incidentally, the German judges were still slightly upset about Otoo’s win the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win, but she did win second place. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury. So of course, 2019 went even worse. None of the adjudicated awards went to someone challenging the order of things. Here is my summary from 2019. It was depressing.

So what’s happening this year?

Somehow, the organizers came up with a brilliant idea. Each year, a writer introduces the events with a so-called “Rede zur Literatur” – a State of the Literature speech. This year, they gave Sharon Dodua Otoo the reins, who delivered a brilliant speech on Wednesday night (read/see it here) that managed to be trenchant and measured and relevant all at the same time. She ended it by mentioning some important Black German writers – none of whom have been invited this year, or last year, or the year before. Because of course not.

As for this year’s field – it’s…interesting. Not for diversity reasons, that’s still clearly off the table – except for Jasmin Ramadan, a writer with Egyptian roots, and Meral Kureyshi, born in Prizren, it’s as white as you’d think. That said, there are two writers this year who count among classic writers in their or any field. Most important: Helga Schubert. Schubert has been an important writer for all my life. She wrote a bona fide classic nonfiction book about female complicity in the Third Reich, the still-powerful Judasfrauen. She also writes short stories which are so unbelievably well made, I cannot help but have the highest expectations for this year. The other is Jörg Piringer, who is an important figure in early digital poetry. I have written reviews of the work of Meral Kureyshi (which is good) and Carolina Schutti (which is not), linked below.

I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots.

10.00 Uhr Jasmin Ramadan
11.00 Uhr Lisa Krusche
12.00 Uhr Leonhard Hieronymi
13.30 Uhr Carolina Schutti
14.30 Uhr Jörg Piringer
10.00 Uhr Helga Schubert
11.00 Uhr Hanna Herbst
12.00 Uhr Egon Christian Leitner
13.30 Uhr Matthias Senkel
14.30 Uhr Levin Westermann
10.00 Uhr Lydia Haider
11.00 Uhr Laura Freudenthaler
12.30 Uhr Katja Schönherr
13.30 Uhr Meral Kureyshi




2 Novels by Carolina Schutti

Schutti, Carolina (2010), wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, Otto Müller
ISBN 978-3-7013-1178-1
Schutti, Carolina (2012), einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, Otto Müller
ISBN 978-3-7013-1193-4

Carolina Schutti Novels As has become tradition on this blog, as the Bachmannpreis rears its head, I’m reviewing some books by writers invited to perform there, though I never really get around to reviewing all that many. I already reviewed a novel by invitee Meral Kureyshi (click here), a while ago, actually, and here now is a review of two novels by Carolina Schutti. Schutti is a writer with a truly impressive track record. Not only does she have a PhD in German literature (she wrote a dissertation on Elias Canetti), but she’s also won a plethora of awards for her books – novels, novellas and other texts. And yet – to say I felt let down by the two novels under review is to understate how grueling the experience of reading these short books really was. I’ll say this for her: Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page. Both books use language to tell the story of people who struggle with it – who struggle with telling a story of themselves, and as a result, it is deplorable that Schutti declines to give them that voice. Instead she sets them up with a boilerplate reservoir of phrases that are all too common in books like this. And there are so many books like this. There’s an unpleasant lure to characters who are at the margins of language and society – not the truly aphasic, but the reticent ones, the ones who live between languages, or the ones with mental illnesses that make for dramatic performances.

And so her debut novel, wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, (those who are carried have no need of shoes) focuses on an 18 year old girl who struggles with communication. She manages to work from a limited set of phrases in her work as a server, but once she meets a man and her life opens up, that language is no longer sufficient. There is a sudden turn, as a walk through the woods leads to a confession on the part of the protagonist, and eventually, a complete collapse. It is language, at every turn, that leads her astray, language, that condemns her, and language, at the end, that helps her pull herself together – or apart, depending on your reading. This tendency, to present a text that is primarily about language and not as much about actual lived experience, is a Bachmann cliché, and in some ways, last year’sline-up and results were a confirmation of this tendency, with Ronya Othmann’s autofictional text sidelined, and Sarah Wipauer’s rich, but not myopically self-centered text entirely ignored. It is difficult not to read these texts about mentally marginalized people by those in academia with some suspicion, as an exercise in tone and form. But even formally, this is upsettingly thin. It seems to strive for a switch from a certain simplicity in the early chapters to a much richer set of poeticisms in the last chapter, but nothing in the early chapters is actually simple, per se. These seem like the most mathematically average sentence length, with the typical number of adjectives for books written in German in the 21st century. And while there are more poeticisms towards the end, they veer sharply into Lifetime Movie sententiousness. As a comparison, for simplicity and formal mastery, take fellow 2020 Bachmann invitee Helga Schubert. In her story “Schöne Reise” we find truly reduced sentences, which bloom in extremely specific spots. The narrative, of a state-sanctioned Black Sea holiday, is tense, a story like a tightly wound spring, begging to be read and re-read. There is not a single sentence in Helga Schubert’s story that you don’t feel is crafted for this story specifically, and there’s no immediate comparison, except with her peers among the best writers of her generation. Not a whiff of epigonality.

This has, necessarily, to do with what I consider the most difficult mode of writing: simplicity. Everyday details and sparse language is the most difficult combination to pull off very well. Schutti’s attempts, at least in the two novels I read, from another problem that seems to me particularly German – the overuse of useless detail, particularly around food. The amount of times we are treated to individual bites of food in between thoughts or dialogue, intended to show the banality of passing time, in contemporary German literature is an absolute mystery to me. In the debut novel there’s a whole paragraph involving the serving of soup. Is this the German variety of show, not tell? Who did this to you? It is so pervasive, and such a sign of thoughtless paragraph writing – writing, that is, that’s concerned with what a paragraph is about more than about the individual sentences constructing the paragraph. Not to overuse Helga Schubert as a reference, but after all, she IS invited to this same competition, and her collection Schöne Reise, which contains the abovementioned story, is full of people cooking or eating, and there isn’t a single “biss in sein Brötchen” type of paragraph structure. I’m fine knowing you’re eating your food, carbs and all – do not list individual bites for me. It does not enhance anything.

Another issue with these books about people struggling with language is that the writers of those books tend to be especially highly educated – and so they offer observations that are incredibly complex but are couched in simple situations. Like Schutti, when her protagonist looks yearningly at the windows of rich people and observes that the people inside, unafraid to be robbed, “send out some of their light, it falls hard upon the asphalt, right in front of her. She cannot pick up this light, though she can climb inside, or step over it.” etc. This is highly poetic, if not particularly good, and entirely out of place with the much plainer and banal observations in the immediately preceding sentences. Somehow, and I think we can blame this on writers like Peter Handke, the margins of language have become a playground for these poeticisms toying with the perception of reality. In books like Schutti’s debut, however, it just feels exploitative. Talking about people who are really, genuinely marginalized, and coating their lives with self-serving language games seems dubious. When it’s this badly executed, its worse. There’s also often a racial component to it, and that Schutti’s second novel, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, “I must have walked across soft Grass once,” is about immigration and the learning and unlearning of language, and uses many of the same tools and tricks of the first book, confirms this theory. Now, the book is autobiographically inspired. Its protagonist is a woman who has lost the ability to speak the language of the place she came from as a child, Belorussian. Schutti herself is the child of immigrants and has lost the ability to speak their language, Polish. Immediately, these references, and connecting the struggles with language to learning or failing to learn a language gives the typical spiel more heft. The execution though is no better than in the debut novel. The immediate comparisons that come to mind, including Aglaja Veteranji’s brilliant novels, or Melinda Nadj Abonji’s underrated debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, all serve to emphasize how flat, in the end, Schutti’s constructions end up being.

To be clear – these books are both exceptionally competent – but not as novels. They are specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. It’s inconsistent, yes, but consistently so. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking. An unbelievably fitting writer for Klagenfurt, then. It’s a surprise it has taken so long.

#TDDL 2020 – some anticipatory remarks

This is less like a full post and more a note – I know this blog has been mostly dormant these past weeks, but the annual deluge of posts regarding the Bachmannpreis is about to hit the blog. The Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (TDDL – the days of german-language literature) are about to begin.

This year is different in multiple ways. Due to Coronavirus, the event is largely online – there is no audience, and the writers and judges are not crammed into a sweaty tent in Klagenfurt this year.

Another change – each year the readings are inaugurated by a longer speech, the Rede zur Literatur. Last year, we were offered a narratological note involving Wrestling metaphors. That year’s speaker was Clemens Setz. This year’s speaker is Sharon Dodua Otoo. You know what I think about her. There was always heightened significance to her choice, particularly given the extraordinarily privilege-blind judgments in the past several years, which increasingly sidelined interesting and/or non-white writers in favor of an insular view of what good and praiseworthy literature can and should be. Here’s my commentary on last year’s results.

So giving Sharon Otoo the reins to, in a way, define the framework for this year’s discussion, was always going to be interesting and necessary, particularly given some of the publicly uttered resentment towards her. However, if anything, this year’s long overdue discussions of the role of race in policing, public policy and health care, not just in the US, but also in Germany and Austria, have further emphasized the pivotal role of this year’s speaker. The field of writers (more on that Wednesday-ish) this year is barely more diverse than last year’s, with some really dubious choices, politically and literarily.

At the same time, in publishing, some truly amazing books have come out (or are about to come out) which challenge the narrow idea of literature propagated by the #tddl judges. Cemile Sahin’s Taxi and Olivia Wenzel’s 1000 Serpentinen Angst, for example, are two of the best German-language debuts to come out in years and years, and books like Deniz Ohde’s Streulicht are on the horizon.

Who knows, maybe this is the year when the Bachmannpreis judges truly reckon with the diverse realities of writing and living in Germany, and do not retire to their bleached, boring, insular view of literature and culture.