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 All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations).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