This year’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize was somewhat more low-key than usual, probably because everybody’s attention is engaged by the World Cup and it was a hot and tiring weekend in general. For more about the competition read this, this and this post from previous years.
I almost forgot that the Bachmann Prize was on, so I missed the first day, including the eventual winner Tex Rubinowitz and his story Wir waren niemals hier (We were never here), and only heard a few of the texts and subsequent discussions. My general impression, albeit based on a small sample size, was that this year’s crop of Bachmann Prize texts was rather mediocre to underwhelming. It’s an impression largely shared by German speaking critics and cultural journalists. For an example, see this write-up in the Swiss paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Echoing the NZZ write-up, there were pleasantly few texts this year about dealing with WWII/the Third Reich/Communist East Germany, which was a surprise, since three of the last four winners were texts dealing with these subjects (and two of them weren’t even particularly good). One of the texts I did manage to listen to, Millefleurs by Austrian writer Georg Petz, did touch on the current “rememberance mania” and the excessive celebration of the anniversaries of D-Day and the beginning of WWI, the manner of which Petz’s protagonist finds as distasteful as I do, but it does so in the context of a contemporary love triangle between a German exchange student, a French woman and her French boyfriend.
With fewer texts focussing on “our sorry history”, the majority of the texts instead focussed on the other big Bachmann Prize topic, the ennui of modern life, described in exhaustive detail. And so we got stories about conflicts between parents and grown children, stories about broken relationships and memories of past romances, stories about death and suicide, stories about drugs, stories about battling with bureaucracy. I’m not sure if those texts are necessarily better than the “our sorry history” stories, but at least they are stories about the way we live now and not about something that happened decades before the contestants were even born, filtered through second and third hand family anecdotes.
There is an element of public performance to the Bachmann Prize, as the statues require a public reading by the author in addition to the submitted texts. Indeed, the reading is such an important component of the competition that this year author Karen Köhler was disqualified, since she was unable to attend due to an accute case of chickenpox. And because the reading is so important, the author’s performance sometimes seemed to overshadow the actual content of the text.
This was very notable with regards to the discussion about the entries by the two Swiss contestants, where the jurors debated more about the performance than about the actual texts. The debate about Michael Fehr’s text Simeliberg, which I quite liked, focussed almost entirely on Fehr’s performance (Fehr refused to sit, but walked around, reciting his text as dictated by his iPod) as well as on his Swiss accent. Now Swiss German can be nigh incomprehensible to the Non-Swiss, but Fehr’s accent was perfectly comprehensible (and actually quite endearing). Immediately afterwards, Swiss writer Ramona Ganzoni, who is a native speaker of Romansh by the way, was accused by head juror Burkhard Spinnen of having “read her text to death”. By this point, I was beginning to wonder what the jurors had against the Swiss. Or maybe they had a problem with regional themes, since both texts were very Swiss IMO.
We also got some prime examples of mansplaining, mostly at the hands of the above mentioned head juror Burkhard Spinnen who didn’t want to see so many stories about mother/daughter conflicts and also couldn’t understand why Bruna, the protagonist of Ramona Ganzoni’s text Ignis Cool was suffering from low self-esteem, at which point I yelled at the TV, “Dude, if you were a woman you’d know.” City-born Spinnen also claimed to know more about cows than Ms. Ganzoni, completely disregarding the fact that Westfalian cows may behave quite differently from Swiss cows. Come to think of it, Spinnen also engaged in mansplaining last year, when he believed that a story about a woman finally finding the strength to break up with her jerky boyfriend was too hard on the boyfriend.
But the mansplaining and Swiss bashing at the Bachmann Prize were nothing against the Amazon bashing. The cultural program kulturzeit devoted more of its Bachmann Prize coverage to discussing Amazon than to discussing the actual competition. See this interview with Sandra Kegel, who is one of the jurors,, wherein Ms. Kegel spends more time complaining about Amazon and e-books than actually talking about the competition and the contestants. Moneyshot: Ms. Kegel laments that Amazon does not nurture and challenge writers like the traditional publishers do, while totally disregarding the fact that those self-publishing via Amazon mostly aren’t exactly keen on the sort of “nurturing and challenging” provided by traditional publishers.
There was also an interview with an Austrian independent bookseller complaining about Amazon as well as Austrian TV journalist Ernst A. Grandits (whom I normally quite like) calling e-books “a threat to literature”. Thankfully, several people disagreed with him and pointed out that e-books are books. Nonetheless, I was tempted to add “Destroying literature since 2011” to my Pegasus Pulp tagline.
Now the event is called “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur”, i.e. “Days of German Language Literature”, so e-books and Amazon’s influence on German language literature are legitimate topics for discussion, especially given the current uproar about Amazon’s contract negotiations with Hachette in the US and Bonnier in Europe. Nonetheless, it is first and foremost a writing competition and I fail to see what Amazon has to do with that. Even if Amazon’s market share and indie publishing in general grows further, there’ll always be Bachmann Prize contestants, even if they may choose to indie publish their text later on. As for e-books destroying literature, I spotted a Kindle at the Bachmann Prize, used in lieu of a manuscript, two years ago and somehow the competition and German language literature managed to survive.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this delightful Bachmann bingo, courtesy of the Austrian radio station ORF 4.