More diversity at German-language authors' 'sadomasochist talent show'

23 Jun

A person reading at a table made to look like pages of a manuscript, surrounded by an audience. In front of the table, there's a pillar with the word 'Literatur'.


After two years of online or hybrid formats due to the pandemic, the Festival of German-Language Literature — better known in German by the name of its main award, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize — returns as a televised event held live in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt. This year's Festival of German-Language Literature also stands out for featuring more diversity than ever among the 14 authors selected to compete.

Born in Baghdad in 1971, Usama Al Shahmani fled Iraq to Switzerland in 2002 after the publication of a regime-critical play. Author Alexandru Bulucz emigrated from Romania to Germany with his family at the age of 13. Tehran-born writer Behzad Karim Khani was also a child when his family fled to Germany during the Iran-Iraq war. Ana Marwan, who was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, moved to Vienna at the age of 25 to study. 

"It's not the origin [of the authors], but the literary quality that counts," jury head Insa Wilke told German press agency, dpa. A diversity of perspectives "can also lead to new literary devices," she added. Authors with a diverse background have already prevailed at the competition in recent years. Berlin-based British author Sharon Dodua Otoo won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016 for her first short story in German. Last year's winning text, by Tehran-born Nava Ebrahimi, also dealt with migration and trauma.

A slow-motion talent show for authors

The format of the Festival of German-Language Literature is like a slow-motion, intellectual version of today's popular casting shows. Hoping to become the "next top author," each competing writer reads one of their unpublished texts for 25 minutes to the camera. The entire reading is filmed in real time, without any special effects, cutaway images or dramatic soundtrack.

'Tinder for publishers'

With 14 authors taking part now, the event is a three-day reading marathon that feels completely anachronistic in the age of TikTok-length clips and countless other Bookstagrammers competing for attention. Yet, in the German-speaking literary world, it remains an influential happening — despite its extremely poor TV ratings.

Trying to convey a sexiness that probably only exists in the eyes of a very niche audience, one newspaper dubbed the Bachmann Prize the "Deluxe Tinder of the publishing sector." Indeed, many authors can expect to land publishing deals following their participation in the festival. Different winning authors, such as Katja Petrowskaja and Emine Sevgi Özdamar, gained international acclaim through English-language translations of their texts following the competition.

The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, handed out for the 46th time this year, is currently endowed with €25,000 ($26,300). Through various other prizes, a total of €62,500 is up for grabs at the festival.

One of the vanguard luminaries of the postwar literary scene, Bachmann explored through poetry and prose topics such as women's emancipatory struggles, imperialism and fascism; her essays and public speeches looking into the role of the writer and literature became just as famous.

Her myth was reinforced by her early and mysterious death in 1973. While being treated for burns following a cigarette-induced fire, she experienced extreme withdrawal symptoms, as doctors did not realize the magnitude of her addiction to barbiturates. She died shortly afterward.

Emerging from the Group 47

Bachmann was one of the prized authors of the Group 47, an influential literary circle whose informal meetings were the predecessor of the Festival of German-Language Literature. At those meetings, promising authors were invited to read manuscripts that had not been published yet, followed by a critics' discussion. With milestone works such as Günter Grass' The Tin Drum emerging from the gathering, the group became one of the most authoritative literary institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Facing the towering jury

One of the group's most prominent critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), who later became known as the "pope of literature" in Germany, was also on the original jury of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.

His emotional and razor-sharp assessments shaped the tone of the jury's discussions. He was also the one who had ruled from the outset that authors would not be allowed to reply to the jury's criticism, leaving them sitting there, silently receiving the at times humiliating comments.

The first victim was Karin Struck (1947-2006). Reich-Ranicki tore apart her text in the event's opening year in 1977: "Who's interested in what women think, what they feel, while they are menstruating? That's not literature, but a crime." The author left the TV set in tears. The event is therefore known in the media as a yearly gathering of the "literary sadomasochist scene" — even though jurors have since adopted a more factual approach.

A revered institution

The festival was conceived from the start as a televised event for Austria's national public service broadcaster, ORF. It is therefore not surprising that the decades-old format feels somewhat outdated. Still, attempts to modify it too drastically are bound to be met with fiery criticism as well.

In 2013, ORF announced that the festival would not continue, citing budget cuts. But facing protests, sponsors were found to keep the competition alive. Over the years, some authors have tried to pep things by turning their reading into a headline-grabbing event. In 1983, German author Rainald Goetz infamously slit his own forehead with a razor blade upon reading the words "you can have my brain," and kept going as blood ran down his face and covered his text. 

But even though those cases are frequently cited in pieces revisiting the history of the festival, the attention-grabbing authors didn't even pick up the main prize. As past winners show, authors generally win without any antics, but simply with a strong text.

Readings of the 46th Festival of German-Language Literature are held from June 23-25.


Author Elizabeth Grenier

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