Despite all the hostilities, the German Book Prize – nominating the “best novel” since 2005 – is long established as one of the most prestigious awards on the German literature scene. Critics complain that at best its longlist and shortlist narrows the view exclusively to the named novels, and that other fiction titles receive too little attention particularly from the media where classic book reviews play an increasingly marginal role. Certainly, this is true in part: it’s noticeable that after the publication of the lists all broadcasting stations and print media make a concerted effort to review the top titles well ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair when the prize is announced. Nobody would wish to be criticized about missing a potential prize-winning title.
Undeniably, the German Book Prize has enhanced the value of German-speaking fiction both commercially and among the critics. All prize winners without exception were featured on the bestseller list and some of them achieved six figure sales figures – primarily Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau (The Blind Side of the Heart, trans. Anthea Bell) and Uwe Tellkamp’s Der Turm (The Tower, trans. Mike Mitchell). Even aesthetically complex works like Térezia Mora’s Das Ungeheuer attracted plenty of sales.
It is unavoidable that a highly regarded phenomenon like the German Book Prize gives rise to so many speculations that often sound like conspiracy theories. It is understandable that the organizer, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, is naturally interested in hosting awards for top-selling titles. The conclusion that the jury also secretly submits to this criterion is among the less productive speculations that fuel the gossip in the literary business. Sometimes in recent years you even had the opposite impression: namely, that the jury (incidentally, members change every year to date and there is always a new set of names) deliberately aims to reject any marketing bias. This is borne out by the decision in 2015, for instance, not to award the prize to Jenny Erpenbeck’s refugee novel Gehen, ging, gegangen but instead to Frank Witzel’s much more unwieldy Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969.
On 22 August 2016, the jury recently announced the longlist of 20 titles – in contrast to previous years, the news only caused veiled criticism. The jury chose several authors from the 178 submitted novels that readers have been familiar with for years: for example, the Büchner prize winner Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Arnold Stadler, Peter Stamm, Ernst-Wilhelm Händler and Katja Lange-Müller. As is the case every year, there are a few outsiders like Philipp Winkler, Anna Weidenholzer or Akos Doma who add interest to the list and reflect the jury members’ spirit of discovery. With regard to the chosen publishers it is noticeable that hardly any small publishers are featured in 2016, while S. Fischer Verlag has five titles on the list. And there is a first in the history of the German Book Prize: Munich’s Carl Hanser Verlag goes empty-handed.
Whoever you ask which books are sorely missed in 2016 must also take into consideration that some writers deliberately abstain from inclusion in the showcase of the book prize: Brigitte Kronauer, Wilhelm Genazino or Christoph Ransmayr to name a few. Others like Martin Mosebach didn’t finish their manuscript in time to be entered for the book prize. One curiosity this year is the nomination for Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis, a work whose subtitle explicitly describes it as a “novella” and not a novel. Interpret that how you like.
The 2016 list is also annoying because it consistently ignores all five titles that were nominated in spring for the Leipzig Book Prize. If the point is genuinely to distinguish a year’s best novel, it shouldn’t matter whether some titles already attracted media attention earlier in the spring. Not to add the Leipzig nominees Frohburg by Guntram Vesper and Der goldene Handschuh by Heinz Strunk to the Book Prize longlist is entirely incomprehensible and arouses the suspicion of the jury possibly giving preferential treatment here to non-literary arguments. That is regrettable.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright