Fahrenheit 451 by Beat Mazenauer

The ‘Perlentaucher’ website recently published a text by Wolfram Schütte “On the Future of Reading”. It was a flamboyant plea for a critical online journal that could be symbolically known as “Fahrenheit 451”. A lively debate followed, see here.

Digital media threaten the traditional sinecures yet also offer opt-outs from awkward predicaments. Wolfram Schütte’s plea is for the latter, even if he somehow feels uneasy at the thought of digital media. He wants a web-based literary criticism journal – “even if it’s in the form of a newspaper that’s available online”. Finally, something has to be done! That’s the undertone of his suggestion, even if it means resorting to routes that were previously frowned upon.

“Reading is a cultural technique – reading books and newspapers even more so”, Schütte argues. Of course, this is true. We want to respect this, albeit no longer forgetting that reading on the web is also a cultural technique that entire generations are now learning intuitively.

The suggestion is interesting on two counts. Firstly, because the crisis of German literary criticism has now also reached the upper echelons of literary criticism. Secondly, because the elite now swears by the digital alternative which was until recently disregarded as a tool for amateurs.

There’s a third point arising from all of this. The intention is to do something innovatively that has already been around for a long time, based on the principle – “it’s a new idea, if the right people have come up with it”. Wolfram Schütte’s idea makes it appear as though there is originality where others have long since practised this. It’s just that these “others” happen to be the wrong community.

It’s an entirely different thing to explain that this suggestion makes no mention of the website www.literaturkritik.de – a platform that has archived countless thousands of critical reviews. These have been contributed by professional critics who not only work for renowned feuilletons in elite newspapers and serious radio stations, but also for more minor media outlets or even as freelancers. Subscription costs 20 Euros per annum. There are also other examples like www.viceversaliteratur.ch in Switzerland, or a high number of extremely well-informed literature blogs on the web.

Beggars can’t be choosers. Now at long last – 25 years after the start of the Internet – the elite of literary criticism succumbs to a medium, which was hitherto regarded suspiciously, only to reenergize it in the spirit of tradition. Maybe it’s precisely this spirit that is no longer enough. Maybe something will change with the choice of medium – formally or stylistically. Opening the visor also means expanding horizons and taking on board new opportunities.

That’s not to oppose Wolfram Schütte’s initiative, indeed maybe it will even succeed in correcting a grievance that is written into the structure of online critique: rarely are any fees offered, and if so they tend to be at low rates. The majority of those who write must be compelled to do so by the subject. At least having made the suggestion the issue of payment could be raised for discussion from among the group of worthy critics. At the same time, the expression “a newspaper that’s available online” fuels the suspicion that nothing should actually change other than traditional criticism should survive in a new format in order to avoid being mothballed.

By Beat Mazenauer

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

 This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe on 20 July 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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