German-speaking countries have no shortage of literature prizes and scholarships. When sales trends for non-mainstream literature are falling, not rising, such awards are an increasingly important way of providing writers with at least some financial freedom. Alongside the economic factor, literature prizes also serve to enhance writers’ reputation and to offer them the opportunity to rise to the top of literary feuilleton esteem ratings. As much as the recent media focus has primarily been the long- and/or shortlist of lucrative book fair prizes – the German Book Prize and Leipzig Book Fair Prize – it’s also undisputed that no award can rival the Georg Büchner Prize in terms of esteem and worldwide renown.
To receive this award from the German Academy for Language and Literature is still regarded as an accolade from those within the German literary trade, and as an invitation to the hall of fame for leading contemporary writers. The Darmstadt Academy’s decisions have often aroused controversy. A glance at the list – with interruptions – of prizes awarded since 1923 and today’s 50,000 Euros prize immediately calls to mind writers who were overlooked: Siegfried Lenz, Walter Kempowski and Peter Kurzeck, for example. Simultaneously, one notes that the Academy has repeatedly succeeded in announcing surprises – with honours for outsiders like Albert Drach or Walter Kappacher and very young writers (like Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Peter Handke or Durs Grünbein) who were granted the rather redoubtable weight of the Büchner Prize.
The decision announced on 8 July to award the Georg Büchner Prize 2015 to Rainald Goetz might have been regarded as an error by very few people. It’s true that the unanimous enthusiasm, which circulated in the German feuilletons immediately after the announcement, leads to the suspicion that by nominating Goetz the critics simultaneously intended to celebrate themselves and their generation. Since Goetz caused a ripple in the duck pond of contemporary literature with his novel ‘Irre’ (‘Crazy’, 1983) and his blood-drenched appearance at the Klagenfurt Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, he has been regarded as an avant-garde rebel who embraced new media developments much earlier than others and always knew how to stage his own image brilliantly. That Goetz’ last published works (mainly the 2012 novel ‘Johann Holtrop’ that is treated as a key text) were not aesthetically convincing was hardly a point to dwell on. Those who found Goetz “cool” had to be cool themselves.
A few days later several isolated voices emerged following the Darmstadt announcement (from Andreas Rosenfelder in Die Welt or Dirk Knipphals in Tageszeitung) offering gently mistrustful commentaries about the latest Rainald Goetz hymns. The extent to which literary criticism recently seems intent vociferously to jump on any media bandwagon that happens to be racing past is evident from Volker Weidermann’s example. He recently transferred from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung to Der Spiegel, and will soon host the forthcoming re-launch of the Literarisches Quartett broadcast on Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen. As journalists with long memories soon instantly recalled, Weidermann’s assessment of Goetz’ oeuvre is subject to major fluctuations. In 2012, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung Weidermann wrote on Goetz: “In the meantime, Goetz filled several new books (…) with more and increasingly innovative write-offs of the world that from page to page were becoming more tedious, self-inhibited, small-minded, unworldly, bad and ‘pea-like’ (erbsenhaft)”. In 2015, as a commentary on the Georg Büchner Prize award, Weidermann wrote on SpiegelOnline: “Each one of his books, even the weakest, has such a gigantic intensity and power of language as well as a sense for sound and presence and poesy and beauty. Nothing ever has the effect of being preconceived, read off or written down afterwards.”
Rubbing one’s eyes one is inclined to disbelief. Does anyone want to explain these U-turns? It’s no longer surprising that literary criticism is losing influence: Rainald Goetz will be indifferent to that.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright