No, I won’t make any more remarks about the weather. But if I were to put on a film critic’s mask, I could say a positive word about the perfectly illuminated setting and carefully thought through colours – and all of this without any digital tricks. It’s no accident that Spitz an der Donau is the holy terrain of Austrian post-war cinema. One of the most enduring film hits – Der Hofrat Geiger (The Councillor Geiger), filmed in 1946/47 – is set and was also filmed in this location. The film is based on the 1942 musical comedy of the same name by Martin Costa. Over the next few decades several new film versions were released and every time they became worse and more false. The original film takes place shortly after the liberation of Vienna in spring 1945. In a very Austrian way, in other words operetta-like, it highlights the dialectic of guilt and innocence in view of the ruined city and untouched countryside, the hopeless man and the woman with her sights set on the future, the young career man and the girl rooted in her home ground. I’m telling all this because in this almost unreal setting, which has hardly changed in nearly seventy years since the film was shot, discussions about literary trends and the technological expansion of writing, reading and the distribution of literature have acquired an entirely unique quality. Given a timeless environment, which has somehow fallen out of time, the concept of trend loses something of its aggressiveness. Those who work in the media, even in the basically slow paced cosmos of the feuilleton, cannot help feeling constantly pushed into the role of the trend scout. They’re sitting right on the source; they have an overview, all the contacts and lastly are good at networking. Who else should know what will preoccupy or interest us in the near future? What direction is literature headed? What will we read and how will we do that? Will it be analogue, digital or no longer at all?
Okay, they’re sitting on plenty of sources, have more or less what you could call an overview and are part of a network, which is so big, you can’t even identify it any longer – and you actually know nothing. A way out is frequently only the statement. That’s even the core business of the media industry. Now, as I write this text, Saturday’s edition of the Presse is here next to me. The first headline that I read on the front page is, The Austrian of the year nomination. Funnily enough, a picture alongside it is obviously fake: four heads that are total misfits with the bodies that supposedly belong to them. That’s media bullshit made up as quality journalism – just as stupid as the choice of the best novel of the year, aka the German Book Prize. Those who know nothing have to believe everything is the subtitle of the successful Austrian science show, Science Busters. On the other hand in the media context the rule is: those who know nothing come out with a statement. At least one, or even better several.
In the discussion session about literary trends, the Swiss journalist and writer Christian Gasser made the true comment of the day (he referred to graphic novels, but you can generalize his statement): if two books appear on the subject of food, a journalist instantly declares a trend. If someone else stumbles across two books on the subject of an artist’s biography, he does the same. And so on and so forth. In short: a trend comes cheap, just like an opinion. Everyone can have an opinion, he just has to open his mouth and afterwards the collective forgetting lets grace rule the day. Just glance at the feuilletons before the first spring or autumn titles are released. It’s one big hullabaloo about trends. Glance at this half a year later, and almost nothing has come true. To predict that a new Houellebecq, a new Franzen or a new Eco will supply the lead themes and bestselling books, you have to sit on a source or have a good network. Incidentally, that also applies for the recent and annoying glorification of booksellers who mutate more and more to media figures and are allowed to offer trend forecasts. Ultimately, however, these are as objective as product promotions on TV shopping channels.
But that doesn’t mean we have to be indifferent to everything going on in literature. I’m only talking here about the necessity of the desire or obligation to be original, and then to sell this as competence. Unfortunately, in the media business this is the rule. And that is exactly why it’s illuminating to consider what people comment who are – let’s say – with three toes in the media business, yet not necessarily reliant on this. Like the literary scholar and academic who teaches in Paris, Jürgen Ritte, for example. Whenever he is supposed to comment on literary trends in France, he makes no secret about this not being his metier. But he is an observer and he therefore notices a trend for exofiction. I wasn’t familiar with the concept. It means novel-like narratives about the life of really existing people or those who have existed. In this country three years ago the French writer Régis Jauffret caused a stir with his Josef Fritzl novel Claustria: it was a success in France, while in Austria it was more perceived as tastelessness. Or Laurent Binet with HHHH, which was published in German in 2011; it was a novel about Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and the assassination attempt on Heydrich. A novel apparently without fictionalization. This book also met with scepticism in the German-speaking world. Why? Rainer Moritz, Director of the Hamburg Literaturhaus, knows that the German-speaking (or rather German) audience prefers clear political viewpoints. In other words, writers who deal with political subjects and don’t behave as if they were merely putting the collected material on show. Writers like Ilija Trojanow, for instance, or Ulrich Peltzer, Nora Bossong and Jenny Erpenbeck. At the same time, Moritz critically remarks that in view of intoxication with themes all kinds of aesthetic evaluations go by the board. This makes literary discourse seem fairly one-sided. So we’re back to what I complained about yesterday: that literature is decaying to a vehicle for the right set of morals and due to all the correctness or decency it’s overlooked how the quality of a text is not measured by a writer’s attitude. Otherwise, we would never have been allowed to read the books by one Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who was a revulsion and a Nazi, and still one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Presumably after the Second World War when the desire was even to execute Céline as a collaborator nobody would have even thought that generations later people would still remember him. On the other hand, today, someone like Jean Paul Sartre who always maintained poise in his works is more or less history.
By Peter Zimmermann
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 25 October 2015.