UK-Swiss Publishing Day: The Recap. Swiss Literature Panel

7th December, 2020

Our resident ELNet blogger ROSIE EYRE shares her observations of the panel discussions through the day. Each blog includes a link to the video of each panel.
The goal of this, the first ever UK-Swiss Publishing Day, was to promote and support the translation and publishing of Swiss books in the UK. It was the concluding event of the Literally Swiss project in the UK, as it hands over operations to Pro Helvetia in Zurich.
Through the creative use of digital media, funding from Pro Helvetia and support from the SBVV and the Swiss Embassy in London, this also became the first ever ONLINE UK-Swiss publishing event.

2. Swiss Literature Scene: The Recap

Panellists: Esther Schneider, Sean Williams
Chair: Rosie Goldsmith

What is Swiss literature?

  • Sean emphasised that Swiss literature encompasses many themes which are resonant across borders – ultimately a lot of Swiss literature isn’t any different from British literature and British culture, but by coming at the same subjects from a different angle, can provide a less Anglocentric spin on current topics. According to Sean, Swiss literature offers a way of: ‘giving a foreign colour and a different perspective, while tapping into things that are really talked about in the British cultural sphere.’
  • Esther expressed her belief that Swiss-German literature needs to be viewed in the context of German-speaking literature more broadly (encompassing the literature of Germany and Austria too) – in Esther’s view, ‘you can’t speak of a special Swiss literature’.
  • However, Esther agreed that the multilingual literary landscape of Switzerland (encompassing the French, Italian and Romansch languages as well as German) is something that does set Swiss literature apart – and dialect-speaking literature is also another unique feature of Swiss literary life, lending a different flavour through evocations of mountains, nature and village life.
  • Sean added that notions of Swiss literature are also closely linked to the question: ‘What is Swissness?’; according to Sean, this vision of ‘Swissness’ encompasses recurrent ‘stock images’ such as mountains and cowbells, but also more political questions such as migration and European identity – which are all questions that come up time and again in the latest writing emerging from Switzerland. In this respect, Sean affirmed that Swiss literature has the potential to show ‘a microcosm of the world.’
  • Referring specifically to current trends, Esther said political and historical themes are very big at the moment – three of the titles from the 2020 Swiss Book Prize shortlist deal with ‘coming to terms with history’ (namely Dorothee Elmiger’s Aus der Zuckerfabrik, Charles Lewinsky’s Der Halbbart and Karl Rühmann’s Der Held).
  • Another important feature of the Swiss literary scene (as cited by Esther) is performance and spoken-word literature (e.g. the Spoken Word Festival in Lucerne). Esther also stressed the popularity of Swiss-German dialects, particularly among young people who use such dialects to communicate via platforms such as WhatsApp – for Swiss radio producers, tapping into these dialects on can be a good way of reaching out to these new audiences.

Esther Schneider on literature in the Swiss media scene (with a focus on SRF radio)

  • Esther (speaking as head of literature at the German-speaking radio broadcaster SRF) said that on a day-to-day basis there isn’t much exchange about literature between the different language radio stations in Switzerland. However, they do have the chance to come together at major festivals such as Solothurn.
  • SRF has already developed a strong digital presence, and over the months ahead is planning to develop new audio formats to appeal to an audience under the age of 45 – these plans reflect a desire to bring literature closer to a younger audience, while continuing traditional broadcast formats on the mainstream stations SRF 2 Kultur and SRF 1.
  • Esther then proceeded to discuss the website https://ansichten.srf.ch/, which she said provides a good overview of contemporary Swiss literature – including literature in French, Italian and Romansch as well as German.
  • Linked to this platform, SRF has also recently launched a new German-language podcast about language and dialect.
  • Esther finished this section with an overview of SRF’s literary activities: they broadcast across the cultural radio station SRF 2 and the mass media station SRF 1, producing several ‘long background’ formats such as the 52 beste Bücher (‘52 Best Books’) talk show with authors, as well as discussion programmes such as BuchZeichen (‘Bookmark’); in addition, SRF’s literary division supplies the news with literary topics and delivers articles with literary content for news websites, as well as producing the TV show Literaturclub. In general, Esther said that she and her team deal with wide-ranging literary topics on a daily basis, both on air and via digital platforms.

Promoting Swiss literature in the UK media and publishing sphere

  • Rosie Goldsmith encouraged everyone to listen to Sean’s excellent recent podcasts (recorded during lockdown in conversation with the 2019 Swiss Book prize nominee Tabea Steiner, and with the Lichtenstein-based author Benjamin Quaderer). Conversation then turned to Sean’s appearances on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 to discuss Swiss literature, including a feature on wild swimming in Switzerland for BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme (Sean explained that prior to being invited onto the programme, he had originally written an article on the topic for the Literary Review, inspired by having read several Swiss novels about wild swimming).
  • Sean expressed the belief that, generally, longform cultural journalism thrives on literary references and broader stories that resonate with people. He said that because we’re in the UK, these tend to be Anglocentric, so in his view it’s not so much a case of selling something as ‘Swiss’, as of using Swiss literature to give a new spin on topics that are also current in UK. 
  • Alongside his wild swimming piece and lockdown podcast, Sean said that he is currently writing a piece for the Literary Review on cows, relating to Levin Westermann’s latest collection of essays (which covers subjects including vegetarianism and animal rights). He cited how the collection taps into concerns that have also sprung up in UK this year, in works such as James Rebanks’ memoir The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District.
  • Sean indicated that the Swiss mountains is another topic that can be useful for drawing interest in the UK media (according to Sean, this is a long-established area of interest in English-speaking world, dating back to 19th century Alpine club and reflected in literary works such as Rose Tremain’s The Gustave Sonata) – when dealing with traditionally Swiss topics like this, it is often more straightforward to find a ‘committed set of Swissophiles’ who will tune in. 
  • In general, Sean expressed the belief that a thematic approach is often the best way of presenting Swiss literature in the UK. As Swiss authors tend to be less well known over here, it takes a lot more work for publishers to promote their work based around the names of the authors themselves. 
  • Nevertheless, some things are being done to promote specific Swiss authors here – Sean’s example of hosting Martin R Dean at the University of Sheffield with funding from David Beck and Swiss Embassy. Here, funding was granted on the proviso of bringing in a public audience from outside of university – and Sean said that more broadly, events like this offer an opportunity for universities to collaborate with publishers and act as a way into audiences and public readings outside of London. In turn, Sean affirmed that such events can enrich the work universities do with their students and seminars, citing how much his students gained from meeting a ‘real life’ author whose texts they had previously worked on in class.
  • In terms of tips for fostering more interest in Swiss literature in the UK media, Esther stressed the importance of the work Rosie Goldsmith and the team have been doing, and said it is essential for this kind of work to continue. She also emphasised the importance of trying to ensure that as many books as possible are translated into English, so that people in the UK can actually read the books! In Esther’s view, one of the biggest issues is how people in the UK can go about finding books they would like to translate and which would attract an audience over here (which is where Pro Helvetia has a vital role to play).
  • For his part, Sean said there is growing interest in going beyond ‘English-only material’ among media editors and producers in the UK (citing the example of the Open Book episode featuring his piece on wild swimming, which also included focus on New Dutch Literature coming out of Norwich). However, he suggested this interest is still coupled with ‘fear’ that the content will not resonate – and again, this is where is can be very helpful to emphasise the thematic angle. Ultimately, editors and producers do want to do more of this content, but at the same time they also want a ‘rationale’ as to why they should or could do it. 
  • In this respect, Sean talked about the value of capitalising on events that crop up in the news, such as when the then-Prime Minister Teresa May took a hiking holiday in Switzerland in 2017, which provided a small window of opportunity for talking about hiking and mountains. Nevertheless, Sean recognized that such opportunities remain quite rare.

Website links

Literature in the Swiss media:

SRF’s literature homepage: https://www.srf.ch/kultur/literatur 

SRF’s dedicated literary website: https://ansichten.srf.ch/

52 beste Bücher radio talk show: https://www.srf.ch/audio/52-beste-buecher

BuchZeichen radio discussion programme: https://www.srf.ch/audio/buchzeichen

Literaturclub TV programme: https://www.srf.ch/sendungen/literaturclub/ 

Swiss literature in the UK media:

Switzerland and the Art of Shutdown – Sean Williams’ lockdown podcast with Tabea Steiner: https://www.swissculturalfund.org.uk/events/view/sean-williams-tabea-steiner-raphael-zimmermann-switzerland-and-the-art-of-shutdown

Literature in Lockdown: Liechtenstein – Sean Williams’ lockdown podcast in conversation with Benjamin Quaderer: https://acflondon.org/events/literature-lockdown-liechtenstein-podcast-feat-benjamin-quaderer/ 

Sean’s wild swimming piece on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000ncp0  

Sean’s Literary Review article on wild swimming:https://literaryreview.co.uk/dont-call-it-wild-swimming 

Video link

Watch the full panel here:

Blog by Rosie Eyre


Esther Schneider is Head of Literature at SRF (Swiss Radio and Television), Switzerland’s leading German-language broadcaster.


Sean Williams is a Senior Lecturer in German and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield. He is also a regular contributor to international radio, cultural magazines, weekend newspapers, and television, with a lively interest in the Swiss literature scene.

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