Understanding Austria: on literary criticism, Part 1
by Peter Zimmermann

The Feuilleton debates largely initiated by writers diagnose the condition of German-language literary criticism as feeble, if not degenerate. The tirades against the critics are a tradition that pervades the German literary scene since its inception, that is, since the late 18th century. I should be more precise: since the origins of the interplay of literary output and the public discourse about it. So, since Lessing’s stand against the critics from the Regelpoetik or normative poetics faction and his proclamation that criticism is a history of relations between the reader and the text. Of course, this was a major step from an Enlightenment standpoint, since it granted the individual the right to make judgements concerning artistic matters, instead of allowing the seemingly infallible institutes and academies to prevail with their enquiries into deviations from the norm.

And ever since the debate has followed its natural course, and this is the central problem. The nature of criticism (non-academic, thus mainly publicized in the media) is that it rarely makes itself the focus of closer scrutiny, let alone defining any understandable criteria for action. The essence of literary criticism involves random argument, the confusion of objectivity and subjectivity, of aesthetic and pretentious judgement, yet also the critic’s hubris in exaggerating the linguistic evasion of ignorance, lack of knowledge or plain idleness as elements of style. That may be quite a sweeping analysis, as naturally criticism – as formulated in ‘Literatur ind Kritik’ or ‘Sprache im technischen Zeitalter’ – is differentiated from what is contained in the cultural branches of the media and in the daily press Feuilleton section, journals and magazines as well as on the television and radio. One could say that the higher the circulation, the more important the “style”. Style is the critic’s crème de la crème – it ranges from Alfred Kerr and Alfred Polgar to Friedrich Sieburg, Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Fritz J. Raddatz and to Volker Weidermann. Criticism could be defined as an artistic genre in its own right thanks to style – it only needed an object of criticism as a catalyst (“A catalyst is any substance which changes the velocity of a reaction without appearing in its end products”, Wilhelm Ostwald 1895). Style is an exercise in writing, not thinking. According to the art historian, Boris Groys, “Criticism appears both as indispensible and superfluous. You don’t actually know what is to be expected and demanded of it – except its sheer material presence.”

Things are similar in Austria, and yet they are also slightly different. Here, we practically have no professional literary criticism, whether it’s good or bad. There are a handful of managers of literary journals or literary shows. Everybody knows each other, and if we had all gone to the same school together, we would not be in sufficient numbers to form a class. And we have a larger number of part-time critics working as a sideline in many fields, and they also dabble in literature. They are not well paid, or else receive no fee at all, and depending on the pay rates they exert more or less energy thinking about a literary text and writing these thoughts down. Generally, you become a literary editor and literary critic by chance. Among the very few people, who write about literature, there are some who would know how to define the basic elements of what they do. And what is more, I still haven’t experienced any cultural editorial office where there was anything like a rudimentary debate about the concept of culture going on. Nor can anyone give a coherent explanation of what defines the quality of a qualitative medium. This is an order of merit that people award themselves.

©Peter Zimmermann

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright


This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe on 14 May 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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