Germany is a book country: With around 94,000 titles published or re-published annually, it is one of the world’s leading book nations. International Frankfurt Book Fair, which is held every October, is still the international publishing world’s most important meeting, while the smaller Leipzig Book fair in the spring has also made a name for itself as reading festival for the general public. Since reunification Berlin has established itself as a literary center and international city of publishing (home to the publishers Suhrkamp Verlag and Aufbau Verlag, among others), from which exciting big city literature is emerging, the like of which Germany has not experienced since the end of the Weimar Republic.
No one can say for sure whether the books that are bought are actually read, yet even the age of the Internet has scarcely dampened the Germans’ love of reading. Events such as LitCologne, the Poetenfest in Erlangen and several other literary festival attract huge crowds. However, only a few authors’ books sell in the millions on the German book market. In the first ten years of this century internationally successful authors dominated the top places of the bestseller lists. They include Joanne K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Ken Follet and the German children’s author Cornelia Funke. At any rate, few decidedly literary books succeeded in occupying the top places. Alongside Daniel Kehlmann’s bestseller “Measuring the World” (2006) one such work was Charlotte Roche’s novel “Wetlands” (2008), which triggered a debate about female sexuality and role models, documenting in a highly lively manner that literature can still treat socially relevant topics bluntly, even if these are more private than political in nature.
Furthermore, based on the Booker Prize in the UK and the Prix Goncourt in France, the German Book Prize (bestowed for the first time in 2005) honors the best novel of the year and has been successful in effectively marketing highbrow literature to the public. In addition to the prize money, winners of the German Book Prize can look forward to high sales figures and media attention; Julia Franck’s family story “Lady Midday” (2007), Uwe Tellkamp’s almost 1,000-page epic about the collapsing GDR “The Tower” (2008) and Kathrin Schmidt’s autobiographical novel “You’re not going to die” (2009) were on the bestseller lists for months.
Although several of the great post-War literary figures such as the Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Siegfried Lenz are still writing, their recent works have had less impact on the language of literature. Following the aesthetically innovative post-War decades and literature in the 1970s that was dominated just as much by social analysis as it was by experiments with language and form, around the turn of the millennium a return to more traditional narrative forms, to ingeniously simple stories (Judith Hermann, Karen Duve) became discernible. This included, alongside skilful narration, formal experiments (Katharina Hacker), the diverse literary forms of authors moving in various cultures (Feridun Zaimoglu, Ilija Trojanow), and the linguistic power, oblivious of fashion, of Herta Müller, who hails from Romania. Since winning the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature she is now known beyond the literary scene.
At the same time the boundaries between highbrow literature and entertaining works have become more penetrable. In the work of younger authors readers search in vain for political and moral stances. Yet in what would appear to be a retreat into the private sphere, precisely those topics are being addressed that literature has always focussed on: How do individuals deal with society’s requirements and expectations? What impact is the global dominance of the economy having on individuals? In that sense, in contemporary literature the private sphere is indeed political after all.
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