People in Germany are reading more again. They still have a taste for detective fiction, but that’s not all. The shortlist for the German Book Prize is a yardstick for contemporary literature.
Whenever Stephen King brings out a new thriller, he’s guaranteed to go straight to the top of the German bestseller lists. His novel ‘Holly’, for example, which came out in early September 2023, certainly did so. It is true that crime fiction and thrillers have traditionally been the most popular genres in Germany, and US author King is clearly one of the most popular authors. But what about German writers? One of the most widely-read is Sebastian Fitzek from Berlin, though his stories are certainly not for those of a nervous disposition. Ferdinand von Schirach’s fame extends well beyond Germany. He made a name for himself with short crime stories based on cases from his own practice as a lawyer.
It would be true to say that detective novels and thrillers will always do well in Germany. But beyond this pattern (and in spite of the trend driven by audiobook apps for producing popular fiction targeted at specific audiences), highbrow literature continues to find many readers in Germany.
According to a survey carried out by the Gesellschaft für Zukunftsfragen (the Society for Future Questions), Germans have actually been reading more since the pandemic. The survey found that 35% of the public get lost in a book at least once a week, while 14% prefer ebooks.
But what do Germans read if they don’t want another detective novel? The two German book fairs are an important way of gauging this. The Leipzig Book Fair takes place in Spring, followed by the Frankfurt fair every Autumn. Between them they attract half a million visitors and host the leading literary prizes. One of these is the German Book Prize, which will be presented in Frankfurt am Main on 19 October 2023. The shortlist published in advance gives a sense of the topics and social questions which are shaping contemporary literature in Germany. You can’t overlook the fact that these include German reunification and life in former East Germany. As in France, young authors from immigrant families are also attracting attention by using literature to examine their life experiences and how they found their identities.
Of course, German writers also write about what is probably the most significant theme in the history of literature: love. in particular are increasingly engaging with role models and toxic relationships. Terézia Mora’s novel ‘Muna, or Half of Life’ (‘Muna oder Die Hälfte des Lebens’) is one example of this trend. It has been nominated for the German Book Prize and is currently a bestseller in Germany. It deals with the relationship between a young woman and an unpredictable and short-tempered man. As the prize jury ask, ‘How much coldness can one person bear without breaking, without losing oneself utterly?’ In the view of the jury, Mora’s ‘unadorned, laconic prose’ develops an undertow right from the first sentence which is impossible to escape.
Terézia Mora comes from Hungary but she writes only in German. In recent years, other have also enriched the literary scene, such as Saša Stanišić from Bosnia, and the multi-award-winning Nino Haratischwili from Georgia, to name but two.
Another of the titles nominated for this year’s German Book Prize is ‘The Possibility of Happiness’ (‘Die Möglichkeit von Glück’) by Anne Raabe. It follows the life of a family living in a small town in eastern Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anne Raabe describes the chaos of a disintegrating society and searches for the causes of racism and anti-democratic feeling. Thirty-four years after the Wall came down, these questions remain as relevant as ever. After all, some of the social fault lines between east and west Germany have even grown more pronounced since then. In eastern parts of the country more and more people are turning to far-right parties and movements because they feel that the institutions of the reunited state do not represent them.
Engaging with this development and its historic roots is a key issue for contemporary German literature. One of Germany’s leading writers, Juli Zeh, and her co-author Simon Urban dedicated their most recent book ‘Between Worlds’ (‘Zwischen Welten’) to exploring this set of problems. It even seems as though this relatively recent chapter in German history might be claiming a little of the space previously occupied by our literary obsession with the Nazis.
What is striking is that the first authors to write about the end of Communism in Germany were those who grew up in former East Germany, such as Christoph Hein and Uwe Tellkamp. Now it is increasingly those who were born shortly before the Wall fell, or even afterwards. Anne Raabe, born in 1986, is one of them. In ‘The Possibility of Happiness’ she takes a critical look at her parents’ generation, one which, as the jury of the German Book Prize remarked, ‘despairs of getting to grips with this new reality’.
At the same time, Anne Raabe represents a new type of writer. Unlike the generation of ‘great’ writers like Günter Grass, Martin Walser and Christa Wolf, many young writers no longer stay in their ivory towers, looking down on life from their high windows. For these young writers, literature is an important part of what they do, but it’s not their only job. Some write TV scripts and others, like Raabe, compose song lyrics. Others, like Mithu M. Sanyal and Alexander Osang also work as journalists.
Ever since Mithu M. Sanyal’s debut novel ‘Identitti’ about the search for identity by a German student of Indian heritage came out and was met with huge success, a new genre of literature has at last asserted itself in Germany: intercultural literature by authors who were born and have grown up in Germany, but who are shaped by other cultures through their family histories. Take Necati Öziri, for instance, whose new book ‘Birthmark’ (‘Vatermal’) has made it onto the shortlist of this year’s German Book Prize. The jury has attested that in his reckoning with an absent father, Öziri has captured the sound of the streets, ‘angry, whip-sharp, witty and tender. His young heroes are looking for direction in a society where they never really fit in.’ The jurors remark that Öziri has opened the eyes of the reading public to this German reality.