Before the buchner prize is awarded: an opening is needed

On July 7, the winner of Germany’s most prestigious literary prize will be announced. Or will it be a female laureate again?

German-Hungarian writer Terezia Mora received the Georg Buchner Prize in 2018 Photo: dpa

When a few months ago, keyword "women count", the share of female authors in publishing programs and in literary prizes was a bigger topic, in the time before Corona messed everything up, the Buchner Prize also came into focus. No wonder. 58 men have received the prize so far, and just 10 women.

This is not the only reason to wonder to what extent Germany’s still most prestigious literature prize, which is awarded at the end of October but whose winner this year will be announced on Tuesday, is still in keeping with the times.

After the Second World War, the prize was reestablished by the German Academy for Language and Poetry, initially as a club of dignitaries. And so, from the list of laureates, one is first struck by gravitas. The first prize winner was Gottfried Benn in 1951. In the justification for the award to Karl Krolow in 1956, it was stated that his "poetic work" unites "poetic tradition and modern expressiveness. Initially, this still breathed the aura of humanism and intellectual elitism.

However, a generational break then had consequences. In 1963, the still youthful-looking 33-year-old Hans Magnus Enzensberger was awarded the prize. In 1964, the 36-year-old Ingeborg Bachmann followed as a rather lonely female counterpart. In 1965 came the 37-year-old Gunter Grass and, in 1973, the 30-year-old Peter Handke – the first prize-winner (you can see this on the prize’s homepage) without a tie at the award ceremony, but with sunglasses. In the non-literary world, there had been the Beatles, Swinging London and the hippies in between.

Tradition in the Buchner Prize DNA

All of this has long since become literary history. But it is still interesting today that two very different traditions have existed side by side from the very beginning. On the one hand, the Buchner Prize is awarded as a lifetime achievement award. This is the academy aspect of the prize, which elevates particularly important authors to the status of intellectual nobility. However, the Buchner Prize’s weight and impact come primarily from the fact that it also honors literary shooting stars.

This tradition is also inscribed in the Buchner Prize DNA. You can compare it to a coronation: The literary establishment recognizes new queens and kings. The name giver acts auratically in the background – Georg Buchner, the young genius who died at an early age, the writer revolutionary.

In the course of the long intellectual founding of the old Federal Republic, this generational break was of course important. First came Enzensberger, then came sixty-eight! And in this context, one can certainly argue that the Buchner Prize has canonized the writer type of the male, and today, with a view to Grass and to some extent Handke, one would also say the vigorous young genius.

Seen in the light of day, this tradition is just as authoritarian as the patriarchal one. And both are essentially male, with women as exceptions to the rule.

Conservative decisions of direction

If you continue to look through the list of prizewinners, you come across a lot of Suhrkamp culture, many FAZ buddies, unavoidable names (Heiner Muller, Peter Ruhmkorf, Botho Straub, Christa Wolf), some avoidable and also some conservative choices of direction: In 2007, Martin Mosebach and not, say, Uwe Timm was honored; in 2013, Sibylle Lewitscharoff and not, say, Marlene Streeruwitz. At the same time, specialist issues of the Catholic rite were discussed in the feuilleton.

The Buchner Prize had a hegemonic effect. Until the early 1960s, authors’ careers were often dramaturgically designed around the Buchner Prize as a final point of confirmation and meaning, and many then went away empty-handed.

The Buchner Prize follows some of the opening movements of the literary establishment, but it does so hesitantly, catching up and not advancing

Since the seventies at the latest, however, there has always existed, like a shadow, a counter-canon of authors who were not awarded the Buchner Prize and who in some cases did not want to be awarded it: Arno Schmidt, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann (who, if he had lived longer, would certainly have received the prize), or Jorg Fauser (who would never have received the prize, even if he had lived to a ripe old age).

Official culture and counter-culture, academy canon and counter-canon, that was the status quo in the intellectually in some respects still very much hierarchically divided world of the old Federal Republic and the GDR.

The impression of the search

However, something else becomes central when reading up on the prize winners since about the year 2000: the impression of the search. At some point, the juries of the Buchner Prize try to save a concept of high literature over time, to identify and single out a narrower area of what is actually literary, but at the same time they can no longer determine it precisely. This is actually still the case today.

In Terezia Mora, after all, an author with an immigrant background arrived in 2018. In Rainald Goetz, an author who celebrates the Internet, pop, and theory was sanctioned in 2015 (by an academy, mind you, in which many members still condemn social media as a danger and language-hating).

But what, for instance, connects Mora and Goetz to the winners of 2017, Jan Wagner, or 2014, Jurgen Becker? The Buchner Prize, one gets the impression, is following some of the opening movements of the literary establishment, but it is doing so hesitantly, catching up, and not advancing as it did in the sixties, when it was ahead of social developments.

The current jury seems quite well positioned for openings. If you subtract the three political members of the federal government, the state of Hesse, and the city of Darmstadt, it is perfectly proportioned: five men, five women. Moreover, thanks to the translators and German studies abroad, it has more of a European than a purely German feel. A Hungarian is among them, a professor from Barcelona, a Swede with a Greek-Austrian background.

Shifting the models

It cannot now be their task to find more women and/or authors with a migration background who fit into the two author models of the patriarch/future classicist on the one hand or the young genius on the other, which have been prescribed by the Buchner Prize up to now. Rather, one would have to shift the models themselves.

If the Buchner Prize is to remain truly contemporary, it is more a matter of highlighting and making visible authorial models that fit into our more diverse and self-confident times, which are no longer so authoritarian in literary terms.

These would be authors who, of course, write serious books, but who don’t care about claims to genius and no longer assume that the extra-literary world is only barbarism, from which they need to distinguish themselves. They don’t consider the world of books to be better per se, they are self-ironic, and they no longer have to bridge the abyss to the worlds of the Internet and media cultures (series, music, computer games), because they don’t even see it anymore. There are now such prize winners at the Leipzig Book Prize and the German Book Prize.

In any case, the thesis is clear: only when the Buchner Prize says goodbye to the auratic author model will it be able to open itself essentially to authors of the first, second, and now also third generation of immigrants.

Crisis example Nobel Prize

As the Nobel Prize shows, such an opening is associated with risks. Although the Nobel Prize was ultimately shaken by a MeToo case, in the eyes of many it was already in crisis beforehand, precisely because it decisively expanded the field of literature that was eligible for awards.

Bob Dylan, a musician, as the winner, and the award for Svetlana Alexievich, which opened up the literary boundaries to nonfiction – many observers cannot cope with this. For them, literature is in doubt rather something outmoded than something open and egalitarian.

What you always have to see is how great the longing still is in the literary establishment for fixed hierarchies, clear demarcations, and auratic authority figures. As long as the Buchner Prize wants to continue to serve this longing, it will not really be able to open up.

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