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The Favourites Are Dying Out

It’s time to discuss the next round of prizewinners gain. Hardly has the usual flurry of excitement in the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair and the German Book Prize award to Frank Witzel subsided when the shortlist has been published for the next round of prizewinners to be announced at the Leipzig Book Fair on 17 March. The jury of seven reputable literary critics had to choose from 401 entries from 113 publishers, and to nominate five candidates in the categories of fiction, non-fiction/essays and translation.

The Leipzig Book Fair has long since established a firm foothold in the German literary calendar; it has emerged as a popular readers’ festival with numerous events and the reputation of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize has grown accordingly. The books on the shortlist attract considerable attention in the literary press and in the book trade, and all editorial offices and national radio stations are careful to publish reviews of the books before the winners are announced. Yet the financial success of the shortlisted books still lags behind what the Frankfurt Book Prize can deliver. Nevertheless, works like Saša Stanišić’s “Vor dem Fest” (“Before the Festival”) or Jan Wagner’s “Regentonnenvariationen” (“Rain Barrel Variations”) became genuine bestsellers.

The 2016 nominations for the non-fiction category created a surprisingly sensational effect. The jury chaired by the critic Kristina Maidt-Zinke proved pleasantly independent; they were not in the least swayed by what was previously earmarked as a top favourite. Not a single one of the highly regarded novels that Karen Duve, Juli Zeh, Thea Dorn, Thomas Glavinic, Norbert Gstrein or Peter Stamm released this spring featured on the Leipzig list.

Thankfully, the jury also resisted the temptation to engage with the political discourse of recent weeks and nominate the novel “Ohrfeige” by the native Iraqi writer Abbas Khider. Having previously published such smart novels like “Brief in die Auberginenrepublik” with the small Hamburg Nautilus Verlag, Khider has now published with the more influential Hanser Verlag.

“Ohrfeige” is set during the period 2001 to 2003. It is intended as a long monologue by a refugee who complains of his suffering to an administrative official who is helping him. What refugees have to endure while waiting for official decisions; what it’s like getting bored in a Bavarian refugee hostel and the kind of truth-defying life stories, which refugees have to dream up, merely to appear credible, can be easily followed by reading Khider’s novel. That this book was released now in spring is purely accidental; it is not thanks to any clever publisher marketing – like back in autumn 2015 when Jenny Erpenbeck’s refugee novel “Gehen, ging, gegangen” (“Go, Went, Gone”) was released just at the right moment. Many reviewers were treating this book as the next winner of the German Book Prize. Aesthetically, Khider’s conventionally narrated novel may hardly be convincing. Nevertheless, as was to be expected, he is certainly enjoying the media attention. Journalists visit Khider and ask him to tell his story again. “Ohrfeige” is welcomed as an “important contribution to the debate” (Der Spiegel) – as if literary works were primarily about this. Since the jury has distanced itself from such mainly political titles, it placed no importance – unlike on some occasions the jury for the Frankfurt Book Prize – on getting a balanced view. Happily, no attention was paid to gender balance among nominees, or to the distribution of places among small and mainstream publishers. Nor were candidates overlooked from Austria and Switzerland. Obviously, none of this interested the jury – a wonderful vote for their independence and for the importance of literary criteria.

Which author will be celebrated in Leipzig as a prizewinner of fiction is in the stars. It is interesting that there were nominations for Roland Schimmelpfennig (“An einem klaren, eiskalten Januarmorgen zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts”, S. Fischer), Nis-Momme Stockmann (“Der Fuchs”, Rowohlt) and the long underestimated Heinz Strunk (“Der goldene Handschuh”, Rowohlt) – all three writers have backgrounds in the theatre and cabaret, and Schimmelpfennig and Stockmann have published their debut novels.

Before and after Leipzig Guntram Vesper (b. 1941) ought to enjoy plenty of attention, since he mainly made his name as a poet and playwright. After a silence of many years, Vesper’s 1000-page epic “Frohburg” (Schöffling) delivers an astonishing novel about his hometown in Saxony. Vesper ought to celebrate a sensational comeback.

The nomination of Marion Poschmann’s poetry edition “Geliehene Landschaften. Lehrgedichte und Elegien” (Suhrkamp) is charming. Obviously, there are repercussions after the breezy decision of the jury in 2015 not only to shortlist Jan Wagner’s “Regentonnenvariationen” as the first ever poetry volume, but also to award it the main prize. Indeed, it’s to be expected that over the years ahead no Leipzig jury will dare carelessly to overlook poetry. Nevertheless, Marion Poschmann might not have such great chances of claiming the palm of victory in 2016. The alternatives are certainly worth a second look.

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Rainer Moritz

Rainer Moritz, born 1958, German literary critic and writer. He is director of Literaturhaus Hamburg.

Rainer Moritz, geboren 1958, deutscher Literaturkritiker und Autor. Er ist Leiter des Literaturhauses Hamburg.

Rainer Moritz, born 1958, German literary critic and writer. He is director of Literaturhaus Hamburg.

Rainer Moritz, geboren 1958, deutscher Literaturkritiker und Autor. Er ist Leiter des Literaturhauses Hamburg.

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