How German Writers Fare vs. Clancy, Crichton, and Grisham

For browsers in European bookstores, particularly German ones, translations of fiction, whether from English or "from the American," seem as ubiquitous in the bookshop windows as Microsoft and McDonald's are elsewhere in the shopping districts. The evidence of Anglo-American cultural hegemony is overwhelming.

'Where are the German storytellers?' is the cry that echoes through the land of Goethe and Schiller. Is not a country's native literary culture something that should be at least partially exempt from the globalization evident in the mass merchandising of software or fast food?

This long-running discussion continues - amid signs, however, that German storytellers are alive and well, and scoring some big literary and commercial successes.

Uwe Wittstock, an editor at S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt, and hitherto rather skeptical of contemporary German writers' ability to connect with the reading public, says, "The situation has changed in the last couple of years. We've had some notable successes with authors whose works combine both literary merit and entertainment - two qualities which have been seen as mutually exclusive until recently."

One example he cites from his company's list is Josef Haslinger's novel "Opernball," premised on a (fictional) terrorist attack on the Opera Ball, the premier social event each year in Vienna. "He writes like John Grisham, but with the engagement of a Jean-Paul Sartre."

Another is Michael Wildenhain's novel, "Erste Liebe, Deutscher Herbst," or "First Love, German Autumn." The particular autumn referred to is that of 1977, when Germany endured a spate of terrorist violence at the hands of the Red Army Faction. "He tells the story of a schoolboy who falls in love with a young woman involved in a terrorist group, and gets involved himself," Mr. Wittstock says.

But the political story "is in the background," he adds, "the book itself is a love story."

The traditional knock against German writers has been that they are often so serious, so political, and so full of Angst and gloom that they just haven't found much public acceptance.

Wittstock sees German authors "learning from American models - John Updike, Philip Roth." Haslinger, for instance, "has spent many years in the US." Wittstock also sees writers learning from films as a storytelling medium. "Our writers are becoming more Westernized," he says.

Credential-minded Germans also look enviously across the sea to creative writing programs, which they see as important in training young American writers.

Thomas Tebbe, fiction editor at publisher Piper Verlag in Munich, concurs with the perception that more young German authors seem to be in evidence of late, but explains it differently: "I would say publishers are being braver about promoting their German authors."

He ticks off a list of newcomers that have received attention lately, such as Zoe Jenny, a young Swiss whose debut novel concerns a child of divorce finding a life between her parents.

One factor in all this is that German publishers, sometimes with more money than nerve, have bid up the prices to rights to American works. "They're insanely expensive," says Ingeborg Mues, a colleague of Wittstock's at S. Fischer. This is a reason to promote not only German-language authors, but also translated works from other languages, notably French, Italian, and Spanish.

Despite the "mini-renaissance" in German literature, young writers here wish more were done on their behalf - and they want to be recognized as being in a real profession. Suhrkamp Verlag, which specializes in German-language literature, traditionally holds four or five slots in its lineup for literary newcomers, "a money-losing business," says Ralf Paprotta, spokesman for the Federation of Young Authors. Most publishers don't do that well by the younger generation.

Rainer Weiss, program director at Suhrkamp, suggests that the "problem" with German authors is mostly a case of Germans' relentless self-criticism, their "broken relationship with their own country," he says. He tells of meeting with a literary agent from England ("where they don't doubt that they are a literary country") who asked about the sales of an English book he had sold to Suhrkamp. "I had to say, 'We sold not quite 2,000 copies, and we're frankly not satisfied.' "

"Two thousand copies?" the agent replied. "That's as many as we sold in England!"

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