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The world’s biggest international book fair, the Frankfurter Buchmesse, kicked off last month with the announcement of the winner of the German Book Prize (Deutscher Buchpreis). This prestigious literary award is the media highlight of the publishing year in Germany and is comparable to the UK’s Man Booker Prize or the French Prix Goncourt.
The €25,000 prize money was awarded to Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis (an unusual word that translates roughly to ‘Encounter’). The book follows two lonely people who take a spontaneous journey together to Italy and unexpectedly discover love. However, just when they start to believe that they could live a new idyllic life, the reality of the world comes crashing down upon them in the form of a young refugee girl that they encounter in Sicily. The other shortlisted books were:
Fremde Seele, dunkler Wald (‘Dark forest, foreign soul’) by Reinhard Kaiser Mühlecker, an exploration of helplessness and redemption following a soldier’s return home to Austria and his brother’s efforts to run the family farm
Skizze eines Sommers (‘A Sketch of Summer’) by André Kubiczek, a coming-of-age story following four boys during the summer of 1985 in the former East Germany
Die Welt im Rücken (‘The World at Your Back’) by Thomas Melle, a personal chronicle of living with bipolar disorder
Ein langes Jahr (‘A Long Year’) by Eva Schmidt, a series of restrained and melancholy episodes from the perspectives of a variety of city residents
Hool by Philipp Winkler, an unflinching look at the violence, solidarity and brotherhood of life in a gang of football hooligans
As seems inevitable with all literary awards, there is much debate and criticism surrounding the Deutscher Buchpreis every year. Some argue that the prize monopolises media attention, thereby narrowing the public’s view of contemporary German literature down to the twenty longlisted books and leaving other deserving authors in the dark. The process of selecting the long- and shortlists has also come under fire for being ‘undemocratic’ and the jury has been criticised for choosing books for the purpose of creating a ‘literary talent show’ that ignores the preferences of a general readership.
However, the purpose of book prizes in general is manifold. All book prizes have to strike a balance between being literary recognition and being a marketing tool – they cannot be one without the other. When the Deutscher Buchpreis was established in 2004, it was for a number of reasons: to give a boost to the book trade, to lend German fiction a certain gravitas, and to shine a spotlight on German-language novels in the hope of heightening their international recognition. The prize can make commercial successes out of books that may have otherwise been overlooked by the general public, including providing exposure for those published by smaller companies without a huge advertising budget. The books considered for the prize are also significantly more likely to be chosen for translation by foreign publishing houses, and there is therefore a big impact on the representation of German-language books on the shelves in other countries.
On the other hand, success can arguably become confined to the shortlisted books, to the detriment of those not in the running for the prize – there is a danger of implying that the nominated books are the only good books to have been published that year, whereas it has to be recognised that, even with a consensus of seven judges, the perceived value of a book is still highly subjective. One thing is for sure: I don’t envy the judges the near impossible task of having to pick just one winner from such a varied selection of books!
Written by Jenny Nicholls
Image copyright: Petra Gass / Börsenverein
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham