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Literature festivals in Germany are drawing record crowds

There've never been so many opportunities to hear literature read aloud in Germany. As Berlin's international literature festival draws to a close, Deutsche Welle takes a look at why book festivals are catching on.

A stack of books

Book festivals are catching on in almost every city in Germany

The days of simply buying a book and enjoying it for the text between its covers are over. Germany has become the land of literature festivals.

Three hundred separate events are listed on the program for Berlin's international literature festival this year. The festival – the city's ninth – has drawn around 30,000 book lovers.

Meanwhile, in the city of Hamburg, many authors are taking the stage at the Harbor Front Literature Festival.

Return to the spoken word

Literature festival visitors looking up at authors who are sitting on a stage

Some visitors cherish hearing their favorite authors speak to an audience

Every city that prizes culture in Germany naturally holds books and authors in high regard. If it's a nice summer night, visitors to these literature events will sit outside for hours on hard wooden stools just to hear the voices of their favorite authors reading on stage.

These days most books are translated into multiple languages. So even if the author reads his work in another language, which may not even be one that the visitor understands, many say the experience can still be a powerful one. For some visitors, all that matters is that the author himself is reading his work.

Regina Dyck leads one of the oldest literature festivals in Germany: "Poetry on the Road," which is held in the northern port city of Bremen.

"Meeting an author and listening to him read his own work is an intimate experience, which makes the pleasure of literature more sensual. For some, the paperback alone cannot offer such an experience," she says, trying to offer some insight into what draws the readers to such events.

"Perhaps these spoken word events awaken something primal in the visitor, something that responds to the spoken narrative. Before the printing press was invented, of course, stories were told verbally and people relied on the spoken word much more."

Sweating, stuttering and extroverted

Berlin literature researcher Christina Foerner also believes there is another reason for the literature festivals' popularity: they demystify the author.

Literature expert Christina Förner

Literature expert Christina Foerner

"The only thing most people often know about these authors is their work," she says.

"The author to them is usually a great mystery. When people come to these events, many questions regarding the author and his work get answered. Some of the mystery is taken out, which many find pleasing."

Some authors are shy; some are extroverted. Some sweat or stutter. Some are gray and balding. "The public is able to connect with the authors more easily when they see that the authors are only human, and the book was not created by some divine force but by a regular hardworking person," Foerner says.

Most importantly, the audience wants to see the authors, for all their imperfections. Sometimes the literature event can even turn into a spectacle. Such was the case in 1983, when the German author Rainald Goetz made an appearance on TV for a literature debate.

When a critic made a comment Goetz didn't like, the writer pulled out a razorblade and slashed his own forehead, letting the blood run down his face.

The German writer Harry Rowohlts, whose readings are enormously popular, describes his spoken word events as a place to get drunk and maybe talk about literature.

Catering and fun for the kids

The act of seeking contact with an author is an old tradition. Earlier, this was restricted to people who belonged to the author's "literary circle." Nowadays, writers are more available to the general public. It also helps that publishing houses sometimes push authors to do the readings. Literature festivals, after all, are places where books are marketed.

Ulrich Schreiber, head of Berlin's international literature festival, sitting and talking to an author

Ulrich Schreiber, head of the Berlin festival says the event is good for readers and industry

"Everyone goes home happy, both the readers and the industry," says Ulrich Schreiber, host of Berlin's international literature festival.

And the events are all-inclusive affairs: some are fully catered while others provide activities for children.

Although not all authors enjoy taking part in such literature festivals, there are many that are still willing to discuss their hard work and the creative process with an audience.

Foerner, however, believes that the festivals are directing too much attention away from the actual product. "Unfortunately," she says, "in today's day and age, it's not longer sufficient to be a very good writer. You also have to learn how to deliver your product effectively."

Love for books nothing new

Although spoken word events seem to be the latest manifestation of Germany's love for literature, the country has long held the genre in high esteem and therefore done much to foster the book industry.

In fact, the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is held every year in the city, is considered one of the most important trade fairs for the publishing industry. Representatives from thousands of publishing houses across the world come to the fair to negotiate international publishing rights and licensing fees.

This year the fair runs from October 14 to 18.

Author: Heiner Kiesel (cs)

Editor: Andreas Illmer

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