German Book Prize: loved and scorned | German Book Prize | DW | 09.10.2016
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German Book Prize

German Book Prize: loved and scorned

It should just be about choosing the best novel of the year. But the German Book Prize is much more. It's the highlight of Germany's literary calendar and the source of annual skirmishes within the literary world.

One thing is for sure: The German Book Prize is a success. It was launched as a prestige project of the literary world in 2005, brought to life by the venerable German Publishers and Booksellers Association. Since then, it has raised awareness for German-language novels and increased book sales. It commends publishers for their literary engagement, satisfies the need of readers for guidance, and has proven to be a powerful marketing instrument.

International role models

The German Book Prize was established in the wake of what had been a few tough years for booksellers. Something new was needed - something that would be a driver for the business.

Logo Deutscher Buchpreis neutral

Prestige project of the book industry

And so, the publishers association established a prize that would focus the spotlight on an individual novel, rather than the entire work of one author - something that had already been done through the renowned Büchner Prize.

The English-language Man Booker Prize and the French Prix Goncourt were the role models, and large sponsors like the Deutsche Bank Foundation were brought on board. A total of 37,500 euros ($41,800) is put into the pot every year - 25,000 euros for the winner and 2,500 euros each for the other five shortlisted candidates.

It's a development that should have made authors, publishers, booksellers and the media happy - a promising and media-effective prize. But then the criticism came: German satire magazine "Titanic" slammed it as a "publicity prize."

Unfair comparison?

The question as to who will take home the coveted prize for best novel of the year, is one that is only answered on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair at an award ceremony held in the Kaisersaal of Frankfurt's Römer, the city hall.

But can there be a harmonious process when an annually changing jury picks 20 novels that will receive special attention, and then puts six of those onto a shortlist, bringing them into the media spotlight?

Is it even fair to choose one novel as a winner, out of hundreds that are not even selected? Is comparing a big family novel with a fragmented experimental title not comparing apples with oranges? Is a jury made up of literature critics and booksellers even really competent?

Sales and honor - but just for a selected few

In Germany, there are around 6,000 literature prizes. Before the German Book Prize was established, there was already a prize of the same name in Leipzig. It's now known as the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. The prize money is significant at 45,000 euros and it is well-regarded among critics, but it does not live up to its "big brother" on the Main River.

The presentation of the German Book Prize on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's biggest, is clever timing. It guarantees attention. And that is where the criticism always lies.

Publishers brought almost 90,000 titles onto the German book market in 2015. How much of it can be considered sophisticated German-language fiction? One can only guess that around 2,000 books might fall into this category. But there are only few that are discussed in the art sections of the largest newspapers and therefore taken seriously.

Eugen Ruge, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/U.Baumgarten

Eugen Ruge's winning novel in 2011 tops the bestseller lists

The German Book Prize monopolizes media attention - a constantly expressed frustration. It constricts the view of a wide range of beautiful literature, and sharpens the focus on just a few authors.

And critics seem to be right when it comes to sales. For all of the 11 former prize winners, the award has led to an enormous increase in sales. The first prize winning book "We are Doing Fine," Arno Geiger's Austrian family saga, sold around 200,000 copies in the year following his win.

The Book Prize winners from 2008 and 2011, Uwe Tellkamp and Eugen Ruge, reached sales of more than half a million copies with their novels about the former East Germany. Authors without the label "Book Prize winner" can only dream of such sales.

Tough accusations

Daniel Kehlmann belongs to a select few that have managed such a feat without winning one of the literary world's most prestigious prizes. In 2008, he called for the abolition of the "spectacle," which he said was only depressing for the authors. At the award presentation, the six authors on the shortlist sat "like pop singers at a casting show" in front of the podium, he said.

In 2014, its tenth year, the prize received particularly harsh criticism, saying that the selection of books for the longlist was undemocratic, qualitatively questionable and only geared toward sales.

Meanwhile, author Marlene Streeruwitz has condemned the prize as misogynistic, and downright sexist. For her, it means nothing that until now there were more female authors honored than male. In 2015, the daily German newspaper "Die Welt" led a pointed attack by simply denying the competence of the Book Prize jury.

Who makes it to the shortlist?

And yet, despite all the criticism, the prize will be awarded for the twelfth time, under the known rules, in 2016. Ninety-eight publishers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have submitted one or two promising new novels and the jury has made a selection of six books from the 178 titles that are on the coveted shortlist. There were some surprises among the choices, and, as is tradition, the selection was ripped apart in the German arts pages.

Some are frustrated about missing names. That some authors were finished late with their novels, and so could not be considered, is subtly ignored, as is the fact that many publishers do not submit particular new titles at the request of the writers themselves.

The possible shame of being nominated, hoping for a great breakthrough and then coming away empty handed is unthinkable for some authors.