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'Great literature tackles big issues'

Interview: Andrea HorakhOctober 5, 2016

The German Publishers and Booksellers Association presents the German Book Prize. Since 2006, Deutsche Welle has been its media partner. Chairman Heinrich Riethmüller tells DW about his goals and visual literature.

Heinrich Riethmüller, Copyright: Claus Setzer/Börsenverein
Image: Claus Setzer/Börsenverein

DW: The German Book Prize was brought to life in 2005. Why was it needed?

Heinrich Riethmüller: We wanted to bring further international recognition to German-language novels. They already existed for English and French. In those languages, they had large audience prizes. In Germany, there was no such thing.

Were there international models?

Of course. We modeled ourselves on the Prix Goncourt and the Man Booker Prize. The idea was to collate a longlist of books that later be condensed into a shortlist, instead of focusing on one book or one author from the outset.

Isn't a comparison with the international equivalents unfair? The German Book Prize has only existed for 12 years. The Man Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt have a much longer tradition.

Not necessarily. The very first Book Prize winner Arno Geiger, for example, had incredible resonance - and also abroad. Many of the outstanding novels are later translated. International publishers have told me that even a nomination for the shortlist makes a difference when it comes to international marketing or license sales.

Have there been any changes to the selection process over the years?

Only slight changes. The major publishers were not content with only being able to submit one or two books. Now, they are allowed to recommend up to five titles.

How is the jury for the German Book Prize chosen every year?

We try to ensure that the jury is well-balanced, meaning that there are as many women as there are men represented to make sure the female and male view of the literature is covered. The judges also stand out because of their high degree of independence. It's noticeable at every meeting of the jury. There, every author and book is hotly debated and not just waved through. Jurors are also very vocal, if, for example, their favorite book is missing from the list.

The Book Prize jury consists of booksellers as well as literary critics. Why is that?

Because their experience is very important to us. Booksellers are very close to the readers. So they have another view of the literature, compared with, for example, a critic.

It's almost a Book Prize tradition that every jury decision is criticized by the media, sometimes very vehemently. Does that bother you?

As chair of the publishers and booksellers association, I completely and wholeheartedly trust in the competence of the jury and have no influence over their decision. As an avid reader, it can happen that I personally miss one or another title. But I think that's completely normal. The great thing is that over the course of three months during the fall, books are discussed in the art pages and in bookshops.

What do you say to criticism that the jury often decides over the reader?

There's no way anyone can say that. Take the example of Julia Franck. She wasn't very well known before, but garnered a lot of attention by winning the Book Prize. Even the 2015 winner, Frank Witzel, with his admittedly somewhat unwieldy novel, found his way to the reader. I think around 75,000 copies were sold. It is not the purpose of the German Book Prize to honor books that are already on the bestseller list. That sometimes happens, but it's not the only criterion.

Readers' favorites like Joachim Meyerhoff's books or the incredibly successful novel "Tschick" almost never make it onto the shortlist. Many Book Prize winners, in contrast, end up forgotten.

Naturally, there are some novels that are not remembered and no longer play a role in terms of sales. But that doesn't happen with most. An example is Eugen Ruge. Before he won the Book Prize, he was completely unknown. Afterwards he entered into the premier league of German-language authors. His new books have also had a very high circulation.

Kathrin Schmidt, Terézia Mora - many of the outstanding novels have a certain weight to them. Why is that?

Great literature is characterized like that because it tackles big issues. And novels are then often - although not always - associated with a certain weight.

Yes, particularly in Germany.... After all these years, is there the desire to change something? For some kind of reform of the German Book Prize?

No, not really. One can naturally consider whether one wants to try something in the direction of new media or perhaps taking more readers into account. But otherwise it will keep going as it is, which is very well.

DW has been the media partner of the German Book Prize since 2006 and produces video portraits of the shortlisted candidates. How important is it to have a visual element to literature?

It's increasingly important at a time of images. Printed or spoken words alone no longer reach as many people. Therefore, we are very happy to have found a cooperation partner that is able to realize this visual aspect.

Heinrich Riethmüller has been the chair of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association since 2013. The experienced bookseller also runs the Osianderschen Bookshops. The family-run firm is one of the largest and oldest bookshop businesses in Germany.

Eugen Ruge's book cover, In Times of Fading Light
The 2011 winning novelImage: FF
Heinrich Riethmüller with DW reporter Andrea Horakh, Copyright: Monique Wüstenhagen
Heinrich Riethmüller talks to DW reporter Andrea HorakhImage: Monique Wüstenhagen