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Literary scandal

July 9, 2012

The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize this year has gone to the Russian-born Olga Martynova for a text called "I'll say: Hi!". It was an unusually scandal-free winner, but controversy has always been part of the event's image.

Olga Martynova with roses
Image: Reuters

This year's reading competition for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize has been unusually trouble-free. There's been no cursing or spilling of blood. The first contestant, author and translator Stefan Moster - currently based in Finland - kicked off the proceedings with his reading of "The Dog from Saloniki." Jury member Hubert Winkels called it a "fine start," describing Moster's contribution as "an unsettling narration." As the competition continued, things never really became uneasy - or indeed scandalous.

The list of controversies at the literary competition in Klagenfurt is long and bizarre. From the indigestible to the unspeakable, nothing is too unappetizing to be omitted. Following one reading, the author Philipp Weiss ate his manuscript. During his presentation, young author Rainald Goetz cut open his forehead with a razorblade, and continued to read while covered in blood. And the Swiss author Urs Allemann ventured to read a text entitled "Baby Fucker."

The young participants in the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize at the Festival of German-Language Literature are usually prepared to do whatever it takes to stick in the jury's memory. In the past 34 years of the literary competition, the jury with its remorseless critiques has done little to temper criticism that the three-day-long reading marathon has become little more than a cheap TV casting show.

Rainald Goetz with blood dripping from his face
Rainald Goetz cut open his forehead with a razorblade during his reading in 1983Image: ORF Kärnten

Scandal is the name of the game

No wonder then that Sibylle Lewitschroff, the German author and Bachmann Prize Winner from 1998, capriciously lectured "About the Defeat" during her opening speech at the competition in 2012. "I am not aware that anyone would have committed suicide after receiving the judgment, having previously made public a revenge-craving pamphlet demanding a general reversal," she said.

The hopeful young authors know what to expect. And a small scandal is simply par for the course, said Doris Moser, who not only ran the competition for four years, but also academically researched how it functions.

Theatrical event

Even before the competition began in 1977, critics gasped with indignation, hissing that the competition was "megalomaniacal" and accusing the organizors of abusing the name Ingeborg Bachmann for attention-seeking purposes. The prize money for the overall winner totalled 7,000 euros ($8,600) back then. Such a high sum was previously unheard of. In Austria, only the winner of the Grand Austrian State Prize for lifetime achievement in the arts was endowed with such an amount.

Then there was the public arena, in which a young author read a previously unpublished text and would either be applauded by the jury or trampled to the ground with everyone listening in - either in the studio or over the radio. Then-juror Marcel Reich-Ranicki would bluster in with his often outrageous critiques. After the author Karin Struck had finished reading, Reich-Ranicki shouted: "Who's interested in what women think, what they feel, while they are menstruating?," and said her text was not literature, but a "a crime." Struck ran out of the room in tears.

litarary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki
"Who's interested in that?," screeched infamous litarary critic Marcel Reich-RanickiImage: dapd

Unsurprisingly, a journalist from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the first Ingeborg Bachmann Prize as "a theatrical event." The literary critic Sigrid Löffler spoke of an undignified reading competition, "in which one thing was forgotten - literature - and from which only one thing profited: the Suhrkamp publishing house." The winners were stock from this very publishing house. And the wounded Karin Struck.

Marketing platform

And so a tradition was born. In the meantime it's become its own genre of critique - the "Bachmann critique" - in the arts sections. "It's almost unheard of for someone to write an entirely positive report about the competition in Klagenfurt," said Doris Moser, today a literature lecturer at the Alpen-Adria University in Klagenfurt. Yet that which is most heavily criticized can become the most interesting. By as early as 1978, the reading arena was considered to be a high-ranking literary prize and accrued a certain capital exploited by publishing houses in their marketing.

The competition in Klagenfurt was never a launchpad for young, unknown authors. The majority of participants have already published their first, second or even third works. The texts which they read in Klagenfurt are often already printed and packed in boxes at the publishing house, waiting for the "Winner of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize" sticker, before being sent for delivery. But even without the sticker, attendance in Klagenfurt is viewed as a seal of literary approval.

Ingeborg Bachmann on a poster advertizing the competition
But what would Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann herself make of all the controversy?Image: ORF

Career boost or deathblow

Rainald Goetz, at the time a young author, especially profited from the prize. His razorblade antics didn't win him the competition in 1983, but he shot to fame overnight and has remained the symbol of Bachmann Prize scandal to this day. Swiss author Urs Allemann also managed to make the talk at the competition all about him. But it damaged his career in the long-term. He was accused of willfully trivializing pedophilia, while his text "Baby Fucker" was even discussed in the Austrian parliament.

Unconventional and rather more eccentric authors generally tend to profit from their appearances at the event, even if they don't win. But since the case of Weiss, "everyone is just waiting for someone to at least eat their manuscript again," said Doris Moser. That would go straight to the top of the news category on the official competition webpage.

At least the author Peter Licht spread a little eccentricity in demanding to be veiled, shot form behind or not at all, during the broadcasting of the competition by Austrian Broadcasting (ORF) in 2007. Yawn. Much better just to be nice, like Sten Nadolny, who in 1980 shared his prize among all the participants.

Author: Marlis Schaum, Dirk Ulrich Kaufmann / hw
Editor: Sonya Diehn