Writers, publishers add English flair to Berlin | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 14.02.2014
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Writers, publishers add English flair to Berlin

Few writers are as synonymous with Berlin as Christopher Isherwood, and although his legacy lives on, the modern version of his erstwhile city accommodates a growing English literary scene.

A pile of old English books

Time for some fresh ideas in the world of publishing in Berlin

James Guerin, publisher of the new journal, Berlin Quarterly, recently described the German capital as "a state of mind" - a place that "celebrates freedom of expression and attracts free-thinking individuals." And how right he is. For the past 15 years or so, the city has welcomed swaths of creative types from every corner of the globe, who come to try their luck on the streets paved with preciously affordable concrete.

Besides the painters, poetry slammers, architects and musicians whose work fills streets, galleries, back rooms and bars, there is a whole new generation of writers and publishers, who are collectively marking out the German capital as a continental center for quality English literature.

Home to the likes of Claire Wigfall, Priya Basil, CJ Hopkins and their countless aspiring counterparts, Berlin is often cited as a city that offers its writers affordability, and as such, relative peace and quiet in which to explore their own potential. The same can not be said of more established publishing hubs in the UK and the US, where everything hinges on commercial success.

Award-winning playwright CJ Hopkins, who spent many years in New York, says the only ones who can live there these days are those who have already hit the big time. "It has become an enclave for the rich and those who serve them," he told DW. "And in addition to its having become unaffordable, it has become rather boring, artistically."

Rush on creative writing courses

Exterior of the brick building that houses the English Theatre in Berlin Photo:English Theatre Berlin | International Performing Arts Center

CJ Hopkins also collaborates closely with the English Theatre in Berlin, above

In Berlin, he has fared well. Since arriving in 2004, he has written a number of plays - both in English and German - which have been produced and published. He also works with The Reader Berlin, a local outfit offering editing services and a growing number of writing workshops. Although the workshops are conducted in English, those who sign up are often non-native speakers.

UK author and editor Victoria Gosling initially set up The Reader Berlin with manuscript appraisal in mind, but she soon realized there was "a real hunger" for professional creative writing courses. Run by award-winning novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights and more, their popularity is testimony to the volume of budding English-language authors in Berlin.

Victoria attributes this to affordability and to the city's culture of acceptance. "No one bats an eyelid when you tell them you're an artist, and since most writers are poor, it suits to live somewhere fairly unmaterialistic."

Berlin welcomes risks

EJ van Lanen, founder of Frisch and Co, which publishes English language translations in e-book form, would agree. He arrived in the capital in 2012 and has been surprised by the extent to which publishing professionals - both in the English and German language sectors - are open to experimentation.

Photo of sunrise over Berlin skyline Photo: Fotolia/Marco2811

The dawn of a new era?

"People here are a lot more adventurous and are open to thinking about different ways of doing things, particularly with regard to e-books," he said. "I imagine had I done the same thing in New York or London, the reactions would have been a lot more blasé."

Among those who welcomed EJ's arrival on Berlin's English language literary scene is Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Books. Hers is a sharp outfit that hosts literary events with internationally renowned authors, acts as a consultant to publishers and film production companies, and works with readers to build libraries.

A bookseller with years of experience in publishing PR and community building, the native Londoner moved to Berlin five years ago to open a boutique English language book store. She chose Germany because she wanted to be in a country that respects the value of books enough to have a netbook agreement. "I think people should understand the chain of people involved in creating a book and should support them by paying the right price."

Creating an industry

That commitment to books is firmly at the heart of Dialogue, and earned her shop a solid reputation. With the emergence of small publishers such as Mikrotext, Readux, The Curved House and Berlin Quarterly, she increasingly found herself cast as a consultant, so she closed her physical store in favor of an online one and embraced her new role.

Portrait of Sharmaine Lovegrove Photo: Marcus Posimski

Sharmaine Lovegrove is something of an engine in the English language literary scene

With a team of six people, Lovegrove is now working hard to solidify Berlin's place on the English language publishing map. Key to that, she says, is a supportive rather than a competitive environment.

"If I can use my network and be supportive of other projects, I am going to do that because if we don't support each other, we don't have an industry," Lovegrove said.

She is keen to throw off the idea that relatively inexpensive living costs mean Berlin-based publishers can afford to play around with "cute" projects that are no match for the more earnest offerings from London and New York. "I want there to be really good quality publications coming out of the city and for people to read them and wonder what else is happening here."

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