Revival of the literary quartet: a business revolves around itself

From a marketing perspective, the revival is good for the industry. But it will not help to discuss literature in a differentiated way.

The new edition: Maxim Biller (left), Christine Westermann and Volker Weidermann. Photo: dpa

Hopeful voices can be heard from the publishing scene after the decision to revitalize the "Literary Quartet". There is the press spokeswoman of a medium-sized publishing house, who talks on the phone about a "renaissance of the book. After all, she says, the show has made the public talk about books even more. And there is the editor of another publishing house, who speaks of a "good day for the book industry" in the social media.

From a marketing point of view, the good mood is certainly justified. The possibilities for launching book campaigns have at least expanded again somewhat for publishers. They can accompany young authors to Klagenfurt for the Bachmann Prize reading competition. They can submit finished novels to the book prizes at the Frankfurt or Leipzig book fairs. And so now there will once again be a program on public television that can absolutely be trusted with the ability to produce bestsellers. But, with respect, the interests of readers are not always congruent with the marketing interests of publishers.

The new edition of this program fits in all too well with the recent debates about the self-image of literary critics. For example, Jorg Sundermeier, small publisher at Verbrecher Verlag (and taz author), recently gave an interview to the industry journal Buchmarkt, which has been heard up and down the country on literary pages and in book programs on the radio.

The "Sundermeier debate

Sundermeier had pointed out the decline of book reviews in the national daily newspapers. His thesis of the tendential disappearance of literary criticism was so eagerly seized upon that his accompanying comment usually fell flat. The book reviews that still exist, Sundermeier had still said, are also no longer as knowledgeable and carefully written as they used to be.

The editor of the intellectual magazine Merkur Ekkehard Knorer (also a taz author) has traced this "Sundermeier debate" in the current issue of his magazine and supplemented it with a portrait of the literary critic Hubert Winkels (reading sample as PDF). It portrays a literary functionary who is so busy on juries, on podiums, as a moderator of readings, that he himself only gets to read in between. Whether that’s true or not (in my experience, Winkels often reads very carefully): a business that revolves around itself and a concentration on a few books a year, while diversity falls off the perception grid – these are indeed two core themes that currently accompany the literary business like a constant murmur of self-reflection.

With the new "Literary Quartet," this murmuring will not get any quieter. Because of course the program will be part of the business – even if Weidermann, Westermann and Biller like to come up with anti-literary business poses. And with the planned six broadcasts a year, each on perhaps five novels, it will hardly be possible to depict diversity. And it shouldn’t be.

Dichotomy of Literary Criticism

However, the new "Literary Quartet" is certainly no occasion for swan songs. Rather, it would be interesting to have another debate about self-image – one that does not defend or question literature and criticism across the board, but rather differentiates between them. In any case, a dichotomy in contemporary literary criticism is striking. It is incredibly good at identifying, with great speed, a hundred novels each year from the huge range on offer that are worth talking about and arguing about, that are worth reading. But it is no longer so good at taking another look at the novel production perhaps a year later, establishing references, discussing developments in themes and writing styles with a little distance, and, that too, questioning its own criteria.

The "Quartet" will certainly be a big player in the game of always blowing new book titles into the world, starting in October. However, it will probably not help with differentiation and reflection work. But this work is important. In the long run, there are no readable books without it.

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