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B+ : far-ranging; well-presented
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Carolin Amlinger's Schreiben ('Writing') is a comprehensive sociological examination of literary work (as in labor) in modern Germany -- Eine Soziologie literarischer Arbeit ('A Sociology of Literary Work'), as the subtitle has it. As she explains in her Introduction:
Literarisches Arbeiten wird hier als eine soziale Tätigkeit interpretiert, die sich nicht losgelöst von den gesellschaftlichen Beziehungen und Strukturen, in die sie eingebettet ist, erschließen lässt.Amlinger divides her work into three parts. The first focuses on the literary marketplace in Germany during three distinct periods: from 1871 (German unification into the German Empire) to 1918, then 1948 to 1990, and finally 1990 to the present. In the post-World War II period, Amlinger's focus is almost entirely on West (and then re-unified) Germany, as writing and publishing in the German Democratic Republic (1949-1990) was shaped by very different forces and interests, and functioned very differently. (While understandable, it is a bit of a shame that the forty-year GDR conditions are so completely left apart here, as especially the experiences of those East German authors who came to be published and found a readership in both Germanys during that period surely make for a potentially revealing contrast to those working solely in a western context.)
The second part of the book focuses on literary work itself, with chapters on the job of 'writer' (Schriftstellerberuf), the larger 'literary marketplace' (Literaturbetrieb), and the act(ivity) of writing. A final section considers 'aesthetic positionings' (Ästhetische Positionierungen), with chapters on (the concepts and realities of) authorship and autonomy. Throughout, Amlinger makes note of and describes the larger social connections and dependencies, showing no writer is an island, and that the work of writing (and even simply the possibility/ability of writing being a part- or full-time livelihood) is significantly shaped by external forces and structures, notably economic ones -- "Kunst ist, so meine leitende Annahme, ökonomisch und nichtökonomisch zugleich" ('art is, so my guiding assumption, both an economic and a non-economic activity').
A significant part of Amlinger's study relies on her conversations (cum interviews) with eighteen representative authors (conducted 2014-2016). In an Appendix, she explains her method -- and, helpfully, addresses many of the issues with it -- at some length. The authors are quoted at length and used as case-studies in much of Schreiben -- beginning with the introductory section --, and in the Appendix she also provides fairly in-depth summary-biographies of all eighteen of the authors (whose real identities are, however, hidden behind pseudonyms). The authors are a cross-section of German writers, seven women and eleven men, ranging in age from 32 to 62; several have 'day jobs' of sorts, but most work primarily as (book-)writers, and range from very successful 'genre' authors to those who can be considered more literary and/or reach only much smaller audiences. (Self-publishing is discussed in the book, but Amlinger's focus is on traditional publishing and none of her authors relies to any great extent on self-publishing.)
Amlinger notes that she did not pose a specific set of questions to the authors, but rather relied on the 'episodic/narrative interview'-format, in which the subject is encouraged to shape the response. Writers responded differently, so not all areas were addressed by all the respondents; so also, for example, she notes that there was a general reluctance to discuss personal financial matters -- specifically how little many of these authors earn -- and quite a few of the authors declined to provide information as to their net monthly household income. (Most do, and one of the shocking things in Schreiben is how little German writers are earning, even those presented as very successful). Amlinger does try to get at such information elsewhere -- especially regarding income -- but the data is limited (and much of the most detailed data is dated -- though that, too, is still of interest). Amlinger also acknowledges that her person naturally had an influence on how the writers responded -- younger authors apparently generally quickly taking to the young female researcher, while some of the older ones adopted a 'mansplaining'-approach ..... (She also notes the conversations generally lasted between one and two hours, which seems very short.)
Schreiben is focused very much on the German literary marketplace. (While other German-language-areas -- Austria and Switzerland -- also have significant writing cultures, the marketplace proper, and especially publishing, have always been dominated by Germany: that is where (most of) the money has always been; the very different East German environment is, as noted, understandably essentially left out, as is what amounts to largely the aberration (with everything from hyperinflation to strictest censorship) that was the Weimar and Nazi period.)
The first part of Schreiben, looking in depth at the three selected periods of the German literary marketplace -- 1871-1918, 1948-1990, and 1990 to the present -- offers a fascinating overview of especially publishing in Germany. As she notes, Germany lagged behind, for example, France and England in developing a significant national (book-)publishing industry, the splintered territories of pre-1871 Germany a hindrance to the kind of large-scale publishing that was then possible in the single market that only came with unification. The explosion in the number of titles published after 1870 is remarkable; so too was the spread of newspapers and magazines -- which took on a particularly important role for writers as a source of income, with serialized work becoming very popular -- a form which, of course, also very much shaped what was being written. So also then, in the 1948 to 1990 period, it is remarkable how significant the radio-market, especially for radio-plays, proved as a source of income for writers. (Amlinger mentions the example of Arno Schmidt as the sort of writer-ideal one imagines, living in near-isolation and focused on nothing but his craft, but of course Schmidt too long depended on radio-work for much of his income.)
Especially in the first two periods she covers, Amlinger looks closely at the difficulties writers had in making writing a true livelihood, noting their reliance on publishers and the limited market power writers themselves had (and have). She covers the evolution of the postwar publishing scene very well, including describing various efforts by authors to maintain more control (including, significantly, editorial input and control) with the formation of author-led publishers and imprints such as AutorenEdition and Verlag der Autoren. Among the fascinating examples is that of Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, which embraced a collective (and anti-capitalist) business model but nevertheless limited editorial control -- leading a group of authors to leave the publisher and form yet another one, even more 'collective', as it were, the Rotbuch Verlag.. Publishing power consistently remained concentrated in relatively few hands, however -- among the statistics she cites is that in 1982, of a total of 92 publishers with a significant output, half of all titles were published by a mere six of them. More recently, and as elsewhere in the world -- including in both the English- and French-speaking publishing worlds --, consolidation in the industry has led to several behemoths dominating the industry, and Amlinger considers many of the ramifications of this as well.
Among the interesting titbits is the observation in regard to the rise of creative-writing programs -- still far more limited in Germany than in, especially, the US --, that Amlinger found writers involved with these made much more note of the 'socializing' effects of these than any craftsmanship they might have been taught there. Such programs seemed to help would-be writers identify as 'authors' and familiarize themselves and become comfortable with the other bits of the literary marketplace (not least in the making of connections, whether with literary agents (still far less common in Germany that in the US/UK (and: "Literary agencies appear as opaque institutions", Amlinger observes)) or others involved in publishing and writing) -- two aspects of the writing-life which Amlinger pays considerable attention to in this broad study of writing (while seeing also the irony that skill, and the honing of it, are seen as more secondary),
In line with this being a sociological study, the identity of 'writer' -- and how writers see themselves, and, to a lesser extent, are seen -- is a significant part of Amlinger's work. The why -- why writers write, and pursue this profession -- is considered in depth (not least in the answers and explanations her sample-group of writers offers), as is its relation to society in general; so also the question/issue of (possible) autonomy is one that Amlinger considers closely.
It is interesting to note how national-specific much of what Amlinger presents is: Schreiben is about the German literary marketplace and environment, and while certain fundamentals about writing are universal, or at least widespread -- from individuals' dreams of 'being writers' to publishing industry-basics -- much is also very much local. So, while the work is certainly also of interest in other literary spheres -- the American one, the French one -- many aspects of the writing-life and the literary marketplace differ markedly (including, but hardly limited to, writers in/and academia -- far more prevalent in the US than Germany --; the availability of prizes and other financial support (helpful, but not something that can be counted on); the role of literary agents). One would wish, however, that Amlinger's basic framework be emulated in these other markets as well -- it would be fascinating to see similar works about the American market -- or indeed many others (Japan, China, Russia, etc. etc.).
Schreiben is admirably and impressively thorough; among the book's few weaknesses the most irritating is that, while it does have a subject-index (Sachregister), this it isn't quite a general index and, for example, name-mentions are not indexed; a more comprehensive index, covering everything (and everyone) would have been welcome. (The German bibliographic form used -- providing just place and date of publication, but not (even) the name of the publisher -- is also slightly disappointing; one can work with it -- and the Bibliography is extensive and useful, so one wants to -- but not as easily as one might wish for.) Amlinger's reliance of a small group of authors is also arguably not ideal, but she does also extend her study impressively beyond them and their comments -- and many people do seem to like the 'personal touch' of such case studies and quotes. (My preference is for the far more impersonal and data-driven, but sociology seems to like the personal stories -- and Amlinger does provide a lot of data and numbers too (though there are caveats to much of this as well).)
Incredibly far-ranging, Schreiben is clearly a milestone in German literary-sociological studies and will remain a valuable reference for some time to come; its the largest-scale examination of the writing-profession in Germany in some five decades, since the classic Der Autorenreport (1972) (which she also refers to extensively). One hopes it also serves as a model for similar studies of other markets -- though I wouldn't complain if these were less personal-experience and -story-driven and relied (even) more on a wider array of data, both statistical and personal.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 March 2022
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Carolin Amlinger is a postdoc at the University of Basel. She was born in 1984.
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© 2022 the complete review