German Literary ‘Great’ Inflation

Lithub has a feature on a German literary festival:

This weekend, the Neue Festival Literatur is offering a crash course in the best of contemporary German literature, with panels and readings from some of the most notable writers currently working in German. This year’s festival theme is “Seriously Funny.”

The post features English-language excerpts from recent work by Vea Kaiser, Xaver Bayer, Sibylle Berg, Iris Hanika, Pedro Lenz, Christopher Kloeble. Inspiring to see so much new German fiction getting a hearing in English.

My only objection is to the title of the post, which is 'Six Great Contemporary Writers Working in German'. No, these writers aren't great. They may be talented, interesting, innovative, wryly funny, or challenging, but they're not great. They're all way too young to have earned that adjective yet.

It looks like LitHub has been struck by what I call 'great' inflation: the tendency in German cultural circles to label about 60% of Germany's total literary production in a given year 'great'. Writers you've never heard of are described in German Feuilletons as 'great', as are books that sold 457 copies, won the Johann-August-Nepomuk Schleifenbumser prize from the town of Pflängenholz, and then disappeared.

I get it: the German urban haute bourgeoisie is terribly proud of the fact that it still Reads Books, and believes its mission on this earth is to convince as many people as possible to Read Books. One of the tactics they've settled on is 'great' inflation. Perhaps if we keep describing all books not directed at a mass audience as 'GREAT' often enough, people will begin reading more of them.

But it backfires. I've read some of the books described as 'great' over the years by German critics, and none of them was. Don't get me wrong: some were quite stimulating and very much worth reading. But not 'great'. Others, frankly, were crap — which leads me to believe that many of these 'greats' are being doled out as favors to friends inside some incestuous literary clique. Reviewers should be required to reveal if they're friends with the people who wrote the book under review. 

German critics! Please stop the great inflation. If you apply the word 'great' to any but the most overwhelmingly magnificent 2-3% of literary productions, you drain it of all meaning. Look in your thesauri for other ways to express approval. Think long and hard before bestowing the title 'great' on a book or a person. The result will be clearer, more honest, and more lively reviews.

7 thoughts on “German Literary ‘Great’ Inflation

  1. Who do you consider a Great™ German Writer?

    Suggest names in the following categories (or make up your own):

    1 — Currently Living

    2 — Dear Departed (recent)

    3 — Dear Departed (all time)

    4 — Special Olympics a.k.a. Swiss or Austrian

    5 — Beloved of Masochists (Hurts so Good) a.k.a. Suhrkamp writer

    6 — Simple German (simple enough for Texans to understand)


  2. I hardly read contemporary authors any more.

    How many years have I wasted reading books recommended by enthusiastic reviewers–the next great thing–only to find it the next great disappointment.

    Yes, frankly, crap.


  3. I fail to see how this “great inflation” is restricted to a) German b) writers. Of course, the inflation is a fact but it also applies to artists in popular fields. Many starlets and one-hit-wonders are/were called “great” for a few years. If one applies “great” only to the top 2-3% directors and actors many oscar winners are far from great.


  4. Keep in mind that in English, ‘great’ has two meanings. The first is colloquial, as in ‘Gee, that’s a great sweater you’re wearing!’. The second is more literal, as in ‘Einstein was a great physicist’.

    But even with that in mind, I rarely see the adjective ‘great’ applied in sense #2 to living people in the English-speaking world. Not even to Oscar winners, and certain not to pop singles. ‘Rhihanna’s new single is great!’ is sense number 1. ‘David Bowie was truly one of the greats’, is sense #2.


  5. “They’re all way too young to have earned that adjective yet.” – At least Sibylle Berg isn’t so awfully young (aged 53).


  6. So maybe “great” is just a poor translation of e.g. “großartig”?

    With Grass dead I am not sure any living German writer can claim “great” in the strong sense. Despite the fact that there are at least two living German language Nobel laureates, Jelinek and Hertha Müller, I doubt that these two qualify as “groß.)

    But “großartig” is more than the merely spontaneous “gee, that’s great” but certainly less than “handful of most important in a century or so” great.


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