Review: Marcella Blum: The debate-provoking book in the political field. Three case studies. Mainz 2013 (Arbeitsblätter für die Sachbuchforschung. 19)

BlumGuest post by Sören Ohle, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

In another guest post, Stefanie Martin introduced the project Das populäre deutschsprachige Sachbuch im 20. Jahrhundert – The popular German-language non-fiction book in the twentieth century, which publishes the series Arbeitsblätter für die Sachbuchforschung. In 2012, the project website was re-launched and in 2013, both the cover and layout of Arbeitsblätter für die Sachbuchforschung were re-designed. Since then, two new issues have been published. One of these two is Marcella Blum’s Das aktuelle Debattenbuch im politischen Feld. Eine Analyse anhand von Fallbeispielen, which will be reviewed in the following.

The German discipline “Buchwissenschaft” (Book Studies) typically focuses on texts in a very narrow perspective; the role of non-fiction books in the process of generating new knowledge is usually underestimated. In the master’s thesis under review here, Marcella Blum applies herself to the non-fiction genre. As a theoretical framework, she adopts Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, and for her context, she focuses particularly on the political field. Blum analyses three non-fiction books which are different in form and content, but which all attained bestseller status in Germany: Bernhard Bueb’s Lob der Disziplin (Engl. Praise of Discipline, published in 2006 by List-Verlag) a pedagogical treatise arguing for a stricter, more structured approach to teaching, Frank Schirrmacher’s Das Methusalem-Komplott (Engl. The Methusalem Conspiracy, published in 2004 by Blessing-Verlag) about the aging German society and Thilo Sarrazin’s highly controversial book about migration and demographic development Deutschland schafft sich ab (Engl. Germany is digging its own grave, published in 2010 by DVA). Blum’s main aim is to describe how non-fiction books can provoke social and political controversy and become “Debattenbücher” (debate-provoking books). In order to understand “Debattenbücher” better, she focuses on the personality and celebrity of the three authors in particular as well as the social function of the author in general. Blum starts out with Bourdieu’s assumption that civil protagonists can only force their way into the political field by using established media. Blum argues that books are the most efficient way for the civil protagonists to spread their statements in public and, furthermore, Blum emphasizes the existence and importance of literary orchestration and scandals as a sales strategy.

Blum’s most important undertaking is her attempt to extend the basic research literature, which hitherto covers the literary field, in terms of non-fiction research. This is an entirely new field of scholarly analysis, which is why Blum bases her insights on journalistic articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung aka FAZ (daily national newspaper), the ZEIT (weekly national newspaper) and the SPIEGEL (weekly national journal) – by doing so, she can consider the intermedia agenda setting effects in her study.

In the course of the study, Blum figures out that Bourdieu’s literary field has less impact than expected on the nature of non-fiction books. In fact, the journalistic field is the dominant factor for the non-fiction book whereas the political field develops the biggest influence towards the author. The access to all fields, which is provided by the publisher, is of utmost importance in this context. Without the publisher’s capital (economic, cultural and symbolic capital in Bourdieu’s terms), the author would not gain access and – more importantly – would not be able to communicate his personal point of view to a wider audience (i.e. the public).

As Blum emphasizes in her third chapter, non-fiction books can be distinguished from literary texts by their typical dualisms: subjectivity and objectivity, personalization and focusing on a current, concrete issue, logical reasoning and emotionality. Unfortunately, her three examples are not representative for the whole range of non-fiction books. More research is necessary to better understand the non-fiction genre and in particular, “Debattenbücher”, but Blum’s indications certainly point us in the right direction and she is to be commended for her work.

In general, Blum’s remarks about the three analyzed texts give rise to various kinds of generalizations for the research of non-fiction books. She identifies communicative strategies used by publishers, journalists, and authors, which can influence the (negative or positive) reception of non-fiction books as well as affect their relevance in the fields mentioned above. Of the three case studies, Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab provoked the largest public debate. This underlined the public’s limited perception of the political field. Furthermore, the importance of Sarrazin’s book – dissociated from its controversial content – is the impact it had on the political field. For Sarrazin’s book, the political field had to adapt its communicative strategies, whereas Bueb and Schirrmacher were not able to affect the political field in a similar way. Nevertheless, even bestsellers such as Sarrazin’s non-fiction book do not seem to last very long in the public perception. The books are dependent on other media to perpetuate their message and thus keep the debate going. Hence, the books’ political and journalistic worth diminishes day by day. The books lose their up-to-dateness by the time passing – their message becomes redundant or obsolete.

As a result, Blum points out the most necessary needs of a non-fiction book to succeed in public: The book has to be (overly?) provocative and deeply political. Nonetheless, those two factors do not guarantee a wider influence of the book in the political field. Blum emphasizes the role of the publisher and of journalists in creating “Debattenbücher”. In addition, though non-fiction books can certainly spark and dominate debates, the “Debattenbuch” alone is not able to change social or political conditions.

It is to Blum’s credit that she chooses a hitherto untested perspective on the non-fiction book. Overall, her study will be of interest to book historians, in particular those interested in non-literary genres. Some of her results are certainly applicable to other language areas and book markets as well. Her master’s thesis offers scholars insight on Bourdieu’s theoretical framework and its applicability to the non-fiction book market. It also provides in-depth analysis of three interesting case studies. Sarrazin’s book was reviewed and discussed well beyond the borders of the German-speaking countries. Thus, this particular case study may be of the most interest to international audiences. But, as Blum points out, much more research is necessary in view of the large quantity of possible perspectives towards non-fiction books. A follow-up study could analyze current non-fiction political bestsellers and possibly incorporate an analysis of the role political (auto)biography in the political field.

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