Book Review: “Literaturpreise. Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis” (eds. D. Borghardt, S. Maaß, A. Pontzen), Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2020.

reviewed by network member Corinna Norrick-Rühl, Münster

Literaturpreise. Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis. Eds. Dennis Borghardt, Sarah Maaß, Alexandra Pontzen. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2020. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-3-8260-7068-6. EUR 42.-. Link to book on publisher website.

A large-scale research project at the University of Duisburg-Essen, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) since 2017, has been studying the functions and impacts of literary prizes in the German-speaking areas, with a focus on literary prize culture from the 1990s onwards (project title in German: Literaturpreise im deutschsprachigen Raum seit 1990: Funktionen und Wirkungen, link to DFG website). In 2020, a collected volume of articles was published, edited by Dennis Borghardt, Sarah Maaß and Alexandra Pontzen (PI of the project). This volume offers broad insights into the work that Pontzen and her colleagues have been doing within the framework of her project. Some of the contributions are based on thesis work by graduate students, others were developed from talks in a lecture series titled “Ausgezeichnet! Zur Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis von Literaturpreisen” (winter term 2019/20), as evidenced be the project website (link).

The volume is divided into four parts:

The volume begins with an extensive introduction by Borghardt, Maaß and Pontzen, including two informal reports, one from a roundtable discussion on literary prizes in the contemporary book industry and one on results from an author questionnaire regarding the significance of literary prizes to authors. While only about 100 authors responded, these results are indicative of the complexities of the world of literary prizes.

Book cover (courtesy of Königshausen & Neumann)

Following this, Part I looks at historical paradigms and developments. The literary prize is considered in the context of antiquity (co-editor Dennis Borghardt) as well as within the framework of literary competition (e.g. singing contests) in the middle ages (Martin Schubert). Jörg Wesche offers a look at highlights of awards and other forms of early modern recognition of authorship, from Renaissance-era Conrad Celtis to the early twentieth century. Part I closes with a fascinating look at socialist literary awards in East Germany (Hannes Krauss). These historical ‘appetizers’ give the volume’s primarily contemporary focus depth and context, and are welcome additions to discussions surrounding literary prizes beyond the German-speaking area. The articles in this section in particular (and the volume as a whole) would have benefited from English-language abstracts to guarantee a broader audience for these articles.

Part II deals with theories, models and functions of literary prizes. Some of the names involved in this part are unsurprising, some contribute fresh perspectives to the field. Michael Hutter considers valuation and valorization, weighing approaches such as Pierre Bourdieu’s (field of cultural production), Niklas Luhmann’s (systems theory) and John Dewey (theory of valuation) to forge new opportunities for analysis. Burckhard Dücker follows with a brief overview on the structures of literary prizes from the point of view of cultural economy. Dücker’s theoretical work on German-language literary prizes is well known and his approraches (especially on the dynamics of rituals in awards ceremonies) have been tried and tested. Nick Cichon follows with a case study of the Thomas Mann Award based on his undergraduate thesis. He models the “triangular consecration” inherent to award-giving and award-receiving, productively incorporating Marcel Mauss’ work on gift culture. Part II is rounded off by an interesting article on literary evaluation and “heterarchical valorization” (co-editor Sarah Maaß), which engages closely with the concept of heterarchy suggested by Warren McCulloch. This concept has not been widely received in cultural studies, as Maaß indicates, and her application here is intriguing. Maaß’s article also points to newer research from German studies in the area, such as work by Michael Dahnke and Christoph Jürgensen. Regrettably, throughout Part II, there is little to no engagement with newer anglophone approaches to literary prizes from the wider field of book and publishing studies, which have been bringing a new range of innovative methodological approaches to the study of literary prizes (e.g. Dane, Harvey/Lamond, Marsden, Squires). Reciprocally, though, this criticism may also be applied to much of the existing anglophone book and publishing studies research, which often ignores non-anglophone contexts.

Part III is the richest part, with seven individual contributions focused on practices, policies and economies of literary awards in the current moment. Some of the contributors come at this area from a scholarly perspective, others from the book industry. Andreas Joh. Wiesand opens Part III with an integration of literary awards into the wider field of cultural policy and support systems. His quantitative analysis is based on his handbook of cultural prizes (Handbuch der Kulturpreise 4, ed. Andreas Joh. Wiesand, 2001), and the online version thereof (link). Given the oft-quoted criticism of there being “too many literary awards” in the German-speaking areas, this analysis and comparison is very helpful background information. Wiesand is followed by Anna Schoon, who widens the perspective to include European literary awards and the effects of awards on translations. This article is particularly relevant given the unequal status of translations across different European markets (as evidenced, for e.g., by the “three percent problem”). From transnational contexts to a smaller, more local lens, Anna-Christina Köbrich then offers a close look at the E.T.A. Hoffmann Prize, awarded by the city of Bamberg. Thorsten Casimir, the editor-in-chief of Germany’s most important trade journal in the book industry, the Börsenblatt, shares insights into the inner workings of the Deutscher Buchpreis. The Deutscher Buchpreis, established in 2005, is set up with a similar timeline and structure (longlist, shortlist, announcment) as the Booker Prize, but a major difference is that the Deutscher Buchpreis is sponsored by the German booksellers and publishers association Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels. Casimir responds to criticism of the prize (there is a lot), hints at scandals, and discusses the sales-boosting effects of the award. Fittingly, this behemoth of a prize is followed by Leon Huff’s analysis of the Preis der Hotlist. The Hotlist was originally created as a response to the mainstreaming tendencies of the Deutscher Buchpreis and its (alleged) focus on titles from large, often conglomerate, publishers. This article is an interesting contribution to considerations surrounding independent publishing, though it could have profited from closer engagement with the concept of bibliodiversity (Susan Hawthorne). The issue of bibliodiversity is not only represented in Huff’s analysis of the Hotlist award, but also in Birthe Kolb’s source-heavy look at awards in (German) self-publishing (e.g. Indie Autor Preis, Deutscher Selfpublishing-Preis). The volume closes with Carolin Amlinger’s useful observations on the accumulatory logics within the book industry. While book awards don’t quite function in a “buy one, get one free” manner, there are patterns and processes at play which merit a closer look. Amlinger hints at the exclusionary effects of these processes. Indeed, it is hard to ignore that the diversity deficit in publishing industries worldwide is exacerbated by prize culture. By placing this article at the end of the volume, Borghardt, Maaß and Pontzen seem to challenge readers as well as scholars, booksellers, publishers and jury members to be more aware of these pattterns and processes.

Overall, this insightful and well-researched volume will be useful to scholars from literary (especially German) studies, book studies, publishing studies and cultural sociology. The editors have done an excellent job of interconnecting the articles not only in their introduction, but also with thorough and consistent cross-referencing. As indicated above, English-language abstracts would have made the volume more accessible to a wider reading audience. An index would also have been helpful in terms of easy access and use. These and aforementioned lacunae notwithstanding, however, the volume is a worthwhile and welcome contribution to the burgeoning field of research on literary awards and prize culture, showcasing the broad spectrum of research being conducted in this field in the German-speaking areas.

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