Mechthilde Vahsen: The New Women Writers

The New Women Writers

Review by Mechthilde Vahsen

Wiebke Eden:

„Keine Angst vor großen Gefühlen“.

Die neuen Schriftstellerinnen.

Berlin: edition ebersbach 2001.

160 Seiten, ISBN 3–934703–26–7, € 20, 50

For the past few years, German contemporary literature has celebrated its comeback. Even though the proportion of debuts written by young writers do not represent an unproportionally large segment in the publishing industry, they are being written, sold, read, staged, marketed, and analysed. Making their debut as young writers has become a successful marketing strategy, men and women authors become younger and younger, and the number of coming-of-age novels increases accordingly. That is one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin shows us that the marketing strategy of writing reading, of engaging in the making and consuming of literature has been successful with a wide audience, be it through new authors and their stories or through literary events, competitions, workshops or talent scouting. Additionally, there is a growing tendency to consider creative writing as a craft like any other craft, opening itself to anyone who is interested in learning and eventually mastering it. The latter becomes evident in new anthologies and publishing houses which aim to reach young readers. Similarly, anthologies introducing new authors tend to be extremely biographical, and tend to discuss issues like literary role models. This book, written by journalist Wiebke Eden, is an example of this genre of anthology.

A representative Cross-Section of new Women Writers

Eden introduces eleven women writers of the current German-speaking literary scene. Her selection is inspired by the task of finding a representative cross-section and overview over styles, topics, motives, and language of this new generation of women writers. The tabloid-like title of her book, No Fear of Great Emotions—New Women Writers implies two things: one, that new German women writers actually exist and two, that they write about emotions. Unfortunately, the latter touches on the cliché of romance literature published by women. “No Fear of Great Topics” would more appropriately reflect the selection of authors and their writing presented by Eden.

The eleven authors are: Jenny Erpenbeck, Julia Franck, Judith Hermann, Felicitas Hoppe, Zoë Jenny, Stefanie Kremser, Tanja Langer, Grit Poppe, Kathrin Röggla, Birgit Vanderbeke, and Maike Wetzel.

In addition to interviews, photographs, and extracts from the work of these writers, the book also contains a bibliography. Each of the portraits touches on the following aspects: how the author found their way to literature, childhood and youth, writing experiences, motivation for writing, becoming a professional writer and dealing with the publishing industry, with publicity and success as a writer. Additonally, they also discuss the “Fräuleinwunder” debate, which is based on a term coined in 1995 by Volker Hage to describe the mushrooming literary debuts by young German-writing women. Seven of the eleven interviews took place in Berlin, a fact which leads one to suspect that location may have been one of the factors determining the selection of interviewees. Then again, the high proportion of Berlin-based writers in this collection may be more indicative of the vibrant literary scene of the German capital, which continues to attract many young writers from all over. However, not all of the writers featured in this book are “novices” or debut writers; a few of them, e.g., Birgit Vanderbeke, have been publishing for years and are established members of the Berlin literary scene. The inclusion of writers like Vanderbeke make one question the criteria for selection of writers in this book, at least as far as “new” writers and members of the “Fräuleinwunder” group are concerned.

Eleven Portraits

The life stories featured in this anthology are fascinating. The biographies testify to the difficulties that these women writers experienced in exploring their creativity and to make it their own, to find their own style. One cannot but notice that many of them work in different media. Author Tanja Langer, for example, used to be involved in the free theatre scene in Berlin for many years, and Jenny Erpenbeck continues to direct operas. Some of the writers work in journalism, as fiction writing only rarely covers their living expenses.

The writers´ biographies are as diverse as their artistic interests. Only few of them have been writers from the start, like Zoë Jenny, who says “Writing is my life. It is everything” (p. 56). She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer, as did Grit Poppe, who wanted to be a writer since she was twelve. Poppe prepared for this line of work by participating in creative writing workshops that were available to GDR youth, and later studied literature at the university in Leipzig. When reading the different biographies, it becomes evident that participating in seminars for creative writing, in competitions, writing grants, and scholarships can help advance one’s career, as they help create networks that are important when searching to publish one’s manuscript.

However, not all authors were inspired to write by their childhood dreams and goals. Author Stefanie Kremser feels torn between two cultures. She used to commute between Sao Paolo, her home of twelve years, the Bolivian highlands, where her grandparents live, and Germany. Kremser drew on the tensions that tied her to these different places in writing a novel which talks about Brasil and about different cultures. To Kremser, language and writing become important modes of expressing herself.

Unlike Kremser, Felicitas Hoppe uses the medium language in order to “change reality as she experiences it” (p. 45) into surreal and bizarre images. Kathrin Röggla, too, uses language in an experimental way in order to question the “world in an open and provocative way” (p. 106). This occurs through engaging with others and, as all eleven writers agree, withdrawing into oneself. The latter can take very different forms. Hoppe and Vanderbeke write on notepads and do not take any notes. Langer or Poppe, both of whom have children, are forced to write during set hours. Some prefer writing in the morning, others in the evening or at night. As manifold as the motivations and everyday lives of the authors are the topics featured in their work. These go much further than merely developing “great emotions.” Langer intensively and critically writes about National Socialism, Poppe and Vanderbelt write about current discourses and understand their work as an active contribution to these discourses.

The “Fräuleinwunder”

Intense experiences with the publishing industry and one’s own success as a writer are recurrent issues.

Herrman talks about the balancing act between her personal life and public persona, she often withdraws from public life because success and fame came to her quickly. Franck, too, talks about the difficulties in maintaining this balance between one’s personal life and one’s publicity as a writer. Zoë Jenny does not want to be reduced to a “Fräuleinwunder,” but wants to be credited for the literary value of her work. When talking about their experiences with the publishing industry, several authors mention that they have felt discriminate against based on their gender. According to their experiences, men’s writing and women’s writing is not judged based on the same criteria. Women’s writing is often labelled as less literary, and easily classified as “women’s literature.” The authors agree that it is not worth wasting one’s time and energy fighting these structures, what is important is one’s writing – even if being a writer is not all the fun it is often believed to be. Writing is hard work, exhausting, difficult, lonely, isolating, and time-consuming.

Their literary success is impressive, though. Many of the writers portrayed in this book have been awarded prestigious prizes, and their books sell so well that some of them can afford to write full time. Their novels and short stories are definitely worth checking out, as they cover a large variety of styles, topics, images, motives, and characters.

This commendable book by Eden, published in an appealing edition by edition ebersbach, portrays a self-confident generation of women writers. Unfortunately, the author’s attempts at creating a “literary” atmosphere in describing her interviewees occasionally take away from her otherwise good writing.

URN urn:nbn:de:0114-qn032050

Dr. Mechthilde Vahsen

Universität Paderborn, FB Allgemeine Literaturwissenschaften, Forschungsschwerpunkt: Literaturwissenschaften und historische Frauenforschung

E-Mail: vahsen@hrz.upb.de

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