THE MOBILE WRITING DESK
When I was fifteen, I wanted to become a writer because I imagined that I
would be able to stay at home at my writing desk and organize all the
confusing disorder in my head by putting it down on paper. Spitzweg's
picture of the lonely writer in the quiet garret continues to influence me
and those of my generation. I could never have imagined to what extent
authors – those who have really made writing their profession and main
source of income – are, or have to be, public figures. The writer's daily
business nowadays is made up of television appearances, radio interviews,
portaits on web magazines, readings, photo shoots, talks with pupils and
students, discussion panels, debates at home or overseas – and also:
writing in foreign places, living and working with a mobile desk.
More and more writers in Germany are earning a living with scholarships.
Foundations, associations, institutions – wealthy individuals, too –
invite writers to work far away from their own writing desk. Concepts and
terms such as "grant-hopper", "writer-tourists" and "scholarship-existence"
are already rampant. But how does one explain this increase in the number
of scholarships, who really benefits from them, and what does this writing
"on the road" mean with regard to literary creativity?
Ever since Reunification the profession of writer has become enormously
popular in Germany. Mind: not literature as such, but the profession of
writer. Literati have been turned into celebrities. Where the figure of
"the writer" in the 70s and 80s was still mainly embodied by such sullen
old men like Handke and Grass (they always seemed to have been old) and
where fashion-conscious writers such as Rainald Götz were rather singular
exceptions, in the nineties a group of young writers (men and women)
emerged, for whom literature and fashion, writing and worldliness,
introverted writing and extroverted appearances no longer excluded one
another. Writers were discovered and marketed by the media in unprecedented
ways. At the end of the nineties, two writers even modelled for the clothes
company Peek & Cloppenburg. This development was favoured by the New
Economy bubble in which nineties Germany found itself at the time. Never
before was so much advertising money poured into books, audio CDs and
similar products. Many publishers explained the more aggressive advertising
of writers by claiming that the cost of foreign, in particular
English-language titles had become too expensive for them, and that they
thus preferred to build up German authors and publicise their books.
Suddenly it became more attractive for many cities and municipalities, but
also for institutions and foundations, to show off their own resident
writer. What many writers saw as an altruistic invitation was often in fact
nothing but a clever advertising campaign for the host. Of course there are
also long-standing institutions with long traditions of endowments.
Important houses such as the Künstlerhaus Lukas in Ahrenshoop or
Wiepersdorf (near Berlin) have often been threatened with closure because
of financial straits and cuts in funds, or have actually had to shelve
their scholarship programmes temporarily. And yet a writer will still
function as a billboard for many hosts. Before accepting a grant, very few
writers ask themselves whether they can really identify with the
institution in question. And yet their name will later appear in its
publications, on its website and so on. Publishing houses too advertise the
number and renown of scholarships which a writer has received. Many
publishers welcome endowment-sponsored publications as free advertising for
Moreover, many scholarship announcements are marked by an unpleasant
didactic tone: writers are seen as poor little lambs, who should be
grateful to be offered a bed, a table and a lamp and to be moved to a "new"
and "exciting" environment. In other words, most hosts assume that writers
lead solitary existences, live as bachelors, don't have children, don't
have favourite meals, don't have allergies, can live and work in any
climate and – although one actually denies them any form of sensibility
– react quite indifferently to their surroundings, the furniture, the
layout, the temporary workplace, the new writing desk, etc.
One problem is the selection of writers. Many heads of institutions based
abroad – such as the Goethe institutes – have been living outside
Germany for so long that they lack a close view of the literary business
and can't judge whether authors are worthy of being invited or not. Their
choices are based on the cultural pages of the big newspapers and on
recommendations. I was thus once invited to Sao Paulo with a book entitled
"Café Brazil" – the book referred, however, to a café by this name in
Berlin. Nevertheless, I took pleasure in the trip to Brasil.
Because of the distance to the motherland and its literary scene, there
often emerges a kind of Feuilletonliteratur propaganda, i.e. literature
dictated by the major papers's cultural pages. Only those writers get
invited, and thus get chosen as unofficial representatives of Germany, whom
a few literary popes and cultural tsars have already blessed at home with a
seal of approval. This can lead to a certain monotony, lopsidedness and
boredom in programmes. But the major problem with what at first sight
appears to be such generous scholarships is the fact that writers are
expected to do two things during their stay which, however, positively
exclude one another: to write a crowning new work – and to show a
barely-contained interest in their new surroundings, their new fellow-men,
the other country (for overseas scholarships); one should even follow a
language course, no: one should already have followed one, at home… and
of course, during the stay one shouldn't keep on spinning some old yarn,
but one should get "inspired" by the new surroundings. The host, of course,
would like to be able to say about the new bestseller: "This book could not
have been written without our scholarship".
That explains the endower's preference for applications which clearly refer
to the writer's interest in this or that specific place. Were a writer to
be honest and simply write that "at home the phone keeps ringing, the
neighbours are at the front door and the kid is getting on my nerves: I
just need a four-week break, to finish off the novel", he or she certainly
would not get the coveted scholarship.
The endowers's longing for texts written in situ is all the more absurd
when one considers that very few scholarships extend over a period of two
or three months. Even half a year is not enough to write a novel set in
Paris, New York, Berlin or Schöppingen (in Nordrhein Westfalen). In other
words, following on the end of the scholarship, the writer is expected to
keep travelling, which is both costly and expensive, and this at his or her
Writers are often asked to write an essayistic or journalistic piece about
their place of residence. This is often the case with scholarships for
urban writers. And the task is often so demanding that the writer can
hardly put his own work first. There are endowers who ask for reports on
one or other "regional event" twice a week. These are almost always
contributions which the author will never be able to put to any other use.
The writer is often legally bound to the host and can't use the text
elsewhere (albeit for a limited period of time).
A further problem is the fact that many writers no longer write novels on
subjects with which they really wish to get to grips – instead, they
reside in places and countries which they otherwise, without the
invitation, would never have visited. In turn this is reflected in their
choice of subject, their research possibilities, and thus in their artistic
output. This might be described as a "friendly takeover" since of course no
writer is obliged to accept a scholarship or get inspired by a place, but
financial, geographic or institutional circumstances often impose this.
Endowers are usually very proud when authors refer to the place where they
wrote. They seem to ignore that one could also see this as a form of latent
manipulation – in particular, when the demand is made for texts relating
to the region etc. They quite enjoy their role of patron of the arts.
It is desirable that writers and intellectuals go abroad, but at the same
time one can't expect them to act as politicians, as junior ministers of
foreign affairs. There has been a growing tendency recently to view writers
as substitutes for an authority lacking in other fields – primarily
politics and religion. In recent years, with their rise to the status of
media celebrities, writers have been expected to be able to answer all
questions about life. Politicians, entrepreneurs, clergymen have suffered a
loss of credibility in recent years. But writers are expected to have a
direct, intuitive connection to the universe, to all unanswered questions.
The priests of today are artists, who, after their readings, get to hear
lifestories, private dramas and long confessions.
How can we prevent war in future?
How can we put an end to the war of the sexes?
When will the Germans really put the trauma of the Second World War behind
Why is there never peace in the powderkeg of the Middle East? Why, Frau
When, do you think, is God going to experience a real renaissance?
Do you believe that atheists are cynics? Considering how distant to the
world artists are, are they cynics?
How is the dialogue between cultures, which is increasingly turning into a
clash of cultures, going to develop in the coming decades?
What do you think of Putin's Russia? Please, Frau Dückers, what can one do
for the freedom of the press there? Please, I'm anxious to hear what you
have to say!
And what do you think of the "Aggressive Far East"? Will my daughter have
to learn Chinese?
What's your opinion on man's ability to forgive?
Are you afraid of death?
In the past years I was asked these and many other questions by expectant
But of course, many institutions want to take advantage of the contemporary
glorification of artists. There is what has to be described as a naive
confidence in the belief that writers can say something interesting about
every city, every region, every country, every history. One gets invited to
old trainstations and abandoned industrial regions, to lonely islands and
to big cities: and everywhere one is expected to be both sociologist and
seismologist, both political analyst and historian, and to be able to
understand and clearly convey the essence of a place. It's plain
infotainment that the writer is expected to deliver. No one wants to read
– nor have to sell – the thick history books or the specialized
sociological studies which abound in every region. The author should
deliver a few impressions in an easily readable form which each and every
one can appropriate.
One should remember that fifty years ago neither Thomas nor Heinrich Mann,
neither Bertolt Brecht nor Lion Feuchtwanger wrote about California – the
state which was their refuge during their exile from the Nazi terror. They
all wrote either about Germany or about their specific experience of exile.
They produced essays, but neither novels nor plays relating to their new
home. It isn't so easy to write about a country in which one is a
foreigner, or remains one. The question as to how one could be in a
position to portray or capture in writing a region or a country after a
three-month scholarship remains open.
Germans are still number one as regards travelling. The combination of bad
weather, long winters and high income seems to spur Germans on to this
mobility. Perhaps there is here in Germany a particular interest in texts
written from the traveller's point of view, from the point of view of the
one who's abroad, because so many Germans can share this experience. There
is hardly a single German student who has not spent at least one term
abroad. This would still be seen as something quite exceptional in other
countries, even within Europe. And there's no other country with so many
prizes and scholarships for writers. Not only Germans, but German writers
too travel more than their colleagues in other countries. Whether one likes
it or not, it is thus that only a literature of breathlessness, of
transitoriness, of transit can be commissioned. Perhaps one should describe
the literature of recent years, which is set overseas, as transit writing
or as travel writing. Or perhaps as snapshot literature.
I once had a very positive experience: I had been invited to Israel by the
Kulturstiftung der Länder. When I returned from the Negev desert, where I
had spoken to Bedouins, Professor Frank Stern came to me and said: "Please
do me a big favour: after your trip, try not to write a novel about
© Tanja Dückers (2006)