Readux: Reading in Berlin

Adrian Pasen chats to Amanda DeMarco, founder of German literature portal Readux…

Amanda DeMarco of Readux

For English-speaking literary fiends in Berlin, there’s no denying the growing number of English-language outlets, events, and emerging writers to satisfy even the most particular of tastes.

It’s comforting and insular, but precludes full integration into the local German culture, for whom literature has always played such a vibrant and integral role. A wealth of fantastic German and international literature goes sorely undiscovered by the growing number of English speakers in Berlin, and it’s a dire situation that Readux founder Amanda DeMarco is hoping to rectify.

Readux, in its own words, aims to “give books or events a second life in English,” providing a rich forum of English language information on local book culture and literary issues you likely won’t find anywhere else.

With its unique mix of reviews of German (and international titles in German and French translation) literature, travelogues, literary criticisms and events to keep an eye out for, Readux is providing a a unique niche service all its own and one that’s been a long time coming. We spoke to all-around literary connoisseur extraordinaire Amanda DeMarco in the hopes of learning bit more about this amazing initiative and perhaps discovering a hitherto unknown gem for ourselves.

What factors inspired you to create the site? How did its unique niche mandate come to be?

I had been living in Berlin for about a year and a half, working as a writer, editor, and translator. I write for a number of venues about English books and German book business, but really had no opportunity to write about German books as such. Which was really sad because they’re the most interesting part of my life! Readux was formed to give me (and others) a place to talk about the literature we were engaging most actively with.

What factors do you think contribute to Germany (and Berlin in particular) being such a vibrant literary and reading culture, particularly in a flagging economy? What keeps the culture so rich and a part of the overall consciousness?

The German government does a great job supporting its literature, but German literature also does a great job supporting itself! German publishers’, writers’, and translators’ organizations are wonderfully proactive and professional. Most importantly, Germans read a lot; it’s just a part of their culture. Look around on the subway. Ever been in a German family’s house? There’s probably a shelf in the living room full of hardcover books. Reading is massively important to cultural identity here. As for Berlin, say what you will about gentrification but the rents are still pretty damn low, and that continues to attract writers — and publishers too. The history, of course, has some romance to it — not just because of the wall, Berlin’s grittiness predates all that. It’s long been a place writers come to. Finally, it’s sooo international.

Can you tell us a bit about the fixed-price system of books?

When a German publisher publishes a book, they are allowed to determine the price at which it will be sold. That means a supermarket or Amazon can’t sell a new book any cheaper than a small independent bookstore. This is why Germany has such an incredible bookstore culture, and also why the service is so good; if you can’t compete on price, you have to distinguish yourself by how well you treat your customers.

When a German publisher publishes a book, they are allowed to determine the price at which it will be sold. That means a supermarket or Amazon can’t sell a new book any cheaper than a small independent bookstore. This is why Germany has such an incredible bookstore culture, and also why the service is so good…

The motivation behind fixed pricing is that books are different from other products; their accessibility and diversity is important to the culture, so certain protections are given to the book industry that are not given to, say, the fashion industry. Here’s a quote from an article I wrote that explains Preisbindung’s machinations as well as I can: “To have a variety of books, a variety of publishers is necessary; a large number of independent bookstores willing to stock titles from small and large presses alike is necessary for such a variety of publishers to thrive; and a fixed price system is needed to protect those bookstores, publishers, and ultimately authors.” (“Swiss to Reinstated Fixed Book Prices,” Publishing Perspectives, 31.3.11).

The US never had such a system. The UK abolished it in 1997, and you can see the advances chain stores have made there. I don’t doubt that the system will run into troubles in Germany sooner or later, since flexible pricing has become an important tool for selling e-books, and since it has been contested to varying degrees in other EU countries.

Similarly, can you offer any insight as to why there’s such a rich international presence in titles translated into German compared to the relative bottleneck of great new international translations into English?

This is a very troubling question, and one that is often oversimplified. A few factors: In America, publishers think that people don’t want to read translations, which is sadly true to a degree. Germany is relatively free of this silly superstition, possibly because they’re used to interacting with other languages.

English already contains a far greater diversity of writers than German, and there’s a sense, right or wrong, that translation isn’t as ‘needed’ in it. If a German-speaker wants to read a novel from another continent, it’s got to be translated. Editors at German publishing houses also speak more languages than their American counterparts, which increases German translation since American editors are understandably reluctant to publish a book they can’t read.

German publishers can afford translations, which are slightly more expensive to produce and pose difficulties in promoting (because the author presumably is in another country). US publishers, through a mixture of irresponsibility and awful luck, are not in a position to take many risks. Germans are better equipped.

More than half of all German translations come from English. This tells us more about Germans’ notion of English media supremacy than anything about their ‘openness’ to translation. Finally, there are many great publishers of translations in English: Seagull Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Archipelago Books, Open Letter Books, And Other Stories, Peirene Press, Europa Editions, New Directions, Amazon Crossings…

Where do you source your new finds and intimate insider information? Are there any general criteria that determine what you’re reading or following at any given point?

To be honest, a lot of it is boring legwork that anyone could do if they had the time and patience. I scour publishers’ catalogs and press releases. I read a variety of industry publications. I check out literature programs and events whenever I can. But, of course, I have developed contacts that are very helpful. Plus, sometimes I’m researching an article for another venue and I stumble across something for Readux, or someone emails me out of the blue with an idea. I always have 10,000 more ideas than time to implement them.

General criteria? Well other than my own taste, I pay special attention to independent publishers and magazines, which are under-reported on but often publish interesting, risky writing. I provide suggestions to Readux contributors, but they tend to do whatever interests them, which results in better pieces anyway.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to Berlin in the first place? How did you initially get involved in the local book culture?

I was working for a US publisher when I got a Fulbright Grant. I had a business contact at Aufbau Verlag in Berlin, which allowed me to help out in their foreign rights office for the duration of my grant. That was a hugely eye-opening experience, and one I’m very grateful for. I basically spent a year silently observing and internalizing as much of their business culture as I could. Since then I’ve been writing, translating, and editing. I’ve also taught and continue to volunteer in a wealthy Grundschule and a majority-immigrant Gymnasium, which has been indispensable for my understanding of how a very broad swath of Germans approach reading, language, etc.

Did you experience any difficulties ingratiating yourself and gaining a foothold in said publishing culture?

Yes, I find German publishing culture much more closed and professionalized than many other countries’, which makes it much harder for an outsider to gain access. But that’s also what makes it so strong, and I’ve come to appreciate its, um, colder side.

But language barriers in and of themselves should not serve as a barrier to accessing this wealth of undiscovered literature you bring to light…

Just because many English-speakers here don’t read German well doesn’t mean that we should treat German literature like it doesn’t exist. That’s a lowest-common-denominator approach that I don’t like. Not reading German books doesn’t make you lazy or immoral or culturally incompetent, but you should know that you’re missing a rather large slice of German culture.

I noticed that the site also occasionally offers up nuggets from faraway and exotic locales like Rabat. Is there a strict mandate for your travelogue content as well?

I travel a lot, and if I see something great, I’ll write about it. Readux’s ethos is all about specialized knowledge and personal engagement, so I often don’t feel I have the right connection to cover non-German things. (e.g. I recently spent some time in Copenhagen but didn’t write about it.) But in other cases, it just clicks. Either I read the literature in its native language (French in Rabat), or in translation (German in Reykjavik). In the case of Rabat, I traveled through several touristy cities in Morocco, then left the beaten path and suddenly found myself in an incredible cultural ferment in Rabat — bookstores, theaters, cinemas…and citizens eager to talk to me about them! I would have been crazy not to write about it!

Berlin, sowjetische Buchhandlung

What are some of your most recent recommendations? Authors that we should absolutely get to know?

As you might guess from Germans’ enthusiasm for translation, some of the best new books in German aren’t German books at all. Because of its status as Guest of Honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair, in the past year Germany has published 177 (!) Icelandic books. Try Nordic-Prize-Winner Gyrðir Elíasson, the richly noirish Indriði G. Thorsteinsson, or the down-to-earth yet heartrending sensitivity of banking-crisis whiz-kid Guðmundur Óskarsson. Icelandic literature has made such a splash here, you’ll actually be learning something about current German literary culture by reading it!

For those who can’t read German, Max Frisch is a widely-translated Swiss author to try. 2011 was Frisch’s 100th birthday, and Germans go crazy for literary anniversaries, so it’ll give you a glimpse into a current literary discussion, even if Frisch himself is a classic. Check out novels like Montauk or Homo Faber, which are short, readable explorations of western manhood in the 20th century.

Having navigated the maze yourself, what would be your advice on how readers/English speakers/expats might themselves more deeply engage in the local book culture?

Spend half an hour in a bookstore every now and then. I recommend Hundt Hammer Stein or ebertundweber, but there are countless little gems. Look at all of the books on the front table. Notice how cover design is different here? Talk to the person working there. Your German isn’t great? Tell them that and they’ll help you find something. Or just ask how business is going.

Even a small German bookstore will have an English-language section, and you might be surprised at what Germans are attuned to. For instance, Brett Easton Ellis (Less than Zero, American Psycho) was never exactly a literary idol in the American circles I ran in, but he’s a darling of German readers — go figure! Berlin also has great English bookshops. You can read more about them here

What are some of the most exciting things on your radar in the coming months?

I recently braved the mania of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book industry event that took place from October 12—17. A very important event for foreign rights or any kind of international collaboration. I think the coming months will be a really exciting time for digitalization in Germany, which up to now has been a bit slow moving. I believe that readers are just as important as writers in any literary culture, and I’m positively giddy about observing (and writing about) how e-reading effects the book world here.

Readux is always looking for new contributors, especially those passionate and confident about a certain area or preferred subject matter (Swiss or Austrian literature, fantasy/sci-fi, Arabic-German translation, whatever). Although content scope and format is negotiable, Amanda adds that being “quick-witted and well-read” are, quite fittingly, not. Have a long peruse for yourself at www.readux.net.

 

 

 

 

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