Literature Houses in Germany

By Rainer Moritz

It is the most natural thing in the world for German-language authors to be invited to read from their new work to an interested public for anything up to an hour. This tradition may seem as old and steady as the hills to them, but strikes writers from France or the Anglo-American world as astonishing – ‘classical’ readings of this ilk are a rarity in those places where signings or general discussions about new work tend to be the norm.
Readings are held in a wide variety of locations in Germany, from bookshops and theatres to academies, schools or clubs. From the mid-1980s, however, one venue has become the epitome of the ideal forum for literary happenings: the ‘Literaturhaus’ (‘Literature House’). First came Berlin in 1987 and its form has been emulated since in a number of cities and larger towns. Although – scandalously – only recently entered in the Duden German dictionary*, the concept has in some ways developed into a brand. It even prompted the new establishment in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen to retain the German name ‘Literaturhaus’ in its title – evidence of the concept having connotations of a specific content.
In 1982, eight of the large Literature Houses – in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig, Hamburg and, in Austria, Salzburg – formed a group ( to bring more focus to the significance and impact of the establishments. They join forces for reading tours or other literary initiatives such as the poster campaign ‘Poetry in the City’ and the network has also become a media partner for the German-French television station ARTE. Three more houses – in Zurich, Graz and Rostock – look set to follow suit. In spite of this close collaboration, each Literature House is independent and maintains its individuality in terms of programming and priorities. However, they do share two common aims. Firstly, Literature Houses are there to become the literary heart of their town and to reach beyond it through their events, both national and international. Secondly, all Literature Houses regard as part of their remit the maintaining of a certain distance from the economic laws of the market, thus paving the way for the literature that places quality above commerce, literature that veers from the mainstream. In other words, Literature Houses are also there to draw attention to what may be overlooked or otherwise marginalised, to introduce their audience to authors and works exploring new terrain through experimental and avantgarde forms that are perhaps less immediately accessible. At the same time, the majority of houses are keen to expand beyond the fare of new publications and host evenings of ‘literary history’ which recall writers who risk being consigned to oblivion.
The first director of the Hamburg Literature House, Christine Weiss (later the State Minister for Culture), lent deliberate breadth to her definition: ‘The Literature House is a forum where literature can be encountered in all its forms, all it is in the present, and all it represented in the past.’ The word encounter is particularly pertinent here. For every Literature House has a role to fulfil as the venue for encounters, for literary exchange and for cultural and aesthetic debate. And so it is not enough to sign up well-known authors for readings – they have to become veritable hubs of literary life. Which is why quite a few of the larger houses have a restaurant or bookshop on the premises – it is these partnerships that encourage people to linger and create an atmosphere of friendly conversation after the readings.
What comprises good literature and bad cannot, thankfully, be calculated mathematically or ‘proved’. It is this that renders the work of Literature Houses so appealing and goes some way to explaining the vivid palette of literary offerings in the face of any current general trend. Opinions can differ widely and intelligently as regards the quality of novels and poetry. It is not for the directors of the Literature Houses to dictate answers to questions of aesthetic judgement. They do, however, focus attention and invite their audience to consider what works well and less well in literature.
Literature needs young blood; which is why many Literature Houses have made it their job to offer a rich array of events for children and young adults. Anyone who can read should consider a Literature House their natural stomping ground where they can grapple with what it is that makes literature unique. Alongside book afternoons for young readers from the age of six upwards, some of the Houses offer an increasing range of writing workshops and creative-writing seminars for budding writers under the tutelage of professionals where they can explore the nuts and bolts of writing step by step.
Seen in this light, Literature Houses do much more than simply showcase what’s hot off the press, however important that undoubtedly is. The writers who appear in the houses represent contemporary literary life and, subsequently, the cultural variety of Germany. How natural, then, that the Literature Houses regularly tap into the central cultural debates of the day and invite speakers who eloquently expound their point of view at panel discussions. And wherever the premises allow – in Munich, for example, or Berlin or Frankfurt – the Literature Houses also present exhibitions in homage to individual writers or literary themes.
Such an extensive literary programme requires money. And so, unavoidably, financial questions are a vital component of the Literature Houses’ work. While the majority receive assistance from the state – Hamburg Literaturhaus, for example, sees around a fifth of its annual budget covered by subsidies from the Cultural Department of the City of Hamburg – it takes considerable effort to cope with the rising costs of fees, travel and accommodation as well as the maintenance of the buildings. Some, Munich for example, are set up as foundations, others supported principally by an association and its members. Nor is it rare for there to be additional private supporters and patrons, individuals who have recognised that literature is not merely the icing on the everyday cake, but provides fundamental ‘nourishment’ that shapes the weal and woe of a nation’s culture. And sometimes Literature Houses are themselves in a position to be financial patrons of literature. Once a year the institutions that comprise the award the Literature Houses’ Prize, worth €8,000: this commends a particular work but also the performance, the ‘public reading skills’ of an author. Previous prize-winners include Ulrike Draesner, Peter Kurzeck, Sybille Lewitscharoff, Michael Lentz and Anselm Glück. For in Literature Houses bards step out of their studies, leave behind the protected haven of their laptops. Here they come into contact with their readers, and it is here that novels and short stories suddenly take on a life not attainable through private reading alone. The more open a Literature House can be, therefore, the less elitist its programme, the greater the chances of convincing people of the necessity of literature. This is what gives Literature Houses their right to exist.
* the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary
Translated by Rebecca Morrison
Rainer Moritz
is director of the Literature House in Hamburg. He is also a member of the jury for this year’s German Book Prize.