‘New Girls on the Block’

An Overview of Contemporary Women’s Writing in Germany

Within a month of the publication of her debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, in January 2010, Helene Hegemann was accused of plagiarism; only a few weeks before she had been heralded as the new Fräuleinwunder (‘Wonder Girl’) of the contemporary literary scene in Germany. Whilst these accusations were subsequently confirmed and an apology issued by the author, Hegemann claimed that her aesthetic strategy merely represented her media-savvy generation’s culture of pop-influenced ‘sampling and mixing’, going on to claim that there is ‘no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity’. Writing in Die Zeit, the journalist Iris Radisch defended Hegemann against the criticism from literary heavyweights Willi Winkler, Jürgen Kaube and Thomas Steinfeld by highlighting the misogynistic language these male critics employed to denigrate Hegemann’s otherwise astonishing literary achievement. Radisch concluded that their critique – and its tone –was prompted by the perception, conscious or not, of Hegemann as an ungovernable threat to the ‘male establishment’. Radisch’s argument that the disparagement of Hegemann’s work was motivated by gender prejudice is a familiar one. Even the praise she received – Fräuleinwunder – was in some ways both defined and limited by discussions of her age (Hegemann was 17 when the novel was published) and gender in much the same way that authors as diverse as Judith Hermann, Julia Franck, Alexa Hennig von Lange, Karen Duve and Juli Zeh – amongst others – were amassed under the same pejorative diminutive in 1999. Any perceptible literary influence in novels by women tends, too, to be viewed as proof that women lack creative literary skill, as in the case of Antonia Baum’s virtuosic debut vollkommen leblos, bestenfalls tot (2011), which was attacked last year by the panel of the Bachmann Prize reading for being nothing more than a poor imitation of Thomas Bernhard.
However, the reception of recent works by women writers in Germany is influenced by more than age-old, industry-wide prejudices concerning the authors’ gender. 2008 saw the publication of three texts which mark a watershed in both feminist thinking and women’s writing in Germany: Wir Alpha-Mädchen (‘We Alpha-Girls’), by Meredith Haaf, Susanne Klingner and Barbara Streidl, Neue Deutsche Mädchen (‘New German Girls’), by Jana Hensel and Elisabeth Raether, and Charlotte Roche’s bestselling debut novel Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands). The first two texts exemplify a recent trend in commercially successful theoretical works which question the relevance of second-wave feminism for young women in present-day Germany, and seek to provide a more authentic account of their experiences and desires. They are particularly critical of Alice Schwarzer, the feminist writer and founder of Emma magazine, and specifically her view of heterosexual sex as a tool for the oppression of women. Roche’s Feuchtgebiete tells the story of the dysfunctional eighteen-year-old Helen, whose troubled childhood acts as a backdrop for her transgressive, graphically-depicted sexual adventures and intimate descriptions of her bodily functions. The spectre of Schwarzer haunts both Feuchtgebiete and Schoßgebete (‘Lap Prayers’, 2011), Roche’s equally revelatory second novel, whose central protagonist advocates regular, joint visits to brothels and shared porn viewings for maintaining healthy marital relations. Indeed, Roche’s protagonists take pleasure in imagining Schwarzer’s displeasure at those moments when they engage in transgressive sexual acts, or acts which entail the sexual subordination of the female character. In fact, Roche’s novels form part of a recent group of fictitious and autobiographical works which grapple with the issue of female sexual subordination from a revisionist perspective: Katja Oskamp’s Hellersdorfer Perle (2010) champions the potential of S&M for female erotic fulfilment, and Sonia Rossi’s Fucking Berlin (2010) is an autobiographical account of a student turning to prostitution reminiscent of Dr Brooke Magnanti’s Belle de Jour blog, which emerged in Britain in 2003 and went on to be serialised in both book form and on television. What connects these texts, apart from their erotic emphasis, is their troubled relationship with second-wave feminism. This aspect also links them to the less commercial, more experimental works of Hegemann and Baum, which depict the psychological distress their female protagonists experience in a society where second-wave feminism has failed to provide an alternative to the mainstream, male-dominated culture they seek – and often struggle – to reject. Whilst Roche and Oskamp celebrate a return to what might be considered pre-feminist sexual relations, writers such as Hegemann and Baum question the possibility of finding meaning in this way, equating the relentless pursuit of sexual gratification with the superficial highs obtained through drugs, self-harm or consumerism, themes which feature heavily in these two writers’ works.
All of these texts employ intensely intimate first-person narratives -even the two theoretical texts mentioned above use autobiographical strategies to enhance the sense of their authenticity. Alexa Hennig von Lange’s most recent novel, Peace (2009), is a notable exception in that von Lange creates a young male protagonist to act as a mouthpiece for her humorous critique of the ’68 generation and the second-wave emancipatory project. Furthermore, they are all embedded in hyper-real settings, and their authors scatter the paraphernalia of popular-culture throughout their texts, from media personalities to clubs, films, television programmes and everyday consumer products and brands; Baum and Hegemann even replicate email and text message exchanges within their books. In this way, they not only enhance the authentic resonance of their work, but also align themselves with a mode of popular writing -or pop-literature - still dubbed ‘Trivialliteratur’ (trivial literature) by some elite guardians of the German literary tradition.
There is a sense, then, that these young women seek to provide their readers with an authentic representation of what it means to be a young woman in Germany today from young women’s perspective. The manner in which Roche’s novels have been attacked for their vulgarity, or the way Hegemann’s misdemeanour was publicised are examples of the fact that these experiences, and the ways in which they are related, may at times be at odds with – even pose a threat to the mores of the literary establishment.
However, most of these novels – and the theoretical works - have also been viewed critically by renowned feminist commentators (see, for example, Alice Schwarzer’s repost to ‘New Girl Feminism’ in her 2008 text, Die Antwort (‘The Response’)). They are therefore either condemned by the literary establishment for being nothing more than German versions of the lucrative British ‘chick-lit’ model, or dismissed by older feminists as examples of the successful internalisation of the anti-feminist backlash in an entire generation of young women. It is certainly the case that these young writers focus on concerns which contrast with their feminist forbears’ and some may have a more relaxed approach to commercialism, but their texts nevertheless demonstrate that young women writers are still greatly invested in exploring the social issues confronting young women in a climate that differs greatly from that in which second-wave feminism arose. Ironically, the strategy of obtaining authenticity through narrative intimacy, which I mentioned above, places these contemporary authors on at least one continuum with certain second-wave feminist writers, such as Verena Stefan, who viewed literary identification as a strategy for consciousness-raising. Perhaps more extreme in the current climate is the risk that the contemporary novels’ potential political impact becomes undermined by the media’s tendency to conflate (female) author and protagonist, a phenomenon especially apparent in the reception of Roche and Hegemann’s works: the novels become ‘autobiographical’, speaking of one woman’s experience and not of on-going, wider social issues. What makes these novels part of a particularly fascinating phase in contemporary women’s writing, therefore, is their apparent drive to distance themselves from both the traditionally male literary establishment and feminism as it has become established in Germany. It will be interesting to monitor the impetus of this drive over the course of the next decade.
Emily Spiers is writing a thesis at Oxford University on contemporary writing by British and German female writers.

Several of the novels cited in this article have been reviewed in NBG:
Helene Hegemann, Axolotl Roadkill Antonia Baum, vollkommen leblos, bestenfalls tot

Katja Oskamp, Hellersdorfer Perle Charlotte Roche, Schoβgebete