Where did you learn how to write?

Josef HaslingerJosef Haslinger (b.1955 in Zwettl, Austria). Essayist, novelist and playwright, often concerned with controversial topics in the contemporary political landscape. Opernball (1995), a best-seller in Germany, was translated into thirteen languages and adapted for television. Das Vaterspiel (2000) portrays Holocaust survivors and perpetrators living in the United States.Since 1996 professor of literary aesthetics at the Leipzig Institute of Literature in Germany.

Photograph by David Wilder

Sometimes, when it comes up that I teach literary writing at the University of Leipzig, I'm asked in an ironic voice: “And who taught you how to write?” And I answer: “Gustav Ernst.” Normally people look at me with bafflement because they don't know Gustav Ernst. But I insist on this answer because I have learned more from Gustav Ernst than from any other writer in the world. Gustav Ernst was the editor of the Viennese literary magazine “Wespennest,” “a magazine for usable texts,” as it said in the subtitle. This is where I published my first literary text in the early seventies.

Every writer, I believe, remembers how it felt when he handed over a text for the very first time. But the strange thing is that a text, as soon as one makes the effort of getting it published, gains a completely different significance, a different status. What the author has put into the text seems to recede into the background, and the perspective shifts to what others might get out of it. The mirror of the reader edges in between the writer and his text, so to speak. It is still perfectly possible to maintain one's own relationship to the text, but what appears in the mirror, the way a possible or actual reader might understand the text, cannot be ignored anymore. It becomes part of the text.

With the effort to get a text published, writing gains a new dimension of seriousness. Suddenly it may even appear to be a form of impertinence and hubris to expect of people whom one does not even know and probably will never meet that they should read what one has written out for oneself during lonely hours.

A few days after I had sent my first text to the literary magazine “Wespennest,” I received a phone call from Gustav Ernst. He invited me to his apartment in the Josefstädter Strasse where he and his wife, the painter Elisabeth Ernst, ran a jour fixe, a regular monthly meeting for young writers. Elisabeth Ernst was responsible for the layout of the magazine.

The apartment served as editorial bureau, typesetting office, distribution department, typing room and studio all at the same time. One could only move around quite awkwardly because there were obstacles all over the place, and it was only possible to sit down by first shuffling stacks of books, picture frames and shoe cartons – of which there was an awful lot.

Only the magazine's editors and contributors were invited to the jour fixe. The conversations focused on the texts that had already appeared in the magazine, and on books one should or should not read. And lots of people were sharply criticised. Sometimes the conversations developed the features of a theory seminar, which came as no surprise given the fact that several of the editors, myself included, were philosophy students. As I see it today, I had blundered into a “school” of authors in the sense in which one would call artists pursuing the same program a “school.” It was the school of “critical realism.”

The word “critical” was merely the residue of “socially critical,” a notion that had by then already degenerated into an empty pose. “Critical realism” stood, on the one hand, for a leftist political view. On the other, it was a kind of ideological buffer against “socialist realism.” The “Wespennest”-group did not want the communist doctrine to make demands on their choice of “usable texts.” At the same time, though, they had quite close ties to (at that time) communist- minded authors such as Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Turrini and Uwe Timm.

Alongside the debates on which texts were “usable” and which were not, Gustav Ernst served beer and wine. On the stove in the kitchen stood a huge pot of Schweinshaxensuppe, ham-hock soup, and if Gustav's mother was visiting Germknödel, steamed fruit dumplings with tremendous amounts of melted butter were served for dessert.

Other than the jour fixe and the editorial board meetings which also took place in his apartment – and later on also in other apartments – I mainly met with Gustav Ernst at Café Hummel. From under the stack of newspapers in front of him he would produce my text in which he had marked certain passages with a pencil. And then he mostly asked questions. In what way does this subplot contribute to the story? Why is this sentence so long? Is it the character or the author that is thinking that? Who is actually talking? Wouldn't it be better to stop here? Or, he would say: go ahead and read that aloud; it sounds strange. Then he would read it out loud himself and it would sound so funny that he would laugh until he had tears in his eyes and the waiter would warily ask him if he would like another cup of coffee.

Back then I discussed all my stories with Gustav Ernst before writing the final version. A few years later I became a member of the “Wespennest”-editorial staff myself, and now also met with authors to talk about their own texts.

The European literary magazines of those days were largely self-help enterprises. They were founded by authors mainly for the purpose of publishing their own texts. Most of these magazines vanished into thin air again very quickly. They never made it beyond just a few issues. As for the others, the ambition grew with the task. And this ambition led straight into the aesthetic debate. The exceptional thing was that editors and collaborators did not, as is the case today, agree on a certain direction the magazine should take. Instead, the authors – who usually didn't make a dime from the magazines themselves – argued their own literary concepts. In the literary magazines the young generation was nourished, and contradictions (and sometimes also the arrogance necessary to make one's voice heard) cherished. But no money was ever made.

The pressure of professionalization has lead to the widespread death of literary magazines. The few that survived were gently taken out of the hands of the authors, mostly by editors – well- meaning rather than wilful – to whom the continuance of the magazine mattered a great deal. As a result, many magazines are nowadays in the position of paying a small, mostly symbolic amount for the publication of a text. But there are almost no aesthetic debates anymore. Those that might still occur every now and then do so under new conditions. First, as is customary among media professionals, a topic is chosen which might find an audience that “likes that sort of thing.” And then they look for people who might have something to say about it. Occasionally, this can be quite interesting but has no longer anything to do with the urge of a writer to draw on his own ideas about life. The editors simply do their job.

The structural change within the sphere of the literary public has left a vacuum. The only thing that ever comes back from a literary magazine anymore are suggestions for corrections of the text, which one may or may not accept. It then goes on to be printed, author copies are sent around, and maybe there is a small reading to go with the presentation of the new issue at a local literary establishment. And here the story ends. No Schweinshaxensuppe, no Germknödel, no grilling questions at Café Hummel. And no-one, either, to explain to you the correct use of the conditional clause.

The authors' reluctance to step in front of their readers without being forearmed has not lessened but rather intensified with the break-up of groups of authors sharing the same aesthetic program. This may be one of the reasons why, in recent years, creative writing in Europe has been able to establish itself as a separate structure, independent from traditional institutions. Literary houses, adult evening classes, literary societies and foundations, and last but not least universities have begun to organize what now hardly ever takes place in magazines and writers' organizations, namely the exchange of experiences between writers and those who want to become writers.

The scepticism towards the idea that one can actually teach someone how to write is a phenomenon specific to continental Europe. One reason for this might be that here there is a more stringent notion of teaching than in Great Britain or the US. Yet literary writing is nothing stringent, but rather something individual, and in addition something questionable. Interestingly, music and fine arts have had their own educational institutions for centuries but not so literature. Writing was considered the work of a genius. Maybe this is so because the idea of genius was formulated most lastingly in literature. But right now, the situation is starting to change completely.

Twenty years ago the Johannes R. Becher Literary Institute eked out a cloistered existence in continental Europe. The next comparable institute was far away, in Moscow. There the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute had been opened in 1933. By 1955, it had become the model for the institute in Leipzig which had a similar organizational structure but was much smaller. With the end of the GDR the Becher Institute had to close its gates, and this, of all times, just when the idea of instruction and further education of writers slowly began to take hold in other European countries. In 1995 the Leipzig institute – now following a concept modelled on the Iowa Writers' Workshop – was reopened again under the name “the Leipzig Institute of German Literature” (‘Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig' or DLL).

Ever since the DLL began to operate as a teaching institution, institutes for creative writing have spring up at a whole host of European universities, for instance in France, Spain, Italy and Sweden. Other institutes, such as the “Josef Skvorecky Writing Academy” in Prague, have been founded as private establishments. It is only a matter of time until the solitary existence of the Leipzig Institute of German Literature will come to an end in the German- speaking countries too. In Vienna the School for Poetry is striving for academic status. In Switzerland, the Art Academy in Bern, the University of Lausanne, the Music and Theater Conservatory in Zurich and the Applied Arts School in Zurich are just starting up a Swiss literary institute.

This has set in motion a new development. In the course of the European educational reform, creative writing is also entering the universities of continental Europe. Literature is no longer only a subject of academic teaching, but also one of its components. While in the past writers – unless they held an academic position in addition to being writers – only became interesting to the universities after their death, they are now not only accepted as members of the academic community, but also have a specific academic task to fulfil, one whose dimensions are only just beginning to take shape within the European education programs.

Some face the term ‘creative writing,' imported from the US and often retained in its English form, as cautiously as if it were nothing less than a new facet of Americanization of European cultures. In doing so they forget that while the term itself may be new, Europe has, at least until quite recently, had its own history of productive literary group engagement of the sort the term refers to. The literary magazines – and to a different extent also writers' groups – were the writing schools of the post-war period. Their decline has awakened the desire to create new institutions where literary experiences can be exchanged.

Translated from German by Sabine Somek

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After Katrina

4.2 Winter 2006

  1. Editorial

  2. Paul Merchant translates

  3. Adrienne Ho translates

  4. Prose Poetry by Mani Rao

  5. Nathalie Stephens

    • Poems
      Introduced by Cole Swensen
  6. Suzana Abspoel Djodjo

    • From Snajper
      Translated from the Croatian by Tomislav Kuzmanovic
  7. On Institutions of Creative Writing

  8. Postcard From New Orleans