European Literature Days 2010
Between 23 and 26 September 2010, the Wachau region in Austria will become a centre for European literature.
Under an initiative by the European literature portal, Readme.cc, the European Literature Days 2010 will take place there.
Bringing together authors, musicians, scientists, journalists and cultural decision-makers as never before, the festival will foster link-building across national borders through literary exchange.
The festival will be held for the second time in 2010. The chief patron of the European Literature Days 2010 is the governor of Niederösterreich Dr. Erwin Pröll.
- 1 What do national borders mean for literary production?
- 2 How can literatures coincide beyond linguistic borders?
- 3 Where is the European literary marketplace headed?
- 4 What form will the book of the future take?
How significant are national boundaries for literary writing?
“Nowadays, national literature doesn’t mean much: the age of world literature is beginning, and everybody should contribute to hasten its advent.” Goethe’s famous remark was made in his ‘Conversations with Eckermann’. They inspired French author, Mathias Enard, to suggest at the 2009 European Literature Days that the political image of Europe is also a basic outcome of literary as well as intellectual reflections. According to Enard, literature helps us reflect on our identity, name and position in a world that is in constant motion. Here, he refers to a 19th century narrative by a Syrian nobleman who was distracted in a splendidly light-hearted fashion by the question of where he came from and who he was: “I am only what they say I am, and therefore no more than words in mid-air.”
Goethe was convinced of great works of literature gaining influence beyond national boundaries, and thus becoming part of humanity’s heritage. His conception of ‘Weltliteratur’ implied man’s curiosity to learn about other literary cultures as an appreciation of one’s own culture and shared values.
Authors and writers from smaller countries and with minority languages are especially interested whenever their books are translated or sold in other languages. Not forgetting economic factors, literary translations currently play a key role in the general promotion of European cultural exchange. Literary translations also help writers attract a wider audience for their literary output. The question for the European Literature Days 2010 is therefore to what extent crossing borders inspires the writing process?
Literature is written to be read. It aims to create space for debate – especially across national boundaries. The Slovenian poet, Ales Šteger, remarked: “We Europeans should and ought not to think alike, and nor should we feel the same way or believe in the same things. It is, however, of the utmost importance for us to share some of our dreams.” Do authors have such a utopian ideal of mutual exchange in mind when they write? Or does their work entirely focus on the personal process of thinking and feeling – in the hope of attracting a wider audience? At least, one thing seems certain, as Šteger also commented: utopian ideals established in numerous different locations are “one of Europe’s most cohesive forces”.
Literature has a major role to play in this vision.
How do literatures meet beyond linguistic boundaries?
Apart from the annual hype surrounding the latest Nobel Laureate, literature is still part of a national agenda attracting limited interest in the relevant province. The literary scholar and academic, Jürgen Ritte, proposed this thesis at the European Literature Days in 2009. Accordingly, we distinguish German, French or Italian literature. In multilingual countries – for example, in Switzerland or Belgium – this strict segregation spreads considerable confusion. There is no such thing as ‘Belgian’ literature, and conversely, in Paris, no one takes an interest in the literature of French-speaking Switzerland. Languages assert boundaries which otherwise are also instrumentalized and reinforced for political reasons. Literature and books strive to overcome such aspects, in spite of the availability of industrious and high-calibre translation. In Europe, languages either meet back to back, or they face each other as opponents in the Babylonian negotiation rounds that are Brussels.
Nevertheless, the question of a “European literature” still stands. This is even more the case, for instance, as a derivative of the question about European identity and the enquiry into common values and the roots of European culture. As Jürgen Ritte previously concluded, the experience of two world wars has left literature in a constant process of migration. Books are in any case written in a foreign language, therefore, a secret foundation of European literature exists: foreign culture and foreign languages should be borne in mind as a unifying factor.
On this basis, the European Literature Days 2010 pose the question of how the idioms of different national literatures may meet – in the form of a productive, animated discussion about shared ideals. The vision here is a multilingual cultural space in which national literatures are cultivated and supported. Many authors have long since worked towards this – often as migrants – and they have used their knowledge and linguistic skills to write in several different languages or to mediate between languages through their translations.
While European administrative and economic union is far advanced, European cultural space remains largely fragmented. 50 countries with as many languages face each other with their proud national heritage. In this light, is it possible to spread the word about European literature as defined in terms of the plurality and diversity of Europe‘s literatures, as well as the aesthetic and individual uniqueness of its authors? If translation is a leitmotif for European literature, how can the unique qualities of individual literatures be preserved? Is it possible to imagine something like a European literary marketplace? And what form might this take in practice?
Where is the European literary marketplace going?
At a national and equally at other levels via the European Commission, translation and the promotion of literature is supported in manifold ways. At a national level, in the interest of the respective language and each country’s author, the support mechanisms are meant to open the door to the international market (translations, authors’ tours for readings). At a European level, efforts are being made to enhance awareness of Europe’s linguistic diversity, thus also promoting Europe as a cultural entity. In addition to the translation programme, the European Prize for Literature inaugurated in 2009 primarily follows this scheme: the prize is not awarded to a single author annually, but to 12 authors from 12 different countries. The award-winning authors are selected by a national jury.
Yet can this concept really be successful? The award of the European Prize for Literature oscillates between two poles – a focused and fragmented approach. In the public’s perception, it is difficult to communicate how heterogeneous aspects can also be based on unity.
This also applies to other mechanisms to promote literature. Questions also arise here. How could a European support initiative be reconciled with national policies? Is the European translation programme sufficiently based on practical work? How should the European Commission’s initiatives be designed to create (even) more resonance, especially within the cultural marketplace or with cultural institutions?
Even more fundamental questions are: What does an initiative to promote literature mean, given that Europe practically has no borders? Should such an initiative promote diversity or contribute to the promotion of provincial factors? Is it not high time for a DOHA Development Agenda to be introduced for the literature and book trade – a multilateral negotiation round about literature in the context of the European Union?
A discussion round devoted to these questions is not to provide definitive answers. Rather, it should provisionally explore the full spectrum of opinions and identify resulting trends. This could suggest a way forward to a future in which the individual country and European Union also identify elements of cultural unity in parallel to differences.
What is the book form of the future?
In Plato’s “Phaedrus” dialogue, Socrates admonishes the invention of letters, as “creat[ing] forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” At the 2009 European Literature Days, journalist and media expert, Rüdiger Wischenbart, showed that since the Socratic pronouncement over two-and-a-half thousand years ago, every break with media technology was always accompanied by a heated, and amazingly similar debate about the decline of cultural values. New replaces old. This long-standing perspective is hardly influenced by the fact that the quality of old media is only ever complemented and expanded by the capacity of new media.
Another model is the transformation of media technology from the old printing press to the telegraph, radio and television and now the Internet: this medium increasingly offers the listener and viewer an interactive platform. A well-established cultural programme endorsed by a traditional narrative voice is being transformed into an individually adapted and changeable repertoire of universally available works. Today, all paths lead to the World Wide Web – even those within the Gutenberg galaxy. Since this process of change has been under way for a long time, new questions are emerging, which should be posed at the European Literature Days 2010. What distinguishes the book as a media format? How are books being changed by digital technologies? What more far-reaching changes lie ahead for the book?
The dramatic shift in the symbolic and economic value of authorship and books is already apparent. Books are still widely available for consumers, yet in terms of their form and content, they are subject to the influence of rapid media formats offering innovative forms of use. So what still remains of the old-fashioned book? What does the future really look like for the eBook? Today, eBooks are little more than a digital reminiscence of the traditional book form. Will the book have haptic qualities and are new cooperative reader dimensions likely to emerge?
Reflecting on the future of literary presentation forms is no longer merely a game. It is essential to harmonize the demands of literary production with newly awakened needs of critical reception, in order to add value and to spur on both sides. Books are hardly likely to be replaced. They have been an ideal and optimal medium for centuries. However, new technologies create new space for novel applications – and perhaps these will no longer be called “reading”. The best case scenario is for the old and established qualities to be preserved, while at the same time unleashing innovative literary and creative forces.