A process of becoming and remaining
Graduation Speech delivered at Bard College, Berlin, May 2014
I must begin with a profound apology. I should not really be here at all: delivering a graduation speech. I am far from being a shining example of an outstanding success. I am just a writer. I write novels. And even worse, I write them in German. This is not exactly the most attractive of all cultural combinations. To write novels is bad enough, but to write them in German is quite a problem. It might be regarded as a contradiction in itself or as an assurance of heavy going dullness. So here I stand, a German novelist, addressing an English-speaking audience. And this brings me to the next problem: There are no English translations of my novels. So you can’t really judge my qualities as a writer. Although this might even turn out to be a mutual blessing for both you and me. And, finally, to make things even worse: I do not even speak proper English, as you might have already noticed. I haven`t spoken the language for ages. Thus, my profoundest apologies in advance.
I might as well tell you how I became a writer at all. I studied Political Science and English Literature at Tübingen University. That was in the Eighties of the last century. I didn’t have a clue what I could possibly do with these subjects in terms of a professional career. Fortunately, after my exams I was offered the post of a research assistant, teaching literature and writing a doctoral dissertation. This took me about four years. I might as well give you the full title of my dissertation: Meaningful Fiction and Truth: A Study of the Aesthetic and Epistemological Problem of Fiction in the Context of European History of Ideas and English Literature. You are perfectly right in being taken aback. It is indeed a monstrous title of a monstrous work of philology; highly theoretical, very philosophical, and hardly intelligible, not even to myself.
While I was writing it, on my personal computer, I increasingly stole away from my doctoral files and opened other files, secret files of my first literary endeavors: aphorisms, short stories, beginnings of novels … These were far from being complete works of art. They were rather fragmentary escapes from my dissertation. One secret file was entitled: Opus Eroticum. Handbuch der Verführung. A manual of erotic seduction. Very much along the lines of Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer. The difference being, that my text was not a diary but rather a kind of mad philosophical treatise, written in a mock academic style. The first chapter does conclude: »Two types of problems come into being: First, how to gain women. And, second, how to get rid of them again.« It was probably the politically most incorrect text of that era – at least in place like Tübingen. When my supervisor came into my office I instantly pressed a button: Dissertation. Meaningful fiction and truth. And he was very pleased to see my efforts. But as soon as he left again, I pressed another button: Opus Eroticum. And so it went on – for years: Meaningful Fiction − Opus Eroticum. The trouble being that I was much more creative working on Opus Eroticum than on Meaningful Fiction. Opus Eroticum was really an obsession and an overflowing joy. While my dissertation was rather a burden and a chore.
Nevertheless, I actually finished my dissertation and I received my Ph.D. – and the question arose: What to do next? I went to the job centre and they were absolutely flabbergasted, beginning with the title of my dissertation. Unemployable. That was their verdict. Unemployable. At least not employable outside university. The consequence being that I stayed on at university − which implied: another dissertation, a postdoctoral dissertation. An academic Mount Everest. What they call in Germany eine Habilitation. Which implied: More meaningful fiction and truth. More elevated academic work than ever before. And since my contract at Tübingen University ran out, I was offered a job at Yale University, doing postdoctoral research and teaching German at the German Department. The head of the department invited me for an interview and asked me:
Your Surname is Zelter?
Are you in any way related with the Zelter?
Karl Friedrich Zelter? The composer. Goethe’s friend?
Yes. I am in a way.
Excellent, that will do.
And thus I was employed. I spent a year at Yale University. It was a great year, coming across outstanding students and professors: Geoffrey Hartman or the divine Harold Bloom. I benefited in many ways from my stay: personally and academically – but not in the way of writing a German Habilitation. On the contrary. Instead of doing any postdoctoral research, I started writing letters to friends in Germany about my stay at Yale. It was the beginning of the E-Mail-era, so I wrote more frequently than ever before. I reported, I portrayed, I embellished, I exaggerated, I fictionalized. One letter was about a stunning woman living next door to me. I embellished her with such outstanding features of beauty and readiness that a friend of mine instantly booked a flight and came over to Yale. He was highly disappointed, however, to find out that the woman didn’t even exist. At least that gave me an idea of the power of words and the potentials of pure fiction.
That was more or less the beginning of my first novel Briefe aus Amerika. Letters from America. It is an epistolary novel and a highly autobiographical one. It is about a naïve narrator coming from a provincial German University in order to teach German at a place like Yale. The hero is totally at a loss: to come to terms with the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of American life. He is overwhelmed and overchallenged, a total failure. In every respect. He cannot teach, not even his own language. If you are interested, I can read a chapter later on.
But first I would like to begin with an overall statement of how to become a writer at all. There are two types of writers: (1) Those who are firmly employed in some solid profession and then begin to write as a kind of spare-time work. If any of their books turns out to be an outstanding success, they feel legitimized to become a full-time writer. David Lodge (author of Changing Places) or Dieter Schwanitz are such examples. (2) And then there are those who first decide to become a writer and then begin to write. George Orwell is a good example. He decided to become a full-time writer without having (at that time) written a single book. Such a step is perhaps a daring and overconfident decision, not really grounded in any empirical evidence or reasonable judgment. Nevertheless, I feel somehow attracted to such an approach. It is not only daring but even romantic and poetic. Almost a form of literature in itself. And I have to confess that I do indeed belong to the second category of writers. I decided to become a full-time writer with no literary publication at all. The only asset I had was Opus Eroticum and Briefe aus Amerika. Both rather weird and eccentric works of art. Both unpublished. Nevertheless, I wrote a letter to my supervisor telling him that I would not complete my postdoctoral dissertation – that, instead of that, I wanted to become a full-time writer. I even rejected a job offer from a German university – a tenure-like position. I cut off all connections with my previous life. I had a look at my bank account and wondered: how long that would keep me going. And then I was a writer.
The literary nobel-prize-winner Hermann Hesse once wrote: To be a writer was considered by his parents as a great thing, highly respectable and commendable. However, they thought of ready-made writers such as Goethe or Schiller. They didn`t have in mind their own son who decided to become a writer. To become a writer was regarded by them as an absurdity. Thus, writing is not only a matter of being but rather of becoming. The Renaissance motto »Be thyself« could be modified into: »Become thyself.« To become someone one is not yet but one wants (or even must) become by all means.
And a second quote. A renowned actor once told me: To become an actor is quite an easy thing. But to remain one is real work, almost a work of art. And the same applies for the profession of a writer. It is not so much an essence but a process, a process of becoming and remaining. And I would like to give you some aspects of this process of becoming and remaining:
(1) A writer must publish. Otherwise his work remains unknown. Otherwise there is no source of fame or income. Not even a basis for existence.
(2) It is, however, extremely hard to find a publisher. There are far too many people who write. More writers than ever. And there is only a limited number of publishers. They are swamped with thousands of unwanted manuscripts. Out of these infinite masses perhaps one or two manuscripts are actually published every year.
(3) Publishers do not even read unwanted manuscripts. Readers are totally overworked and overburdened by ever new masses of manuscripts. The only way to make them read is either to kidnap them or to make use of the services of agents. They sort of ensure a kind of preselection – a sense of basic quality. And they possess an insider knowledge which manuscript might match the literary tastes of a particular reader.
(4) It is not only hard to find a publisher. It is even hard to find an agent. They, too, are overwhelmed by terrifying masses of manuscripts. Thus, it might be advisable to find an agent who finds an agent who finds a publisher.
(5) Having eventually found a publisher: They usually publish a first edition consisting of around 3000 copies. The author’s share (royalties) is about 8 % of the retail selling price, that is, roughly 1,80 € per copy. The whole sale of a complete first edition is worth about 5000 €. In most cases there is no second edition. Very often even the first edition is far from being sold.
(6) Nevertheless, writers tend to treat their books like children, sometimes even as immortal beings, overcoming all laws of transitoriness and decay, elevating an author to some kind of eternal postmortem life, each book being regarded as a mode of eternity. Nothing is further from the truth. The fate of a book is decided within months. If it does not receive instant and overall attention within the first six months of publication, it won’t make its way to a bestseller or literary classic. The making of a book is not a marathon, but a sprint, a dash. Its average lifecycle is about two years, less than the lifespan of a guinea pig.
(7) This is the reason why there are so many books. Writers constantly come up with new books. This is not necessarily a matter of literary joy or overflowing creativity but of sheer survival.
(8) Since writers can hardly survive on book sales they are in constant need of other sources of income: scholarships, literary prizes (fortunately, in Germany there are quite a lot of them) and public readings. Writers, at least in Germany, are turning more and more into public readers, actors, ardent performers, public speakers. No matter if they are introverts, hermits or stutterers – they are dragged or driven to public appearances. It is a complete transformation of the writing profession: turning the writer’s solitary, stationary and written existence into a completely opposite mode of existence: public rather than private, spoken rather than written, acting, travelling, performing rather than writing.
(9) And, finally: Literature is no longer of prior importance. The form of a novel, the particular style of an author – these are no longer primary issues. Not even the question whether a novel is well written or badly written. Other factors are gaining importance. To begin with, there is the author himself, his biography, his personal appeal, his appearance. There is a striking tendency that contemporary authors present themselves along the lines of exciting CVs. These CVs do not only entail obvious facts such as date of birth, education or a list of books and publications. Very often writers have (in addition to that) an inclination to name outstanding places of residence. Writers (at least avant-garde writers) do not only reside in one but often in two or even in three or four places simultaneously. One of these places is often situated abroad, sometimes even two. It is something like: »Lives in Bombay, New York and Frankfurt.« Or rather in Berlin. Since capitals appear to be even more popular places to reside in than merely large cities. Perhaps this is so in order to suggest that a writer is indeed a capital writer. Anyway, these metropolitan or urban centers are often contrasted by country sides, indicating some sort of down-to-earthness. In any case, each place should have a semantic quality of its own, signifying a wide scope of meanings: political, cultural, metrological. Places like Kabul, Hiroshima or Novosibirsk. Each place narrating a different story, or at least entailing a meaning or an image. And the same applies for the remaining sequences of a writer’s CV: outstanding birthplaces, remarkable professions, breath-taking leisure activities. The modern writer is to emplot, to embellish, to exaggerate, to fictionalize – not only in the realm of fiction but (even more important) in the sphere of his own life. As if his life was an anticipated novel. He is a self-fashioning man (or woman) forming and forging his own life − along the lines of remarkable plots and settings. Before he is a novelist of books he must be a novelist of his life. The more impressive his life, the more likely it is for him (or for her) to find and agent or a publisher. The rest is easy. Twenty years ago literary theory talked about »the death of the author.« Today it is the other way around. We are witnessing the death of the novel.
You might have noticed that I am drawing very bleak picture of the writing profession: the death of literature, the lifecycle of a book being less than the lifespan of a guinea pig, hardly any income, the transformation of the author from a man of letters into an actor, a speaker, a performer. One might wonder: Why being a writer at all? This is the recurring question among so many writers. »Why am I doing this? To me? To my family?« And yet they carry on, they persevere. As if driven by some vague hope and stubborn obsession.
Some of them remind one of gamblers. The gambler puts money on a number, loses, invests more money, loses even more, risks more and ever more in the vain hope of regaining everything in one stroke, and, in doing so, is losing a fortune. The writer does not invest money but effort and time. Lifetime. Lived time and unlived time. Two years, three years, five years for the writing of a single novel. And he will tell you: Wait for my next novel. This time it will work. It will be a triumph, it will be a breakthrough. And when the book finally comes out, nothing happens. Indifference. Silence.
So why write at all? Because there is not really a choice. It is not only a lack of other professional options (who would employ an ex writer) but also a deeply engrained obsession. George Orwell, one of my favorite writers, did name some basic forces and drives: (1) Personal desires. For example vanity. The love to be in the focus of attention. (2) Aesthetic desire. The joy to play with ideas, forms and words. (3) Then there is a longing for reporting, reporting fictitiously or even truthfully. »The freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt.« Even if it is totally opposed to what the majority of people see, hear or feel. (4) There is also a critical force. To put into words what is unsaid or unheard. To write down (in Hamlet’s words) that »something is rotten in the state of Denmark.«
Furthermore, writing is about breaking silence. Before one becomes an expert in writing one is often an expert in maintaining a long silence. Very often we are confronted with situations (verbal or non-verbal) where we are at loss of words and remain silent. It is only years later that first fragments of an answer come into one’s mind. Single words, and then first sentences and second and third sentences. These belated words can turn out to be beginnings of novels. No one can stop them. No writer’s block, nor anyone else. Not even the writer himself. In a way he is a belated talker. Writing down what he has failed to say in real life.
Finally, writing is quite an effort – an effort which does not necessarily ensure any success. On the contrary. Effort and success are totally disconnected and apart. I know marvelous novels which hardly received any attention. They are practically unknown to the public. With sales of no more than 500 copies. And I know lousy novels (real embarrassments) which became an instant and overwhelming success. Achievement and success have nothing to do with each other. They are often even contraries, not only in the realm of literature but in life in general. Albeit the fact that politicians (or the ruling classes in general) do everything to suggest the opposite. That all success is presented as a natural outcome of real achievement. But this is not true. There are impressive examples of achievement without any visible signs of success. And there are grotesque examples of success without any genuine effort or achievement.
Perhaps this is one of the lessons of my profession: to believe in achievement rather than in success. Achievement is something in yourself and about yourself. While success is something beyond your grasp, beyond your capacity to shape or influence. It is a form of arbitrariness. It is indeed a gamble. So it is better to keep these two categories apart. Forget, once in a while, forget about failure or success. It is better to achieve, to become and to remain yourself.
Berlin, May 2014