Vertigo is pleased to be able to share the following interview with W.G. Sebald conducted by Jens Mühling in 2000. Originally published in Pretext 7 (Spring/Summer 2003), it is reprinted here with permission of the author. This is Part 3 of 3. After his own introductory statement at the beginning of the interview, Mühling published only Sebald’s responses to various topics. Part 1 may be found here. Part 2 may be found here.
The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald (continued)
© Jens Mühling
On book reviewing
SEBALD: Of course nothing in general is wrong with book reviewing, but I think it is totally wrong if writers review each other’s books. That happens all the time, you know: some author reviews a contemporary writer’s novel, that kind of thing, I find that idiotic. Truly idiotic. Why can’t they read something else, instead of reading whatever it is that their colleagues write? Not to mention the fact that these things happen for very subjective reasons, that you make enemies, that you build up rivalry, all of which is very unpleasant. I used to write about contemporary authors, too, about Peter Handke, for example, but not after I became a writer myself. Because I simply wouldn’t presume to say: that’s terrible what Handke is doing these days. That’s none of my business. Well, it is my business, but it is simply not my role to go and point fingers, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to me either.
I hold that to be a basic rule, that you should stay away from the contemporary literary business. It has become such an industry, it is quite incredible really. I get at least two manuscripts sent to me every day, from publishers asking me to write some kind of comment for the cover. And there are all these conferences and writers’ meetings and so on, one could go to three different events every week. The whole business really has become terribly inflated these last years. The art really is in isolating yourself and letting as few things into your head as possible. To only admit those things into your head that come from a direction where no one else ever looks. That is the difficult thing.
On the literary industry
SEBALD: I would argue that generally it is rather bad to read books by contemporary authors. Because that is boundless – if you just think about how many thousands of novelists there are in Germany today, you will never get through with that. Due to the fact that in most countries literature is subsidised these days – just look at all these literary awards that there are in Germany today, and positions as town writers, scholarships, the German Literary Fund of the City of Leipzig, and so on. There are a lot of writers who fall into this trap very early on. They become experts at this kind of thing, they apply for this and that and thus manage to keep themselves afloat for ten or twenty years, professionalising themselves in a ridiculous kind of way. Due to this safety net, the number of writers has multiplied by hundreds. Just look at Switzerland, there must be about 5,000 published authors there today. Twenty years ago, there were only two known ones, Frisch and Dürrenmatt, and today there are two dozen just in the city of Basel. And they all meet twice a week and hug each other, while at the same time they are filled with jealousy and mutual contempt. In such an environment it is very difficult to maintain a clear view of what writing is about, because you are entangled in this peculiar rivalry. And unlike in the business world, the rivalry is very hazy, because it is disguised by these false artists’ friendships. That is why it is not at all a good idea to get drawn into this world by writing book reviews, for example. The best thing is to remain outside of all of this.
On teaching creative writing at UEA
SEBALD: That is why it certainly makes sense if people have already acquired some professional experience [before enrolling in a writing course]. The majority of the students on this course are what you call semi-mature. They are people who have already experienced a certain amount of success and disappointment in their lives, who are not entirely naive. The last class I had was extremely heterogeneous. There were people from Hongkong, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, England, Germany, people from all kinds of different backgrounds, actors, gardeners, physicians. I think that is very important, and due to the fact that so many people apply for this programme, it is possible to base your selection not only on people’s texts, but also on their experiences, which sometimes can tell you a lot about whether they fit into the programme or not.
There are no specific qualifications [as a basis for judging students’ entry submissions]. Originality, of course. One always hopes to read something that is shaped by the originality of an individual. There are always people who produce something which you have never read before in this form, and that is obviously the best recommendation. And then, of course, that it is not something terribly weird. That is another difference between England and Germany. That is something one knows of English literature in general, that readability recommends a text. In Germany you have all these authors who produce very bizarre and expressionistic things. They write these over-ambitious 700 page novels, straight out of their own head, which nobody can really follow. That is this old cultural awareness which took such peculiar turns at the beginning of this century. Expressionism still exists in Germany, and every avant-garde tendency in Germany, even today, is still infected with that old expressionism. Arno Schmidt is a classical example, definitely a very talented person, but it’s all so overwrought, isn’t it? There are innumerable examples of this in Germany, whereas in England, there are relatively few of them. Here, it is most people’s ambition to write a readable novel.
On the differences between British and German societies
SEBALD: I think English society is a lot more fragmented than German society. There are all these gaps between Catholicism and Anglicanism and Protestantism and Protestant fundamentalism, between North and South and Rich and Poor and Uneducated and Forgotten and what have you. There are areas of British society which nobody really looks into, how the poor really live in certain regions, in Glasgow, for example. The more such differences there are in a society, the more interesting can you expect its literature to be.
If you are from, say, Hannover, or Oldenburg, one of these mid-sized German towns, and you had a proper high school education, come from a normal middle-class family, always had a certain amount of money on your hands, then it is very hard to start writing with such a background. Because writing is always provoked by certain extreme experiences which a person has made. So when you have always had it relatively good, something is missing. That is often a problem among these Swiss authors, who have always had enough money, who have a heap of Frankens lying around in the bank from their fathers and grandfathers – because money has always existed in Switzerland – and who are married to a doctor who also earns a heap of money. They take care of the household and work as a writer at the same time. They pick up the kids after kindergarten, and then they sit down in the afternoon and write some extremist text about child pornography. There is something wrong with such a situation. That is very different from, say, Jean Genet writing about the extreme experiences in his life, because Genet didn’t simultaneously play Lego with his children. And that is why I think experience, no matter in what form, is important, and I mean a kind of experience that is different from the mainstream. The more homogeneous a society is, the more writers it will produce, but the less good writers. That is the phenomenon we have in central Europe today.
[End of Interview] Thanks, Jens!