July 12, 2012

The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, or why to eat your manuscript


Philipp Weiss in action

The new Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were awarded a couple of weeks ago at the annual American Library Association conference—Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz won in the former category, Robert K.  Massie’s Catherine the Great in the latter—and nobody ate his manuscript or cut open their forehead or anything. Forget it—next year I’m going to Klagenfurt, where they give out the annual Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and where all those things and more have happened.  Deutsche Welle has an eye-opening report on the annual ceremony, a three-day-long reading marathon, where authors do their utmost to make their readings memorable and the jurists do their best Simon Cowell impersonations. The contest was controversial from the start:

“Even before the competition began in 1977, critics gasped with indignation, hissing that the competition was ‘megalomaniacal’ and accusing the organizers of abusing the name Ingeborg Bachmann for attention-seeking purposes. The prize money for the overall winner totaled 7,000 euros ($8,600) back then. Such a high sum was previously unheard of. In Austria, only the winner of the Grand Austrian State Prize for lifetime achievement in the arts was endowed with such an amount.

Then there was the public arena, in which a young author read a previously unpublished text and would either be applauded by the jury or trampled to the ground with everyone listening in—either in the studio or over the radio… Unsurprisingly, a journalist from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the first Ingeborg Bachmann Prize as ‘a theatrical event.’ The literary critic Sigrid Löffler spoke of an undignified reading competition, ‘in which one thing was forgotten—literature—and from which only one thing profited: the Suhrkamp publishing house.'”

In the ensuing years, Rainald Goetz cut his forehead with a razorblade and then continued to read while blood poured down his face, Peter Licht demanded to be veiled, and Urs Allemann read a text called “Baby Fucker.” It was Philipp Weiss, in 2009, who ate part of his manuscript, “Blätterliebe.” This year, the competition was relatively calm and Olga Martynova walked away with the now-25,000 euro prize for a text called “I’ll say: Hi!” But, says former organizer Doris Moser, “everyone is just waiting for someone to at least eat their manuscript again.” At least!


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.