If you are an author in the so-called "literary business", you often lead a life full of dependencies. Many literary creators suffer from financial difficulties and the fierce competition on the book market. Added to this is the fact that access to the company is not open to everyone. Literary sociologist Carolin Amlinger sheds light on this tangle.
Carolin Amlinger is a sociologist of literature and a research assistant at the Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies at the University of Basel. She is the author of the study "Writing. A sociology of literary work" about the literary business and the working conditions of authors.
SRF: For your study on literary work, you conducted interviews with around 20 authors about the reality of their lives. Which answers were most surprising to you?
Carolin Amlinger: For example, that many writers still strongly cling to the idea that they "can’t do anything else" than write. I believe that this is a very powerful illusion – not in the sense of a life lie, but in the sense of a reality construction.
That her own identity is so strongly defined by her writing amazed me. I had expected much more detached, pragmatic people.
It’s long past time to think of authors today as the famous "poor poet," that figure in Carl Spitzweg’s painting, living in the most meager of circumstances in an attic room.
The literary business is a field of tension between free, artistic activity on the one hand and market-oriented calculation on the other.
What is the typical reality of life for literary workers in this business??
In the beginning, there is the great hope of being able to exercise writing as a main profession and to be able to live from it. In the first few years, this may work out: Publishers are interested in young writers. You might get signed, you can hold readings, you get some attention. But that breaks away at some point.
With the third or fourth book, the attention of the publisher fades, you are no longer considered "young and fresh", the requests for readings decrease. And then suddenly you are in your mid-50s and ask yourself: What now??
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And – what then?
At this point, female authors often take up a somewhat secure occupation, even remote from literature. But this leads to writing becoming more and more a secondary matter.
In other words, the increasing professionalization that may have appeared at the beginning of your career will eventually become a dead end. This is a difficulty that young literary professionals in particular see little coming.
The great freedom we associate with the cliche of the author’s profession is not so great.
One author told me in conversation: "For me, freedom means not seeing how dependent I actually am."This describes the writer’s existence quite well – it hangs on many threads.
The bottom line is that most of these existences remain precarious. You never know what it will look like in a year’s time. This in turn is due to the logic of this market, which relies primarily on the new.
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Why write books today, Lara Stoll?
Nevertheless, one must first succeed in gaining a foothold in the literary world at all. How to manage?
There are very specific ideas about how to be, perform, or write as a young writer. This is one of the factors that determines whether you get a place at a literary institute, for example. The literature business is not really inclusive.
There are often unconscious closing mechanisms that make it especially difficult for people who come from backgrounds far removed from literature. In other words, as aesthetically diverse as the literary world may be, it is not socially diverse at all.
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"A famous writer called my text brain tease"
Where do these high thresholds come from??
The group that calls itself "authors" is quite self-contained and recruits newcomers from within itself. There are hardly any objective yardsticks to determine when writers are "good".
The company makes this almost among themselves, based on aesthetic judgments. And these may well be influenced by social factors such as just the origin.
Carolin Amlinger: "Writing. A sociology of literary work". Suhrkamp 2021, 800 pages.