Genre and genre formation was on the table one day in one of the German literature seminars I attended as an undergraduate. We were discussing the novella, a form that has a special prominence in German compared to other national literary histories, even if it is notoriously difficult to define. In the course of the discussion I asked the professor what was then a burning question: why was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis a story (Erzählung) and not a novella? The professor thought about it and answered that if Kafka had called it a novella, then it would be a novella. But he called it a story, so therefore it’s a story.
Questions of genre and paratext were on my mind again when I recently read Wolfgang Herrndorf’s novel Tschick. The novel is told by the first person narrator Maik, a fourteen-year-old left child of privilege left home alone when his mother checks into rehab and his father seizes the chance to travel with his mistress. Maik is concerned about his social standing in his school, especially when the most popular girl and the object of his adolescent crush does not extend to him an invitation to her birthday party. The “asocial” Andrej Tschichatschow, called Tschick, comes by his house instead in a hotwired Lada, the pair briefly crash the party, and then proceed on a strange journey down the Autobahn and into the German countryside.
Herrndorf was an illustrator at the satirical magazine Titanic and had published fiction before to little notice. Tschick, however, was a bestseller and received wide acclaim. The novel was recommended to me by a professor in my graduate department who had included it on her syllabus, and I finally got around to reading it this year. I was taken by the novel’s humor, Maik’s ironic take on bureaucratic language, the strangeness of the world the characters encountered along the way, and – here I was surprised – how much I appreciated the adolescent perspective. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, where I felt that there was too heavy a veil of teenage solipsism, Maik’s naivete struck me as an interesting lens that opened up a more critical view of the adult world. And in that sense I found Tschick to have affinities with the picaresque, or with Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus.
The adolescent perspective is where the genre question enters back in, as it would seem to be the criterion by which Tschick counts as a “young adult” novel. And the differences between the German edition and the English translation illlustrate how the packaging shapes our expectations and transforms our experience of the text.
First the cover of the current German paperback edition. Speaking as a non-native German speaking reader, when I first saw the novel, before I knew anything about it, I assumed from the title that “Tschick” may somehow be an idiosyncratic form of “chic,” (“chique” or “stylish”), and so I assumed both from the title and from the font in which it was written that the novel followed a character into fashion in some way, perhaps a character at home in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. While this was not precisely the case, the title still plays on the curiosity gap: what is “Tschick?” The colors and lines reflect the perspective of the landscape from a fast moving vehicle, communicating the centrality of car travel as a narrative conceit, so I know I’m being set up for a road story. The novel was published by Rowohlt, a publishing house that had long brought plenty of other texts I was into onto the literary market. Besides, the novel was on a college syllabus, itself a critical tool in canon building, and on a more personal level, was recommended by a professor who had suggested other things to read from which I had derived both considerable pleasure and ideas for my scholarly and teaching work. When I bought my copy in the bookstore, I found it in the section “Belletristik,” that is, “high literature,” the section of the bookstore where one goes to find the “high” literature. In other words, before one has read the first page, everything about this book announces itself as emminently safe for a Bildungsbürger readership.
Then there is the complete edition of Herrndorf’s works, released last year by Rowohlt. This edition doesn’t speak to me as a bourgeois reader, but rather as someone with a PhD in literary studies. As a hardback, collected edition with only the box for a cover, this edition communicates that Herrndorf belongs to the canon. As such, this edition invites us critics (a tribe that Herrndorf took a famously dim view of) to write conference presentations and scholarly articles about. This edition says “cite me.” In its finality this edition also has something of the grave about it: a Gesamtausgabe seals an author’s oeuvre, it is only possible because Herrndorf took his own life in 2013 while suffering from terminal brain cancer.
At the same time, reception had already done its classifying work. Tschick received the German Prize for YA literature (as well as the Clemens Brentano Prize and the Hans Fallada Prize). Herrndorf himself says in this interview with the FAZ that the novel came from re-reading the books he read when he was twelve. Interestingly, though, he also jokes that the first time a review of Tschick appeared that did NOT mention the obvious comparison, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, he owed his friends a round of beers. And while he does not contest that Tschick is YA literature, he does hint at the problem with the categorization, that it is just a thematic label. “Man wird ja nicht wirklich mit der Schreibkunst Salingers verglichen. Sondern mit dem Thema seines vermeintlichen Hauptwerks” (“one is not really compared with Salinger’s writing style. Rather with the topic of his supposed magnus opum”).
Had I encountered the English translation first, the cover of which is pictured right, I admit that I might well not have read it. The title Why We Took the Car, a title I find quite unfortunate, tries to play on the curiosity gap as well, but I feel doesn’t quite manage it in the way that the original title does. The novel is not an answer to a question of why they took the car, and I don’t know that I should especially care that anybody took the car. The attitude of the sneakers out the window play up that this is a novel about teenagers and speaks to an implicit assumption that a novel about teenagers might also be for teenagers. My impression from the car and from the angle at which the legs are sticking out and the style of the clothes plays into the gender divide that is pronounced in the reception of YA literature: this cover tells me it is a “boy’s” novel. That’s interesting, precisely because there is a lot to say about this text in terms of how it imagines adolescent masculinity. The English translation was also released by Andersen Press, which, unlike Rowohlt, specializes in children and youth literature.
Another favorite example of the relation between the cover and the content of a book are the British editions of the Harry Potter novels.
The cover of the first novel is obviously marketed at a younger readership: The young protagonist is pictured in the bottom right, the fantastic train contrasts with the more prosaic equivalent in the far right, we see the fantastical 9 3/4 platform, and the steam from the locomotive glimmers with star. But when the stories became popular with an adult readership as well, Bloomsbury released an adult edition. The cover of the adult edition contains the familiar visual vocabulary of fantasy literature aimed at adults.
The colors are darker, we are presented with a single object rather than a busy collection of magical things, and the variations in font size play up the drama of the story in a way that sells the book as something assuredly not juvenile. It aims at an adult reader of fantasy by drawing instead on the familiar visual vocabulary of the fantasy genre.
…And of course…
The curious thing about the “adult edition” of Harry Potter is that while this is an edition with a cover that an adult could hold upright while reading in public without worry that one will be judged as a reader of “children’s” literature, its use of tropes of fantasy covers means that the publisher has simply moved the text from one ghettoized genre to another. Instead of being a reader of children’s literature, one is a reader of nerdy literature.
So, is Tschick YA literature? I don’t see how I could argue that it is not without also arguing that YA is a lesser genre, given that the stakes of such an argument could only be to “rescue” it from that category. So instead I’ll channel my undergraduate German professor and simply say that it is YA literature because it received a prize for YA literature, and because readers in German and English have branded it as such.
On a side note, the Frankfurter Allgemeine recently published an interesting article on the gun with which Wolfgang Herrndorf killed himself. Herrndorf committed suicide in 2013 while suffering from terminal brain cancer. The question the article raises is why a literary archive would contain an object the “literariness”