Kaffeehaussitzer (n.): A person who sits in coffee houses

Uwe Kalkowski
In 2018 the German Book Prize – the German-language Booker – invited a blogger onto its jury for the very first time. So ‘Kaffeehaussitzer’ Uwe Kalkowski has spent even more time sitting in coffee houses than usual – but now always with a book in hand. Kalkowski talked to Bradley Schmidt about the judging experience, and what it means to be a literary blogger today.

How do you see the task of the blogger, and how is it different from that of a newspaper or magazine critic?

I don’t consider blogging to be a task, but my own exchange with people who are excited about literature, and my desire to draw attention to the books that are important to me. I see the greatest difference between a blogger and literary critic in the blogger’s complete subjectivity – writing not only about the book but about their own experience of reading it.

How do you decide which books to review?

My reading ideas come in the first instance from bookshops or other literature blogs, and in that respect I’m constantly surrounded by reading tips. However, I don’t blog about every book I read, just those that are special to me in some way: books that inspired or enthused me, expanded my horizons, gave me insights into foreign worlds or helped me to understand other ways of living. They might be novels, crime fiction, classics or books on historical topics: these are books I hope are read by as many people as possible. And if I can contribute to that a little with my blog, then I’m delighted.

What about translations – do you deal with them differently?

I must admit that I hadn’t given much thought to the activity of translation, though I quite frequently read works by English-language authors in German – because of course translations of books from the US or UK play a very significant role in the German book market. But through blogging I got to know some translators personally and through that experience developed an awareness of – and great respect for – their demanding and delicate work. I think it’s important always to name the translator – they are an essential element of the bibliographical details of any translated book.

How has the book blogging scene changed since you launched Kaffeehaussitzer in 2013?

I had started blogging on a whim and was surprised and enthused by how many other literature bloggers I met online. The German book blogging scene grew rapidly in 2013 and 2014, and publishers started to pay much more attention to it. However, it’s an extremely diverse world, with blogs on every genre, and there’s also a wide spectrum with regards to quality. So it’s not really possible to talk about a single, homogenous blogging scene. Rather, there are many small groups of bloggers who usually know each other and are well connected. It’s estimated that there are 1,000-1,500 active book blogs in Germany, although there’s constant fluctuation. Bloggers are continually quitting, and new blogs starting up.

You’re the first blogger to participate in a German Book Prize jury – how does that feel?

Being in the jury for the German Book Prize is a great honour and a thrilling experience. The work started in April and I have never read more intensely in all my life – every free minute, night and day. The interaction with the other members of the jury is particularly enriching, because it’s introducing me to other perspectives on literature. That’s why I’m especially looking forward to the meetings in which we choose the longlist, the shortlist, and finally the winning title, where the discussions will doubtless be intense. These are experiences that will influence and change my own reading habits.

Translated by Bradley Schmidt, who blogs at ‘Leipzig is Lit’: www.bradley-schmidt.com

The winner of this year’s German Book Prize will be announced on 8 October.