Story behind the Passage
I feel like writing about writing today. This is why I chose Schwarzenbach’s biography. But I do not want to write about Schwarzenbach’s life— I really cannot. So, these lines about writing will have to suffice. The passage struck me because genre is a tricky thing to think about. I really think that thinking about genre does not help at all. Genre is something that makes its own decisions. Still, sometimes you have to write something because someone is paying for it. Ideally, this is the norm, not the exception, at least if you make a living off writing.
If you are getting paid for a text, you cannot allow genre to make its own decisions. This is something that must have been difficult for Schwarzenbach. But as I mentioned above, I cannot write about her. There would be too much to say. Let me just say that the biography is a wonderful portrait of her — and of her writings. In English, the subtitle could be translated into A Spurred Impatience. Yes, impatience is something that writers seem to share. But maybe this is just my subjective presumption. Maybe there are writers who never think about the impatience behind writing. They just do it. And they do not share any of Schwarzenbach’s impatience. Maybe.
“Die journalistischen Texte sind reich an präzisen und objektiven Informationen über die aktuellen politischen und ökonomischen Realitäten / The journalistic texts are rich in precise and objective information on the current political and economic realities.” This sentence is so German! It has so many typical German adjectives in it, e.g., “precise” and “objective.” These are all things that Germans love very much. We do not like emotions to get in the way. Openly displaying emotions makes you vulnerable. And vulnerability is risky. Germans are many things — but not risk-takers.
I am getting off topic.
Schwarzenbach was not German, neither is her biographer. But the struggle that Schwarzenbach went through when trying to sell her texts to newspapers and publishers was related to the way that Europeans, especially in the German-speaking world, understand journalism. And there are good reasons for this. Contrary to the present-day social media fake news parade, traditional media still insist on the difference between fact and opinion, between “objective” information and “subjective” response or feeling.
Throughout the book it becomes clear, however, that the publishers preferred the objective texts. After all, this is what journalists are there for. They gather “facts” and communicate them. They are not — at least not in their role as journalists — literary or non-fiction authors. Yes, it is nice if they leave some “personal” signature on the text. But the core value of the text is the information it provides. I am not saying that this is good or bad. I would say, it is necessary. And for Schwarzenbach, this caused boon and bane.
“Ihre Gedichte dagegen speisen sich aus den geheimsten Quellen ihrer Subjektivität.“ / “Her poems, on the other hand, emanate from the most secret sources of her subjectivity.” Schwarzenbach wrote like mad — whenever she really wrote. What I mean by real writing is the writing that comes from some inner source that is inexplicable. It cannot be described or understood in rational terms. Yet, journalistic and fact-based texts with clear stylistic boundaries lack this. Maybe this was why real writing always got her in trouble, into madness. The journalistic writing was something she managed most of the time. And the newspapers appreciated her “professional” way of writing, as her biographer reveals.
Actually, I do not like poetry. But I have to admit that I sometimes write poetry. I cannot explain why. Usually, poetry comes to me like any other genre. Every state of mind needs its own genre, I think. The trouble only starts if you simply cannot let this natural flow happen; whenever you have to write something for a particular medium. Yes, you can still feed in some subjectivity but that ruins the journalistic article and might, in the end, really be too emotional for texts that, let us not forget this, pursue an educational and democratic function.
What I find so impressive about this sentence is the secrecy it suggests. Not only is subjectivity taken to be secret but the “sources” are. This might sound like a tiny detail but if you think about it: Yes, subjectivity in and of itself is invisible, it is a perspective that only partially reveals itself in writing. In fact, writing is the vehicle that allows authors to express their subjectivity. But where does it originate? Is it experience? Thinking? Seeing? Feeling?
Yes, it is all of this.
For sure it is. But then it is also such a false dichotomy to assume that any objective journalistic text can exclude this mysterious force of subjectivity. It is all about the packaging, I guess. In the past, I was really hesitant to write anything that did not look objective. My narrative “I” did not exist. Now, I increasingly catch myself to be writing from a very subjective perspective. But really, it is just the pronoun that makes this visible.
Schwarzenbach struggled a lot with her journalistic and her literary personae. Towards the end of her short life, she did not see much value in journalism anymore. She wanted to do real writing; writing novels and poetry. She did and she experienced what one can call happiness and peace — at least for a short while. But I did not want to write about Schwarzenbach, as I mentioned before. Obviously, real writing can kill people quite early. So, is it safer to remain on only one side of the river and make the world look so much more “objective” and “precise”?
1) Are there text formats that you never read (e.g., poetry, fiction)? Why?
2) Do you believe in objectivity? In which contexts is it most important to you?
3) Do you ever write when you travel? Why/not?