- Literature for Young People Between Liberation and Suppression
"Reading, Culture, Youth"—in the West German context, the last of these terms may well seem to contradict both the first and the second. "Young people don't read"; "Youth has no culture." Both are common pessimistic propositions, and both are correct, if what we are saying is that youth seems uninterested in the activities of the socially dominant culture and does not take part in them. If, however, we really want to talk about a "youth culture," we must be more precise about what we mean: is it a culture produced for the young or one produced by it? The two may be very different, and have little in common. Moreover, few in the dominant culture—even those publishing houses that deal in books for young people—have done more than complain about the reading interests of youth. They have not analyzed the reading of youth and are unsure about the identity of the phantom audience they supposedly address.
The official literature itself—addressed to readers of fourteen years and up—is, nevertheless, a much discussed "product." These texts generally fit the formula proposed by Erich Kastner: "Literatur in der Kniegeuge" [literature on bended knee, i.e., which stoops down]. Youth literature, as we know it in West Germany, is generally structurally deficient as literature. Although it purports not to be didactic, its secret center is pedagogical; while its writers stoop down to talk to its readers, these readers grow beyond them.
In order to properly understand the youth literature of West Germany today, we must first realize that young people do read. We cannot take for granted the adult point of view of a cultural deficit or vacuum. If we look, we can find an unofficial but vital youth culture different from that of grown-ups. This culture produces a literature both written and read by young adults. In substance and form this literature is also quite different from that produced for young adults by established publishing houses.
If writers of official youth literature want to be read, they must first, understand young readers and then, find both formal means and subjects of interest to them. They can find such a change of perspective already present in some of the novels not specifically published for youth, but adopted by adolescents because of the ways in which these books treat their subject matter. These novels do not deal specifically with youth protests such as those which have taken place in Zürich, Berlin and elsewhere, yet they are basically anti-establishment. They are aimed at a negation of the status quo; they imply a young reader. Two books of this "genre," both published at the dawn of the eighties, are Michael Endes' The Neverending Story (1979) and Christiane F., 1978), the latter published as an autobiographical documentary in the weekly magazine Stern.
The Neverending Story [translated and made into a movie in the United States], with its young savior hero whose quest preserves the country of Fantasia, belongs to a [End Page 201] fantasy form more familiar up to that time in the United States and Great Britain than in West Germany. On the other hand, Christiane F., a story about the grey and dark cities and the green and grassy countryside, begins in hard-boiled realism and has a fairytale ending. Starting out as a documentary, Christiane F. put an end to the belief in realism as an acceptable literary possibility: only the fairy tale could do justice to life's wonders.
These two bestselling works not only marked the beginning of a trend towards fantasy in West Germany but succeeded in depicting the state of extreme vulnerability which Heinrich Hesse in Der Steppenwolf (1927) describes as "Die Schutzlosigkeit der Nichtgleichgeschalteten," the defenselessness of the unprotected. These books suggest that the younger generation lives in what the grown-ups might interpret as a pathological stupor: "im innersten Kern seines Wesens angefault" [rotten at the core of its being]. This is a state depicted as early as 1906 by Frank Wedekind in his play, Frühlings Erwachen [The Awakening of Spring].
The Neverending Story and Christiane F. are...